Malaysia’s progress

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Following the stunning resurgence of the opposition alignment at the
recent Malaysian general election and with a global recession looming, John Hilley says there is a need for a radical set of policy debates within
the broad opposition to look into how economic policy can be made to serve
people rather than capitalists. And, more critically, how to challenge
the dominant agencies of capitalism which set the terms of economic
and social policy. 


Following the stunning resurgence of the opposition alignment at the
recent Malaysian general election comes the now more sobering business
of how it prepares for the next decisive challenge: unseating the BN
and taking the country in a, hopefully, more progressive direction

The words "sobering business" call to mind the post-revelry ‘Monday
morning’ problems any proto-progressive government has in keeping the
barons of industry and finance reassured while trying to launch a model
of socio-economic ‘development’ that puts people, rather than
market-makers, first.

The standard ‘answer’ to this dilemma is
usually some variation on the liberal market; a social democratic view
of markets as the driving force for inward investment, increased
growth, international competitiveness and ‘derived social benefits’. It
may even come with rejectionist caveats on extreme neoliberalism.

But,
does this really constitute a decisive alternative? Even with a
relative re-emphasis on the role of SMIs and domestic, rather than
international, capital, does this takes us, in any qualitative sense,
beyond the ‘business as usual’ format?

Anwar Ibrahim deserves
credit – much credit – for his decisive part in pulling this coalition
together. A not inconsiderable feat when we take account of past
opposition enmities and, of course, the BN network’s ready ability to
encourage and exploit them.

There is, of course, Anwar’s
culpable UMNO/BN past. Yet, though part of a government which deployed
the ISA and other instruments of state oppression, we must accept the
possibility of one’s political development, even enlightenment,
particularly if that comes with some measure of humble acknowledgement
and atonement. A key test here has been whether Anwar has sought
re-entry to the UMNO fold. That hasn’t happened. Nor does it now seem
likely, even if he is courting elements of the BN to ‘change sides’.

Chandra Muzaffar’s pre-election attack on Anwar
said more about his own misplaced politics and failure to unite behind
the people than about Anwar’s apparent unsuitability for office. A
‘veteran’ such as Chandra would certainly have understood the ways in
which his denunciation of Anwar days before the polls would have been
read – and, again, gleefully exploited by the BN and its media cohorts.

READ MORE:  Anwar makes sense in these times of deep concern

Yet,
this all rather obfuscates the more structural issues at stake here.
Beyond the personality politics, the more challenging question is
whether Malaysia can pursue a model of development, even on a
transitional basis, not slavishly based on market-driven policies.

In this regard, Anwar has:

"pledged
to defend and promote [a] free-market economy, foreign investment and
continue the development process. But he emphasised that progress and
wealth will now benefit the poor of all races, not the rich and ruling
elite. "We are confident that under our leadership and working closely
with our partners (in the opposition) we will begin to implement
policies to ensure a stronger and more vibrant economy in Malaysia," he
said. "We will ensure that investor confidence remains strong during
the transition period and also to identify areas of concern that our
new governments (state governments) will address in enhancing and
improving their operations and performance in Malaysia," he said."

Prudent
words. But, does this ‘balance’, in practice, weigh towards market
interests or people interests? Again, we hear the stock – or, perhaps,
stock market – answer: it benefits both. It’s a seemingly solid
argument for financial and economic stability – a gathering concern
given the prospect of a US banking crisis and global financial meltdown
– coupled with the promise of sound investment, new jobs and economic
rewards for all.

Yet, haven’t we been here before? If Malaysia,
as elsewhere, feels the knock-on effects of the global credit crunch
and looming recession, which agencies will be calling the ‘remedial’
shots? Most likely, the Wall Street/IMF elite. As usual. Which begs the
question: how differently would a non-BN administration handle such a
crisis? Indeed, what kind of alternative model to the ‘Washington
consensus’ might any new government pursue in an effort to offset that
dependency?

