Turning points in the Malaysian political scene

When I was a school going child, Malaysian politics is about racial segregation, culminating into “Operasi Lallang” in 1987. Hard pressed in the 1990’s election, a photo and an advertisement of bad taste changed the fortunes of a hard-pressed incumbent ruling party and they won that general election. People spoke of opposition parties as if they are a bunch of criminals and good for nothing. Chinese population reject PAS just as Malays would reject DAP.

Fast forward to 2008, the mould cast for so long has been broken. I stood side by side a Malay chap in Keadilan drab waiving a DAP flag in Taman Melati on 8th March. I waived and gave a thumb’s up to a PAS supporter in Seremban on the same day and he replied with a broad smile and another thumbs up. I saw and heard myself, Chinese uncles and aunties, young and supple Chinese in theirs 20s, cheering loudly as PAS Secretary Kamarruddin Jarjis spoke before them in DAP Negeri Sembilan’s fund raising dinner a fortnight ago. These scenarios were most unimaginable when I was in my youthful and supple 20’s or earlier.

Students of history can point out various turning points in history. The course of history is filled with turning points, events that changed the course of events and steered them away from expected chartered voyage.
So, I wonder, what were the events that transformed the thinking of Malaysians from that of the 1970’s – 80’ s to what some of us have come to in the present days.

I have listed down the following as the apparatus or events that I think contributed to the turning point. History is written by the victors and I hope my little piece here can be a reference footnote in times to come.
1. Internet
2. Anwar’s sacking
3. Economic crises of 1997
4. Mahathir’s lack of succession planning
5. Urbanization of Malaysia

I rank introduction of internet as the most important tool (but not event) in giving rise to the turning point. Internet broke the back of controlled main stream media’s monopoly of propaganda and opportunity to shape public’s opinion & perception.

It allows opposition politicians to disseminate their side of argument and more importantly, via avenues to air readers’ comments, allow common folks to realize many of us feel the same discontentment, anger and frustration. Lim Kit Siang was among the first to exploit usage of blogs and the awareness of his messages increased significantly. Other politicians from both camps follow suit. Personal blogs have become an important part of a politician’s tool of trade.

The writings of the likes of Raja Petra Kamarruddin, M.G.G. Pillai I believe inspire the mushrooming of more and more socio-political blogs. Such blogs mould the thinking of ordinary folks. It rallies support, as in the case of these anti-ISA vigils, the Bersih Campaign Walk and other public gathering. Bloggers are no longer deemed as “unemployed women” as one former minister dismiss them and even given space in national controlled media by the new minister.

Internet news portal like Malaysiakini and lately the Malaysia Insider present a very different view point from the controlled few. They also inspired the emergence of more neutral newspapers such as Sinaran.

Anwar’s sacking in 1997
I would rank this as the most significant event that contributed to the turning point. Prior to Anwar’s sacking, the Malay community would, by and large, united under a feeling of “us and them” mentality. There is no possibility of non-racial political philosophies and political parties to make in roads to the communities’ mindset. Even the imprisonment of Lim Guan Eng following the Malay girl incident has not hit home the message of cross-racial politics but surprisingly, it is the Mahathir vs Anwar saga that provided the point of no-return for it.

The Anwar sacking, sodomy trial and imprisonment ushered in an event I could not imagine at the time – a divided Malay community. If previous differences were fought out and settled behind closed doors within political parties, it was the first time I see Malays, common Malays would dine with me in the same warung or mamak stall that took their frustration and confrontation onto the streets. Devoid of the “Chinese nemesis”, for the first time in my memory, Malays were fighting for justice and against evil.

It may have brought a realization to the Malay community that beside the Chinese bogeymen, there was perhaps more worthy causes to fight for, such as justice and principles of good governance. Subsequent political rallying cries within the Malay community have evolved from the monotonous racial nature into more universal principles of justice, transparency and good governance.

This paradigm shift has brought Malays closer with the Chinese and Indian communities hence the formation of Parti Keadilan and Pakatan Rakyat.

Economic crises of 1997
The demise of the “Asia miracle” then has exposed the terms and concept of “nepotism” and “cronyism” into Malaysian vocabulary. The words and their concept, once made clear to most in Malaysia, helped explain to Malaysians that reasons behind the “haves” and “have nots” have more to do with privileged connection than racial origins. No longer applicable is the common notion that “Chinese are rich because they exploit the Malays”; which I would say, contain some trueth way back in the previous century but the whole truth is worth another article or three.

Mahathir’s lack of succession planning
There is a corporate buzzword “succession planning” whereby new talents are groomed to take over when the incumbent rode into the sunset. Yet, Mahathir has ensure all his capable deputies – Musa Hitam, Razaleigh Hamzah and Anwar Ibrahim have reached their pinnacle in his administration hence a brain drain within the ranks of UMNO and by association, top national leadership. The only deputies whose positions were secured during Mahathir’s premiership were Ghaffar Baba and Abdullah Badawi.

The current criticisms of “flip flop” decision-making, ridiculous public statements made by ministers and uninspiring governance and leadership post-Mahathir era has fueled discontentment and push many neutral voters to vote against Barisan Nasional. I believe these voters can easily revert back to BN if there is improvement in their stewardship but only if UMNO made up lost time in grooming truly capable and fair-minded leaders.

Urbanization of Malaysia
It is easier to practice the “divide and rule” policy of the British colonials when you keep the communities in different parts of the country. However, when you take the Malays from the rural area to urban areas, they would face the same livelihood issues as all the other city dwellers. Mono racial issues can still make some raw nerves tingle but high cost of living, crime rates and unsatisfactory public service delivery systems would water down narrow mono-racial concerns. It also enables people of all races to suffer the same problems and they would have the same rallying calls and common grouses.

The old political capital built on the foundation of racism is still a marketable commodity. Malaysians care more about racial and religious issues than judiciary, corruption, public negligence related issues. I believe, however, patriotic Malaysians should embrace change and adopt what is positive and discard what is negative because no nation can ever progress with deep-rooted and irrational divisive emotions and practices amongst its citizens.

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