A dead end for Malaysian politics?

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At a time when all of Asia is on the brink of a global recession sparked by the rising costs of oil and gas and the collapse of the US dollar, the issues that count ought to be structural-economic ones. But what has transpired over the past two weeks has shown that despite the flashy suits and corporate videos broadcasting the bold and brazen image of Malaysia Inc, the country’s politics remains trapped in the swamp of the banal and ridiculous, laments Farish Noor.

It has become the common blight of many a postcolonial state that the discrepancy between political idealism and the realities on the ground grow wider by the day. It has also been my singular misfortune that the nature of my work as a political scientist who studies the uneven development of many such nation-states means that I have grown somewhat jaded by such contradictions that are all too evident when one is distant from the country in question.

Over the past decade I have travelled across South and Southeast Asia looking at the painfully slow pace of development in countries like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia. The political elite of these countries talk on and on about development, progress, emancipation (both economic and mental) and yet remain beholden captives to the racialised ideologies of the colonial past. Their feeble attempts at deconstructing the legacy of Empire often dwindles down to little more than a vulgar pastiche of reversed Orientalism at best (as if the racism of Asians is somehow better than the racism of the European colonialists who came before); and their steadfast refusal to adapt to changes around them is irritating and infuriating to witness at close range.

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In India and Pakistan I watched as my fellow academic friends who play the role of public intellectuals and who have been calling for peace and reconciliation between the two countries have been systematically denounced as ‘race traitors’, ‘cowards’, and the fifth column within. Some of the best minds that secular democratic India has produced have been pilloried and harrangued by right-wing Hindutva fundamentalists who have called them ‘traitors’ to the great Hindu cause, labelled them ‘Muslim-lovers’ or worse still, apologists for the great Western conspiracy against the motherland.

The same level of puerile non-debate can be seen in Southeast Asia too: Thai pacifists who have called for a settled end to the hostilities in the Muslim south have been denounced as apologists for Muslim extremists; in Malaysia academics who have called for the re-working and re-negotiation of the social contract have been labelled ‘race traitors’; in Indonesia moderate Muslim intellectuals who have defended Indonesia’s plural society and culture have been branded enemies of Islam. So what gives?

The country that is closest to my heard is, of course, Malaysia and the recent developments in the country has given me reason to be worried about its future. Religious and racial sectarianism remain the dominant features on its political landscape and there is the apparent need for some form of national reconciliation and healing.

Yet events over the past two weeks have made a mockery of Malaysia’s claim to be a developing country with first world ambitions: despite the skyscrappers that claw at the heavens above Kuala Lumpur, the mega-malls that devour their consumers by the thousands, the massive highways that are crammed with cars, the state of Malaysian politics today beggars belief.

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At a time when all of Asia is on the brink of a global recession sparked by the rising costs of oil and gas and the collapse of the US dollar, the issues that count ought to be structural-economic ones instead. But what has transpired over the past two weeks has shown that despite the flashy suits and corporate videos broadcasting the bold and brazen image of Malaysia Inc, the country’s politics remains trapped in the swamp of the banal and ridiculous.

For a start sodomy season has returned to Malaysia with a vengeance with allegations of sodomy being levelled against Anwar Ibrahim, de facto head of the Peoples Justice Party (PKR) and advisor to the Peoples Alliance opposition coalition. Not to be outdone, those close to Anwar have also made disclosures about the alleged sexcapades of Malaysia’s ruling elite and senior politicians in the country; but only to have the very same allegations withdrawn a day later. The rally to protest the rise in oil prices on 6 July that was aiming to gather a million Malaysians only managed to bring together 25 to 30 thousand, and was marred by an equally embarrassing incident when conservative Islamists stormed the stage during the performance of a punk rock band, the lead singer of which decided to moon the crowd. In the midst of this, have we forgotten our economic essentials? And the real reason behind this global economic meltdown which happens to be the skewered uneven global economy we have all inadvertently created thanks to our dependency on the US economy? Or has politics been reduced to bottoms and sodomy for now?

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All of this has made it increasingly difficult for me to explain the nature of Malaysian politics to my European colleagues where I am currently on the seminar circuit. How, pray tell, does a global economic crisis degenerate to the level of sodomy allegations and why on earth does the personality of politicians matter more at a time when the overbearing global economic structures have taken on a life of their own?

Voodoo politics was a term once fashionable in the 1970s and we seem to have returned to our political myths and ghost-stories with relish. As oil and gas prices soar across Asia, the manifestations of public outrage and frustration is bound to spill into the streets. But in Malaysia, as in the case of Indonesia, the results are freaky and unpredictable at best. Why, in Indonesia the ones who seem to have benefited the most are the Islamist parties that have been scoring hits at all the local elections. So once again, what gives?

Politics has always been influenced by elements that are variable and sometimes even irrational; but this time round the wierd and wonderful manifestation of collective anger and frustration may take us to the end of politics itself, and with that our aspirations for development, progress and political maturity can be dumped into the bin as well. How terribly sad.

Farish Noor is Senior Fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and Research Director for the Research Cluster ‘Transnational Religion in Contemporary Southeast Asia’.

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