Waking up after half a century

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P Ramakrishnan recalls how Malaysians woke up on 8 March 2008 after half a century of slumber. He now urges them to generate a new tsunami of progressive non-racist politics  and eliminate racial politics in the country

It has taken us Malaysians half a century to wake up, stand up and do what was right and what was long overdue. For half a century, it was amazing that we could have voted in without a break the only government we have known since independence in spite of their corruption, their arrogance, their incompetence, their lack of respect for the rule of law, their blatant disregard for justice and human rights. It is amazing, isn’t it? But we did that! And we perpetuated this terrible situation knowingly. This has been depressing for me.

If any of you has ever looked back into the AGM speeches I’ve made since I was arm-twisted into becoming President a number of years ago, you’d probably have noticed that my speeches were frequently filled with consternation.

The reason for that was simple: I had to draw attention, over and over again, to the violations of civil liberties, the trampling of human rights and the many different kinds of abuses of power that happened but which Aliran was committed to opposing.

I vaguely recall that I often had to express my regret that the flaws of our political system and the injustices inflicted upon our society had not been satisfactorily redressed despite the earnest and noble efforts of many concerned citizens and committed organisations.

Hence, you’d be happy to know that I don’t feel compelled to continue on that dismal note this year!

Please don’t get me wrong. The flaws, injustices and abuses suffered by our political system and our people have not suddenly vanished. Indeed, as the ongoing vigils in Penang, KL and elsewhere to protest the indefensible but continuing use of the ISA have shown, we have a long way to go and much to do before we can be satisfied with the conditions of our society.

A transformation

Still, we know we’ve made progress that we can cheer and be proud of.

I refer of course, to the transformation of our political system that was swept in by the tsunami of 8 March 2008, blown in by the perfect storm that was the 12th General Election.

We are politically savvy here; so, there’s no need for me to recount the specific causes and the detailed results of that tidal wave, that storm, or what have you.

Suffice to mention that, on 8 March, half our voters decided that ‘Enough was enough’ with the old ways and discredited forms of politics and maladministration. In fact, half the voters turned themselves into ‘storm-bringers’.

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Against many obstacles and many temptations, the voters bravely chose ‘Change’. They sincerely wanted a ‘Malaysian Agenda’. And they confidently looked to a ‘New Dawn’.

Saying all that, I’m not making propaganda in this little hall for any political party or any politician. I’m only recapturing, briefly but accurately, the sentiments and aspirations of the voters who paved the way for Pakatan Rakyat’s historic gains in Parliament, in Kuala Lumpur, and in Kedah, Kelantan, Penang, Perak and Selangor.

We know that a lot of people have spoken and written about the tsunami as if it was something that happened overnight.

No doubt, the scale of the Opposition’s triumph astonished very many people because it went beyond their calculations. Definitely, certain political conditions and developments that arose between 2006 and 2007 greatly swelled the tide of oppositionist sentiment.

But, no, the tsunami didn’t happen overnight. The historic advance of 8 March was the outcome of years and years of hard work and dedicated effort by countless people.

 

Attempts to roll back change

Precisely because the tsunami of voter dissatisfaction was not a bolt from the blue nor a flash in a pan, certain quarters, vested interests and powers-that-be have tried to sweep it back, if needs be, by foul and unfair means.

Thus, in the eight months since the General Election, we’ve seen many attempts to distort truths about our current political realities, to hinder the administration of the ‘Opposition states’, to repress outspoken dissidents, and even to provoke ill-will among different sections of the populace.

One outcome – and one’s tempted to say, one intention – has been to drive Malaysian politics towards a brinkmanship that is as dangerous as it is unethical.

Most of us realise that there’s been a growing incidence of an irresponsible politics that thrives on insulting, baiting and provoking one’s opponents. Since 8 March, and especially since the Permatang Pauh by-election of 26 August, quite a number of politicians have spoken and acted as if they can only realise their personal and political aims by flinging insults, spreading lies and making threats.

