Francis Loh urges us to cast aside our fears and go for change. After all, it is the rakyat who hold our society together and will safeguard Malaysia’s future.
As GE13 approaches, Umno-BN’s propaganda machinery is in full swing. One major theme they are spewing is that the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition comprises strange bedfellows who cannot work together. Hence Malaysia’s political stability and development is doomed. It is only the BN that can hold our multi-ethnic, multi-religious society together, and deliver development too. But wait a minute! Is there really a BN-government? Or is it an Umno -BN one? Whichever, it is the rakyat that holds our society together, and will safeguard Malaysia’s future.
No doubt the BN government has resorted to repression and coercion to maintain power for some 56 years. Perennially, Opposition leaders, critics and social activists, all, allegedly ‘subversives’ and ‘extremists’, have been detained without trial. Although the ISA has been repealed, there is now the Special Offences (Special Measures) Act, 2012.
Apart from this, the BN government still has a wide array of coercive laws. That said, the BN government does not rule by simply resorting to force. Instead, the BN government, like its counterparts elsewhere, instils fear and propagandises a certain set of beliefs about the political system that we live in, about the kinds of leaders needed, in order to persuade us that they are the natural leaders of multi-ethnic, multi-religious Malaysia; in so doing, Umno-BN also legitimises itself in the eyes of the rakyat.
This set of beliefs is sometimes referred to as the ideology or propaganda of the rulers. But the concept of ‘hegemony’ is a more useful term. It refers to a set of political beliefs, or myths, which penetrates beyond the minds into the hearts, to the extent that the ideology of the rulers becomes the views, the beliefs, the culture of the people themselves. For religious people, the concept of hegemony is not difficult to understand. We are talking of a phenomenon very close to the notion of faith. Put another way, those in power begin to rule with the consent of the people. Now, this makes for lasting domination of the rulers over the ruled without having to resort to the use of force regularly.
Five central tenets
There are several central tenets in this belief system about Malaysian politics. First, because we are a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, and quite naturally rub against one another occasionally, we have been made to believe (erroneously) that we cannot cooperate with one another spontaneously. Accordingly, many of us accept rather than question the prejudices, discrimination and even demonisation of the other which have become common place. Mutual distrust, rather than mutual trust of one another is the order of the day. Often, if the other party is noticeably religious, these negative feelings become even stronger. In such a situation, the propaganda of a Biro Tata Negara, or of Utusan Malaysia, or of Ibrahim Ali’s Perkasa, find fertile ground. The end result can be worse than distrust; it leads to hate, or fear, or both.
Second, left to ourselves, we supposedly begin to fight with one another. By definition, therefore, the multi-ethnic multi-religious Malaysian society is conflict-prone. Accordingly, too much freedom and too much politics is considered bad. Curbs on certain freedoms and on politics are considered necessary, so they persuade us. For a long time, many of us considered coercive laws like the ISA, the OSA, the UUCA, the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Societies Act, and the Police Act as necessary and justified. Nowadays many also wish that these coercive laws be used to protect us from hate-mongers. “Use the ISA against Ibrahim Ali!” we have heard. Or “arrest Irene Fernandez on grounds of sedition!” Indeed, many are persuaded that a strong state is justified.
Third, since we supposedly mistrust one another and are conflict-prone, we are led to believe that we also need a set of leaders who can represent our ethno-religious interests and yet be acceptable to the others, to negotiate with one another on our behalf; at the upper echelons of power, that is. Up until the political tsunami of 2008, many Malaysians considered the BN, a coalition of ethnic-based political parties, the most appropriate political vehicle to resolve our differences. Because they had been in power since 1957, the leaders of the BN appeared to be the natural set of leaders required.
Often, especially prior to 2008, because the opposition leaders, were unable to come together, they were regarded as ‘extremists’, the BN leaders as ‘moderates’. As we approach GE13, this image of the opposition as extremist, and the BN as moderate, is being highlighted, not least in the BN-controlled mass media, in their blogs and social media too. Even when the BN leaders have violated the people’s interests, as in the NFC and AES scandals, and act undemocratically, as in using the instruments of government to further their own and their cronies’ interests, many people continue to view the BN as moderates, and as the preferred leaders.
There is yet another consideration. Is there really a BN, especially after the 2008 elections? With the near wipe-out of the MCA, MIC, Gerakan, led alone PPP, is really Umno which dominates. According to informed sources, all important policy decisions are made by the Umno leadership before they are presented to the Cabinet for approval.
