Was the opposition to BN-Umno rule, which led to the change in government in 2018, about corruption, ethnic baiting and deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, and a loss of confidence in Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s administration? Well, those are, in any case, the main points raised by analysts who have been studying the surprising turn of events since the general election.
At a superficial and immediate level, they are largely correct. But the long-term cultural dilemma that Malaysia faces runs deeper than that. As thinking over reforms now takes hold in all segments of Malaysian society, accompanied by the expected cynicism, the suspicion grows that the country’s weakness is really a politico-cultural one.
This is its time-wasting and resource-consuming propensity to politicise all issues, no matter how technical and trivial. Seen that way, the politics of identity, race and religion are probably just the natural expression of the opportunism of the politically-inclined mind, and the gullibility of the populace.
We should seriously consider the point of view that politics has poisoned and captured the Malaysian mind since Day One, and continues to dictate over it. To the extent that this is true, the interesting question to ask is how this capture is sustained, and whether it can be reversed.
Reforms that do not aim at debunking the myth of politics as the one-stop clinic for all ailments do not go far enough. Politicians are here to serve the public, more or less the way civil servants are supposed to do. Politicians should not be superstars; they should not be celebrities. And their ultimate goal should be to make themselves redundant.
By-elections being treated as general elections is a case in point. These are often minor events really, but since they happen so often, they are easily used by the political class to sustain a sense of political campaigning in the long period between one general election and the next. That way, they help distract from the hard technocratic work that good governance should be.
How the political class perpetuates its hold on society — any society — is a study the educated class, journalists and civil society activists should undertake.
But let us first define what “the political class” is. In order not to get bogged down in an academic morass over this, we should take a practical approach towards understanding it in the Malaysian context. Most narrowly, it is synonymous with “the political elite”, the people at the political summit. Such an understanding of the term, however, fails to recognise the central importance of the ecology within which the political elite requires in order to function and to remain relevant. The surrounding terrain is key, and includes those who make, or hope to make, a living out of commenting, analysing and disseminating discourses that profess the political elite to be in the middle of human collectives.
The professionalisation of the functions that keep politics hegemonic in social thought, and that therewith provide promising career paths for people, is a necessary aspect in the establishment of a polity and of its elite.
At the same time, what defines the political class is the fixation with political paradigms and with the actions that stem from that, more than with the easily recognisable careers, positions and organisations themselves. A politician can be more or less a politician. That is why we appreciate “statesmen”. A statesman, despite being a politician, very often does not think or act like one, and instead gazes beyond mere political gains, either for himself or his party.
What post-BN reformists should be thinking about in the long run should be the reversal of the ideology of reducing human life into matters of, and not the mere replacing, of politicians with other politicians. Politicking and the political class are best limited and constrained by technocratic attitudes and procedures in governance and administration. These would cover proper rule of law, a competent bureaucracy, and a population ably trained in scientific and rational thinking, among other things.
The late Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, deputy prime minister from 1969 to 1973, was known to have told young Malays seeking his advice that they should first get professional qualifications before going into politics. This would increase their chances of staying principled and financially independent. Politics as a career was not something that this reluctant politician considered a wise move for a young man or woman.
The tense relationship between more politics and more technocracy is expressed today in how Pakatan Harapan champions the rule of law and due process. But how the move away from the culture of politicisation is to happen requires the political class to loosen its grip on society, and limit its claim to be the inimitable actor in the lives of ordinary people.
Symptomatic of the hegemonic position of the political class in Malaysia is the huge role government-linked companies (GLCs) now play in the country’s economy. To my mind, what has been argued above was one reason why the Council of Eminent Persons, created by Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad immediately after he took power in May 2018, wished to reform the GLCs, limit their influence and raise their accountability.
That council functioned for 100 days, officially. But in February 2019, Mahathir again established a powerful mechanism that is to function alongside, if not above, his Cabinet. This is the Economic Advisory Commission, and to my mind, it is again an attempt to rebalance politics and technocracy such that the former is reduced in importance, and the voice of experts and technocrats made directly relevant to the formulation and implementation of policies.
To the extent that the experts and technocrats in the EAC can stay focused and aim at the long-term but necessary goal of freeing society’s socioeconomic forces from political newspeak and groupthink, Malaysia may have a chance to effectively become the happy and harmonious country it sought to be from the very beginning.
Datuk Ooi Kee Beng is executive director of Penang Institute. He is the author of The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Time. His latest book is Catharsis: A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia. Webpage: wikibeng.com.