Malaysia:  Rehabilitation for whom?

Rehabilitation for whom?

By Farish A. Noor

He’s trying to make me go to rehab;
I said no, no, no.
I ain’t got the time
And if my daddy thinks Im fine…
He’s trying to make me go to rehab;
I said no, no,no.

- Amy Winehouse, ‘Rehab’ (2007)

So now its ‘political rehabilitation’, is it? As a corrective measure for
kids who go to demonstrations and who have been ‘bad’ in the eyes of the
government? That Malaysia’s leaders can even suggest such a thing speaks
volumes about the extent to which the space of alienation between the state
and the nation has grown over the years, and points to the lack of contact,
communication and understanding between the powers-that-be and the real
Malaysian nation made up of the rest of us.(1)

But are we surprised? After all this is the same country whose geography is
now cluttered with a smattering of ‘faith rehabilitation centres’ that have
been set up under the auspices of an Islamist project said to promote some
skewered vision of a modern, pluralist, democratic Islam that is benevolent
and accommodative: So accommodative in fact that it can accommodate dozens,
if not hundreds, of Malaysian citizens deemed ‘immoral’, ‘deviant’,
‘apostate’ and out of the ordinary according to the norms set by an
invisible and unaccountable cabal of Islamic experts in the pay of the
state. We already have rehabilitation centres whose job it is to ‘turn over’
these alleged deviants and misfits and force them to conform to the
normative praxis of Islam that is deemed correct by the state, so should we
be surprised if the leaders of UMNO and the government can go one step
further and call for the rehabilitation of children as well?

From the viewpoint of an academic who studies the development of modern
postcolonial states, Malaysia seems to be a textbook example of postcolonial
development turned awry. What began as a country with so much promise – its
plural racial and ethnic composition, blessed with plentiful resources that
was also strategically located at the cross-roads between East and West –
has been squandered for the sake of one ruling party that seems to cater
primarily to the needs and demands of one specific ethnic-religious

That Malaysia’s leaders still cannot understand and appreciate the extent of
dissatisfaction, frustration and cynicism among the Malaysian public points
to a state that has concentrated all power – including educational and
mediatic – in the hands of an alienated ruling elite. Since the 1980s
practically every institution of the state has undergone a serious
compromise thanks to the dominance of the Executive at the expense of all
other arms of the state apparatus: The emasculation of the judiciary, the
tighter and tighter controls on the press, the depoliticisation of the
universities (and the educational system in general), the promotion of a
sectarian divisive politics based on race and religious communitarianism,
the politicisation of institutions like the police, etc. have all created an
increasingly small and narrow political arena that has come to be dominated
by a small clique of power-hungry politicians and ruling families.

Worst still is the fact that the ruling elite of the country – made up as it
is by a handful of key families of the UMNO fraternity – has come to believe
its own rhetoric and the story they have spun for themselves: that they are
the protectors of the Malay community and identity, that they and they alone
are responsible for the fate and future of the Malaysian nation. Their
continued reliance on the state-controlled media to disseminate this inbred
propaganda they have invented for themselves fails to note the fact that the
very same Malay community they purport to represent is now fragmented,
hybrid and plural, and that the younger generation of Malay youth, like
their other Malaysian counterparts, no longer buy the stale and insipid
narrative of a cohesive united nation led by a handful of Malay ruling

Dismissive accounts of demonstrations as being ‘un-Malay’ and ‘un-Malaysian’
have clearly fallen on deaf ears, as the younger generation of Malaysians
could not care less about courtly protocol, the symbolism of UMNO and its
nationalist rhetoric, the appeals to racial superiority and unity, etc.
Despite the now tiresome brandishing of the keris and frothy speeches about
Malay unity at the recent UMNO assembly, many of the thousands of
demonstrators who took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur last weekend happened
to be Malay: the very same community that is no longer beholden to UMNO and
immune to its fanciful appeals to racial cohesion and unity.

So what does the future hold for Malaysian society and where will the events
of 10th November lead us? It is clear that the Bersih demonstration had
managed to do the one thing that the leaders of the Barisan Nasional dread
above all: to bring together Malaysians from all walks of life and cultural
backgrounds on one neutral issue that unites rather than divides their
interests. The fact that the Islamists of PAS and the secular leftists of
DAP could come together along with the activists of PKR and the NGOs
suggests that the civic spirit of Malaysians is not quite dead, despite all
attempts to squash any attempt at multi-racial and cross-communal political
activism in the country.

Unable and unwilling to accept the new realities on the ground the political
elite of Malaysia has resorted to the same worn out clichés and the call to
rehabilitate the younger Malaysians who were present at the demonstration
reveals the extent to which this ruling elite is so thoroughly bankrupt of
ideas. No, it is not the younger Malaysians who are in need of
rehabilitation- In fact the activist in me would say that activism and civic
responsibility should begin from our school days and that every young
citizen should be made aware of her and his rights and responsibilities as
early as possible, as a rite of civic membership.

If anyone is in need of rehabilitation, it is the politicians and ruling
elite of Malaysia themselves, who should learn that this diverse and plural
society of ours happens to be a complex nation undergoing a slow democratic
transformation and that the future of Malaysian politics should reflect this
multicultural diversity. So I strongly suggest that the right-wing
communitarian leaders of Malaysia sign up for their own rehab courses as
soon as possible, for their and our own good, and learn the following:

  That Malaysian citizenship, and not race or religious identity,
should serve as the basis of political participation and political rights;
  That the language of racial superiority and racial exclusivism is
not only morally repugnant, racist and dangerous but outdated and has no
resonance with the Malaysian public today;
  That the fundamental duty of all citizens is to demand that the
state serves the interests of the nation as a whole and not just a coterie
of landed elites living in their comfortable and alienated paradise of
select privileges and luxury;
  And that the right to speak one’s mind and to demand that the state
carries out its fundamental democratic functions are among the basic rights
of all citizens, and not some outrageous demand by anarchists, mobsters and
unruly nihilists.

And while taking these basic lessons in democracy, do leave the kids alone.
At least they don’t go on the stage brandishing weapons and screeching about
racial superiority… They are too matured to do such stupid things!


Note: (1): ‘Detained Children to be ‘Rehabilitated’- NST, 14 Nov 2007.

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 research site.