State, society and economy in transition – Whither Malaysia?

A belated happy Malaysia Day!

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16 September 2021 – It was Malaysia Day and Aliran had decided we would celebrate this auspicious day by holding a webinar; the idea was to get Malaysians, over a live feed, to think aloud together about where our country is heading in these politically unstable times amid a pandemic.

Holding webinars had become ‘fashionable’ during the Covid lockdowns. We were aware of that. In the run-up to Merdeka Day and Malaysia Day, there had been webinars about the Perikatan Nasional government’s handling of the pandemic; the consequences of the Sheraton coup and the shutting down of Parliament; the PN government’s handling of the pandemic; the state of the economy and what to do about it; the constitutionality of this and that political manoeuvre; the loss of our freedom and so on. We wanted to make sure that we would not be repeating what others had discussed.

So, we invited our speakers to explore what might be the political, social and economic situation in Malaysia in the medium term, say in five years’ time? And we asked them not to forget to connect their highlighting of ongoing specific events and developments – in other words, the small picture – to the big picture so that all could see not just the trees, but the forest as well. This is Sociological Analysis 101.

Lo and behold, enter PM9

Amid our preparations for the webinar – lo and behold, the eighth Prime Minister, Mahiaddin Yasin, was forced to step down.

His newly appointed deputy, Ismail Sabri Yaakob – whom most Malaysians had never heard of months ago or, if they did, had never associated him with the PM’s post – was sworn in as the ninth Prime Minister. In truth, he was nobody’s candidate for PM, but ended up becoming our PM; not that you and I had a say in the matter!

No, he was not specially qualified to tackle the pandemic, nor did he possess the mojo to kickstart the economy. He certainly did not have the charisma to inspire our youth who could not attend school or college for over a year, let alone find a job if they had already graduated. He was not some hot-shot Malaysian lawyer who had made good in our courts. No reputation like that preceded Ismail Sabri’s appointment as PM. Not the athletic sort, he could not even claim he had played a round of golf with say, former US President Donald Trump or President Joe Biden.

Rather, it was all because he had “the numbers”, the magical numbers! And on that basis, this second-echelon Umno leader, who had surprised everyone by getting appointed as Mahiaddin’s deputy in the first place, was now sworn in by the King and hoisted onto the Dewan Rakyat as our latest PM.

Not being any party’s first-choice nominee to be PM, he became every party’s second or third choice back-up candidate for prime minister. The lesson for all: beware whom you put down as your second and third choice. They might end up, lo and behold, as your No 1!

In his favour, he had no real enemies. Usually appearing a little blur when he appeared on television next to then-Prime Minister Mahiaddin, no party or party strongman had any strong feelings against him either. He was not the sort to evoke strong negative, let alone positive, feelings.

So, unlike his predecessor, Ismail Sabri was able to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Pakatan Harapan leaders almost immediately after he became PM.

Based on Ismail Sabri’s claim of having the magical numbers and with the MoU in hand, the opposition leaders decided it was not necessary to call for a vote of confidence in the new PM. Yes, they had repeatedly said that they would seek a vote of confidence when Mahiaddin filled the post of PM, but the problem was that Mahiaddin was not allowing Parliament to meet.

Apparently, the opposition parties took Ismail Sabri’s word he had the numbers. After all, the King had “interviewed” the various party leaders and most MPs before he ruled in Ismail Sabri’s favour.

And so, with this changing of the guards, there would no longer be 1Malaysia, or wassatiyyah (moderation) or Bangsa Malaysia. It was time for “keluarga Malaysia” (Malaysian family).

So, our webinar panel members had more than enough topics to discuss and it was with some excitement that we approached our Malaysia Day webinar!

Members of the panel

We had lined up four outstanding speakers for the evening.

Rasa di puncak dunia: Ada kami nyatakan … Azmil juga seorang pengembara yang tegar! – ALIRAN

Dr Azmil Tayeb, a political scientist teaching at Universiti Sains Malaysia, has conducted extensive research on political Islam, social movements and local government politics in Indonesia and Malaysia. His book Islamic Education in Indonesia and Malaysia (2018), which compares how Islamic education is taught and passed on so differently in these two neighbouring countries, has been praised for its comparative insights. He received his PhD from the Australian National University, Canberra. Currently, he is the honorary secretary of Aliran.

