New (R)age of Malaysian politics

MORE than anything else, from its outcome, the May 2018 general election delivered Malaysia from the paternalistic politics which had informed the country since its independence.This was an Umno construct, although in the early years, the MCA played along with it, as did the MIC, through Tun Tan Cheng Lock and his son Tun Tan Siew Sin and through Tun V.T. Sambanthan.Tunku Abdul Rahman the first prime minister, benevolent and amiable though he was, presided over a hierarchical system of due obeisance, rather feudal in nature not often associated with a modern democracy.He could get royally cross and did not enjoy being crossed. Thus it was that he decided in 1965 Singapore should be expelled from Malaysia over the objection of what was then described as the “ultras” in Umno.And, of course, he famously expelled Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad from Umno following the racial riots in 1969 when the latter accused him of bringing matters to a head by having let the Malays down.The Tunku never forgave Dr Mahathir. Nowadays we see detractors of the current prime minister digging out statements from the Tunku that Dr Mahathir will destroy Malaysia, even from writings of the Tunku’s close associates like Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, that Dr Mahathir is a fascist. People who dig these things up in present-day politics want Dr Mahathir to move on, not only to make way for Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim but also because he is deemed to be not committed to the New Malaysia as promised by Pakatan Harapan (PH) in the election.Nothing happens to these people, whether those in PH itself or, most actively, those on socialmedia. In Dr Mahathir’s first administration they would have been made to pay for their audacity.There is thus already a New Malaysia. There is now also no natural party of government. PH is a long way from it and the current strife in the deeply divided PKR — hitherto the strongest party in the PH alliance — throws up the prospect of fractious factionalised national politics.Vociferous, unforgiving, even brutal in its politics, which does not spare any political leader top to bottom with no regard for paternalistic, hierarchical and feudal order.It is appropriate that all this should be happening during the administration of the man who, in 1969, challenged hierarchical obeisance when it was felt that compelling reality must hold higher appeal.This is also the man of course, who in 1981, broke the “natural” order of Malaysian prime ministers coming from “aristocratic” houses, although not terminally, as evidenced by his successors hailing from a religious family held in awe in Penang and from an aristocratic house in Pahang.There was a sense of entitlement to be leader and prime minister in Malaysia. Although the racial and religious aspects of this expectation remain, the feudal and paternalistic hold is over.We can see from testimonies in the 1MDB-related cases the sway that feudalistic paternalism continued to have in the Malaysian political system and administration when loyalty to person was confused with interest of nation.We are now out of the mould, something not often mentioned when we talk of the New Malaysia.Coming with more difficult aspects of New Malaysia to negotiate, there will be rough politics to come. With the genie out of the bottle, the challenge for Malaysians is to be wise, discerning and balanced.There is always excess when newfound freedom breaks out or when popular victories release huge expectations. And, with social media, these excesses are multiplied.Short and sharp messages, often ill-considered, build up resentments, and cause polarisation. Politicians do not help, of course, but those not in politics should not make their ill-conceived work easier.Laws can also be introduced or reintroduced to control freedoms deemed to be irresponsibly exercised — and there are many straining at the leash to do so, such as influential elements in the Umno-Pas opposition, as well as in the “deep state”.The new order, and that aspect of the New Malaysia, can be overturned by the countervailing forces of an old regime waiting to pounce on the chance. New freedoms have to be protected. Their use with responsibility is most essential to avoid the counter-revolution.It does not mean you do not state your view. But it must come with reason and appreciation there could be another point of view. On matters of race, religion, education and the economy — grist for the mill in Malaysian politics — this is all too often forgotten.The politics of rage, revenge and impatience can well overturn the applecart that many hope will take us to the truly multi-racial New Malaysia.The writer, a former NST group editor, returns to write on local and international political affairs. He is also member of the Economic Action Council chaired by the prime minister

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