Current trends in Malaysian society do not generate much optimism about the future. Gleaned from the electoral landscape, there are two trends one should focus upon: one, associated with the ruling Barisan Nasional, specifically UMNO, the coalition’s pillar and the nation’s biggest and most influential political party; the other, linked to the Pakatan, mainly the DAP, the largest political party in the opposition.
We shall evaluate briefly these two actors in relation to five critical aspects of national life — integrity; economic realities; political structure; religion; and ethnic relations.
While the UMNO led government has initiated some institutional measures to enhance integrity such as anti-corruption courts and integrity pacts, it has given very little attention to the variety of proposals made by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and the Institute Integrity Malaysia (IIM) in the last few years to combat elite corruption. This is largely because of powerful vested interests which have become deeply entrenched. The government’s approach to the 1MDB controversy testifies to this.
The opposition appears to be more determined to curb graft. The DAP state government in Penang under Lim Guan Eng requires its Executive Councillors and Assembly members to declare their assets (though not their liabilities) to the public. After seven years in power, there is no whiff of any financial scandal. The PKR-led Selangor state government sought to minimize political interference in governmental decisions pertaining to contracts and projects under its former Mentri Besar, Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim. Kelantan, which has been under PAS stewardship for 25 years now is not tainted with corruption largely because of the moral rectitude of the late Dato Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, who was Mentri Besar for 23 years.
The UMNO-BN leadership recognizes that the bottom 40% of urban Malaysia is struggling to make ends meet. It has offered some remedies in the form of assistance programmes but they are largely palliative and do not address the root causes of relative deprivation. It is not just a question of raising incomes or upgrading skills. The ownership and control of key resources that the bottom 40% depend upon — land, water, energy — will have to be re-appraised. Likewise, the distribution of goods and services which impact upon the cost of living will have to be reviewed to ensure greater access and equity for the poorer half of society.
The opposition’s economic policies have also not examined larger structural challenges of this sort in a consistent manner. True, its alternative budget for 2016 promises to implement a capital gains tax and an inheritance tax which would be equitable. But it could have tried to explore how the role of the cooperative movement for instance could be reinforced in both the production and distribution of certain goods and services to strengthen the position of the working-class. The re-organization of agriculture, which the opposition’s budget highlights, could have also been linked to building dynamic rural cooperatives.
For all its warts and pimples, Malaysia is still a functioning democracy. In some respects, democratic space has widened in the last few years with the abolition of the Internal Security Act (ISA), changes to the University and the University Colleges Act (UCCA) and the introduction of a Peaceful Assembly Act — all accomplished under Dato Sri Najib’s tutelage. The new media has also been a major contributory factor. Nonetheless, dissent, especially when it raises questions about the exercise of power at the apex, is often severely curbed. A true participatory democracy anchored in local, grassroots communities is nowhere on the horizon.
Through its commitment to local government elections, the DAP continues to uphold an important principle of grassroots democracy. But there is little evidence to show that it is seeking to change the top-down approach to democracy and governance — which is part of the national ethos — even in those areas within its jurisdiction in Penang.
Freedom of worship and celebration of religious diversity — hallmarks of UMNO-BN rule for decades — are very much part of the social reality. And yet there are worrying signs which have become more pronounced over time. As Islam became more prominent in the public arena from the late seventies onwards expressing itself through form rather than substance, many of its adherents also became more exclusive in their outlook especially in matters relating to interaction with non-Muslims. At the same time, because their understanding of faith has undergone a transformation of sorts propelled by the pressures of urbanization and external influences, more and more Muslims in the middle and upper echelons of society have become advocates of an “Islamic State” that emphasizes prohibition and punishment. It has willy-nilly created an environment that erroneously views hudud as pivotal to Islam when it is God-Consciousness reflected in justice and compassion which defines the religion. Hudud has not only driven a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims in Peninsular Malaysia but has also generated a great deal of uneasiness among Sarawakians and Sabahans including Muslims.
Hudud has also split the opposition. It has split DAP from PAS and is one of the implicit reasons why a number of PAS leaders and activists have broken away from the party to form the Parti Amanah Negara (PAN). How the different opposition parties will deal with this issue in the coming months will determine to an extent the fate of the opposition. The hudud issue is in a sense interwoven with the bigger and more complex challenge of what the role of Islam is in Malaysian society. Neither the opposition nor the BN has the answer.
UMNO and the BN have all along adopted a two pronged approach to ethnic relations. One, keep the Malays and the other communities in their own silos. Mobilize and organize along ethnic lines. View issues and individuals through ethnic lenses. Two, ensure that at the elite level in particular there is an appreciable degree of inter-ethnic cooperation and amity. So ethnic mobilization and inter-ethnic cooperation go hand and hand.
It is a formula that ensured the BN’s electoral success for quite a long while. It was partly responsible for guaranteeing inter-ethnic peace in the country. However, since the 2008 general election, the formula has ceased to be viable. Given the massive erosion of support from the BN among Chinese and Indian voters, it is not possible any more to bring those communities into an inter-ethnic relationship with the Malays and UMNO. And for a lot of urban Malays who perceive UMNO as a party that has gone astray and is no longer connected to them, the party is not on their radar screen. If a silo based, static approach to the maintenance of inter-ethnic peace does not command any meaning, is UMNO-BN capable of evolving an alternative?
Though opposition parties are formally less ethnic, their electoral appeal is still shaped by ethnic politics. What is worse, they are in no position to offer a formula for inter-ethnic cooperation given the huge ideological chasm that separates PAS from DAP. The DAP on its own will not be able to win substantial Malay support partly because it has little empathy for the history and identity of the land which is central to the Malay vision of the nation. Will the DAP’s partners — PKR and PAN — be able to fill that vacuum?
In the ultimate analysis, it is because UMNO-BN, on the one hand, and DAP- Pakatan, on the other, both lack inter-ethnic credentials vital for governing a multi-ethnic society like ours that the future does not inspire hope.
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