So dishonest and desperate are some politicians today that they spread inter-ethnic hatred in the name of national unity, they sow distrust in the name of social harmony, and they threaten violence and repression in the name of political stability.

Those brands of politics can have no place in Malaysia if we are to progress meaningfully as a society and nation. As someone who welcomed the post-8 March political opening, I’m much heartened that ordinary Malaysians have had the courage, good sense and decency to reject these and other forms of political intimidation and manipulation.

Don’t be complacent

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But speaking as someone who has witnessed long periods of dirty politics and dirtier repression, I’d urge us not to be complacent about the risks that attend the post-tsunami transformation of our nation.

Most of us remember 27 October 1987 for the repression that was code-named Operasi Lalang. With so many people still detained under the ISA, let me emphasise that it is entirely appropriate and relevant to remember 27 October 1987 to this day.

But we need to remember this as well: Between 1986 and 1987, UMNO suffered from a heightened factionalism, MCA and Gerakan smarted from defeat at the 1986 General Election, and intra-BN disunity intensified as UMNO and its so-called Chinese-based partners played racial politics to the hilt.

In the background of those conflicts were the deep recession of 1985–86, market meltdown, business failures, and rising unemployment that created tensions and frustrations that were manipulated to raise inter-ethnic conflict to dangerous levels.

There are lessons from October 1987 that we must heed today, just eight months after the March tsunami.

We would be blind not to notice that the broad political situation is quite unsettled. Simply think of Sodomy II, the detentions of RPK, Teresa Kok and Tan Hoon Cheng, the arrests and prosecution of elected Opposition representatives, the banning of Hindraf, and recent assaults on peaceful protestors.

Simply observe how UMNO is approaching its March General Assembly and party election with lurking factionalism. Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has been forced into early retirement. But the remaining leaders’ high power stakes, naked ambitions and shifting alignments threaten to destabilise UMNO itself.

See, too, how the badly defeated MCA, Gerakan and MIC strive to reinvent themselves without much success. They are like parties that can neither live with nor live without UMNO or its leadership or its dominance or its supremacy. Consequently, the relations between UMNO and its so-called non-Malay-based component parties have become more acrimonious.

If that’s not enough, we find ourselves at the mercy of another tsunami. I mean the global financial crisis that, originating in the USA, is rapidly turning into a global economic crisis. We didn’t make this tsunami but the damage that comes in its wake will not spare our shores.

Warnings

Once again, therefore, we face an imminent coming together of political stresses and economic crises. How do we meet that eventuality without imploding or exploding?

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I myself have no ready, do-it-yourself, solutions to offer. But I believe that Aliran, as a reputable and trusted civil society organisation, has an important role to play. Just what role that should be should become part of our deliberations at this AGM.

At the very least, however, Aliran should have these messages and warnings to deliver.

To the various political parties and their politicians, we say, ‘Play politics by all means, but don’t think that the outdated politics of race, personality, or ruthless ambition will get you anywhere when the economic tsunami hits with full force.’

To the representatives in Parliament and the state legislative assemblies, we say, ‘Continue your antics and the theatrics if you must, but you will be judged by whether, how well and how honestly you can debate policy directions, pass laws and oversee government measures to save the people from massive suffering.’

To the Federal and the state governments, we say, ‘Persist with your antagonisms if you must, but don’t cut your nose to spite your face. The people will judge you by whether, or how effectively you can set aside partisan concerns and petty quarrels in favour of Federal-state cooperation to save and serve the national interest.’

Will all or any of those political parties, politicians, representatives and governments heed such messages and warnings?

We don’t know yet. But we know that, as before, we must keep delivering the messages and the warnings, by ourselves and in cooperation with NGOs and other concerned individuals.

We also know this much after 8 March: if enough of us in civil society, and if enough of the ordinary Malaysians who voted for change do so, we can generate a new tsunami of non-racist, non-hateful, and progressive sentiments – to build a changed and better future for all Malaysians, now and in the future.

 Ramakrishnan delivered the above speech at Aliran’s 32nd Annual General Meeting in Penang on 23 November 2008.

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