The ‘deep state’ and the ‘shallow state’ – A reflection

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We must continue to engage the government in its various guises, work with it and implant ideas and agendas that would allow it to grow in strength and to debunk its shallowness, writes Johan Saravanamuttu.

The notion of the “deep state” has become the proverbial flavour of the month.

Since US President Donald Trump’s rise, his supporters have used it as a bludgeon against the Democrats. It alludes to structures of hidden government that are alleged to have served the political class in the US – which Trump sees as undermining his legitimacy as an outsider.

Most serious analysts consider the Trump narrative – propounded by his erstwhile right-wing supremo Steve Bannon – to be disingenuous and deployed to serve his personal ambitions.

What does the broad body of social science literature say about the “deep state”? Essentially it falls into the category of conspiracy theories.

In the American literature, the deep state could mean government by secrecy, say, the invisible state controlled by intelligence agencies or the military-industrial complex, neo-cons, and what have you.

In non-Western contexts, the term has been used to refer to structures like the military in states such as the Kemalist regime in Turkey, where a secular state is backed by the military establishment.

So, the notion means different things to different people and in different contexts. I am wary of such grandiose conspiracy theories.

In truth, all states will be subject to change and transformation through revolution and reform, however deep its various legacies and structures. We have seen this happen in both the Western and non-Western worlds.

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Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah kicked off the current debate about Malaysia’s so-called deep state. He suggested that the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government’s implementation of electoral promises had been obstructed by elements beyond PH’s control but did not offer any sustained analysis.

The minister suggested that such a deep state could be inside the government but could not be identified. What a cop-out!

Malaysian commentators then weighed in on this narrative and have alluded to ideas such as a “state-within-a-state“, royalty and the feudal class, a populist Mahathirist state, a Malay deep state and the hand of the Special Branch.

Some of these writers do provide some important insights that Malaysia’s political system has deep structural impediments through long-established legacies, institutions and political practices which are hard to debunk.

The thrust of reform politics has been to reconfigure them or – if they are very deeply embedded – to create new progressive institutions, wherever possible, to overcome the obstacles they pose. Malaysia today is still very much in the throes of creating such institutions.

The current regime, however, has inherited a highly fragmented state: we have an ethnically divided political class stymied in establishing enduring progressive institutions of governance and the compliance necessary to maintain social cohesion.

This state has deeply entrenched racial politics with Malay and non-Malay ethnic parties and religious differences deeply woven into the social fabric.

Many new social institutions, such as civil society organisations, should be seen as imperative for reforming multicultural practice, along with a healthy system of checks and balances.

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But the recognition of the equal worth of Malaysia’s multifarious cultural traditions remains an unfinished agenda.

The good news is democratic institutions remain as the bedrock of political practice. In my view, since Reformasi, Malaysia is still on a path towards debunking its authoritarian, non-democratic structures.

It has taken some six decades of electoral politics to bring about a regime change to ensure that democratic action prevails over non-democratic means of advancing change and reform.

Should we be distracted by the red herring of the “deep state” narrative? I think not.

Rather, what we need to tackle is the inability of the current ruling coalition to establish any firm sense of regime stability. For lack of a better word, let me call this period of Malaysian politics the shallow state!

Fragmentation of politics has occurred well beyond our ethnic and religious divisions under a government thought to be reform-minded.

What is now increasingly worrisome is that the PH government is held together by a 94-year-old prime minister with a succession plan already in tatters.

Badly-behaved politicians have frustrated the citizenry who have placed hope on the reform of an undemocratic, kleptocratic regime.

Reform has been snail-paced and vilified by political infighting. The party that led the Reformasi is now the very nemesis of reforms.

The fragmentation of the ruling government has led to the almost daily surfacing of intra-elite conflict and political intrigue, backstabbing between and within PH political parties, the revival of old political agendas and the emplacement of old cronies into business schemes and political positions.

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The rumour mills have never been more busy but I will spare you the innuendos, allusions to collusions, stories of backstabbing and palace politics that are doing their rounds.

The champions and heroes of Reformasi have all but disappeared into the woodwork or, worse, become villains in the current phase of politics. Again, the party which has led Reformasi is manifesting the most deleterious, fractious internal infighting and a total lack of political vision.

The root of Malaysia’s problems as we can all surmise is the unsettled politics of the PH parties.

The ancien régime of the BN has been dismantled after the 2018 general election (and is unlikely to re-emerge).

But the building of a new credible coalition of multi-ethnic political parties and institutions remains highly problematic. This is caused not so much by a lack of political will as it is by a dereliction of political responsibility.

There is a subtle difference between the two: the last general election was won with great combined effort of political will – but an abandonment of progressive agendas is now clearly in evidence.

A final word in this brief reflection: those of us who are citizens should not also abandon our role and fall into the trap of dereliction of duty. I hear almost all the time these days among young and old alike: I give up; let me just do my own thing, find my own space, screw the politics, etc.

I am sometimes inclined to do the same. But in my moment of clarity, I counsel that we must continue to engage the government in its various guises, work with it and implant ideas and agendas that would allow it to grow in strength and to debunk its shallowness.


Johan Saravanamuttu
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
13 August 2019
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Johan Saravanamuttu
Dr Johan Saravanamuttu, an Aliran member, is a former professor of politics and dean of social sciences at USM. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. When politics gets too much for him, he whips out his guitar and sings ballads of hope and justice.

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