Anwar’s own US-sided associations and past leanings
towards the ‘consensus’ are well documented. Again, this, in itself,
does not invalidate Anwar as a key figure in the politics of reform.
But it does signal the need for a radical set of policy debates within
the broad opposition as to how this ‘balance’ can be made to serve
people rather than capitalists. And, more critically, how to challenge
those dominant agencies of capitalism which set the terms of economic
and social policy. This is an issue which reaches well beyond Anwar and
the politics of leadership. It’s a central question for the whole movement over whether, and how, it seeks a more imaginative agenda.

READ MORE:  Anwar makes sense in these times of deep concern

It’s
a question, for example, in Penang where people have demonstrated their
rejection of free-market development projects like the Penang Global
City Centre (PGCC).

It’s a question in Perak, one of the new
non-BN ruled states, as in how PAS and its parliamentary partners can
work together – hopefully eschewing racial politics – in forging
domestic policies which are people friendly rather than market friendly.

In short, it’s a question of cultivating a real, serious alternative to prevailing market hegemony.

With
five states now under opposition control, there’s never been a more
opportune time to develop such strategies at the localised level.
Meaningful change doesn’t happen overnight. It has to be worked
through, in practical, demonstrative ways and seen to be effective by
those who stand to benefit: the people. Communal politics, socially-led
policies and participatory democracy initiated at the devolved level
can all serve to build a new progressive politics at the national
level. A bottom-up model motivated by social need rather than the
top-down ‘imperatives’ demanded by political and market elites.

Lessons from the barrios?

Malaysia
may not be about to embark on a Venezuelan-style model of Bolivarian,
community-driven reform. Yet, why should Malaysians be held hostage to
the same old dictat of ‘market delivery’? Why shouldn’t they desire and
pursue qualitative freedoms that don’t depend on market efficiencies
and ruthless competitiveness?

Human rights don’t only come at
the ballot box. Health, social security, cultural fulfilment – these
are also human rights. Rights that our friendly marketeers would have
us believe can only be achieved through privatisation, deregulation and
other ‘market freedoms’, the encroaching privatisation of the Malaysian
health system being an alarming case in point.

In contrast,
consider how, despite half a century of US sanctions, Cuba has built a
health service envied around the world. Unlike the frightened millions
of uninsured Americans – as brilliantly depicted in Michael Moore’s
Sicko – Cubans don’t want for any kind of health care. Cubans don’t go
hungry. Cuban children don’t go destitute in the street, unlike kids in
other parts of Latin America’s market-driven region.

READ MORE:  Anwar makes sense in these times of deep concern

During a recent UK-wide Cuban tour talk, I had the pleasure of asking the Cuban Transport Ministry advisor (and formerly Che Guevara’s deputy) Orlando Borrego
for his thoughts on Cuba’s and Venezuela’s joint efforts in building
economic and social alternatives for the region. In response, Borrego
stated that he wished he had three hours to talk on this subject alone,
so impassioned and excited was he about these initiatives. But, with
limited time, he amplified how each country was co-operating to build a
real social economy across Latin America. An economy based on the
creation of doctors, educational, environmental and other human
infrastructure as opposed to market-led ‘development’.

For many
others at the meeting, and those who look beyond the loaded media
version of what’s happening in that region, it gives a tremendous sense
of hope that people can organise and deliver just social provisions without recourse to market dependency.

Malaysia
may not be in a politically comparable situation to Venezuela or Cuba.
Yet, how Malaysians challenge and resist the dominant ideas and demands
of capital is every bit as crucial.

It’s worth bearing in mind
that Hugo Chavez is nothing without the people who put him where he is.
They continue to support him because he’s enacting devolved policies
driven by their – and his – social and political concerns. Those people
don’t just want a few more crumbs of the market-dispensed cake. They
want meaningful change in how the social cake is made and divided,
which requires co-operative control of the ‘bakery’ itself.

Malaysia’s
opposition will, no doubt, be exercised in this next critical
pre-election phase by other types of division: sectarian, racial and
party political.

Yet, hopefully, Anwar and the other leaders
within this, seemingly, bright new opposition will stay alert to the
concerns of the people they, apparently, speak for. Otherwise, it’s
‘business as usual’ for most Malaysians.

Reproduced from Zenpolitics with permission from John Hilley. 

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