To say this has been an eventful year would be an understatement. Life is slowly returning to ‘normal’ after the lockdowns and restrictions.
But what is ‘normal’? For many, life is still a struggle with low wages, little social security support and worse, depleted retirement savings. Food prices have soared, along with the cost of living. Marginalised communities, migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers also struggle.
Thirty years ago, Francis Loh and Joel S Kahn edited a prescient book Fragmented Vision, describing how culture and politics were becoming so fragmented in Malaysia. From the Felda settlers in Pahang to the Chinese educationists in the peninsula to the cultural revival of the Kadazans in Sabah to the active left moment, many in the country have lived largely separate lives with their own struggles. Their lived experiences stand in sharp contrast to the lifestyles of the top 1% who wallow in luxury and even ostentatiousness.
This fragmentation has now spilled over to the public arena in a big way, resulting in an explosion of new parties and coalitions. Tomorrow’s general election will see a dizzying array of mostly four to five-corner contests across the country. For the millions of new and first-time voters in the country, all this must be bewildering.
Behind all this lies the reality that the nation is being held back by the dominant old order – the hegemony of racial and religious political forces. This suffocating stranglehold even thwarted attempts to usher in a new political order in 2018, which sought to go beyond the lens of ethnicity and religion conservatism and become more issue-based.
Once again, we are faced with the same challenge of removing the shackles that hold us back. But our attempts to build a new, more just Malaysia, to reform and transform society, will be stymied as long as the forces that ride on narrow racial and religious rhetoric are not rejected and defeated.
While the obstacles are formidable, the hope and faith of ordinary people – that we deserve better – will drive us forward.
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By the time we hold Aliran’s annual general meeting, a week after the general election, we will know the people’s verdict. We will know whether it is Pakatan Harapan, Barisan Nasional or Perikatan Nasional that has prevailed. Or whether we will have a hung Parliament with some combination of these coalitions, along with the Sarawak and Sabah coalitions and parties, holding the reins of power. How unpredictable our elections have become!
But no matter what the outcome, one thing is clear: civil society’s pressure on the incoming government must not let up. Groups like Aliran must continue to play a crucial role in reminding the parties in power about the serious issues affecting the people. We must continue to play a part in shaping the agenda.
In fact, this was one of our major activities during the year – formulating the People’s Agenda, along with five other prominent NGOs as co-sponsors – to shape the political discourse ahead of the general election. All in, 58 groups supported the People’s Agenda. We organised five lively webinar discussions focusing on each of the five key concerns in the agenda, and these have been recorded on YouTube as a lasting reminder of what civil society wants. We also collaborated with the People’s Manifesto to present a unified civil society position ahead of the general election.
The People Agenda has been a qualified success. Groups have echoed our call and at least one prominent leader of a major coalition articulated his political agenda in language – focusing on the quality of life and cost-of-living issues – that sounded remarkably similar to key points in the People’s Agenda.
Meanwhile, we must continue to push for reforms to our institutions and for the deepening of democracy and decentralisation of federal powers. Given that our first-past-the-post parliamentary system leaves little room for many political activists who may be on the fringes or outside the main political parties, we must demand the restoration of local government elections.
This way, concerned local activists can also get involved in issues at the local level. They will then have a platform to be part of the decision-making process at the local level or to stop environmentally damaging projects, such as controversial highways and land reclamation projects, in their tracks.
For Aliran, 2022 has seen some steady growth after our period of internal consolidation during the political upheaval and lockdowns of 2020-21. Our membership is rising steadily. Website visitors have increased and even rocketed during periods of political uncertainty. About 30% of our Facebook posts are read by women. We are now more confident about organising webinars on our own.
Reassuringly, this public exposure has translated into increased financial support for Aliran. Why, last year we just about balanced our cashflow for the first time in decades – without any major fund-raising activity. Through our People’s Agenda, we have also got to know a few more civil society groups in the country.
All this would not have been possible without the help of Aliran members, volunteers and well-wishers, who have quietly helped us by donating their time, energy and money – for which we are deeply grateful.
In the coming years, let’s build on this foundation, and continue the struggle with much hope and faith that we will prevail against the forces that hold us back.
Happy voting tomorrow and may we see a new dawn for Malaysia.
Justice! Freedom! Solidarity!
The above is a slightly modified text prepared for Aliran’s annual general meeting on 26 November.