A watchman’s journal

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Wong Chin Huat reviews Francis Loh’s book ‘Old vs New Politics in Malaysia’.

If a new student of Malaysian politics and society tries to make sense of the country in rapid but uncertain transition after the 2008 elections, this could be a useful book to begin with.

A collection of articles published in the Penang-based political commentary magazine Aliran Monthly, a local business magazine (Malaysian Business) and two foreign publications (Australian Society and the ACHRO book), the book does not offer any grand theory to explain the transition nor any prediction of what may follow. Published in the first half of 2009, it does not cover the cow-head protest days before the National Day that year and the Allah row, which led to arson attacks of churches and mosques the following January. It however gives a detailed account of Muslim-Hindu conflict in Kampung Rawa, Penang over a Hindu Temple in 1998, an incident – forgotten by most – before the Reformasi movement. This example exactly illustrates the merit and value of the book. It is a reminder of how Malaysia has come to where it is today. Reading the past and comparing it to the present allows one to see both the constants and variables as well as both challenges and hopes in Malaysia’s society and politics.

Important records

The book covers a quarter of a century from 1984 to 2008, which – in my personal opinion – may be divided into five different periods separated by major political milestones. Four articles were written in PM Mahathir’s Early Years (till 1990) including the important accounts of the 1987 Operasi Lalang mass arrests and the 1984-1986 Sabah political crisis. Francis Loh wrote five articles in the next period, the Vision 2020 Years (1991-1997), which began with Mahathir’s inclusive nation-building blueprint Vision 2020 and ended with the ascendance of the East Asian Financial Crisis. The political science professor at the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) provides insightful critiques on consumerism and mass media in the 1990s as well as the 1994 Sabah elections, which saw Parti Bersatu Sabah lose its victory due to the crossover of lawmakers within a month after the polls.

Other than the pre-Reformasi Kampung Rawa conflict, he left seven important records of the Reformasi Years (1998-2003), covering issues from informal politics of the Anti-Internal Security Act (ISA) movement, the Suqiu Appeal, the Chinese community’s opposition to the takeover of Nanyang Press to the formal politics of election and federalism. In PM Abdullah’s first term (2004-2007), Loh offered insights on assorted issues from the saliency of crimes to the decline of public universities. More importantly, as Malaysians became politically conservative partly due to “developmentalism”, a thesis pioneered by him, the public intellectual in Loh invited the Malaysian public to reflect on the old politics of ethnicity and the new politics of democracy. The remaining two articles were written after the 2008 tsunami, one of which calling for the reorganisation of federalism, a favourite theme of his.

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Personally, I think a chronological sorting of the articles would do more justice to both the book and readers who are unfamiliar with Malaysia’s political history. This should be considered in the future for its second edition.

History’s second draft

If news is the first draft of history, most of the commentaries here are history’s second draft as they were documented just weeks after the incidents. Hence, they are not only the specific accounts of incidents like the 1986 Sabah crisis, the 1987 Operasi Lalang, the 1998 Kampung Rawa conflict, the 2000 witch-hunt of Suqiu, or the 2007 Lina Joy verdict, but also capture the feeling and atmosphere then and there, in a way analyses done many years later may not.

In his account of the Kampung Rawa Muslim-Hindu conflict (pp 242-252) for example, Loh, in the first paragraph, tells readers of the surreal normalcy, while tension “peaked during the weekend of 27-29 March”, when “a huge open-air dinner organised by the MCA to encourage to buy local products was held at the Esplanade”, just another corner in small Penang Island. Soon after praising the maturity and sensibility of the majority of Penangites, the self-restraint exercised by Umno and MIC members upon calls by their leaders, and the firm and impartial actions by the state, he also revealed the news was blacked out, a common practice of crisis management in Malaysia.