Dr Prema Devaraj has worked on gender and child rights for over 20 years. For much of this time, she was attached to the Women’s Centre for Change, Penang (WCC), working in different capacities as a trainer, programme director and programme consultant. Over the last five years, Prema has moved into consultancy work on gender and child rights. Prema has also been an executive committee member of Aliran for 20 years and is its first woman president (2016-19). She is currently Aliran’s honorary assistant secretary.

Dr Terence Gomez is professor of political economy at the Faculty of Economics and Administration in the University of Malaya. He has also held appointments at universities in the UK, Australia, Japan and the US. Between 2005 and 2008, he served as research coordinator at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) in Geneva. His book Malaysia’s Political Economy: Politics, Patronage and Profitsdocumented the involvement of Umno, the MCA and the MIC in banking and finance, in the accumulation of media empires, higher educational ventures, and the construction industry. His other publications include Political Business in East Asia and Minister of Finance Incorporated: Ownership and Control of Corporate Malaysia. He is also co-author of China in Malaysia: State-Business Relations and the New Order of Business Flows (2021). Terence is a long-time member of Aliran.

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DR KHOO YING HOOI/ALIRAN

Dr Khoo Ying Hooi is the head of the Department of International and Strategic Studies at the University of Malaya. She completed her PhD in politics and government, examining social movements and democratisation, resulting in a book about Malaysia’s Bersih movement. Her research interests include civil society, social movements, human rights and democratisation, focusing regionally on Southeast Asia. She is the author of The Bersih Movement and Democratisation in Malaysia (2020) and co-editor of Southeast Asia, Infected and Interrupted: Elevating Critical Voices on the State of Human Rights and Peace in the Time of Covid-19 (2021), among others. Ying Hooi is also a member of the Aliran executive committee.

In trying to assess the state of the nation, it is important not only to hear the opinions of people from different ethno-religious backgrounds, but to listen to women, too. Our selection of the speakers reflects this balance.

We made a special effort to include the youth by inviting Zikri Rahman, 31, to be the moderator. An Aliran member, Zikri is a cultural and arts worker affiliated with Buku Jalanan, LiteraCity and Pusat Sejarah Rakyat. He is currently doing a masters in social research and cultural studies at the National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University in Taiwan.

Ada yang kata mahu cuba benda baru? Zikri sedang menjalani pengajian peringkat sarjana di Taiwan – ALIRAN

So brave young Zikri opened the webinar by welcoming the audience and wishing everyone “happy Malaysia Day”. He next introduced the speakers mentioning that all, including himself as moderator, are Aliran members.

Zikri clarified how he would organise the next one and a half hours. Each speaker would be given 10 minutes to make their main points. Viewers could submit their questions, which he would pool and redirect to the speakers during a 40-minute question-and-answer session. Finally, the speakers would have three minutes each to make their last remarks.

Of course, the speakers took over three minutes each! And of course, the webinar overshot the scheduled one-and-a-half hours!  

Common critical sentiments

Here are a few key sentiments that all four speakers highlighted: 

1) There was general concern that the country was experiencing “institutional dysfunctionality” or a breakdown of the major institutions and processes that hold Malaysia together and allows us to call ourselves a democracy. We have had three governments since 2018. Apparently, you can change government by a back-door coup or through a process of interviews by the King. Worse, Parliament was not sitting and when it did for a day or two, there was no time for questions and answers, which is a critical aspect of any Westminster parliamentary democracy. This state of affairs irked all, particularly Prema. The state of our educational system was also mentioned in passing. But the topic demands a webinar of its own.

2) All speakers mentioned the public’s growing disillusionment with politicians, political parties and with politics generally. A “trust deficit” towards those who pronounce themselves as our leaders had emerged. The politicians had been leapfrogging from one party to another. Politicians from all parties do not appear to hold on to principles. One of these prominent leaders, this time from the Islamic party, went about claiming that what some considered corruption might not be so when viewed through Islamic lenses. Imagine that misuse of Islam.