Fourth, the 56 years of BN rule has contributed to the belief that it is only when the BN is in power that political stability and economic growth can occur. However, now that we have witnessed the stellar performances of the PR governments in Selangor and Penang, against all odds, this myth has taken a knock.
Consequently, the BN has had to resort to more grandiose GTP-type transformation plans on the one hand, all kinds of handouts on the other: KR1M, Kar1sma, higher dividends for EPF contributors, free medical check-ups for Socso contributors, subsidies for iPhone purchasers, RM100 for all students in schools, RM250 book vouchers for those enrolled in Form 6 and IPTs, etc.
Do not be fooled! Identifying the real reasons for political stability and economic growth are important because it exposes the myth that only the BN can promote political stability and economic growth. In fact, the BN federal government, reluctant to share power and public resources with duly elected PR state governments, has been the cause of political tensions, as in the case of responsibility over the water services in Selangor, or accusations that the PR-led Penang government has discriminated against Malays whereas it is not Malays, but the Umno-connected business people, so used to sweetheart business deals, who have been sidelined. There was also the political instability that occurred in Perak in 2009. It is clear to all that Umno-BN was the cause of the overthrow of the duly elected PR government there.
It is certainly our democratic right to peacefully assemble too, perhaps even more so to demand free and fair elections. The tensions surrounding Bersih 2.0 that occurred around KL in 2011, and again over Duduk Bantah in 2012, were caused not by the Opposition, but by the BN government denying civil society demands for democratisation.
Watch out, therefore: ignorance and disinformation can perpetuate the erroneous belief that political and economic chaos would result if the Opposition comes to power.
This set of beliefs penetrated deep into the minds and hearts of many Malaysians especially during the 1990s when Malaysia experienced rapid economic growth again, after the mid-1980s regional financial crisis. This growth enabled the construction of those icons of growth – the Twin Towers, KLIA, the KLIA Express, Putrajaya, the MSC, etc. No doubt, a majority of Malaysians materially benefited from that growth too.
A sense of ‘feel good’ prevailed. And since Dr Mahathir presided over all these achievements, a fifth belief, that it was not simply the BN, but Dr Mahathir too, that facilitated Malaysia’s success, began to gain credence. Consequently, there developed a belief that Dr Mahathir was indispensable, that under him Malaysia Boleh, and Malaysia became the envy of all.
But look at the situation some 15-20 years after he has stepped down! His undermining of Abdullah Badawi’s government, and after the 2008 tsunami, the exposes of various scandals like the Port Klang Free Zone and the granting of ICs to refugees and migrants in Sabah have exposed him to be, well, an autocrat. A mahazalim, a mahafiraun!
Secret of Malaysia’s success
We need to counter this set of Umno-BN political beliefs by discussing an alternative explanation of why Malaysia has been successful for so long. For it is in spite of money politics and nepotism, the resort to communalism and the manipulation of ethno-religious sentiments by political leaders, indeed, in spite of Umno-BN rule or Dr Mahathir’s leadership, that economic development has occurred, political stability been maintained, and inter-ethnic harmony sustained. We must therefore understand the secret of Malaysia’s success lest we short-change ourselves.
Decent and tolerant
Ironically, although the hegemony of this set of beliefs prevails, Malaysians have been ever ready to co-operate and help one another, to tolerate and dialogue with one another, especially in their everyday encounters with others – at work, at play, in schools or in each other’s homes. Why, we even co-celebrate each other’s religious festivals. Indeed, we have compassion for others and abhor conflict and violence. Such decency and fair-mindedness which is perennial and part of the human spirit, endures, regardless of who our leaders are, no matter which party is in power. It is the secret behind Malaysia’s long-standing inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony.
Hardworking and responsible
Likewise, the fundamental reason for Malaysia’s economic success is our most precious resource: the Malaysian people. The majority of the Malaysian work force is responsible, disciplined, hard-working and productive, a secret which foreign investors are aware of. This is no doubt true of the workers in the manufacturing sector (be it the electronic and electrical or the footwear or apparel industries), in the financial and service sectors, as well as the agricultural. It is even more evident when the Malaysian workforce are paid adequately, treated fairly and allowed to maintain their dignity.
