Sunday, 8 March 2009

Satu Tahun Kemudian

(Ed: This is a loong piece, but it is very dear to my heart. Please read it when you're free, and of course, feel free to comment.)

I was not is Malaysia a year ago on this day. I was pursuing my undergrad degree at a university in a different country. But even there, I immersed myself in the national elections with help from the Internet. I read a plethora of news sites, blogs, webzines and opinion pieces to compensate for being so far away from the action. I kept up with campaign news long before poling day, and noted the young new candidates, party developments and the emergence of a new coalition to rival the ruling one. News reached me at virtually the same time it reached anyone at home, so by poling day, I was truly under election fever. It was the first general election after I felt I had gained politically maturity and the first one where I was eligible to vote (although I could not due to being abroad), so it was a Big Deal to me.

On the day itself, I was riveted by the chain of events happening thousands of miles away, unraveling before me in words, images and videos on a 13 inch laptop screen. It all seemed so big, so unbelievable, so much more drastic (and dramatic) than what I had expected. It was an exciting time to be Malaysian, even when I wasn't in Malaysia. The morning papers called it a 'Political Tsunami', and there is no doubt that that phrase has entered the vernacular of ordinary Malaysians, just as there is no doubt that that event is an important one in the narrative of our young nation, still struggling to find its identity and place in the world. There has been a stream of books published in the wake of the 'Tsunami', but one day, the history books will tell of it, too. I don't think it is excessive to say that it is a day that shall live in infamy, at least for Malaysians.

While its importance is not to be downplayed, it is also not to be overblown. Yes, we have never seen the ruling coalition lose its two-third majority, nor the change of administration in 5 State Assemblies. It took us aback, all of us, even the politicians (especially the politicians?), but we must remember that in developed countries with mature democracies, changes like these happen often, and they are seen as healthy because they prevent political inefficiency, corruption and stagnation.

Movements away from over-concentration of power on any side will lead to power being genuinely balanced and spread out, both horizontally and vertically (i.e. through the breath of a political institutiona and from the highest levels of government to the lowest), resulting in a strong check and balance, preventing abuses of power and complacency on all sides. Furthermore, in the long run, political parties will try to win the support of a broader spectrum of voters because its power's base is not guaranteed. To do this, parties will usually (although not always) push themselves away from extremes on the political spectrum (because the center is where most voters are found). What this means is that we shouldn't see what happened a year ago as a one-off fluke shot, but as a step towards political maturity.

While March 8th amazed and stunned us, we must also remember that as Malaysians, there is still far, far more that we must do in moving our country towards a liberal democracy, regardless of which side of the fence we are on. The hardest of these steps is changing our minds, our entrenched paradigms and ways of thinking, and coming out of our restrictive and often invisible mental boxes. I figure that there is no more apt a day than today to talk about this, the first anniversary of that unforgettable day.

For supporters of either political coalition, March 8th was seen as a crushing blow to Barisan Nasional. This is true in one sense, in that they lost power that they assumed they were entitled to. But we must see it from another perspective, a wider one. We must see it as a chance for Barisan, a coalition that has no doubt contributed much to nation building (its mistakes and crimes notwithstanding), to do some soul searching, some exorcism, some reaching out, some listening, and most importantly, to change, and change radically. Change that will enable it not to regain immediate power, but long term, sustainable viability and political relevance. Malaysians, regardless of political affiliation, will benefit from this because in the long run, if Pakatan Rakyat were to gain the unchallenged endorsement that Barisan has enjoyed since independence, in 50 years time that power will make PR the BN of today—they will be the ones who will be smug and face dissatisfaction.

Let us not fool ourselves; power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That is the inherent nature of power: it enables as much as it debases. But this is precisely why we need a liberal democracy, because in such a set-up, power is spread and shared and it changes hands often, and no side or individual is unfettered in his use of authority. Liberal democracy does not embrace majoritarianism, where the one who leads the biggest mob is king. Inherent to liberal democracy is pluralism, inclusion and dialogue: a voice and concern for minorities and co-operation from the majority, as well as space for multiple interests to be given attention. Inherent in liberal democracy is also fair-play: those who win never win so much that they can silence or cripple their opponents permanently (see Zimbabwe).

Legitimacy and viability on both factions would, in the long term, serve the interests of both sides because gains and losses, big or small, initiate political evolution which will keep both parties on their toes as well as prevent complacency and institutional dysfunction. This was exactly what cost BN so much: it was entrusted with so much confidence and power for so long that it ended up taking up its fuction to serve for granted, because there was no one to really challenge it. In the long run, it will not be good for Malaysia if either side is absolutely powerless, regardless of the short term gains. Unfortunately, that is what NEITHER side seems to understand at the moment. At this moment it seems that BOTH sides seem greedy to grab as much as possible by any means necessary.

