The long and curious trajectory of “regime change” in Malaysia

Given the well-known parameters of political competition in Malaysia, talk of an opposition win even in a key by-election, let alone a general election, tends quite quickly to turn to murmurs of “regime change”–of a change not just in leadership, but in the underlying framework of Malaysian politics.

Victory of the Pakatan Rakyat (or some cognate collectivity of opposition parties), the logic goes, indicates or embodies a fundamental shift in political culture and praxis. Faith in a soon-forthcoming regime change in Malaysia, then, requires confidence that “the opposition” might win a parliamentary majority; that once in office, these parties will govern substantially differently from the BN; and that a change in elected leadership is sufficient to qualify as, represent, or induce “regime change.”

The cynic might find grounds to doubt all three counts. Pakatan Rakyat, the current opposition coalition, has never offered a fully coherent organisational rubric, and the strength of its component parties is uneven at present. Yes, the BN is awash in scandals and recriminations … but when is it not?

Second, Pakatan experience in, for instance, Selangor or Penangdoes suggest that these parties may introduce meaningful reforms–more open tender for contracts, enhanced freedoms of information and assembly, and so forth. Other commentators in this New Mandala [] series offer ample evidence to that effect, even while also noting where liberal rhetoric rings hollow.

But the extent and precise direction of that difference defy prediction. It is not just Anwar who comes from “the belly of the beast” and might be expected still to retain at least a few habits and networks from BN days, but also others from within opposition ranks (even discounting perennial rumors of an imminent UMNO–PAS merger). Nor is Pakatan either scandal-free itself or unequivocal in rejecting Malay privilege, crony networks, or curbs on the public sphere.

But the third, less inherently partisan, query is really the clincher. A “regime” is larger than the slate of office-holders at the government’s helm, and a given slate may be elected for all sorts of positive and negative reasons. For regime change to happen, turnover would need to permeate to the roots and the political culture would require “democratisation”–shifts more substantial than any party or coalition can promise to deliver.

All that said, I do, in fact, think regime change of a sort to be not only imminent, but already in train. Or to put it differently: to focus on elections as the index of the state of the regime is not just likely to bring disappointment, but also is fundamentally misguided.

A longer-term, broader perspective paints regime change as a slow, however seismic, process. Regardless of what happens in the upcoming (or any other) elections, engagement not just within but beyond parties is what really constitutes and embodies change in the character and quality of Malaysian democracy.

By way of demonstration, I offer three illustrative sectors-to-watch, although in fact, these dynamics are pervasive.

First, sentiments among youth in Malaysiaare a harbinger of regimes to come: however much political attitudes and behaviors change as today’s youths age, early socialisation does matter to at least some extent. Undergraduates are especially germane to this analysis; it is from among this segment that future leaders of state and industry are most likely to emerge.

One of the enduring trends Reformasi set in motion was the increasing politicisation of youth, so long coached and coaxed to be apolitical (or at least, pro-government). Campus elections, for instance, have simmered down only somewhat since the late 1990s.

Recent discussions of revisions to the Universities and University Colleges Act, to legalize students’ taking part in politics, not only respond to demands for just that, but also help discursively legitimize students’ participation: they are held back not out of natural disinterest, but by an imminently mutable law.

Indeed, the apparent yen now for learning the history of “student power” suggests students’ awareness of their own former/potential stature–and hence framing of their own identity less immature and gullible than uniquely empowered. Such a frame is clearly at odds with an “authoritarian” ethos.

Second, the flow and “spin” of information has irrevocably changed in Malaysia, in the process altering the relation of ordinary citizens to both power-holders and issues of interest. Online “new” media have restructured Malaysians’ access to information and ability to interface with newsmakers.

Clearly, the “digital divide” remains very much in evidence: urban, comparatively wealthy and well-educated Malaysians are more likely to enjoy broadband access than their rural, less privileged fellow citizens.

The Internet seeps ever farther and deeper through Malaysian society, however, sped not least by proliferating smartphones (as well as more mundane printouts and travelers).

