A Wake-Up Call for the Government: Malaysians Want Their Country Back

Farish A. Noor

Posted Nov 12, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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A Wake-Up Call for the Government: Malaysians Want Their Country Back

By Farish A. Noor

That elections should be free, fair and transparent is perhaps one of the
most basic requirements of any working democracy, and to demand that
elections should be free, fair and transparent is perhaps one of the most
fundamental rights of any society. When citizens demand such things it can
and should be seen as an act of civic responsibility and they should
commended for it. Indeed, it ought to be seen as a test of civic
participation and citizenship that all citizens should demand that their
state works and functions properly and accountably, to serve the interest of
the nation as a whole and not a select coterie of landed elites and
entrenched class interests.

That was exactly what happened in the streets of Kuala Lumpur on 10th
November and for that reason alone Malaysians should be proud to say that
they are in the process of reclaiming the state and demanding their country
back. As in the cases of Pakistan and Burma – as well as the pro-democracy
movements that swept across Southeast Asia in the 1980s and 1990s which led
to the fall of dictators like Ferdinand Marcos and General Suharto – what
happened in Malaysia was, in many ways, a landmark moment in the country’s
postcolonial history.

Yet ironically elements in the Malaysian government – the very same elements
that ostensibly supported the recent pro-democracy campaign in Burma – were
at the forefront of demonising their fellow citizens and doing their utmost
to prevent the demonstration in Kuala Lumpur from taking place. Leaders of
the ruling UMNO party issues a continuous stream of warnings to the general
public, warning them not to take to the streets. UMNO leaders and members
who were willing to join in the rallies calling for democratic reform in
Burma were suddenly taking the opposite side when the very same demands were
being articulated in Malaysia by their fellow Malaysians. Malaysians were
told that they would be arrested if they attended the rally; that the
demonstrators were a nuisance and a security threat; that the demonstration
would deter foreign investment into Malaysia. Yet the mind boggles at the
logic of such arguments, when it should be clear that what is deterring
investment into the country is not public demonstrations but rather
mismanagement of the economy, allegations of corruption and abuse of power
by the elite instead.

For a nation that has always been cast in a passive light as docile and
apathetic, Malaysians defied their own stereotype by coming out in huge
numbers and braving the rain from above and the tear gas and batons on the
ground. Contrary to the scare-mongering campaign of the government, the
rally proved to be ordered and peaceful. What does this say about Malaysia
today and where the country is heading?

According to prominent lawyer and human rights activist Malik Imtiaz Sarwar,
Malaysia’s ‘civil society coalesced today, in a way that was unprecedented
since the formation of Malaya in 1957. Today Malaysians began to learn not
to fear’. The same sentiments were shared by Latheefa Koya of the People’s
Justice Party (PKR) who opined that ‘despite threats of harsh action by the
Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and the police, the people who rallied
clearly defied them and sent a strong message for the need for free and fair
elections. Lawyers marched for a free judiciary and the people marched for
justice. When is the state going to wake up?’. Haris Ibrahim, the lawyer who
was one of the organisers of the rally summed up the event thus: ‘If the
Prime Minister is unable to take any criticism of his government, now we see
that the Malaysian people will no longer remain passive and accept things as
they are.’ The tide, apparently, has changed at last.

That the Malaysian public has been kept docile and submissive for half a
century is the result of a host of historically determined factors dating
back to the colonial era; which in turn has been compounded by a
postcolonial government that has used the very same tools of the former
colonial masters – such as the Internal Security Act – to keep them passive
for so long. For five decades the ruling elite of Malaysia – led and
dominated by the right-wing ethno-nationalists of the UMNO party – have
divided Malaysian society along the lines of race and religion; scared off
any attempts at reform through the use of repressive laws like the ISA,
Sedition Act and others; dominated the press and nearly eliminated all
alternative sources of information and news; systematically used the
national economy as a patronage machine to maintain its clientelist
networks; eroded the country’s intellectual culture via its draconian
control of the universities and campuses; while turning the UMNO party into
a fiefdom for a increasingly small number of Malay leaders from selected
elite families. A cursory look at the leadership of UMNO today will show
that it has become like a club for ruling elite families, with at least two
senior UMNO leaders – Najib Razak and Hishamuddin Onn – being the sons of
former Prime Ministers and party Presidents.

In a typical case of arrested postcolonial development, Malaysian politics –
and UMNO politics in particular – has been reduced to a feudal clannish cosy
arrangement where the sons of leaders can mingle and wait for their turn to
power. Is this what the founders of Malaysia dreamt of when the country was
created? To create an authoritarian state where what passes as governance is
little more than a dressed up version of a typical postcolonial guardkeeper
state with power increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer
(Malay, Muslim, Male) leaders?

Despite all the talk of reform and promises of openness and change since he
came to power, the administration of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi
has hardly served up any of the promises he made. The numerous allegations
and cases of high-level and high-profile corruption remain unresolved, while
increasingly there are serious allegations of mismanagement, elite
manipulation of the judiciary, abuse of power by the police. Is it a wonder
then if the Malaysian public has had enough, and will now take to the
streets to make their voices heard? The leaders of the opposition parties in
Malaysia were the first to tap into the anger and frustration of the public,
and to echo the clamour for change. As Lim Kit Siang, leader of the
Malaysian Democratic Action Party (DAP) noted: ‘Malaysians have spoken loud
and clear for electoral reform and for free and fair elections. Now will
Prime Minister Abdullah listen and act, or will he remain blind and deaf?’

There is no telling how the Malaysian government and the UMNO elites will
react to this clear demonstration of public disquiet in the once-sleepy
streets of Kuala Lumpur. But what is clear is that Malaysia at least is no
longer the kingdom of the blind that it was once made out to be.


Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and historian based at
the Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin; and one of the founders of the
http://www.othermalaysia.org research site.