Because Barisan has been the government for so long, as a child I always saw it as the government, rather than a coalition serving as one. There seemed to be no possibility or need in my mind of having it any other way, until I learnt more about what democracy really means: that through free and fair elections, any party may become the government, and any government can turn into the opposition. While March 8 was clearly a sign that my childhood assumption about BN was unfounded, we must remember that it is still entrenched in the minds of many Malaysians, including politicians from both sides. Let us ask ourselves: how many voters a year ago voted for a new government, rather that voted against the existing one? It is impossible to give numbers, of course, but in light of the events and anger building up to March 8th, I do not think it is completely wrong to think that many people put in protest votes, and that they were surprised by the scale of the outcome of their actions.

Note that I am making no value judgment here: even if PR gained many votes due to frustration and anger, those votes are still valid, and the rakyat must take what it asked for. What PR needs to do now seems obvious to me, as it should to anyone: lead well in the states it has won, and maintain support while winning more on the national level, not grapple for immediate power. If it can convince Malaysians that the power entrusted to it a year ago is and will be used responsibly and wisely, then in future elections, people will vote for PR because they want them to rule, not because they are protesting (after all if you're protesting this time, you'd be voting in BN). This is what governing in a democracy is: hard, painstaking work at building not just states and countries, but trust. (With great power comes?). It is even more difficult considering the political position of PR's component parties: an Islamist party, a secular leftist party, and a party which promotes racial pluralism but is ambiguous when in comes to where its policy lies on the political spectrum.

But hard work must be done, because there is no other way that will work peacfully in the long run. Sure, there are faster ways (re: crossovers), but they are inherently undemocratic, and should not be tolerated, let alone encouraged, no matter which side you're on. I am not holding on blindly to a meaningless ideal—the fact is that crossovers are simply not sustainable ways of gaining power in the long run. How legitimate is power that is taken heavy handedly or by disagreeable means, regardless of questions on its legality? How long is it going to last? If anything, it angers people because it is seen as unethical and unfair: thousands of voters choices are distorted or disregarded by the actions of a few. It will eventually backfire when they vote against you the next time around. You have gained short term power but destroyed long term trust, and trust is the cornerstone of good politics. It is easy to lose, but not easy to gain back.

When party-hopping reaches epic levels, chaos will sooner or later ensue. If you are on Side A and you invite, entice or coerce members from the Side B to come over, where will their political allegiance really lie? How sure are you that they will do your bidding? How do you know they will not be invited, enticed, coerced back by Side B? How do you manage the anger amongst their constituents? Anger which will translate into votes for the other side. It will all be confusing, unstable and very messy: no one is really on anyone's side and everyone is fair game. Politics will then degenerate into a bullying or buying game based on fear or favour, not electoral support and trust. Elections will ultimately be meaningless. If you are on either side, who can you trust? Who can we trust? The political turmoil will ultimately cost the country dearly on many levels.

What BN needs to do seems less clear. In my humble view, I believe that the best thing for it to do is to move away from racialist politics and towards centrist policies, as well as initiate reforms in internal power structures and external public relations, but I know this is no easy feat for parties whose entire existence is based on race. It will take not just able and astute political leadership but cooperative support from party members, both of which BN seems to lack. Instead, what we find is a coalition (and leading party) which, one year later, is still sore and worse, is embittered. It seems that, as far as Barisan is concerned, it is still entitled to govern Malaysia by divine grace, and its job is to ensure that this will forever be so, by hook or by crook. It is more than willing to use questionable means of wrestling away power, but as I have said, this will eventually backfire. It is more than willing to move towards the further away from the political center, and this will alienate far more people than it will win over. What it needs to do is what any other party which loses needs to do: learn the bitter lesson and work hard to regain trust and support by changing and improving. Yet this seems to be the last thing on the minds of its leaders.

Malaysia faces an unfortunate heritage that many post-colonial countries face (and in some ways even the United States is a post-colonial country): the social and political definition of the self through race/tribe/ethnicity and religion, which then leads to segregation, lack of empathy and tension amongst groups. It has also led racialist politics to be the unquestioned modus operandi of our country for far too long. It will take years to undue this, but it must be undone, if we are at all to find lasting peace. And when I say it must be undone, I mean it must be undone by all of us. Too many Malaysians believe that marking 2 X's on ballot papers, then putting them in boxes, is the most they need to do as a citizen. Let me put it to you that that should be seen as the bare minimum.

