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Monday, December 30, 2019

What really went wrong with Malaysia in 2019?

IN two of my recent columns, I wrote on Malaysia’s lost strength and Malaysia’s lost unity.
My plan for 2020 is to not just be constructive, but to construct.
Before going hard in that direction, let me end the year with a final recap of what problems in Malaysia my projects for 2020 will seek specifically to address.
There are two main areas generally: the incentive structure of our political system, and what can (for shorthand purposes anyway) broadly be termed the national unity question.
I think most of our problems started in 2018.
When Pakatan Harapan won the 14th General Election (GE14), it did so off the back of three-cornered fights that Umno thought would benefit Barisan Nasional, but benefited Pakatan instead.
In essence, Pakatan won off the back of a third or less of the Malay vote. This was the first important factor – one that never left the minds of key Pakatan politicians.
Secondly, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was chosen as Prime Minister. Many were not sure what kind of premier he would be this time around. As 2020 (the year he himself famously touted) rolls around, the answer to this question is becoming apparent.
As a detailed exposition would take too long, we skip to the conclusion: most signs point to the fact that Dr Mahathir wants to go back to the “good old days”.
In this case, this simply means a return to the Barisan formula: have an unchallenged, Malay-only party at the apex of Malaysians politics, with the other races represented by one party each, in a Barisan-style coalition.
It is entirely logical for Dr Mahathir to think this way. In his view and experience, this system led the country strongly and stably for decades.
Thus, one interpretation of his first year and a half in office is that he has been working relentlessly behind the scenes to twist, squeeze, and force Malaysia into a dress that no longer fits.
The acrobatics Dr Mahathir has done to try and get his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia to be the new Umno has been a disservice to Malaysia, and the effort in turn has put coalition partner the DAP in an untenable position.
As I have repeated ad nauseam: swapped actors, but same script. Different players, same game.
Simultaneously, Dr Mahathir seems perfectly content to actively brew or passively abet discord in PKR – most likely because PKR’s multiracial formula lies in such opposition to Dr Mahathir’s own belief regarding what does and doesn’t work in Malaysia.
Dr Mahathir, perhaps more than anyone else, is the person responsible for concentrating so much power in the PM’s office. In doing so, he has created a winner-takes-all game, in which no other question in politics matters anywhere near as much as the question of who becomes prime minister.
It feels like at least 90% of all the energy and effort of our politicians (especially from Bersatu and PKR) has been built directly or indirectly around making sure the candidate they support becomes PM – generally at the expense of doing what is really necessary for making Malaysia better.
Dr Mahathir meanwhile knows that he does not have the strength to unilaterally impose his “back to the good old days” vision, and so he makes concessions here and there, while still trying hard to do things the way he wants to.
The end result? A Frankenstein-ish hodgepodge of incoherent policy – always neither here nor there.
The first major gaffe perhaps was Icerd (the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination). Went in guns blazing, got hit with a fierce backlash, made a U-turn.
The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court was a startlingly similar experience. Went in guns blazing, got hit with a fierce backlash, made a U-turn.
The Jawi/ khat controversy was similar. Suddenly announced a big policy, got hit with a fierce backlash, and now going around in circles – all while racial tensions run higher and higher.
The lack of preparation with regards to proper planning and stakeholder engagement is glaring.
It feels like many policies are introduced to please one faction or another, usually on the progressive versus conservative ethnoreligious spectrum.
When the conflict bursts onto the public sphere, the crisis begins to become a zero-sum game.
In the Jawi controversy for instance, perhaps the Education Minister fears compromise because it weakens his position in Bersatu, an all-Malay party.
The progressives in Dong Zong meanwhile, may prefer dialogue over conflict, but may have trouble defending such approaches in the light of violent threats from right-wing Malay groups.
So on and on we go, trapped in decades-old cycles of mistrust and ethnoreligious conflict, because for all its talk of new Malaysia, Dr Mahathir’s government is firmly stuck in old Malaysia’s deep-rooted culture of letting partisan and racial concerns be the prime driver and determinant of government policy.
That dress no longer fits. The more we try to squeeze into it, the more the government will continue to appear directionless, inept, and utterly confused as to its own identity.
On the part of ordinary Malaysians, I think our biggest mistake is in believing that all we need to do to get better government is to change politicians.
I saw one Christmas sweater that said, “Santa, all I want for Christmas is a new Prime Minister”. I saw on Twitter a hashtag inviting us to identify which five ministers we needed to change.
In my humble opinion, all these miss the point. If 2019 has taught us one thing, it is that it is not the players that shape the game, but the game that shapes the players.
This leaves us with two tasks for 2020.
First: stop relying on politicians and players that have already been shaped by the game, and instead take our own initiative to reclaim Malaysia and put her back on the right track.
Second: redesign the game from scratch. It’s well past time.
If 2019 was a year of disappointment in our government, let 2020 be the year was stop looking to them to solve our problems, and start doing it ourselves.
Details to come in a week or so. Happy New Year, everyone! - Star
NATHANIEL TAN is a communications consultant who occasionally dreams impossible dreams. Those interested in working together in making those dreams a reality in 2020 are welcome to get in touch at nat@engage.my.

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