“One commonly hears that carping critics complain about what is wrong, but do not present solutions. There is an accurate translation for that charge: 'They present solutions, but I don't like them.”
- Noam Chomsky, ‘Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy’.
In another article, I admitted that I was one of those people who were pushing the failed state narrative after another Malaysiakini columnist Josh Hong pointed out in his own piece of the intellectual bankruptcy of promoting such an agenda.
Of course, I felt justified in promoting such an agenda - “I have lost track of how many times I have pushed the ‘failed state’ narrative. Moreover, let me tell you it is very easy to push that narrative when we see the failing system around us. It is very easy to push that narrative when we have something as calamitous as the National Security Council Act.”
Running around claiming failing state status is easy in Malaysia. We are a Muslim-majority country that has managed to pull through over the decades when the world was going through radical political and social changes. The Arabisation process crept up on us because we were too busy engaging in other affairs instead of keeping a close eye on the Umno hegemon.
Three recent contradictory statements by politicians in this country brings into focus why the opposition has been unable to gain traction with the idea that a vote for them would save Malaysia from an apocalyptical fate and why Umno still has a grip on power in Malaysia.
The first is by Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) point man Muhyiddin Yassin - “Through decades of government policies being initiated by Umno and BN, the country has become progressive, renowned and in the Islamic context, a model country.”
And right here is the problem for the opposition because this is really is what most voters who vote Barisan National think. Through the decades, despite of all the corruption scandals, the sustained attacks against independent institutions, the slow process of dismantling our individual rights, Malaysia, in the words of Josh Hong, “for all its flaws, Malaysia remains a prosperous, relatively efficient and economically vibrant country.”
Meanwhile, Muhyiddin admits that it would difficult to dislodge BN if the opposition remains in disarray and straight one-on-one fights was the most viable stratagem of replacing Umno/BN.
Nowhere does he consider that if people think that the country is functional and prosperous (and that this is something even he as a powerbroker in the opposition acknowledges), why should there be any regime change when things are running if not smoothly but better than in many other Muslim countries?
Which brings me to what the honourable DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang asked, “Is Najib aware that Malaysia has taken a first step to become a 'failed state' when we ascended to the 'global kleptocracy' club without any sense of contrition or compunction, whether by the cabinet or Parliament?"
The problem here is that over the decades there have been numerous corruption scandals and yet the country remains standing. Furthermore, coupled with these corruption scandals, the Umno hegemon has carried out a deliberate process of racial engineering that changed the political, legal and social institutions of this country, and yet the country did not become one of those Islamic paradises that most Muslims would prefer not to go to but instead head West.
Keep in mind the “failed state” narrative was used in the run-up to the 2004 election and former Umno president - who campaigned with a reform agenda - won by a landslide for BN. This was the same coalition that had ruled for decades and engineered the problems that are affecting Malaysia today.
Meanwhile, Umno Grand Poohbah Najib Abdul Razak thinks that if there is no religious and racial harmony, Malaysia will turn into a failed state. The problem with this is that over the decades, the supremacy of Islam and Malay privilege has supplanted whatever grand ideas, the founding fathers - I still have no idea who these men and women were - had in mind.
Indeed, the only reason why the Umno big cheese was raising the spectre of a failed state was because everyone else is doing it. But this idea that Malaysia is becoming a failed state ultimately is nonsensical when employed by either Umno or the opposition.
All this talk of Malaysia becoming a failed state, made me dig up an old article by the Foreign Policy magazine that in my opinion is one of the more accessible articles on why states fall apart. Actually, the title of the article says it all - ‘10 reasons why countries fall apart’.
While I have reproduced the first two paragraphs of the article, readers are encouraged to seek out the article and pay close attention the countries mentioned. The reason why I like this article because it accurately describes the various processes that go into making a failed state.
From the article - “Most countries that fall apart, however, do so not with a bang but with a whimper. They fail not in an explosion of war and violence but by being utterly unable to take advantage of their society’s huge potential for growth, condemning their citizens to a lifetime of poverty. This type of slow, grinding failure leaves many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America with living standards far, far below those in the West.
“What’s tragic is that this failure is by design. These states collapse because they are ruled by what we call ‘extractive’ economic institutions, which destroy incentives, discourage innovation, and sap the talent of their citizens by creating a tilted playing field and robbing them of opportunities. These institutions are not in place by mistake but on purpose. They’re there for the benefit of elites who gain much from the extraction - whether in the form of valuable minerals, forced labour, or protected monopolies - at the expense of society. Of course, such elites benefit from rigged political institutions too, wielding their power to tilt the system for their benefit.”
The following are the 10 reasons:
1) Lack of property rights
2) Forced labour
3) A tilted playing field
4) The big men get greedy
5) Elites block new technologies
6) No law and order
7) A weak central government
8) Bad public services
9) Political exploitation
10) Fighting over the spoils
Becoming a failed state is a gradual process and in the Malaysian context, nobody comes out clean. Not Umno. Not the opposition, and certainly not the citizens of Malaysia because we voted for BN and we never demanded the kind of opposition that is the exact opposite in terms of ideology of what the ruling coalition is.
I have said many times, the coming general election is a make or break election for the opposition. If the opposition is determined to play the same game as Umno and loses, then the opposition is also to blame when we eventually get to our failed state destination.
However the world over, there is a shift in political sentiment. In the West, the shift is to the right. I honestly believe that although we may not have a “left”, what the citizens of this country want is something new.
I believe that if the opposition rolls the dice, discards conventional Malaysian political wisdom, they may actually accomplish a hail Mary and with policies that are radically different from Umno, halt the decline of Malaysia into a failed state.
If not, do not panic. There is still some ways to go, before we are inducted into the failed state hall of fame. It is going to be a slow but painful process.
S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.- Mkini