Malaysias long road to change Asia Sentinel

Published: 20 June 2015 10:17 PM

The headline issues behind Malaysias current political crisis often puzzle outside observers, not just for the specific and sometimes bizarre details but for what they reveal about a system designed to maintain the status quo at all costs.

Taken in the current context, it is remarkable that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak remains in power. In an actual democracy instead of the kind of purpose-built one-party state in Malaysia he would presumably be long gone and perhaps in the dock.

The 1Malaysia Development Berhad debacle, with its overtones of greed, political favouritism and inside deals is exactly the kind of sleaze that should and does bring down governments worldwide.

Add to that the lingering issue of the 2006 murder of the misbegotten Mongolian party girl Altantuya Shaariibuu by bodyguards linked to Najib, the shamelessly cooked-up jailing of long-suffering opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, the poisonous stew of bitter racial politics manipulated by the ruling elite and the widespread disgust with the acquisitive ways of Najibs wife, Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, and it is a wonder that anyone can keep a straight face while claiming Malaysias system is anything but a thinly disguised playpen for the Barisan National and its cronies.

Still, and finally, we may be witnessing the endgame in the countrys painful transition from the 20th century politics and governance that started with the transition from British colonialism to rule by the Barisan Nasional, the race-based coalition of political parties led by Umno.

In power since 1957, BN is the worlds longest-ruling parliamentary coalition.

Malaysia, a much richer and more sophisticated country now than it was when the kampung could so easily be fooled by the elite, may finally have no choice but to adapt to the demands of the 21st century and the digital era.

Finding its own way

If it happens it wont be anything like the Arab Spring, the sudden downfall of Indonesias Suharto or the tumultuous and joyous chaos favoured by the Philippines when its people and elites overthrow governments.

Instead it will be the result of a long, frustrating process that began with Anwars premature and frustrated effort to supplant then-prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1998 during the chaos of the Asian financial crisis.

Curiously, 17 years after those first attempts at reformasi, it almost looks as if the country is back where it started.

Dr Mahathir is lashing out, only this time at the sitting PM, Anwar is back in prison on trumped up charges, the PM is again facing a financial scandal.

But in those days, Anwars movement had virtually no media voice. His supporters dreamed to no avail of a radio station that might take up the cudgels.

But in keeping with the digital age, todays political drama is being played out on the Internet by contending blogs and social media chatter that even has the royalty getting in on the act, such as the Johor Crown Princes recent weighing in via Facebook.

Malaysians are also skewering Najib and Rosmah with vicious spoofs on YouTube.

It remains for the system to catch up with the popular mood and realise that Malaysia will stand still or go in reverse if racial gerrymandering and rank corruption prevail over change.

Perhaps the real significance of the recent tantalising news that Najibs powerful banker brother, Datuk Seri Nazir Razak, is poised to lead an NGO that will seek to build a unity government is that big business may finally be putting the nations best interests ahead of the payoffs and perks handed out by Umno.

Indeed, if Umno chooses to align itself with the medieval minds of PAS in imposing shariah law and hudud amputations in parts of the country as a cynical way of clinging to power, an admirably modern business sector that has accomplished much could see itself mortally damaged.

The long race

Here is one way to look at this marathon drama: 1998 marked the year when Malaysians first threw off the shackles of fear by protesting in the streets.

They marched, they had no fear of being arrested, they began speaking out. Later, Internet sites like Malaysiakini, Malaysia Today and The Malaysian Insider kept the flames of free thought alive at a time when the mainstream media were all owned by the ruling political parties.

In 2008, a decade later, this manifested itself in the electoral field. The ruling coalition lost its two-thirds majority in parliament to the Anwar-led opposition; the then-PM was shown the door by his party colleagues led by Dr Mahathir and Najib took over.

But in the 2013 election, BN did even worse. Its taken 17 years to get to this point, but the once-unthinkable question is finally being asked by more and people: is Malaysias single-party-rule system finally in its death throes?

Unlike more obvious dictatorships such as those that once existed in the Philippines and Indonesia, Malaysias collective party-certified dictators could hide under the guise of legality. That curtain is falling away and the only system most Malaysians have ever known seems as close as it has ever been to real change.

That such change carries with it risks and unease is certainly the case. The alternative a seemingly crooked and ossified elite clinging to power through corruption, court manipulation and racism seems far worse.

Just as other countries have found a way forward without their once-entrenched despots, we are certain Malaysia will find its path., June 20, 2015.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.