By M Santhananaban
Seven months into the tenure of Malaysia’s 10th prime minister – and heaven has not quite descended upon Earth.
Not just yet in Malaysia.
Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s main opponents are spewing toxic hate speech with spite, repugnance and increasing regularity.
With each baby step that Anwar takes to better administer this ‘snafu’-ed nation, the bitterness and bellicosity of his opponents seem to increase. Their rhetoric, if it can be called that, has become callous, vitriolic and menacing.
One of his main detractors, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, now makes the controversial claim that the promotion of a multi-ethnic Malaysia is “unconstitutional”.
Can diversity be a defect? It is one of the nation’s greatest assets which is being contested rather childishly by the country’s longest serving head of government.
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A charitable explanation for that obviously flawed assertion may be that the speaker is a discarded diehard, demented political dinosaur that has not accepted the reality that Malaysia is much, much more than the old ‘Tanah Melayu’.
Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, made that grand effort to form Malaysia that involved, inevitably, some consideration for the equal participation of both Sabah and Sarawak.
Malaysia’s democratic governance culture does not provide for exclusive control, proprietorship or ownership based in the peninsula.
Mahathir’s statement thus goes against the grain of a long and arduous process of amalgamation and assimilation to foster better national unity and a sense of nationhood.
It suggests a heavy-handed and retrogressive resort to some kind of hierarchical apartheid, casteism, segregation or outright discrimination based on ethnicity – a blemish that would overwhelmingly burden the country.
It would be abhorrent, distasteful and unacceptable to most people in Malaysia.
Positive approach under Anwar
There is no doubt, however, that Anwar has done some astounding things in his seven months in office.
Some of these actions are somewhat alien and uncharacteristic of his own past – those affiliations, especially of the era of the 1970s, when he championed absolute peninsular Malay-Muslim supremacy.
He is now constantly engaging the youth and urging them to contribute to the peace and welfare of the nation. To his credit, he has not been on foreign speaking tours; he has spent time in the country, dedicating himself to domestic issues.
Admittedly, he is no miracle worker. But then again, who can be? Who could be, with the highest ever national debt exceeding RM1.5tn, international headwinds with rising inflation and interest rates, a depreciating ringgit, an annual wage and pension bill exceeding RM100bn and a bloated bureaucracy exceeding a million and a half personnel? Yet Anwar has not created a siege mentality against any grouping or complained about his inheritance.
Two deputy PMs, inclusiveness and integrity
Anwar has made history by appointing a deputy prime minister from Sarawak.
He has also appointed another deputy prime minister despite the latter being tainted, charged and facing an ongoing trial in court for corruption. It would seem Anwar has magnanimously attempted to accommodate Zahid Hamidi as one of his two deputies – a virtually interdicted peninsular Malay compatriot who leads a battered ethnic Malay political party, Umno – now a pale shadow of the country’s once most mighty, dominant and durable political force. Zahid will remain in that post at least until the final outcome of his cases.
Most importantly, Anwar has reaffirmed that although the Federal Constitution codifies the special position of the Malays and indigenous people, it has a well-earned and esteemed place for all Sabahans, Sarawakians and minorities.
By highlighting the position of these minorities, Anwar appears to have tactfully and truthfully transcended the crass tribal supremacy that was so much the trademark of his predecessors since the early 1980s.
Under Anwar’s leadership, we see more open acknowledgement and discussion of the pervasiveness of elite corruption. Three months before Anwar became Prime Minister, one of his predecessors began serving a 12-year prison term for corruption.
That put paid to any semblance of the moral high ground that the peninsula had over the Borneo territories. Everyone is now, without a doubt, more equal before the law, and the respected judiciary’s reputation has been enhanced.
There is now scope for even prime ministers to be arrested, tried and imprisoned. The Malay rulers have also maintained a dignified silence on these matters.
Two of his living predecessors seem especially enraged that Anwar is the current Prime Minister and are particularly enthusiastic in proclaiming the primacy of the peninsular ethnic Malays. With their newfound ally in the extremist Islamic party, they are increasingly belligerent and blunt about not just safeguarding but enhancing the secure position of the Malays.
This kind of harmful, inflammatory hate speech seems much in vogue in some quarters as six states are about to hold state elections. Anwar’s opponents seem to dismiss and disregard – or are being simply blase about – the weightage, prestige, profile and profits that accrued to the peninsula as a direct result of the Borneo territories becoming a part of Malaysia in 1963.
Anwar seems to be plodding, pushing and pursuing his trademark reform agenda to revive and revitalise the country’s economy. In these tasks, he seems to be completely alone sometimes. Clearly, he is trying to bring about a sounder equilibrium and greater transparency in tackling hardcore poverty, corruption, income inequality and the inequities of the well-entrenched cronyism of the past four decades.