Online media have not only broken Malaysia’s information blockade, democratising access to critical perspectives, less-than-rosy news, details on opposition parties, and a heap of mindless chatter, to boot, but have arguably pressed mainstream media to open up, as well, and incumbent politicians at least to gesture toward interaction and, hence, accountability.

Moreover, it is on this ground that a host of newly-mobilised communities have been able to develop or elaborate a shared identity, ready to be mobilised offline, from HINDRAF to Seksualiti Merdeka. Those constituencies not only force new issues onto political agendas, but embody new horizons for full democratic citizenship.

Third, the fact that the largest and most vociferous, not to mention unusually non-communal, instance of mass mobilisation in the run-up to these next polls has centered around electoral reform–Bersih 2.0, successor to the Bersih coalition formed five years prior–signals the seriousness with which Malaysians today take the idea of “democracy.”

It is not the system that has changed; elections are arguably no less clean now than they were in years past. But for a host of reasons, the public is now less willing to accept norms and tradeoffs previously taken for granted or deemed unassailable.

The underlying premise of Bersih is that parties alone should not monopolise political space and that democracy requires more than just going through the motions of elections. None of that is novel, of course, even in Malaysia. But the fact that warnings, blockades, teargas, and arrests failed to keep Bersih supporters off the streets last July suggests that the rakyat have come to see such voice and such claims as legitimate: as their right, if Malaysia is to call itself a democracy.

That actors from civil society claim a stake in Malaysian political choices and outcomes fundamentally challenges the definition of “democracy” Malaysian leaders–most stridently, but not exclusively, Mahathir–have asserted.[1] Those who meddle from the margins, in this reading, are but “thorns in the flesh” and saboteurs. But this reading is increasingly challenged, as among frustrated undergraduates; in online new sites, blogs, and on Facebook; and among campaigners for a truly level electoral playing field.

Indeed, while regime “transitologists” tend to fixate on electoral turnover as the ultimate sign of democratic health, I suggest that what matters most is what happens beyond parties and elections: if the public sphere is more capacious, inclusive, and vibrant as a general rule.

Such a lens acknowledges that politics happens year-round and that democratic citizenship, with all that entails, is an enduring status. Elections are revealing because it is about and during them that these claims about democracy are most clearly made and that we see in sharp relief the extent to which media and activist efforts have kept debate alive and informed; elections represent citizens’ chance to hold the powers-that-be, or that-want-to-be, to account.

In other words, the fact that citizens express a voice, on a regular basis, and see that expression of voice as itself legitimate indicates a process and pattern of regime change in Malaysia. Who actually controls the government is hardly unimportant, epiphenomenal, or unrelated. At the most basic level, the state of civil liberties, calibrated by those power holders, is absolutely critical, and clamoring at the margins without any signal that the center has heard or cares is frustrating and enervating. But we need to take those margins seriously in assessing the character of the Malaysian regime.

Regardless, a caveat: one should not read too much into these signs of change in political culture and popular political behavior. “Regime change” is not a messianic or immediate process; it is a long-term slog, punctuated by euphoric elections and legislative shifts, but requiring a lot more than these. It is never accomplished quickly or, perhaps, completely. Malaysia boleh, but “success” might take a while.

Meredith Weiss is Associate Professor of Political Science at the State University of New York at Albany. She is the author most recently of Student Activism in Malaysia: Crucible, Mirror, Sideshow, as well as Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia, and is co-editor of Social Movements in Malaysia: From Moral Communities to NGOs and the forthcoming Student Activism in Asia: Between Protest to Powerlessness. Current projects focus on the impacts of new media, collective identity and mobilisation, and clientelism and patronage in Southeast Asia.

[1] Recall, for instance, Mahathir’s equation of liberal democracy with the right “to carry guns and flaunt homosexuality”; he deemed it perhaps “good for the religious deviationists or cultists.” Quoted in Karminder Singh Dhillon, Malaysian Foreign Policy in the Mahathir Era (1981-2003): Dilemmas of Development, Singapore: NUS Press, 2009, p. 207.