MySay: Malaysia at a crossroads after sea change

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 20, 2018 - August 26, 2018.
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As the Pakatan Harapan government reaches its first 100 days in power, Malaysia and indeed Malaysians are, at best, still hesitating at a crossroads, albeit one that is beyond a torturous path with many hurdles.

“Torturous” partly of our own making, as over the last half a century or so after independence, we — as a people and as a nation — often vacillated between unchecked nationalism and unbridled capitalism. But those hurdles — the oppressive laws, the divisive gutter politics, economic inequality and the intimidating institutions — were no doubt artificially put up by the then powers that be to block us from crossing the line and toppling them.

And, even after we successfully changed the government relatively peacefully in a more or less orderly election, it would appear that we are still kicking around the proverbial stone at a metaphorical crossroads, wavering between boldly moving ahead to create a new socioeconomic frontier or retracing our steps to the familiar socio-political terrain of the past.

There are some members of our society who, perhaps, perceive that their entrenched benefits or even their core socio-political identities are threatened by the change in government. They choose to be misguidedly vocal about their supposed “misgivings”, demonstrating in the streets with bigoted slogans emblazoned across their obviously sponsored T-shirts or printed on colourful placards that have been handed out, clamouring for their supposed superiority to the exclusion of other “lesser” members of society.

These “activists” are ostensibly conscious of their rights to free speech and assembly, which should rightfully be treasured regardless of their socio-political leanings in a newly free society like Malaysia’s. But the same “activists” would not blink an eye at trampling upon not only the legitimate rights of other communities but also the rights of some minority groups to express their preferences. Little do these “activists” realise the underlying socio-economic causes of their perceived predicament, which were deliberately constructed over the years by the powers that be to consolidate their rule.

I am reminded at this point of the Stockholm syndrome. Taking its name from a hostage taking in Sweden’s capital, it describes a situation in which captives develop positive feelings towards their captors. After spending some time in captivity before being freed, the victims of that event actually defended their hostage takers.

Magnified to a societal level, the previous government abused its incumbency and the control of vast public resources and public institutions to essentially brainwash many of those — whom they otherwise used and abused — into believing that it was their protector and that they would be stripped of their benefits and identities if they did not repeatedly vote it in.

It was “divide and rule” at the highest level, covering up or diverting attention from corrupt acts along the way. Many saw through this insidious charade and decided finally to vote against the instigators of such horrendous brainwashing, but a sizeable number — less endowed with opportunities to open their eyes beyond the confines of the boundaries that were set — decided to staunchly defend the old guard, never mind that these were the very instigators of their perceived “miseries”.

And, perhaps there are those at the opposite end of the socio-political spectrum, loitering at the post-May 9 crossroads, who are not willing to take baby steps but want giant leaps forward, with scant if any regard to the consequences. They think idealistically that with a change of government, all the oppressive public acts should rightly be swept away, with a new Malaysia emerging as free and liberal as many Western societies.

Alas, this reminds me of my days working in international organisations nearly two decades ago. From time to time, there would be a famine in some remote, poverty-stricken corner of the world. After trekking often treacherous roads, and overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles, international relief agencies might deliver a quantity of food and other aid items to the famine victims. But deliveries were often haphazard, or  outright looting may have occurred in such difficult locations. But what was perhaps the saddest of all was that there were victims who, after getting food supplies, overate (for fear of it being snatched away or otherwise made to disappear) to such an extent that sometimes they died, not of starvation but acute indigestion because their stomachs were not used to a large quantity of food within a short span of time. Just imagine people dying of overeating in a famine hit-region!

I think that people are being  overly celebratory and expecting too much in too little time from our new government. The PH manifesto was cobbled together at a time when it did not have access to the darkest secrets of the previous government, such as mounting national debt (taking in account many lopsided sovereign guarantees and obligations) and misuse of funds.

As it is, the new government is still busy unearthing one scandal after another. The more progressive among us may say it should quickly move beyond that phase of its maturation as a government and move to end discrimination of all types once and for all and rebuild the economy. But that is easier said than done. When one takes over a dilapidated building, one must carefully inspect its foundations and structure to make sure they are safe and sound before renovating it or putting up more floors.

The backlash that would undoubtedly arise from the significant number of voters afflicted by Stockholm syndrome, must not be overlooked if the new government moves too quickly in its reforms. Such a backlash, if not tactfully handled, could deliver stunning blows in favour of the former ruling coalition in the next general election. That would indeed be a sad day for the country and its people.

A crossroads also comes with directions pointing to the left and the right, at least metaphorically, in economic terms. But this is a relatively easy choice at the moment as our steep national debt would prevent us from undertaking a left turn toward more of a welfare state. Instead, we have to veer slightly to the right in order to, frankly, make more money collectively and individually, for example, by attracting more of the right kind of investments to reinvigorate our economy.

Dr Oh Ei Sun advises policy institutes in Malaysia and abroad. He was political secretary to the prime minister from 2009 to 2011.

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