Change is long overdue

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Now
that it is increasingly clear that Malaysia may have a change of
government sooner than many Malaysians themselves had expected, it is
imperative that Malaysians accept and understand the need for change, writes Farish Noor.
Political change is as natural as breathing and sleeping, and is
nothing more than a mere normative aspect of modern democratic
political life.


 

 

 

For
as long as they can remember, Malaysians have been told time and
again that there can only be political stability in the country as
long as the status quo is defended. This rather uninspiring message
was, of course, delivered by none other than those who were already
in power and who had every reason to wish to remain in power for as
long as humanly possible. Since it became independent in 1957,
Malaysia has been ruled by the same coterie of right-of-centre
Conservative-nationalist parties led by the United Malays National
Organisation (Umno) and its allies in the former Alliance coalition
and now the National Front. For more than half a century, Malaysians
were told that this was the natural order of things and that to even
entertain the idea of there being a different government was
tantamount to political heresy of sorts.

Yet
a quick survey of the political landscape of many a post-colonial
nation-state today would show clearly that almost every post-colonial
country in the world has experienced a change of government, and in
many cases this transition has come about without leading to chaos
and tumult in the streets. The nationalists of Algeria were
eventually kicked out of office after it became patently clear that
their brand of conservative nationalism served only to disguise what
was really a corrupt mode of patronage politics. In India, the
Congress party that had for so long rested on its laurels and prided
itself with the claim that it was the party that won India ’s
independence has been soundly beaten at both the national and state
level; again for the same reason. Why even Indonesia, which suffered
under three decades of military rule, has made the slow but sure
transition to a fledgling democracy of sorts, and the mainstream
media in Indonesia today remain the most open and courageous in all
of Southeast Asia. So why not Malaysia?

 

The
election results of March 2008 have shown the world that in Malaysia
at least race and communal-based voting may soon become a thing of
the past. This may have been a protest vote against the lackadaisical
performance of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, but it did
nonetheless send a very clear message to the government and all the
parties in the country. It signalled that the Malaysian public was
tired of empty promises and having sweet nothings whispered in their
ears, while the government continues along its inebriated pace of
mismanaging the country. It also reminded all politicians from all
parties that Malaysian voters will no longer vote along racial or
religious-communitarian lines, and that henceforth they will vote for
the best candidate who can do her or his job better than the other
bloke.

 

 

If
this is not a sign of political maturity and responsibility, then
this analyst doesn’t know what is. The Malaysian voters were
literally warned by the ruling parties to vote for them, yet they
defied the might of the government and were prepared to take the
costs. Yet soon after the election results were known there were
still voices among the ruling elite who had not yet adjusted to the
realities on the ground. During a rather tiresome debate live on TV
with a prominent has-been from the ruling Umno party, I was struck by
how outdated, disconnected and irrelevant his views and discourse
were. Rambling on about the need to protect his own ethnic and
religious community while slandering the politicians of the opposite
camp, he merely reiterated every single cliché on race
politics we had been fed for the past fifty years. If people like
these are still adamant that there should be no change in Malaysia ,
then we all know that the time for change has already come.

 

The
fact is that the changes we have seen in Malaysia over the past two
decades are not unique to Malaysia and are in fact simply the signs
of the times we live in. All over the developing world we have
witnessed the creation of better-connected, better-informed and
better-educated urban constituencies that are more plural,
cosmopolitan, diverse, hybrid and politically literate and informed.
It has to be remembered that the Iranian revolution that brought to
an end the decades-long regime of the Shah of Iran took place in the
most urbanised Muslim country in the world then, where more than half
of Iran ’s population were urban-based.

 

Likewise
it was no surprise that the uprisings against Ferdinand Marcos and
President Suharto began in the urban centres of the Philippines and
Indonesia , as did the Thai ‘democratic revolt’ of 1973-76.

 

Now
that it is increasingly clear that Malaysia may have a change of
government sooner than many Malaysians themselves had expected, it is
imperative that Malaysians accept and understand the need for change.
Political change is as natural as breathing and sleeping, and is
nothing more than a mere normative aspect of modern democratic
political life. As was the case with the fall of the Congress party
in India, those political parties that stay on too long in power can
only grow weak, corrupt and inefficient as a result of the exposure
to the luxuries and temptations of power for too long. To its credit,
when the time for change eventually came, the leaders of the Congress
accepted their defeat and took their bow in time to preserve what
little remained of their dignity and standing. In time, the party was
allowed to heal itself and come back to power – once again via
democratic means.

 

Other
post-colonial societies like Malaysia should heed this lesson well
and learn to accept the fact that calling themselves ‘democracies’
means having to be democracies and behaving like democracies as well.
The failure of the ruling National Front coalition at the 2008
elections speaks volumes about the degree of disconnect that has set
into the upper ranks of the ruling parties and underscored their
irrelevance in the eyes of the Malaysian public themselves. For the
Umno-led ruling coalition to remain in denial and to deny the fact
that the Malaysian political landscape has already shifted from
underneath its feet would be to compound the problem faced by
themselves and the country. For this reason alone, the responsibility
now lies with the leaders of this enfeebled government to admit to
their mistakes and pave the way for change, even if it means
sacrificing their long-held position of power and dominance over the
country. For the question remains: if and when change is long overdue
and can no longer be resisted, would not the preservation of the
status quo be the cause of the tumult and chaos we have dreaded all
along?

Dr.
Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of
International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore;
and one of the founders of the www.othermalaysia.org research site.

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