His key problem is that significant members of the longstanding supreme elite of the political and business community are tainted and closely interconnected They have secured a solid position of influence and power in the largely state-controlled economy.
Monopolies, franchises, sweetheart deal-making, licensing and a preferential environment for selected families, friends and allies have been a feature of the power game in the political and business culture of the country for a long, long time.
With five prime ministers in less than six years, the boards of government-linked companies and leadership positions in other state institutions have seen frequent, perhaps far too many changes.
These changes would not have been necessary had these state-linked entities, from the beginning, enforced a robust culture that strictly selected their top notch based on integrity, meritocracy, expertise and experience.
Clarity of purpose
After six decades since the formation of Malaysia, Anwar seems to have realised it is time to be absolutely clear-minded and unambiguous about what any federal or state government can achieve.
The aim of any government would be to protect the nation’s sovereignty, the nation’s safety and security, and the population’s basic needs with some investments in infrastructure and important science-based socioeconomic projects and savings for the future.
The hereafter is not government business
If any political leader claims he or she is working for the hereafter, it is an admirable path provided it is strictly followed by that individual and his or her associates personally. It would mean clean, upright living, honesty, self-purification and acts of wisdom, sacrifice, charity and austerity. Those who live by these precepts in their daily lives would be admired, respected and revered in most circles.
When they attempt to preach these values to humanity, their conduct, character and contribution would inevitably be scrutinised and they, for their part, must readily accept such searching scrutiny. When they pass the test, whatever their politics, they would command affection, admiration and respect.
In Malaysia, so far only a few individuals in the political arena have earned such unique regard and respect.
One of them was none other than the late Pas spiritual leader, ‘Tok Guru’ Nik Aziz Nik Mat (1931-2015), who led Kelantan for 24 years. Most people were impressed by the good-natured gentleman’s piousness, sincerity, simple life and spiritual grace. He radiated goodness and goodwill – vital ingredients in a peaceful plural society.
Another individual with an impeccable reputation for fairness, fearlessness and integrity was the late Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman (1915-1973) the best prime minister the country did not have.
Unfortunately, not one person from the political party that Nik Aziz belonged to, captures, personifies or commands that kind of aura or trust today.
Onn Jaafar (1895-1962), the founding president of Umno, had those qualities, combined with a remarkably inclusive outlook for a nascent plural society, a virtue that was way ahead of his time.
Yet the political parties they belonged to seem to have abandoned their broad inclusive outlook to focus on narrow, ultra-nationalistic priorities. The result: Malaysia is currently on the cusp of becoming a dire, divided state.
Pas, through odious opportunistic linkages, has achieved an unprecedented and threatening level of support and profile in Parliament.
Two former prime ministers seem to have capitalised on such narrow ethnic and religious bases – biases combined with some bigotry – to provide an obvious electoral advantage to Pas. A few analysts seem lately to be persuaded that Pas has such an overweening and overwhelming prospect of making inroads in the upcoming state elections.
There is a further dishonest and unsavoury aspect to the growing influence of Pas. Some people claim rather mischievously that Anwar himself is an accessory to this trend of increasing Islamisation.
Anwar’s campaign against corruption, against the narrative of distrust of the minorities and the corrosive consequences of extremism, is unambiguous.
Sabah and Sarawak seem to have attained the near ideal of an open, easy-going, inclusive and enlightening social outlook – strengths that the peninsula had until the early 1980s.
The education system, work situations and the glaring identification of ethnicity with the quota-based public service seem to have created various structural impediments, silos and splinters in an increasingly fractured society.
Environmental concerns are also not getting the attention they deserve.
A rebranded Umno
Umno has belatedly somewhat rebranded and salvaged itself by associating with the Pakatan Harapan parties – Amanah, PKR and the DAP – as well as the political parties in the Borneo region.
In contrast, Bersatu and Pas, aided by Mahathir, seem to have painted themselves into a corner of an ugly and unsavoury path of creating confusion and conflict in a relatively harmonious and plural society.
Anwar, who leads the country’s “unity government”, is the prime target of two easily identifiable former prime ministers and the leaders of the extremist political party. For their own purely personal protection and private interest, they seem willing to abandon safe and sober governance alternatives.
Malaysia desperately needs to nurture moderation, good governance and accountability to move on from the extreme ethnic and religious rhetoric of the past four decades.
The leaders of all the political parties desperately need to integrate and accept inclusive nationalism, edifying patriotism and power-sharing.
There is no real or credible alternative to Anwar, not at the moment. This may be a bitter pill for discredited political leaders to swallow.
At all costs, the peace that prevails in Malaysia must be safeguarded. That is a must.
M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience. He has no political affiliations