Where to, now, Malaysia?

Hopefully, the government-opposition MoU will lead to much-needed reforms

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Is this what the ‘New Deal’ is all about, we wonder?

To mark Malaysia Day on 16 September, Aliran hosted a webinar entitled “State, Society and Economy in Transition: Whither Malaysia?

The aim of the webinar was to assess the present state of affairs in Malaysia and where it is heading in the next few years. Prema Devaraj, Khoo Ying Hooi, Terence Gomez and I were on the panel, which was superbly moderated by Zikri Rahman – all of us Aliran members.

The webinar kicked off with an exhortation for self-introspection on Malaysia Day: what does it really mean to be a Malaysian?

Our national identity as a Malaysian is something that most Malaysians take for granted. But as we know, it is merely one identity coexisting and often competing with other identity markers such as religion, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.

Take the recent court ruling that finally makes it legal for Malaysian mothers married to foreign spouses to pass Malaysian citizenship to their children. Before the momentous ruling, Malaysian women were seen as ‘inferior’ citizens compared to Malaysian men. Well, not anymore.

The notion of citizenship and national belonging is constantly shifting according to the exigencies of time. This requires regular self-introspection from us Malaysians.

To sharpen the focus on the national identity issue, we can look for lessons in the ethno-religious divide so prevalent in the peninsula and the clamour for expanded state autonomy now seen in Sabah and Sarawak. Simply put, in what ways do our idea of being a Malaysian interfere or even violate others who do not share a similar idea?

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For instance, one Malaysian may believe in the idea of Malaysia as an Islamic state, while another Malaysian may feel the country is secular.

Likewise, a Malaysian from East Malaysia may believe it is the right of Sabah and Sarawak to control the immigration of Malaysians from the peninsula, like countries within a country. Another Malaysian may argue that to be a Malaysian is to be accorded unfettered freedom of movement and domicile anywhere in the country.

These are but a few vexing points we need to grapple with as we ponder what it actually means to be a Malaysian – a notion that must be founded on values of equality, solidarity, and justice.    

The government-supported economy can serve as a powerful equaliser in society by bridging class differences. The gap between the haves and have-nots has been widening alarmingly during this pandemic as unemployment and underemployment rates rise. Many small and medium enterprises have shut their operations as Covid ravages the economy.

Terence Gomez strongly recommends that the federal government, through its control of hundreds of government-linked companies and investment companies, deploy the “government’s ecosystem” to shore up the economy and provide people with a safety net from the pandemic fallout.

Instead, the federal government, from the onset of the pandemic, has been exploiting its “ecosystem” as a major source of patronage to strengthen its tenuous hold on power.  

But a government that does not serve the people and only obsesses about maintaining power would develop what Khoo Ying Hooi calls a “trust deficit” with society. People would stop looking to the government for help in times of need, as they would believe it is merely a tool to empower and enrich the elites.

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A yawning trust deficit in government would lead to more people disengaging from politics, even to the point of not voting, if they see no qualitative difference between the government and the opposition.

At a time when the government is completely out of touch with the people and is using its coercive tools to quash the opposition, civil society must step up and mobilise to keep the government honest.

Despite the dangers and restrictions posed by the pandemic, we have seen pockets of resistance against the government such as the contract doctors’ boycott (hartal doktor kontrak) and the #Lawan protest in the Kuala Lumpur city centre. We need more sustained civil society pressure on the government to make it accountable for its actions and responsive to social needs.

The recent victories  – the move to re-gazette the North Kuala Langat forest reserve in Selangor and the Penang fishermen’s successful appeal against the approval of an environmental impact assessment for a mega-land reclamation project – have proven that sustained civil society movement does work. But the struggle is long and hard and does not always bear fruit.

So, where to now, Malaysia? A Memorandum of Understanding signed between the government and the opposition, which includes institutional reforms such as an anti-defections law, recall elections and a two-term limit for the PM, looks encouraging on paper. It might even result in a stable government – at least until the next general election.

But then, is the MoU simply an alliance of convenience, a ceasefire of sorts, or a harbinger of a new kind of politics? A rickety government with a slim and unpredictable majority support might find such bipartisan cooperation a stabilising force.

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All the same, we hope it will lead to much-needed reforms and narrow the public trust deficit.

Azmil Tayeb
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
21 September 2021
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