The long-awaited change in government in Malaysia is now a fact, but the question to ask now is how committed to across-the-board reforms can the new ruling coalition be, led as it is by a 93-year-old prime minister who is scheduled to leave within two years, and given the internal distrust that is natural to expect from a government made up of four parties, one of which is only three years old, and another that is just two years old.
More to the point, are the disparate leaders in Pakatan Harapan able to imagine the New Malaysia well enough to believe in realising it, and do they possess enough political and strategic skills as well as cohesion to force the pace and stay the course?
Although bringing down the Barisan Nasional was practically not imaginable until it actually did happen, reforming Malaysia into an economically vibrant and politically solid nation is showing itself to require a cohesion in policymaking and a boldness in strategy that appears to have already pushed the PH to its limits.
To provide a fair analysis of how the PH can be expected to fare in coming months, one has to acknowledge that the time for reforms in Malaysia was long delayed by the effective measures in ethno-populism, systemic manipulation and draconian intimidation undertaken by the long-serving BN government.
Change delayed for too long?
The crucial question now is, has the ailment of rampant identity politics infected the marrow of the nation? Was the patient able to get into the emergency room for surgery only after the cancer had reached a critical stage?
As with all critical diseases, the cure relies both on the potency of the medication — meaning the efficacy of the new government — and the condition of the body’s immune system that is the strength of the belief that Malaysian society still has in the viability of its cultural pluralism.
Indeed, it is only when its leaders and its people feel that the country is still meant for bigger things that a New Malaysia can be perceived in practical and strategically effective terms. Lacking that, the new government will find it hard to move beyond the slogans and changes developed over the last few elections to defeat the BN, all expressed in the PH election manifesto for effect.
Without a properly developed process of reform, knee-jerk statements and quasi-policies, noteworthy more for their ad hoc nature than for being integrated, are to be expected from a government searching for direction. These measures will fail to inspire and will prove easy for the conservatives to counteract. The ICERD fiasco comes to mind.
A reform movement is nothing if it is not able to inspire its followers.
It is in this context that PH and DAP strategist Liew Chin Tong, who is also the deputy minister of defence, has cried out for a national narrative to be properly formulated and concertedly proliferated. Given that the election was won to a significant extent on socioeconomic dissatisfaction among voters, such a narrative will need to build on the struggle against the ample gaps in income, in information technology, in education and in entrepreneurial spirit existing in the country today, after 60 years of ethnocentric policy making.
Let Vision 2020 meet Reformasi
With Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim leading PH, one would think that their ministries would have enough brain power and strategic sense to work together to merge ideas from Vision 2020 (functional between 1991 and 1998, Malaysia’s economic golden age) with those expressed so excellently by the Reformasi Movement (effective in 1998 to 2018 as the backbone of the country’s re-democratisation process), to create such a narrative.
Six decades of BN rule fuelled by a popularly embraced agenda of identity politics and ethnic divide-and-rule “nation building” has left scars that only a bold and insightful micro-surgeon can mend. For the PH government to be that surgeon, it needs to show humility and openness even as it asks that the public show it patience and understanding.
There is much public goodwill for the new government to draw upon as yet, but public goodwill unmatched by inspiring leadership (or worse, met by petty and confusing infighting within the ruling coalition) soon turns into public bewilderment and disappointment. And disappointment at a time when there is no viable alternative to turn to leads to despair, cynicism and anger on a grand scale.
Recognising key areas where reforms must first take place, and putting all energy and resources into these chosen priorities, are basic to any agenda for real societal and institutional change. Much resistance will come from within the ranks of PH, either for fear of losing votes or for lack of the imagination needed to understand the comprehensive nature of societal change.
For each of the four PH parties, putting the most promising and most competent persons in the right positions appears already compromised by the wish to follow party hierarchies and to reward those who had fought hardest or longest against the old regime. Winning the war is, of course, not the same thing as winning the peace, and a good general may make a bad minister.
The sorry past naturally also lives within the PH, thriving as long as the eagerness for reform is stymied by a lack of a sanctioned list of priorities — a national narrative, in effect — to follow.
If PH should fail in reforming the nation, then one has to draw the conclusion that the time for reform was delayed too long, and the damage done has gone too deep to be remedied by a coalition government made up of the fragmented parts that the divide-and-rule politics of 60 years of BN created, and led by equally disjointed leaders. Should that be the sad outcome, then perhaps disaster awaits the country.
Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His recent books include Catharsis: A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia, and The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World. (Website: www.wikibeng.com).