MALAYSIA Tanah Tumpah Darahku


Friday, May 31, 2019

New Malaysia boldly go

Over a year has passed since Pakatan Harapan was elected into government. This month there was a range of assessments of the government’s performance, with criticisms focusing on needless infighting, challenges in managing the economy, slow implementation of reforms and the persistent corrosive role of race and religion in national politics.
One year on, however, there is greater appreciation of the constraints any government faces in managing the complexities of Malaysia, the legacy of decay that has occurred over decades and the strong resistance there is to change, especially among elites who have benefitted from the leakages and largess in the system.
Rather than debate the government’s performance, this article takes a different tack to explore how the country’s political landscape has, and is, changing – to explore whether there is indeed a ‘New Malaysia’ by looking at non-government centric developments. I argue that through this lens, there are indeed important shifts – as Malaysians on the whole have adeptly adapted to the more uncertain political environment and are indeed embracing a new hopeful future – in fact, boldly so.
Seizing space
GE14 created a sense of euphoria and expectation while simultaneously engendering anxiety and displacement. While all of these emotions have ratcheted down in the past year, there remains a deep appreciation of citizen empowerment. If there was a lesson from GE14, it was that voters can change their government and over the past eight by-elections since last May, voter turnout has remained high.
While the incumbent party has won most of the contests, citizens have continued to shape outcomes and send clear messages of dissatisfaction to those in power. All the political parties are now more acutely aware of the need for deliverables if they want to stay or return to power.
The political arena in Malaysia has been expanding widely over the past few decades, as politics has moved outside of elections to ongoing discourse and debate. This last year, however, has seen this increase further, as the greater freedom to raise issues and criticise politicians has been used to widen discussion.
While the dominant narrative has continued to resonate with anger and dissatisfaction with racialised overtones, there has been a broader range of issues discussed and importantly more inclusive and meaningful discussions of policy. From healthcare to the economy, there is more constructive engagement, led by citizens who feel more a part of the national landscape than before. More Malaysians are vested in bringing about a stronger country.
Rejuvenation of civil society
This is most clear in greater civil society activism. While many civil society activists joined politics to contest in GE14, and others took strong partisan positions, over the last year civil society has not only rejuvenated in leadership, it has moved away from partisan politics to focus on issues. The trend of broader geographic breadth in civil society organisations before last year’s elections, the regional scope of engagement has accelerated as well.
In urban areas, local communities are organising to protect the environment, against land development and making open demands for better services, while in rural and semi-rural areas, there is greater engagement over development trajectories.
In fact, one can argue that civil society on the whole has become the most constructive national opposition. Some activists, however, have lost perspective of what is feasible in the more fiscally constrained environment and equate minor infractions of integrity with those more serious and egregious of the past.
Nevertheless, the role that civil society is playing today is more important than ever, as it includes a range of strategies from engagement to shaming and confrontation and is conceptualising Malaysia’s future beyond the personalities and peccadillos of individual leaders.
As government reforms have slowed, civil society organisations have become not only important moral bellwethers but also served to channel attention towards many of the ideals that drove GE14’s political change in the first place.
Admittedly, uncivil members of civil society – those that rely on hate and sow division – remain powerful. They may lack government funding but they continue to hold onto a sense of entitlement and are even more angry in their supposed displacement. This has contributed to the escalation of racial rhetoric post-GE14.
At the same time, the fact that these groups are able to participate alongside others speaks to a changing Malaysia. There are also more Malaysians seeing these organisations for what they are, as Malaysians are increasingly faced with choices about their future – choices they appreciate they can make and will make a difference.
Media attention often centres on those that choose the easy path of sharp racial division and traditional power centres of the past, with less attention on those that are boldly but quietly moving toward a more integrative stronger nation.
Keep in mind that the greatest source of public dissatisfaction involves the economy, not race and religion, and that in everyday quotidian interactions Malaysia stands out for its interethnic diversity – and this is despite serious ethnic issues and worrying heightened use of racialised rhetoric.
Devolution of power
Another major shift in New Malaysia has come with a devolution of political power – to states and even some local governments, another dimension of the country’s diversity. The need for accommodation in the coalition government has meant that power in practice has been less centralised. It has also fostered the need for greater compromise and accommodation.
The overall impact of this has been a devolution of power away from the centre, away from the core leader, away from Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya – into local communities. This has created more opportunities for innovation and tested local leadership to a greater extent than in earlier decades.
Performance has been uneven, and in many cases, inadequate, but more voices are being brought into political processes than ever before in places where they were earlier excluded. This speaks to the overall trend in New Malaysia of empowerment.
The aftermath of GE14 served to reaffirm the potential for Malaysia to change, to fulfill the hopes and ambitions of its increasingly young population as well as to protect the country’s aging population and vulnerable communities.
A year later, Malaysians remain bold in their hopes and ambitions, even if they are increasingly putting more faith in themselves to make the changes they want happen.

BRIDGET WELSH is an associate professor of political science at John Cabot University in Rome. She also continues to be a senior associate research fellow at the National Taiwan University's Centre for East Asia Democratic Studies and The Habibie Centre, as well as a university fellow of Charles Darwin University. Her latest book is the post-election edition of ‘The end of Umno? Essays on Malaysia's former dominant party.’ She can be reached at bridgetwelsh1@gmail.com. - Mkini

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