Malaysia needs a new conversation

The 13.3 million Malaysian voters, including the 3.9 million first timers, will soon exercise their democratic right in the ‘mother of all elections’ this coming Sunday May 5, 2013. It is D-Day for the future of Malaysia. Malaysians of various ethnic groups have traversed the twists and turns of nation building over the last five decades since Independence, and have now reached a critical crossroads: Which way to go? And what kind of future holds for Malaysia in the next fifty years? The public sphere has been expanding, and there is a deepening of democracy thanks to the relentless struggles of popular forces. The two political coalitions that have emerged in the political system are now furiously contending with each other to win the rakyat’s support: BN with their promise of transformation, stability and progress, and PR with their promise of hope and change for a better multiethnic future. Both parties in their manifestoes promise to take the rakyat beyond the crossroads: one with the politics of development, and the other the politics of change and youthful vitality.

Taking note of the historic significance of the 13th General Election for Malaysia, the New Mandala conducted a brief survey among 23 Malaysians and Malaysianists of different political persuasions and ethnic groups to solicit their responses on six important questions. Four such questions are stock-taking in nature, probing their assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of both BN and PR, while the remaining two are forward-looking: one, on what they think the new government must address, and the other, on their hopes for Malaysia’s future. While the views are by no means comprehensive, they constitute an important barometer of what thinking Malaysians and observers of Malaysian politics have on their minds, a reflection of the deep undercurrents as well as the open contestations and debates in the public domain.

What are the issues they feel the post-May 5 elected government must address? There is a laundry list, but the urgent and important ones are: the government must promote inclusive and dynamic growth, fair distribution of wealth, address rising cost of living, and ensure the transition from an upper middle income to a high income economy. To do that, some of the interviewees feel the government must address the education system to ensure quality education, a prerequisite for successful transition. Two other urgent important issues raised are crimes and corruption, which need to be effectively tackled by the government who “must improve efficiency in the administration”.

On another plane, it should be noted that the country for far too long has been caught in divisive race politics, and politicians including some extremist NGOs have pandered to race and religion for political ends. This is an obstacle to social cohesion and for both political and economic transition. Thus it makes sense when the interviewees demand that the new government exercise political will to overcome the divisive politics of race and promote national unity; ensure a more multi-ethnic civil service; and address “entrenched special interests” that stand in the way of the country’s progress. Certain opportunist politicians have been sowing seeds of fear, raising the spectre of May 13, and promoting the siege mentality among the Malays; unfortunately, this tactic is still being used again during the current election’s campaigning. A number of the interviewees are very concerned about this. As observed by one of them, “the prolonged campaign for GE13 has created an ugly environment” and “this must be mended immediately.” In the same vein, another stresses that it is absolutely necessary to put out “the ghost of May 13”. The ethnic politicking in particular has created negative perceptions about politics. This is summed up by one interviewee who maintains that “Politics was never dirty; politicians make politics dirty”.

During the last few decades, the credibility and integrity of state institutions have been called into question, thus a number of interviewees feel there is an urgent need to “restore popular trust in government”, “reliability and integrity of political leaders”, and “credibility and legitimacy” of state institutions. For this, it is necessary to undertake urgent reform of state institutions such as the police force, and ensure effective transition from a “soft authoritarian state to a liberal democracy”.

What are their hopes for a new Malaysia? Some of the interviewees are very forward looking; they have high ideals. They raise the question of how to “rise to the challenge of the next fifty years”? It is clear the interviewees are quite unanimous in wanting “a developed Malaysia with equal opportunities for all Malaysians” in the coming decades towards and beyond 2020. They want a nation in which Malaysians learn to respect each other, take care of the country’s resources, protect the environment, and tackle climate change. But they note that the issue of climate change does not seem to feature in both coalitions’ manifestoes. One interviewee laments that “We have squandered a lot of our natural wealth, and have to face the coming years without that buffer.”

Implicit in the responses of many of the interviewees is the nagging feeling that something has been sorely lacking in Malaysia, that is, the need to build bridges across the ethnic, religious and cultural divides. It should be noted that Malaysians have lived with diversity, they take pride in it, and maintain that it is an asset. But as a number of observers have noted, many Malaysians in their daily lives still live and remain in physical and mental silos. How to overcome this syndrome and move forward in the next fifty years? It is the hope of many Malaysians that something must be done as part of national reconciliation and healing process. Malaysia is not just Peninsular Malaysia; the people of Sabah and Sarawak matter just as much as those in the Semenanjung; their feelings should not be hurt, as reminded by one of the interviewees. On the way forward, one of the interviewees puts it succinctly thus: we need to generate a “New Conversation on the state of the nation”, we need to “practice new politics”, “widen the public sphere” and “put an end to the culture of fear”. And very importantly, “let the best prevail”.

But who can take us successfully towards 2020 and beyond, to the next fifty years? Many place their hope on the outcome of GE13. It is the electorate who will decide the next government at both the Federal and State levels. It is worth emphasising that what we badly need is a future-oriented, credible people centred government, a government with vision and imagination beyond the five-year span, a government driven — not by vested interests of powerful elites and their lobbies — but by integrity and the larger interest of the multiethnic nation and of future generations. As one interviewee aptly puts it: “We need a government that has the courage and imagination to lead Malaysia through these challenges – and the courage to help initiate bottom-up rather than top-down democratic initiatives”. If the newly elected government falters or fails to do so, the people will push them to undertake it. The trend is there for all to see and is irreversible. As articulated by another interviewee, “motivations and avenues for cooperation and debate among diverse oppositional forces over reform agenda is increasing” and we need “political imagination beyond the dominant ethnic and racial frameworks” institutionalised by the ruling government. Indeed, if the “national conversation” suggested by one of the interviewees is at all to be meaningful, it has to address the dominant racial or ethnic paradigm and put forward alternative paradigms that can transcend race, religion and divisive politics for Malaysia to successfully make transition towards 2020 and beyond.

Abdul Rahman Embong is Emeritus Professor in Sociology of Development & Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.