The first episode of the showdown happened on 20 March, when 200-250 Muslims confronted a group of Hindu youths at a nearby Hindu temple as they viewed the bell ringing there during Muslim Friday prayers as deliberate provocation. Only a week later, two press conferences were respectively held by the then deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, and the Inspector-General of Police after 5,000-7,000 Muslims and a huge Hindu crowd marched towards each others. In between the two showdowns, the then chief minister, Koh Tsu Koon only issued two press statements about the relocation of the temple. Loh criticised that “in retrospect, the decision by the authorities and the media not to provide the public with adequate information only fuelled the rumour mills”. And with such context, he moved on to offer a blow-by-blow account of how the tension escalated and eventually calmed down and, subsequently, with more contextual information provided such as the rivalry between Indian Hindus and Indian Muslims in Penang and their link to Indian politics.

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Just 12 years down the road, yet the Kampung Rawa incident is almost out of the public memory, at least for Malaysians living outside Penang. This is only partly due to the state’s policy of downplaying incidents of communal conflicts except when it serves their partisan interests. The more important reason was perhaps it happened just half a year before the chief arbitrator of the conflict, Anwar Ibrahim, himself was purged by his boss Mahathir. After Anwar’s purge and imprisonment, alternative news sites began to mushroom and provide unofficial or anti-official perspectives for every major incident. Loh’s accounts on Kampung Rawa and many historical incidents before the internet era – and Aliran Monthly in general – are therefore especially useful for anyone interested in Malaysia’s socio-political history as they offer rare alternative records and interpretation to what one may find in the archives of mainstream newspapers of the same period.

On the other hand, Loh’s stock-taking analyses on federalism (pp 3-20), ISA (pp 175-187), social movements (pp 39-51), constituency redelineation (pp 91-102) or public universities (pp 256-268) provide useful overviews, with tables and lists of incidents compiled by himself or other researchers.

As this author was part of the movements in some of Loh’s accounts, some facts should be corrected for the record. First, the “People are the Boss” declaration in 1999 which advocated Schumpeterian procedural democracy in simple business language was initiated by a few non-partisan individuals rather than “by a smaller group of Chinese organisations that were supportive of the BA” (p 236). Second, the individual-based Committee Against the Takeover of Nanyang Press by MCA (CAT) and the group-based Committee of Chinese Organisations Against the Political-Party Takeover of Nanyang Press (COAT) were two different organisations, even though both worked very closely, and the key persons in CAT like Mr Tang Ah Chai and me did assist the work of COAT.

Open calls to voters

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This book is not only a record of Malaysia’s history in 25 years, but also a record of the activism of the author and Aliran Kesedaran Negara in those years. While many academics shy away from commenting on politics, fearing repercussion – real or imagined – under the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA), this political science professor openly made his calls to the voters on the eve of key elections.

In 1999, he eloquently debunked the BN’s fearmongering campaign to tie the Reformasi movement with political violence in Indonesia, Ex-Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka and Rwanda: “the danger arose in Indonesia and elsewhere because of a lack of change, not because of it” (p 104). To Malaysians at that historic juncture of transition, he dissected the BN’s narratives into five central tenets to expose the flaws: the peril of a multicultural society, the justification of a strong state, the BN’s ability to lead and arbitrate, the BN’s record in bringing stability and growth, and Dr Mahathir’s leadership (pp 108-111). Politics, to Loh, “must be based on ideals, however utopian they might be” (p117). And that is certainly the best characterisation of the conviction of Loh and his Aliran colleagues.

He renewed his call for change in 2008. He forewarned Malaysians about the hype the mainstream media would be offering. He predicted that some editors and feature writers would claim that there were ‘“no important issues” worth discussing “because those issues have recently been resolved through a new promise or a recent policy initiative.” He did not mince his words by questioning if the media practitioners would act as “professional journalists or propagandists” (p77). Loh paid special attention to the role of media in many of his analyses and was highly critical of the failure of the media as the fourth estate by pushing sales based on colourful makeovers, puzzles and feng shui (Chinese geomancy) (pp 279-286).

In that sense, Loh is a rare member of the real fourth estate that Malaysia needs, deserves and is privileged to have. He is a watchman of the “state and society in transition” from his ivory watch tower. And this collection of semi-academic writing is part of his journals during the interesting quarter century preceding the political tsunami in 2008 that many are now keen to understand.

Dr Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist attached to Monash University Sunway Campus This article first appeared in the academic journal Kajian Malaysia and is reproduced with the permission of the author and editor of the journal.

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