And so the General Election is finally here. 5th May 2013, a date some are calling, to borrow a phrase from Nehru, our tryst with destiny, and yet others, our day of reckoning. There is no doubt that there is electricity in the air as Malaysians wait out these final days for the General Election that seemed to have taken forever to materialise. This election, it would seem, represents a true opportunity for something.
For many, the decision of who to vote for, one way or the other, was made the day the 12th general election results were announced on that fateful day in March 2008. Others though, made less certain by the events since then, have an important decision to make. It is perhaps to this constituency that I offer my comments.
I wrote in February (“A heartfelt choice”) of the three primary issues, as I see them, that ought to determine our electoral choices: the rule of law, corruption, and social inclusiveness. I stand by that determination and reiterate that if we are truly concerned about the future of our young, then our choices must be made on the basis that any government we vote in ought have at the forefront of their policy framework measures that address these subjects.
It appears however that these concerns, as fundamental as they are to some of us, do not seem to resonate as strongly with others. Political loyalties, vested interests, fear, amongst other things, are obscuring the implications of our circumstance. They ask whether there is anything wrong with the way things are. After all, it is suggested, Malaysia has done fairly well for itself all things considered. It is no coincidence that the Barisan Nasional campaign is aimed at reminding voters of this as well as warning them of the implications of change. The unsubtle message that is screamed from billboards and advertisement in the mainstream media, leave no room for doubt as to the point the Barisan Nasional makes.
I think Malaysians need to remember that we have a harmonious society because we are a harmonious people. We have stability in spite of, and not because, of our political leaders. Even the most cursory look at the events of the last three decades would reveal a campaign of divide and rule on the part of those leaders, one intent on reminding us of, and playing up to, our differences. No matter how one dresses it up, the politics of race and religion is devastatingly divisive. And yet, we have managed to live together in peace, weathering potential points of crisis that were contrived to render the goodwill that continuous coexistence over generations nurtured. This is not only a point of pride; it is a deep source of confidence and inspiration. We are a resilient people and we must not forget that.
I appreciate that this in itself is not enough to convince those who harbour doubts about embracing the uncertain. It is however a good point to start any consideration of what it is we should be doing when we stand before the ballot box. It also sets the context for the choice that we have to make.
It is not a choice, as some might have you believe, between Najib Razak and Anwar Ibrahim, or even between the Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat. It is rather a choice that is far more fundamental, one between leaving the way things are now and doing things a different way. This is where the question of what is wrong with the way things are now comes up.
I could attempt to answer this by pointing to all those things that I think are deeply problematic once more. Allow me however to adopt a different approach by asking instead whether we could be doing things differently in a way that would allow us, the nation, to achieve what our potential truly enables us to.
In a recent article for Bloomberg, William Pesek argued “Malaysia needs to more to get off the road to mediocrity”. In explaining his position, Pesek very credibly argued that the nation’s biggest problem is complacency and that in being change resistant, the government has allowed “nations as diverse as China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam to leapfrog us” to a point where Malaysia is now competing with them for “the same infrastructure dollars, factory projects, bond deals and stock issues.” Singapore, has in the meanwhile, he further asserts, “become the beneficiary of many of Malaysia’s best and brightest, who have emigrated in search of a more merit-based economy.”
It is difficult to credibly argue against this. Just as it is to argue against the obvious need on our part to introduce “reforms that will revitalise the system as a whole”.
Cynics might sneer at this as being wildly theoretical or, alternatively, point to the reforms that the Government has promised us. The problem with the reform-speak of the Government thus far is that it has remained as not much more than rhetoric. True reform would mean, amongst other things, dismantling the construct that the Barisan Nasional depends on for its own vested interests. Pesek insightfully describes the difficulty that the coalition faces as Najib Razak having to navigate
“a 13-party coalition whose interests are as entrenched as any in the world. His partners are pushing back quite assertively, afraid of losing the Malay vote they could once take for granted.”
It is no surprise therefore that Ibrahim Ali has been permitted to contest as a candidate in Pasir Mas over the Barisan Nasional candidate assigned to constituency and Zulkifli Nordin is now mysteriously championing the cause of Indians in Shah Alam. Perkasa is the kind of right-wing vehicle that some of Najib Razak’s partners prefer notwithstanding it being the antithesis of “1 Malaysia”.
True reform is not about to happen as along as the Barisan Nasional remains the way it is. In the aftermath of the 2008 General Election, there were rumblings from within that change was needed. Some five years later, the changes have largely been cosmetic. So much so that I think it is reasonable to conclude that the Barisan Nasional will not reform itself unless it is forced to. What Pesek suggests cannot be dismissed as the ramblings of a foreigner who knows nothing about the country. He has put in words what many of us think but are reluctant to say.
The truth is that our economy is not as vibrant as we have been led to believe. A raft of laws designed to keep critical information away from us has left us dangerously ignorant of the true economic status of the nation. From what is visible to us, the outlook is gloomy. We should remind ourselves that Idris Jala, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department said in 2010 that unless we rein in borrowings and subsidies, we could be facing bankruptcy by 2019, our trajectory reflecting that of Greece. Instead of reigning in spending and subsidies, we have experienced spending and subsidising in the intervening period on an unprecedented scale. Money, it would seem, is going out of fashion in Malaysia. So much so that the Government is literally giving it away.
Add to that endemic corruption and one is left to wonder whether Malaysians are ever going to have another opportunity to try to bring us back from the brink.
I am not saying that the Pakatan Rakyat is the answer to all our problems. It too is saddled with its own difficulties and deficiencies. The premise of its campaign however points to systemic reform of a kind that indicates a potential start to the gargantuan task of righting the ship of state. Amongst them is a promise that the rule of law will be reinstated.
If nothing more, this offers a new way of looking at things and offers a more certain way to remove the Pakatan Rakyat from government when the time comes. And at the very least that offers us a chance at establishing the more conventional system of government that the founders of the Constitution envisaged and ridding ourselves of autocracy.
I think that is a choice worth making.
(This comment was first published in The Edge, 27.04.2013 as "A choice worth making")