Merdeka! But beware the new power…

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Just watching the 50th Merdeka celebrations on TV and I can’t help but notice how top BN politicians are dominating the proceedings.

The 8tv talk show hosts are singing the praises of the PM.

Samy and Ong Ka Ting are hovering around the PM. So too Hishamuddin Hussein.

Khairy Jamaluddin raising the flag… Khairy leading the Youth of the BN component parties in a marchpast…Najib literally breathing down Abdullah’s neck, looking over his shoulders, as the PM delivers a “spirited” speech.

(Fifty years ago, the Tunku was flanked by Najib’s father Razak, Cheng Lock, and Sambanthan. Umno Youth leader Sardon Jubir placed a chain around the Tunku’s neck in recognition of his role as Bapa Kemerdekaan.)

Dressed in BN blue, Abdullah uses words such as “terbilang” and “gemilang” (from the BN tagline), raising his voice in an attempt to fire up the crowd – but he ends up coughing in between… 0ops. Someone, tell him that yelling at the top of his voice is not his style.

In front of him, Umno flags (and was that an MIC flag I spotted?) flutter next to the Jalur Gemilang. (Hmm, that gemilang word again.)Excuse me, are we celebrating the BN or Merdeka here? Has the campaign for the general election begun?

After 50 years, opposition parties and civil society groups don’t seem to have much of a part to play in the official Merdeka celebrations. I don’t see any of the key opposition politicians around.

Fifty years of independence… and it has come to this. In a sense, this exclusion is symbolic of the larger exclusion of alternative histories and interpretations of the road to Independence and the role played by left-wing parties in hastening Merdeka. It also ignores the colonialists’ commercial grip on Malaya, which explains why the British preferred to deal with Umno and the Alliance rather than the multi-ethnic left-wing Putera-AMCJA alliance, which sought immediate independence in 1947.

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Remember, the British were reluctant to leave Malaya not because they were fond of us but because they were fond of our rubber and tin. They wanted to protect their commercial interests in Malaya – their plantations and tin mines and their cheap access to these resources – and make sure that resource-rich Malaya remained in the hands of “friendly parties”.

Meanwhile, we are still grappling with what exactly the Malaysian nation is. The PM’s and his deputy’s pronouncements that Malaysia is an Islamic state (or is that country?) have only clouded the issue. Their Islamic state is based on Islam Hadhari. (Does Islam Hadhari condone the cruel ISA?) So does that make it different from Mahathir’s pre-Islam Hadhari pronouncement on 29 September 2001?

Those who feel that Malaysia is a secular nation point to documents related to the formulation of our Constitution and statements made by our “founding fathers”. They can also point to certain judicial observations made over the years to the effect that ours is secular nation and not an Islamic state.

Those who argue that Malaysia is not a secular nation point to policies and activities such as the building of mosques, Islamic schools and the propagation of the religion over public broadcasting stations to strengthen the position of Islam.

Fifty years ago, just before his now-familiar exultant cries of Merdeka!, the Tunku, in his stirring Proclamation of Independence, solemnly pledged that Malaysia…

“…akan kekal menjadi sebuah negara demokrasi yang merdeka dan yang berdaulat serta berdasarkan kepada kebebasan dan keadilan dan mengkekalkan keamanan di antara segala bangsa. Kuala Lumpur, 31 August 1957″

“… with God’s blessings shall be forever a democratic and independent State founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of its people…” (emphasis mine).

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We know of course there has been some conflict – a legal lacuna – between the civil and sharia courts in a string of cases involving conversion cases and family disputes where one party is Muslim and the other non-Muslim. A solution must be found to these conflicts.

Nominally, we are supposed to be a parliamentary democracy.

But for the most part – notwithstanding the ideological shift towards greater exclusivism among the right-wing ethno Malay-Muslim nationalists – the debate masks the emergence and entrenchment of a new power in our land.

Just as British commercial interests figured prominently in the Merdeka era, today a new force has emerged quietly, exerting its influence on the ruling elite behind the scenes.

In this excerpt from a piece I wrote for the Herald, I discuss how this force has extended its influence to nearly all facets of Malaysian life:

Ever heard of the terms “corporatocracy” or a “plutocracy”? How about a corporate authoritarian state or a corporate police state?

I am not saying that we are any of these. But what we are witnessing now is the emergence of powerful corporations, which, while they don’t wield actual power, exert tremendous influence over the ruling class.

As time goes on, these corporations are likely to increase in power, and if they are multinationals, they can grow even bigger and more powerful than many smaller nations. Award-winning journalist John Pilger refers to them as the “The New Rulers of the World”.

Another economist, John Perkins has also used the term “corporatocracy” in his book “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” to describe a system of governance controlled by “big corporations, international banks, and government”.

In a corporatocracy, politicians tend to be very friendly to corporate interests. The media too are controlled by huge corporations and they usually publish corporate propaganda, which promotes the interests of corporations and their products.

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A plutocracy is somewhat similar. It is a system of government controlled by a small percentage of very wealthy individuals and this system can also benefit and include those in power. A small group of wealthy individuals influence or control most of the levers of power and opportunity.

The genesis of the turn to the market and corporate values in Malaysia can be traced to the time when Mahathir promoted the Malaysia Inc concept in the 1980s.

Since then, corporate values have seeped into our system of higher education with the corporatisation of universities. University authorities are increasingly adopting corporate terminology while proudly touting their ISO credentials. Now we hear of plans for corporations to “adopt” poorer schools.

At one time, the government was even talking about corporatising state-run hospitals before a public backlash put a stop to that (though we can now see attempts at “backdoor privatisation/corporatisation” of the health care system).

Now, we are seeing moves to corporatise state water authorities.

Everywhere we turn, we can see the influence of the corporate world even in our popular culture.

Meanwhile, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists – many are so enamoured by the cut-throat, profit-at-all-costs corporate world that some have forgotten the real values of compassion, love, and justice espoused by their respective religions.

Instead of aspiring to a life of service in the Lord’s vineyard, many of us aspire to climb the rungs of the corporate ladder.

You can also see the immense influence that corporations wield in these days of global warming. While individuals have been urged to be environmentally conscious, there is no similar call (or penalties) to the large corporations to cut down on their toxic fumes, greenhouse gases and harmful effluents.

So, you tell me, do we live in an Islamic state, a secular nation… or a corporate state?

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