BeingHuman: Cherish the spirit of May 9

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 25, 2018 - July 01, 2018.
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As we settle into the second month since the historic 14th general election, it is natural that the surreal feeling that followed the people’s victory over an entrenched political empire becomes transmuted into a sense of a new normal.

Great hopes of a new beginning for our nation have sprouted immediately as the new government rolls out a raft of reforms and corrective actions.

Yet, even as refreshing changes are taking place in the political culture and national administration, there are signs that we need to be vigilant about divisive old tendencies that could derail the momentum for reform.

We need only make a passing reference here to the naming of a non-Malay finance minister and a non-Muslim attorney-general to signal the concerns about protecting the economic well-being of the Malays and the sensitivities about the position of Islam that underlie the controversies that surrounded their appointments.

These concerns are really proxies for the conflicting interests of the full range of stakeholders in the national sphere and point to a key challenge for our nation-building efforts: finding the glue that will bind our disparate communities into a common Malaysian identity.

This is where the spirit that lifted Malaysians in all their diversity to unite in a common mission in that fateful election must come into play.

Consider the list of paradoxes that the Pakatan Harapan coalition embodies and the disadvantages it had to overcome to win against the all-powerful Barisan Nasional.

The concoction that forms Pakatan Harapan is as bizarre as it gets. Its chairman, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, had laid the groundwork for many of the excesses of the Barisan government when he was the fourth prime minister for 22 years.

In a nutshell, they range from the over-concentration of power in the executive to crony capitalism to the suppression of civil liberties — and a great deal more in between.

Yet, he reinvented himself as the torchbearer of national rejuvenation and espoused a single-minded mission to end the rule of his former protégé Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

Along the way, he formed alliances with his political enemies, most notably Lim Kit Siang, the face of DAP, and his former deputy-turned-nemesis Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, whose party logo, depicting the eye of justice, symbolises the brutal treatment Anwar received while under arrest during Mahathir’s rule.

Ironically, Mahathir’s handshake with Anwar in October 2016 became one of the iconic moments of Pakatan’s progress as a national coalition, ending 18 years of enmity between the two leaders.

As for the obstacles that were placed in the way of Pakatan’s election chances, two stand out to signify the spirit that made the impossible happen.

One was the decision of the Registrar of Societies to deny Pakatan permission to register its logo and the other was the Election Commission’s decision to fix polling day in mid-week.

Small wonder that the pundits all felt that it was virtually impossible for Pakatan to carry the election.

But Pakatan confounded the experts through its sheer determination to achieve a higher goal — to set the country on the right path once again. For this, Pakatan parties had to put each party’s identity aside and adopt a common logo to prove to the voters that they represent a united alliance that was ready to run the government.

As for the Election Commission’s unhelpfulness, we saw how it served to galvanise voters instead of discouraging them. Some overseas voters reportedly even offered to pay for anyone who needed help to return to vote.

This underscores the power of a compelling goal to inspire people to overcome apparently unbeatable odds.

Clearly, people from all walks of life could see that the country was heading into serious trouble with the abuse of power becoming increasingly blatant.

They realised that the general election was a very precious chance to make their voice heard and no obstacle was too great to be surmounted to make change happen.

Now that the nation has won a second chance to build a glorious future, it will be crucial to cherish the spirit of May 9 to help us to rise above our differences at each stage of the difficult reformation that lies ahead.

The spontaneous mobilisation by voters also serves as a powerful reminder that the idea that a single vote or an individual action would not make a difference does not hold water.

Instead, it demonstrated to the people that the country’s welfare was intimately connected to whether they took personal responsibility for holding their representatives to account.

The people also saw that their leaders had failed them by remaining silent in the face of serious wrongdoing in high office, and therefore did not deserve their support anymore.

That’s something for people in public office, including the civil service, to think about when discharging their duties in the name of those they should be serving.

Rash Behari Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge Malaysia

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