3) This “trust deficit” involved politicians and political parties from both sides of the divide. Hence, there was also cynicism of the MoU that the PM and the opposition leaders had just signed. All four speakers hastened to comment that many of these issues had already been raised since the run up to 2018 general election, which saw regime change. They had been repeated after PH had come to power to little avail. Admittedly, the PH government didn’t have much time to prove themselves before the Sheraton coup occurred.

Against that observation, however, it should be remembered that the displacement of the PH government began with a break-up of the PH coalition.  Even worse was the break-up of the coalition’s leading party, PKR, led by Anwar Ibrahim, who embodied Reformasi and was its leader. Those frustrated with Umno-BN had rallied behind Anwar in the 2018 general election.

So, a new “MoU” was not going to be particularly uplifting. Too much disappointment and disillusionment with the politicians and political parties – whether from PN or from PH – had set in.

4) That said, judging from the sentiments expressed by our speakers, in response to a couple of viewers’ questions regarding voting in a third force, it appears that these Aliran speakers were still saying we should vote in the current opposition in the next general election!

Support for “a third force” would divide the votes for “the opposition” and allow the Umno-BN-Pas-Bersatu coalition to come to power again, like they did through the Sheraton coup without the majority voting them in. At any rate, the third force will face an uphill battle – for fighting elections has become extremely expensive. There is no way it can spend as much as the Umno-BN-Pas-PN government or even compete with the PH opposition. It would be a waste of money, energy and resources, Terence believed.

However, this apparently grudging(?) support for the opposition should be coupled with the strengthening of civil society organisations. In other words, Aliran must consolidate its alliances with the NGOs involved in Bersih, Gabungan Bertindak Malasyia (GBM), the anti-Sedition Act grouping, Penang Forum and so on. Malaysian civil society groups like Aliran need to double down to push the agenda for change, for creating a better Malaysia.

Yes, engage with the opposition parties and politicians who agree with civil society’s push towards a more inclusive, democratic, economically sustainable and egalitarian Malaysia and the call for reforming our institutions. But – and it is big but – do not take their word for it.

Rather, Malaysian civil society groups must hold accountable all those politicians and political parties who proclaim they share these reformist policy positions. Put another way, work with the opposition, but do not naively trust them. Check on them constantly.

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Our speakers in action

Azmil opened with a call to all to reflect on being Malaysians. What is it that connects us to others in Sabah and Sarawak? Or don’t we connect to those two Borneo states at all? He expressed concern that so many things are in a state of flux, which means we must think and act on a longer-term basis.

Longer term means we must rise above our divisions between Semenanjung and Sabah/Sarawak, rising above our ethnic-religious divide, rising above our partisan views. Revamp our attitudes and our politics by focusing on “bread-and-butter issues” which can unite us regardless of which region we come from or which ethnic or religious group we belong.

Prema Devaraj reminded us of Operation Lalang in October 1987, 34 years ago. Compared to the past, our civil society today is much more vibrant. More women and youth are involved. There exists so many more civil society groups and coalitions.

The focus in the past was on the struggle for human rights. Now the struggle includes protecting our environment, combating climate change, campaigning for gender equality, protecting the rights of indigenous peoples and migrant workers, and fighting for a better and more inclusive Malaysia for all.

We also note the emergence of artists like Zunar, Fahmi Rezal, Douglas Lim, and a host of new and younger netizens. They have used social media to reach out to others.

It is great that we got rid of the Internal Security Act. However, they have brought back preventive detention through other coercive laws. Indeed, recent developments do not augur well. We have seen three different governments since 2018. And Parliament has hardly been sitting. Our rights have been eroded not only in the formal parliamentary process but in the non-formal realm of everyday politics too.

This Covid pandemic has hit many sectors of people, particularly the poor and vulnerable who have lost their jobs. For low-income households, unemployment has meant an inability to put food on the table for their children, resulting in poor diets and even malnutrition. The Employees Provident Fund (EPF) informs us that poor people have been using their meagre savings to tide them over the crisis. Over half of those with EPF retirement savings have less than RM50,000 left in their accounts, which is supposed to sustain themselves in their old age when they are no longer gainfully employed.

