So much time has been spent discussion the legacy of the three premiers we have had since 1981. But in many ways, it is a pointless exercise, especially when it comes to discussing Najib and Abdullah.
Not when Mahathir is still lurking behind the scenes to the extent many believe he is the real mover and shaker in Malaysia, anxious to preserve his “legacy” (read what you like into that).
Malaysia changed with Mahathir’s coming to power in 1981. The emphasis on heavy industrialisation (Perwaja, Proton), mega projects (Bakun Dam) and mega spending, the crisis in the judiciary, the deterioration in the education system, the introduction of neoliberal economic policies including privatisation, the growing income inequality, the financial scandals beginnning with BMF, the crackdown on dissent (e.g. Operasi Lalang), more repressive laws, the exploitation of cheap migrant labour and the weakened overall position of workers – all these took place during Mahathir’s tenure. And of course, the events of 1997-98 – the economic crisis and Anwar’s ouster.
And all the while, all the while, power was being centralised in the hands of the federal government; no not just the federal government, but in the hands of the executive; no, not just the executive, but in the hands of the prime minister. (Just look at where we are today – the sheer number of departments and personnel under the Prime Minister’s Office and the humongous budget to go with it.)
Abdullah rode a wave of hope and expectation that things would get better – expectations of clean government, democratic aspirations – in the process, deflating somewhat the reformasi movement. He provided the soft face, the soft touch of a government that had grown hardened over the years.
Though he created a bit more openness and stopped some of the more outlandish projects (e.g. the crooked bridge), he ultimately failed to deliver enough where it really mattered to meet the rising expectations of the people. He was unable to stem systemic corruption and concerns about clean and fair elections. He could not change the system which by then had become entrenched in the bureaucracy as well. Look what happened to the recommendation of the Royal Commission into the police to set up an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission. No joy there.
The resulting tide of public disappointment culminated in that watershed of Malaysian politics at the 2008 general election, when Malaysians showed they wanted an alternative – an outcome that led to the formation of a two-coalition system.
The rise to power of Najib, along with his baggage, did little to restore faith in the BN. If anything, the little space that opened up under Abdullah was tightened, though Najib touted his so-called transformation programme. The ISA was replaced with Sosma, and now the increased use of sedition laws … While he proclaimed “1Malaysia”, Najib refused or was unable to rein in (or turned a blind eye to?) those Perkasa fellows harping on racial and religious issues.
But if we focus only on these three prime ministers, we are missing something. We are marginalising the fact that a growing segment of the Malaysian people are now more aware of what is happening in the country.
We are underestimating the impact of the Bersih movement (along with Himpunan Hijau) and before that, its forerunner, the reformasi movement. We are ignoring the work of civil society over the years – the women’s groups, the human rights groups, the environmental movement etc. which laid the earlier ground work. And now we are seeing a more politically aware younger generation stepping up to the plate.
GE13, despite the process being seriously flawed with all the vote-buying (BR1M, free dinners, ‘lucky draws’, payouts, etc), confirmed that politicians can no longer take the people for granted. The people, once awakened, will not go back to sleep.
This is what is worrying the ruling politicians. Umno, though now more dominant within the BN with the marginalisation of the MCA and the MIC, now has to rely on its tainted Sabah and Sarawak partners to retain its grip on power. It also appears to be in the throes of a potentially damaging factional contest.
Meanwhile, perhaps to camouflage the setback the BN suffered in GE13, the Old Politics of race and religion appears to be rearing its ugly head – perhaps because certain quarters believe that is what is necessary to ensure their relevance.
But I prefer to be optimistic that the New Politics that looks beyond divisive communal issues will prevail – even though our economic outlook does not look good, even though our household debt and federal government debt have soared, and even though divisive controversies have surfaced.
As more people gain access to alternative worldviews – indeed, Utusan, NST, TV3, and The Star are serving a shrinking no-longer-captive market – they will become more aware of the issues that really matter, no matter what the politicians tell them.
That would be the first step in a more enlightened journey – based on a celebration of our cultural diversity, respect for every individual, the empowerment of the marginalised, and reverence for Nature.
And that could herald the dawn of a new Malaysia where the common good of the people comes first.