In a crisis, especially one as globe-spanning as the Covid-19 pandemic, society gets defensive and social interactions become apprehensive. Outsiders are eyed suspiciously and parochial tendencies grow strong. The moral capacity of individuals is put to the test.
The immediate and short-term responses of governments reveal their real capacity, and having that ultimate state secret revealed, those in power are disposed to seek out and exploit opportunities that a period of crisis often offers.
Crises in general constrict public discourses and naturally strengthen state power by rendering denunciations of government measures inappropriate and depicting critics to be petty and selfish.
For Malaysia, the year 2020 was when the country was to have declared itself a developed country. In April, it saw a partial reversal to the old regime that was brought down in 2018, creating much confusion at all levels and thrusting the monarchy to the forefront to ensure some semblance of stability and propriety as parliamentarians engaged much more than before in law-bending instead of law-making.
The Malaysian brand of daily politicking reached new heights, damaging all the hopes of Vision 2020 in the process.
Although the parliamentary coup that toppled the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government that was voted into office in March 2018 has survived the year, managing to suppress a series of no-confidence motions in parliament, and after getting its budget passed by the smallest of margins on Dec 15, the electoral nature evident in the budget’s formulation bodes ill for the country’s ability “to build back better” after the health and power-struggle crises of the past year.
In using ethnocentric terms in its apportionment of resources, the 2021 budget attempts to bury the notion of Bangsa Malaysia and seeks to discard the all-important cross-community aspiration of ultimate inclusiveness in Malaysian nation-building.
A reform agenda that will not go away
More so than ever since the Reformasi movement began in 1998, the imperative to reform the country away from the undemocratic and corrupt culture into which it has fallen rings loud. The PH government underestimated its enemy badly, forgetting that it had gained power with the decisive help of representatives from the previous regime. That connection was what undermined it, and was what finally so easily swept it aside.
PH took its own project too lightly; it thought reforms could be done at a leisurely pace. It was naïve enough to believe that its apparently defeated enemy would stay defeated. It believed too much in the path dependence of its march towards power.
In short, the movement as a whole did not realise what it was up against, and despite its long electoral manifesto, lacked the coherence, the cohesion and the conviction to secure its victory. It left the battlefield too early.
That amateurism cost it dearly, which is perhaps cause for optimism in the run-up to the next election. If given a second chance in power, it is unlikely that the Reformasi movement will make the same mistake again. There is no straight path towards reform, or reform would not be as needed as it obviously is.
Whatever the case, the political terrain has changed beyond recognition. The BN is a thing of the past, the dominance of Umno is no more, and PAS threatens to determine the Malay discourse. The space between extremist Islamist thought and the moderate Malay mind is more clearly contested than ever before.
A clearer path forward
Paradoxically, as non-Malay support congeals around PH, the fact that the future of Malaysia depends on the Malay community’s willingness to move beyond ethnocentrism towards citizen-centrism becomes clearer to members of that community, especially among its young.
Just as exciting is the growing interest in federal politics felt in Sabah and Sarawak. One of the most impactful change precipitated by the fall of BN is the space it has opened up for serious discussions about the sustainability of the Malaysia Project and the more egalitarian role that Sabah and Sarawak can play in it.
There is no going back to the pre-2018 era, as is shown in the confused coalitional status of the present government. While the Perikatan Nasional coalition struggles to consolidate itself, to settle its deep internal schisms and to find a stable formula for sharing power with minimal non-Malay participation, the country’s protracted economic dilemmas, the challenges that Covid-19 continues to raise, the rising competitiveness of neighbouring countries, and the geostrategic impact of the US-China trade war all require a united society and an agile government to manage.
All that the political tussles have achieved is to waste valuable time, time that the country simply does not have anymore.
“Reform or fail” is now the given slogan for Malaysia in the coming decade.
Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His latest book is As Empires Fell: The Life and Times of Lee Hau-Shik, the First Finance Minister of Malaya (ISEAS 2020).