Catharsis The Rebirth of Malaysia Finally Begins



This article first appeared in our June 2018 issue.
In celebration of our 10th anniversary, we put together for you in this issue some of our most memorable articles.

The heavy fall of the Barisan Nasional revives the process of national liberation, and challenges Malaysians to free their minds.

Maybe it was because the transition took so long, and opposition parties had had a chance to rule certain states for two terms and made change in government an acceptable event. Maybe it was because the fear that Malaysians have a hidden tendency for violent rioting is simply a bad myth kept alive by a federal government that concentrated power into itself following the 1969 racial killings. Maybe it was because Najib Razak’s administration had brought profound shame on his countrymen. Maybe Malaysians had matured on the sly more than even they themselves had realised. Or maybe it was because the battering ram that finally brought down the defences of the Barisan Nasional (BN) had Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed, the man who led BN for 22 years, as its head.

Whatever it was, the fall of the longest-ruling regime in a democratic country in the world came amazingly peacefully. In its 14th General Election held on May 9, 2018, the Malaysian opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH), managed to win 122 (55%) of the country’s 222 parliamentary seats. A system of government that had always been accused of being but a sham democracy at worst and a semi-democracy at best suddenly crumbled, and the long-awaited change in government occurred as smoothly as in any mature democracy.

But we know nevertheless that a revolution has just taken place. All comfort zones are being swept away, barely noticed because it is happening in slow motion. If in no other field, the year 2020 – when Malaysia is supposed to become an advanced country – appears to have come early where democracy is concerned!

Pundits have often said of the general elections of March 8, 2008 that it was a lucky thing for the country that the BN did not lose power unexpectedly and overnight. Instead, it lost control over five states and the two-third parliamentary majority, and therefore no rioting took place because not all was lost to BN and regaining lost support was considered totally possible. After all, Malaysia’s electoral results had almost always showed a pattern where one bad election for the BN was followed by a good one.

Without having to go back too far, we saw for example that the Mahathir administration enjoyed strong support in 1995, fared badly in 1999, boasted a record-strong showing in 2004 under Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who then followed that up with a record-weak election in 2008. So, in 2013, Najib Razak had good reason to think that his sloganeering style of leadership, where terms such as “One Malaysia” (1Malaysia), “Government Transformation Programme” (GTP), “Economic Transformation Programme” (ETP) and the “New Economic Model” (NEM) were propounded as profound and comprehensive reform policies and proclaimed as successes before any beneficial effects were felt by the population at large, was enough for him to regain ground. The macroeconomic data were not too bad considering that the world was in a depression. And what’s more, the electoral pattern was on his side.

He was wrong, of course. In 2013 the BN retreated further and even lost the popular vote on the peninsula.

Breaking the Race Champion Myth

It is hard to disprove the claim that a staggered process in changing the government at the federal level is better and safer than an immediate turning of the page. There is probably some truth in that, but to push that argument now is to delve in counterfactual speculation. Suffice it to say that the claim is not without substance.

Behind that claim, though, lies the assumption that the loss of power by BN and Umno is equal to a definitive and irreversible loss of control by the Malay community as a whole over its own fate. That, after all, had always been Umno’s proffered bugbear to its supporters. And for that myth to work, the Chinese Malaysians had always had to be made to play the bogeyman by Umno.

Thus, because the opposition coalition in 2008 was led by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, the Chinese bogeyman in the form of the DAP was all the more necessary as a spook, and Anwar had to be painted a puppet for the Chinese. Hiding the fact that both coalitions were led by Malay leaders, and which appeared equally strong, was a requirement to keep the racial division and mutually fearful sentiments alive. The same was true in 2013, but somehow the Chinese bogeyman did not seem to work very well any longer, and that year, Najib failed to regain any ground lost by Badawi in 2008.

That did not stop Umno from making the desperate and ridiculous claim in 2018 that Mahathir, now the leader of the opposition PH, is a Chinese stooge. That claim was too outrageous for most Malays to believe, and that in itself reveals how racial politics based on polarising the Malays from the non-Malays simply does not work any longer.

And so, due to larger processes of change such as urbanisation, education, social media and globalisation, Umno’s racial dichotomisation began failing without its propagators realising that the Malay community had become too diverse to be united through simply instigating fear of the Chinese. But then, they were blinded by their own propaganda. Changing a formula that had been successful for so long, and reforming a party that has race championing as its raison d'être away from its ideology, could not happen unless the danger was recognised to be life threatening. Apparently, Umno and BN were simply too confident of their ability to manipulate the electoral process to their advantage should their manipulation of the people through their control of the mass media, the police and the judiciary fail; serious reforms were never considered. Adopting terms of reform was thought to be enough, if used alongside draconian means of control.

There have been countless signs over recent months that Najib had seriously lost touch with the electoral ground, if not with reality. To be sure, on the side of BN supporters, this was painfully clear when one considers how Umno’s allies within the coalition seemed unable to re-strategise their position, and very often appeared content to rely on Big Brother Umno to pull them through. Within Umno, sounds of protest against what they now saw as parasitic behaviour by MCA, Gerakan and MIC, most notably, were heard more and more often as the elections drew closer.

Such were the mind-sets perpetuated in the government camp. It will take a while before they can accept the change in government and all it means for their way of life, their career path, their social status, and their sense of self-worth, not to mention the self-pity and self-blame that they will indulge in for not seeing the change coming and for being so silly as to have landed on the wrong side of history, as it were.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed holding a press conference on May 10, 2018, at Sheraton Hotel in Petaling Jaya, a day after the Pakatan Harapan coalition won the 14th General Election.