What I mean is not that every clerk, doctor, tea-lady and student should suddenly be involved in party politics. What I mean is that we cannot simply leave nation building to our politicians alone. In fact that is the mortal mistake that many of us (including myself) have committed: we entrusted too much to our leaders, and then expected too much in return, only to shout and scream when they abuse the broad powers we gave them. We need to be aware that we all have an interest in the wellbeing of our nation and fellow citizens, and we need to change the way we think of our roles as citizens. It will not be easy to do it, but it is of the utmost importance if we are to progress as a nation.

We have to learn to take back that power from our leaders and understand that we can play a greater role in the decisions which ultimately affect all of us. This has been one of the admirable traits of the Obama campaign and administration in the US: it has empowered Americans to believe in themselves and take action during the campaign, and attempted to allow for more involvement of ordinary Americans in decision making in the administration. In other words, America is already moving slowly from a liberal democracy to a direct democracy.

It will be difficult to put powers back into our hands, firstly because our leaders will not give it back easily, but also because we ourselves can't fathom what rakyat-led democracy means, nor its implications on our everyday lives. 'Grassroots' simply doesn't mean a thing to so many of us because we've been powerless followers for so long. But 'People Power' is more than just being able to mark an X for 'Dacing' or 'Roket' or 'Mata' or 'Bulan' every 5 years. That is only the start.

We must now learn to wisely exercise our democratically granted right to speak: to our leaders, our followers, our friends and our family, and through all means: our blogs, our meetings, our debates, our forums, our press, our NGO's, our letters to MP's and our coffee-shop chats. We must also be careful never to preach hate nor ignite violence, and to ignore those who do, but rather to debate properly, civilly and openly . We have to speak out against brutality, totalitarianism and extremism, against racism, against poor governance and corruption. We must voice up what we believe is right, and peacefully but firmly show our dissatisfaction at what we believe to be wrong, or we will be counted as tacitly agreeing to it.

We also need to actively remove prejudices both in ourselves and amongst our friends. We strongly need to move away from ethnic or religious stereotypes and stop accepting racial slurs, and we need to engage with cultures that are not our own to promote understanding. It need not be speeches to an audience of hundreds; it can be as basic as raising awareness at our weekly mamak sessions, and reaching out to learn more about our neighbours from other races. It is as simple as seeing a person as a person first and foremost, not an Indian, a Chinese, or a Malay. Unless we end our preoccupation with race, we will never move on and start working together towards a Malaysia we can truly call home and be proud of.

We need to learn (and this is a painful lesson) that countries are admired and successful not because they have nice race tracks and super tall buildings and shinny big airports and the world's largest curry puff or longest pencil, but because their citizens are fair-minded, civil, progressive and tolerant, resourceful, efficient, well educated (I don't mean in terms of schooling), hardworking and united, and because their governments are free from totalitarianism and corruption, but are characterised by transparency, respect for the separation of powers, inclusiveness and open discussion, and are led by responsible and wise leaders.

We have to learn that we cannot wait even for ourselves to reach positions of leadership, because by then we would be too tired, too busy, too distracted or too tainted. We need to get things moving now, by activism in ways big and small, far and near, regardless of whether we are a school janitor or a leading politician. We need to speak aloud, immediately, fearlessly, and with one thing clear in our minds: we will not be silenced. Only then will our leaders listen, and only then will there even START to be a place for us in decision making.

Which now leads me to my sad conclusion. What troubles me most is not our embarrassing politicians, but our embarrassing youth. I believe in what I have written above, nevermind that I am young, inexperienced, foolish and hopelessly idealistic. But so few of my peers seem to believe the same. From my personal experience, we, who are most expected to take advantage of the hard work our forefathers, as well as move away from their prejudices and poor decisions, are as tragically ignorant and bigoted as they are. So many of us are inconsiderate, selfish and shallow.

Where is the anger at injustice and oppresion? The hunger for change? The idealism? The fire in our eyes? The courage in our hearts? The loud calls for progress? The criticism of authoritarianism? The rejection of racism? I do not hear it amongst my immediate friends. Instead, I find political apathy, helplessness or indifference. Worse still, I find that my friends, tragically, still think along racial lines. Until we can see past the colour of outer skin into the inner character found in a man's heart, I fear that unity will continue to be nothing more than a topic for poster painting competitions in primary schools. I can only hope that my peers do not represent Malaysia's youth as a whole, otherwise God save us!