Prema called on civil society to be more engaged in protecting the interests of the weaker half of society, the low-income households. Recently, women activists who spoke out have also been sexually harassed over social media. Civil society must stand up against such abuse of women. Civil society groups should continue the struggle for electoral reform and to reopen Parliament. However, they must also link up to the wider society.

Former Aliran president Dr Prema Devaraj

She also stressed that we must also allow those who have endured hard times and suffered during the pandemic and economic lockdown to heal.

Khoo Ying Hooi agreed with much of what Prema had outlined. She welcomed the MoU but insisted that all these demands had been raised since 2018. “We have been in transition for a long time!”

Through the use of many coercive laws, Ying Hooi asserted, rightly, that civic space has become more restricted. Meanwhile, “institutional dysfunction” has spread, and a massive “trust deficit” towards politicians and parties has opened up.

Ying Hooi felt civil society must work with the media so that our alternative narrative gets picked up by journalists. Otherwise, how would the alternative point of view get to centre stage? We must also work with the politicians so that our concerns can be raised in Parliament. Plus, we must get the politicians to research and debate before they make policy.

Perhaps Ying Hooi was the most positive of our presenters. For her, the fight for democracy is a long and messy struggle, and we have only begun this journey recently!

“Look at Indonesia,” she says, “they have become more democratic, but only after several decades of struggle since Reformasi in 1997-98. And they have experienced several changes of presidents” – from Suharto to Habibie to Gus Dur to Megawati Sukarnoputri to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and now to Jokowi.

Ying Hooi said she believed in People Power and insisted she was not being naïve.

Terence Gomez was his vintage self. For some time now, Terence has been talking about the Malaysian government’s “ecosystem”. He has painstakingly identified the government-linked companies at the federal level, constructed the web that connects them to their many subsidiaries, identified the interlocking networks that tie them to one another, and connected them to the politicians who are appointed as directors and managers. Look at the diagram below. It is a massive government ecosystem.

Web of government-linked companies – TERENCE GOMEZ

The pandemic was an opportunity to use the government’s ecosystem to address the dire health and economic needs of the rakyat.

After all, the ecosystem included government-linked companies related to the health sector, including its ownership of private hospitals and its involvement in the pharmaceutical industry. The ecosystem is also connected to global partners as well as pharmacy retailers in small towns. It is a network that could have been mobilised to fight Covid quickly and widely.

But there was no such effort on the government’s part. Instead, under the charge of Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz, the ecosystem was further abused. In a brief span of three years, we have had three rounds of politicians appointed as directors and managers of these government-linked companies, even when they had no relevant expertise. These appointments enabled the leaders to buy the support of those who had been favoured with a directorship, never mind if the company or subsidiary might be paying out dividends, allowances or other claims to politicians who were simply “shaking legs”. In some cases, the politicians had no inkling of how to run the government-linked companies they were appointed to head.

(Consider the appointment of Tajuddin Abdul Rahman, who was appointed the chairman of Prasarana Malaysia Bhd. Recall his crude and shameful handling of the tragic light rail accident which left 213 people injured earlier in 2021 – which led to his removal by the finance minister. Alas, this move would not have been necessary if the government had appointed informed and appropriate people to head government-linked firms.) 

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I was particularly struck by Terence’s comment that the Malaysian ecosystem is comparable to the ones that China, Vietnam and Singapore have developed. All extended into the wider economies of their respective countries.

For Terence, such state involvement in the economy is not necessarily a bad thing. The Chinese have used their ecosystem to ease poverty for some 800 million people living in rural China over the past 30 years – a spectacular achievement. Relying on the market would probably not have achieved the target in the same timeframe. So, having an extensive government ecosystem can contribute much good.