The Future Has Arrived

One expects people in the opposition camps, i.e. in the Pakatan parties on the one hand, and in PAS on the other, to be more prepared for the changes that they were fighting for. To be sure, while the fall of the BN government is not a trauma for Pakatan people the way it is for BN supporters, it does not mean that their comfort zones did not disappear as surely as they did for the latter. For PAS perhaps, the psychological challenges are limited.

Nevertheless, victory, especially after an extended struggle, can be quite a shock to the psyche. After exultation comes disorientation. The defensive attitudes, the tactical frame of mind and the critical stance of those who had been opposed to the BN government, which have all served them so well and allowed them to remain sane, are now losing relevance. Without the all-powerful BN to orientate around, a deep sense of bewilderment creeps upon them. Bittersweet would be an appropriate term for it, however glib that may sound. Change is here, and it is in the individual psyche that the most work needs to be done.

Many are the planned but unfinished policies in the opposition states whose relevance are now called into question. They have to be revisited and reviewed. The rationale for them is in many cases no longer valid. Since the pond in which they developed is now an ocean, one has to wonder if their effects if they are implemented will be as intended originally. The same applies to each individual who has in their minds and daily actions resisted the effects, both insidious and obvious, of BN rule and of the opposition against it.

The future is not tomorrow. It has arrived. It is today. And that of course brings some anxiety. It also means that the time of mere criticising, however well justified, is now over. Many are the books commenting on the sorry state of Malaysian socio-politics and socio-economics, which will now seem hugely uninteresting. That is the price of victory.

One is reminded of soldiers returning from a war. Their work into which they literally invested their lives is now over. It does not matter if they are on the winning side or not; for most of them, their relevance, their significance and their position will now begin to fade away.

For people at large, who have not been especially interested in politics one way or the other, the fact that a new era has arrived cannot go unnoticed. It affects them deeply, too. Ignorance is bliss only when the status quo is stable. When a revolution happens, however peacefully, the one who knows how the breeze blows and how the ocean flows will feel more empowered and in control of his fate.

To keep to the notion of revolution, one could say that revisionist tendencies in the aftermath of great change are found in the resistance put up intuitively by the collective psyche. If we are used to thinking in terms of racial collectives and hierarchies; if we are used to fighting an invincible political structure; if we have been able to think of the country only as a middling society that should be happy with whatever comes along that is not the worst thing imaginable; if we have accepted that fellow human beings, just like ourselves, will be the mediocre creatures we run into every day, easily bribed and easily ignored; then we can be sure that cynicism is our comfort food, and our psychological haven.

Post-traumatic Stress Injury

What made the general elections of 2018 so special is that the toppling of the old regime was effectuated with such a large margin. The “Malay tsunami” that was coined by DAP strategist Liew Chin Tong, and used more prescriptively than descriptively, did come to pass. The change in government, given the manifest trickery of the BN, would not have been brought to completion otherwise.

To clarify through exaggeration, we should perhaps consider the country to be suffering from transitory post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The point is not to blacken what is truly a rosy picture, but to draw attention to the profundity of the systemic change and find words for the mixture of feelings that Malaysians now experience, so that each will know that he or she is not alone in feeling them, and that these feelings are a necessary but passing phase for any society that dares to topple a suppressive government. Interestingly, doctors now wish to rename the condition an injury rather than a disorder. That may be more appropriate – we all carry some injury from the state of conflict that had passed for nation-building in Malaysia all these years. The disorder is over. It is time to heal injuries.

The bewilderment now felt by Malaysians began before the election itself, among other things when Mahathir chose to return to politics, and team up with Anwar – in effect merging the social and economic aspirations of Vision 2020 with the demands for institutional change championed by the Reformasi movement. In gaining a royal pardon for Anwar just a week after returning to power, and in naming Lim Guan Eng, the chief minister of Penang, as his finance minister, Mahathir managed to convince all and sundry that he is in truth adopting the reform agenda. More than that, naming a Malaysian of Chinese origin as finance minister appears to hark back to the early 1970s when inter-racial tensions were institutionalised and perpetuated through the adoption of the New Economic Policy, the formation of the BN, the muffling of parliament and Malay monopoly over all key ministries, and to be as much as an attempt at closure for the agonies of that early era.

If seen that way, Mahathir has gone one step further than what even Reformasi diehards imagined. Again, I take that to further signify that the revolution by ballot box that Malaysians accomplished on May 9, 2018 is a deeply psychological one as much as it is a political one. This is because the BN, a model of power for six decades, employed insidious and devious methods to prey on and play with the minds of Malaysian citizens. Through the threat of near arbitrary punishment, through the myth of uncompromising racial and religious lines, and through the corruption of values through an ideology of racial privilege, it stunted the mental growth of the country, which one would argue is both the basic reason for gaining independence and the proper definition of decolonisation.

Mahathir himself was party to those processes. His willingness to rectify matters now should inspire his fellow countrymen to some deep self-analysis and to be morally sincere and bold in action, and to make the most of their new-found freedom.

That is why some now call May 9, 2018 the second Merdeka Day. It should also be a day we remind ourselves that the mental liberation of Malaysia from colonialism and post-colonialism is a staggered and continual process, and that process cannot be painless and easy. It has to be as cathartic as the injury has been comprehensive.

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