One year on, and the dust has yet to fully settle on March 8th, 2008. Our politicians are still mocking us, playing games when the world economy is practically collapsing before our eyes. We are still trapped in old ways of thinking, and are still as racially divided as ever, when this very crisis requires us to work together and put differences aside. Every day I lose more and more hope in my country. March 8th may have been the day Malaysia awoke, but I hope that she does not go for a long snooze, or worse, back to sleep. If we have trully awaken, we must now move on to action, and to greater things. Inilah doaku buat Malaysia tercinta.


Anonymous said...

"Where is the anger at injustice and oppresion?"
Migrating, I think.

I wholly agree that we have to change ourselves first before we begin to change others (and the country etc.); I admit I've tolerated "racial jokes" and stereotypes from close friends before, sadly, which in the long run wouldn't help anything at all...

I share your ideas/beliefs (perhaps lacking the optimism); but if Malaysia manages to begin stepping in the right direction (less sexism, racism, etc.), you can be sure I'll play a part in it.

Loved the article.

Algernon said...

"Migrating, I think". Hahaha. I think you've nailed it, Anon. That is the other tragedy of our country. Not just the brain drain but the spirit drain as well. People just feel they'd not only be richer but happier elsewhere.

Racial jokes can sometimes be said within contexts that mock the joke, not the race. I used to have friends from all races sit at the same table and tell such jokes, even about their own race, and we laughed not because we believed them, but because the stereotypes where outlandish and ridiculous. Ironically, it made us closer knowing we universally dismissed the stereotypes.

Now, all those friends are overseas!

You may lack the optimism, but I am losing mine.

I was trying to figure out who you were, but it's better that I don't know. I'll just imagine you as every person I misjudged telling me he/she does care for change after all, that I was wrong. So thank you.

gj said...

Malaysia will never truly embrace "liberal democracy" I think. There is so much abuse, misunderstanding, and pure stupidity even with a written constitution.

We do need more empowered (not with bigotry) youths but sadly our education system lacks the essentials for such a thing. If anything, I'd start with the eradication of all vernacular schools and put all students under one education system. It may be flawed, but i think it's a good first step towards a more integrated young generation.

However, it must be cautioned that before that can happen, the educational institutions must be separate from any political interference. Although our unis are imbued with it's own powers now, in reality it's just a big joke. Unqualified people are elected onboard..I'd say stupid even, though perhaps not in the academic sense but rather in everything else.

Then maybe... more vibrant and opinionated youths? :)

Algy said...

It is precisely because we have so much abuse, and misunderstanding and pure stupidity around that we must embrace it. It will not solve these problems, but will create avenues and awareness and space for dialogue to overcome them. We cannot let things be, because if we do, things won't remain the same, they will deteriorate. Soon our democracy will be merely democracy in name. We must stop such a regression by nipping out such elements (meddling of powers, authoritarianism, corruption, nepotism, etc) as soon as we can. Never say never, my friend.

I agree fully that our education system is inadequate in many ways, and a unified system would indeed do much good. But query whether removing vernacular schools would create the a progressive, tolerant, inquisitive and civic minded young generation, or merely a apathetic one who just happen to be united in their language but nothing else?

If our education still teaches us to see each other as races first, humans second, and if it teaches us never to question, never to try and never to speak out against wrongdoing, then it still won't make a difference. Form is one thing, substance is another; as you have implied, it is the first step, and there will still be much more to be done.

It is difficult to separate politics from education, especially at primary and secondary levels, but yes, I agree that our tertiary education is shameful in that respect. But again, how much will political separation help if our students don't care either way? If we look at Singapore, their universities are politically neutered but their graduates are still more civic minded and progressive.

Of course I am not advocating political involvement, I'm just saying I am not sure if it will necessarily produce political activism or progressiveness. Nonetheless, it is a commendable step in the right direction, and so I support it wholeheartedly even if immediate signs are unseen. It starts with the first step, right? The biggest irony is that we cannot have political parties in local universities, but are allowed to join (Malaysian) political parties in other countries.

I am trying to figure out, how do we move people to action from the bottom up? To change the country we must change ourselves first, that is the message I want to preach, but I admit that it is a message even I find hard to practice at times. It is just so much easier to give in.

Why did we even end up like this? What happened to the activism, the courage, the political awareness of our forefathers when they fought colonialism? Why has that social capital not been transferred down to us? Why is it lost? Where has it gone? Have we been too easily pleased by outside signs of progress that we have forgotten the need for inner growth of character? That is the question I ask today...

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