The Chinese, Vietnamese and the Singapore governments have used their ecosystems to help small and medium enterprises (SMEs) tide over the current crisis and to “rebuild forward”. A disconcerting aspect of the Malaysian economy is that it is dominated by government-linked companies who account for only 5% of all industrial establishments. The remaining 95% of the industrial and commercial firms in the private sector are SMEs. A rough estimate is that some 100,000 of these SMEs employ less than five employees each.

Terence said if no government aid is provided to help these SMEs tide over the current slowdown, half of them might collapse “for they will not be able to repay their loans they have borrowed. Hundreds of thousands will lose jobs.” Despite the precariousness of our situation, it does not appear that the government has any clue about the dire straits of these SMEs.

Terence Gomez

Rather, the government ecosystem appears to be mainly used for political purposes. Thus, studies continue to highlight that Malaysian government-linked firms are continuing to be involved in unproductive economic activities and abused by rent-seekers.

Terence insisted that reform of the ecosystem was necessary. Alas, he did not expect the 12th Malaysia Plan or the upcoming Budget to offer proposals for reform. Nor does the MoU indicate that reform of government-linked companies might be in the offing or that help for the SMEs would be forthcoming

A new broader coalition?

Our webinar captured the fact that Malaysian civil society has awakened and people want to have a greater say in politics. This has become evident since Reformasi in the late 1990s.

We have also witnessed the re-emergence of mass-based politics in the streets, as exemplified by Bersih, and a host of small-scale protests like the recent #Lawan protest involving the youth.

The list of webinars that Malaysian civil society groups have been holding every week on a wide variety of topics also suggests an awakened civil society in search of a new and better normal post-pandemic.

Our webinar also identified several disturbing problems: first, “institutional dysfunctionality” or how our institutions are no longer performing the functions they were created for and, second, disillusionment and distrust of politicians, political parties and politics – a massive “trust deficit” has become part of the new norm.

Terence’s insights into the government’s ecosystem are invaluable but our new understanding also leaves us a little stupefied over what we ought to do! Individuals, civil society groups and even coalitions with assistance from scholar-activists like Terence can, at best, do some exposes of financial scandals involving the government-linked companies. These groups could also mount a public campaign on how to recapture our government-linked firms and prevent them from being abused and mismanaged by politicians and cronies. Blow the whistle, yes. But reform the system, how?

Which brings us back to the question of politics. Yes, we need New Politics. But there is no way that a completely new team with a completely new set of political leaders will result in regime change for a second time.

So perhaps we need some new leaders and some new parties to mix with some old politicians and old parties in a new coalition, involving part of the old opposition coalition, that can realistically win the next general election.

If one does not win the next general election, how do we reform the institutions, restore and ensure that the ecosystem is shaped to serve the rakyat, and not the politicians and the cronies? Put another way, civil society groups must engage the politicians and the parties and of course the electoral system once again, like they did in the 2018 general election and so many times before that.  

Assuming the next general election will be held on schedule (ie it must be held before mid-2023, five years after the last general election in May 2018), do we see a new multi-ethnic coalition comprising reformist-minded new and old politicians out there?

We need the participation of reformists not just from Semenanjung but from Sabah and Sarawak too, to be part of this movement for change. Perhaps the new coalition that can offer Sabah and Sarawak greater autonomy in decision-making and a bigger share of the development budget will have the edge? No doubt, greater decentralisation of our federal system also amounts to the deepening of our democracy?

As well, how do we reach down to build a coalition with bottom 40% of society? Azmil proposed we should emphasise more bread-and-butter issues. Yet, civil society groups appear to be more oriented towards the middle 40%. So, lots of work is needed to build a coalition with bottom 40%, as well as with Sabahans and Sarawakians. Is this our way forward?

It is fairly evident that a new Malay-Muslim-dominated coalition, comprising the old-style politicians from Umno-Barisan Nasional, Pas, Perikatan Nasional and their counterparts from Sabah and Sarawak, are attempting to coalesce, consolidate and win the next election. Can the civil society organisations overcome this challenge from Old Politics? Or do we wait until GE16 or GE17?

If you did not attend the Aliran webinar, you may check it out below:

You too ought to think through: whither Malaysia in the medium term?

Francis Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
16 October 2021
Thanks for dropping by! The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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