Malaysia: Change is Long Overdue

Farish A. Noor

Posted Mar 25, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Malaysia: Change is Long Overdue

By Farish A. Noor

For as long as they can remember, Malaysians have been told time and again that there can only be political stability in the country as long as the status quo is defended. This rather uninspiring message was, of course, delivered by none other than those who were already in power and who had every reason to wish to remain in power for as long as humanly possible. Since it became independent in 1957 Malaysia has been ruled by the same coterie of right-of-centre Conservative-nationalist parties led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its allies in the former Alliance coalition and now the National Front. For more than half a century Malaysians were told that this was the natural order of things and that to even entertain the idea of there being a different government was tantamount to political heresy of sorts.

Yet a quick survey of the political landscape of many a post-colonial nation-state today would show clearly that almost every post-colonial country in the world has experienced a change of government, and in many cases this transition has come about without leading to chaos and tumult in the streets. The nationalists of Algeria were eventually kicked out of office after it became patently clear that their brand of conservative nationalism served only to disguise what was really a corrupt mode of patronage politics. In India the Congress party that had for so long rested on its laurels and prided itself with the claim that it was the party that won India’s independence has been soundly beaten at both the national and state level; again for the same reason. Why even Indonesia that suffered under three decades of military rule has made the slow but sure transition to a fledgling democracy of sorts, and the mainstream media in Indonesia today remains the most open and courageous in all of Southeast Asia. So why not Malaysia?

The election results of March 2008 have shown the world that in Malaysia at least race and communal-based voting may soon become a thing of the past. This may have been a protest vote against the lackadaisical performance of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, but it did nonetheless send a very clear message to the government and all the parties in the country. It signalled that the Malaysian public was tired of empty promises and having sweet nothings whispered in their ears, while the government continues along its inebriated pace of mismanaging the country. It also reminded all politicians from all parties that the Malaysian voters will no longer vote along racial or religious-communitarian lines, and that henceforth they will vote for the best candidate who can do her or his job better than the other bloke.

If this is not a sign of political maturity and responsibility, then this analyst doesn’t know what is. The Malaysian voters were literally warned by the ruling parties to vote for them, yet they defied the might of the government and were prepared to take the costs. Yet soon after the election results were known there were still voices among the ruling elite who had not yet adjusted to the realities on the ground. During a rather tiresome debate live on TV with a prominent has-been from the ruling UMNO party, I was struck by how outdated, disconnected and irrelevant his views and discourse were: Rambling on about the need to protect his own ethnic and religious community while slandering the politicians of the opposite camp, he merely reiterated every single cliché on race politics we had been fed for the past fifty years. If people like these are still adamant that there should be no change in Malaysia, then we all know that the time for change has already come.

The fact is that the changes we have seen in Malaysia over the past two decades are not unique to Malaysia and are in fact simply the signs of the times we live in. All over the developing world we have witnessed the creation of better-connected, better-informed and better-educated urban constituencies that are more plural, cosmopolitan, diverse, hybrid and politically literate and informed. It has to be remembered that the Iranian revolution that brought to an end the decades-long regime of the Shah of Iran took place in the most urbanised Muslim country in the world then, where more than half of Iran’s population were urban-based.

Likewise it was no surprise that the uprisings against Ferdinand Marcos and President Suharto began in the urban centres of the Philippines and Indonesia, as did the Thai ‘democratic revolt’ of 1973-76.

Now that it is increasingly clear that Malaysia may have a change of government sooner than many Malaysians themselves had expected, it is imperative that Malaysians accept and understand the need for change: Political change is as natural as breathing and sleeping, and is nothing more than a mere normative aspect of modern democratic political life. As was the case with the fall of the Congress party in India, those political parties that stay on too long in power can only grow weak, corrupt and inefficient as a result of the exposure to the luxuries and temptations of power for too long. To its credit, when the time for change eventually came, the leaders of the Congress accepted their defeat and took their bow in time to preserve what little remained of their dignity and standing. In time the party was allowed to heal itself and come back to power – once again via democratic means.

Other post-colonial societies like Malaysia should heed this lesson well and learn to accept the fact that calling themselves ‘democracies’ means having to be democracies and behave like democracies as well. The failure of the ruling National Front coalition at the 2008 elections speaks volumes about the degree of disconnect that has set into the upper ranks of the ruling parties, and underscored their irrelevance in the eyes of the Malaysian public themselves. For the UMNO-led ruling coalition to remain in denial and to deny the fact that the Malaysian political landscape has already shifted from underneath its feet would be to compound the problem faced by themselves and the country. For this reason alone, the responsibility now lies with the leaders of this enfeebled government to admit to their mistakes and pave the way for change, even if it means sacrificing their long-held position of power and dominance over the country. For the question remains: If and when change is long overdue and can no longer be resisted, would not the preservation of the status quo be the cause of tumult and chaos we have dreaded all along?


Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the research site.