We also have a large number of professionals – lawyers, doctors, engineers, architects, surveyors, computer scientists and educators – who are responsible, knowledgeable and fair-minded. Most business people, bankers, industrialists and developers are also honest, hard-working, capable and sometimes innovative. We even have artists, dancers, actors, playwrights, film-makers, musicians and entertainers who are creative and at times provocative. And of course we have lots of good cooks and hawkers too.
But perhaps there are too many good salespersons employed in the department stores and shopping malls selling us goods which we do not really need. All these groups have contributed to Malaysia’s economic well-being and the richness of Malaysia’s life, and will continue to do so regardless of whoever is in power.
The civil service
Additionally, our political stability owes much to the presence of a civil service that is relatively efficient and hard-working, though perhaps bogged down by too much red-tape. Admittedly, the upper echelon of the civil service has been politicised. Top posts are often filled by individuals who have been promoted not because of proven capabilities, nor seniority, but often because of their political connections. They develop into sycophants. There have been unnecessary extravagance and wastage and too much emphasis on the form rather than the substance of things.
Nonetheless, the lower and middle levels continue to be filled by hard-working people who are not paid adequately for the good work they put in. The teachers in our educational service at the primary, secondary and tertiary-levels are a case in point. The surgeons and specialists, medical officers, nurses and technical aides in our general hospitals, district hospitals and rural clinics are another group of dedicated civil servants. The uniformed units (fire and rescue, immigration, military and even the police force especially its traffic, crime and drug enforcement wings) also deserve praise. There are also many heroes at the clerical level, in the pensions department, in the welfare services, in the drainage and irrigation department, etc. They will continue to provide services to the public regardless of who is in power.
Mothers and wives
Finally, in spite of the hype about Mat Rempits, lepak, youth gangs, drug addiction, etc, we continue to have a very strong familial system irrespective of our different ethnic or religious backgrounds. Mothers and wives continue to perform very important roles at home. They pass on to the young a set of good values that enable them to contribute to society. They also ensure that there’s food on the table for family members.
They continue to perform these fundamental tasks which cement our society together without receiving a wage. More than that, many women, nowadays, do all the above while juggling a full-time occupation outside of the house as well. Yet, their efforts are not adequately recognised by society, especially the men-folk. However, mothers and wives, too, will continue to contribute to Malaysia’s success and stability irrespective of who is in power.
Malaysia has been blessed with rich resources, especially its decent and tolerant, hardworking and responsible people. Yes, the Umno-BN government, certainly Dr Mahathir, have lasted beyond their ‘sell by’ date! For several decades now, Umno-BN rule has led to nepotism and cronyism; much wastage and unnecessary physical manifestations of grandeur; erosion of the rule of law and loss of freedom; mistrust and fear among the races of one another. This over-extended stay was facilitated by the propagandisation of that set of political beliefs that we elaborated on. It is time for Umno-BN to go!
In any democracy, leaders and parties alternate power. They come and go. Only the rakyat remains.
Fear not when we vote for democracy. Go for change. The rakyat will safeguard Malaysia’s future.
Denying our own humanity
This set of beliefs is absolutely demeaning to the human spirit.
- By prejudicing the other and conceding that we cannot co-operate with fellow Malaysians of other ethnic and religious backgrounds, we in fact deny them as well as ourselves our common humanity.
- By acceding to the curbs on our fundamental freedom and justifying the existence of a strong state, we hinder and frustrate our attempts to develop ourselves and our society wholistically.
- The extension of the set of prejudices to the Opposition parties and leaders, brushing them off and labelling them as extremists is unfair and a ridicule of our own humanity. For are not the leaders and supporters of the opposition also members of our Malaysian society and the larger human family? And why should there be such high regard for the BN leaders still when they have already violated the people’s interests and the principles of democracy?
- Furthermore, when we prioritise material progress and measure our development in terms of the tallest this, and the longest that, we undermine our spirituality, which should be the basis of our wholistic development. Crass acquisitive materialism encourages us to grab rather than to share; to seek instantaneous gratification rather than to engage with Mystery. We need certain universal values, including perennial political principles like freedom, truth and justice, to guide us in the journey of our lives as individuals and as a community, an ummah in the Islamic sense. None of our prophets or sages ever encouraged us to prioritise material progress over these principles.
- Finally, attributing our nation’s success to the achievements and indispensability of a single person is even more perverse and ridicules our humanity. It is tantamount to cultism at best, idolatry at worst. For all human beings are dispensable, certainly fallible.