Excerpt — Reform and Nation-Building: Essays on Socio-Political Transformation in Malaysia

Reform and Nation-Building Book Cover

Sharifah Munirah Alatas is a scholar and author whose writings focus on Malaysian politics, civil society, good governance, higher education reform and the future direction of universities. In late 2023, AAS Publications will release Reform and Nation-Building: Essays on Socio-Political Transformation in Malaysia, an Asia Shorts collection of articles by Alatas that discuss recent elections, higher education, and prospects for the country’s future. Delving into the far-reaching consequences of corruption, identity politics, failed reforms, and short-sighted attempts to imitate foreign models, Alatas takes on the most deeply rooted problems of Malaysian governance and society. Throughout it all, however, she maintains that change remains possible and that hope for the future is not futile. In this excerpt from the book’s conclusion, Alatas explains why in the face of so many obstacles she remains optimistic for Malaysia’s future prospects. 

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Outlook for the Future

After four years of sociopolitical instability (2018–2022), Malaysia is precariously but positively transforming. Due to the weak support that Prime Minister Ismail Sabri had—mainly a divisive political crisis within his party that was exacerbated by mounting economic and financial problems brought on by pandemic-related policies—early general elections (GE15) were called on November 19, 2022. The battle was between the two main contending coalitions, Pakatan Harapan (PH 2.0), led by Anwar Ibrahim, and Perikatan Nasional (PN), led by Muhyiddin Yassin, the former prime minister. It was the most intense in Malaysia’s election history. It resulted in a hung parliament, a political impasse for the first time in the nation’s history. No political party or coalition obtained the simple majority that was required to form the new government. However, PH 2.0 emerged as the largest winning block with the most parliamentary seats. The king (Agong) subsequently advised on a solution to the impasse and decreed the formation of a “unity” government. On further advice from the Conference of Rulers, Anwar Ibrahim was appointed as prime minister five days after Election Day.

Many can recall that on the day the results of the May 9, 2018, elections were released, the media declared it (affectionately) “the day that shook Malaysia.” After the results of GE15 were announced, there were similar sentiments, albeit a little subdued but nevertheless very enthusiastic. Yet again, the Malaysian voters demonstrated through the ballot box exactly what they wanted for the nation, and they gave PH 2.0, and diversity, a second chance. Hence, GE15 ought to qualify as “the day that shook Malaysia 2.0.” It was proof that the Malaysian public is venturing beyond the “trappings” of democracy (i.e., voting for the sake of having that right). They are proactive, hopeful, and less cynical. They are capable of voting corrupt and nonperforming leaders out of office, which is a sign of the growing political maturity in our society. The reality is that it has become increasingly impossible to accept blatantly unjust leaders who flaunt their corruption and feudal traits, as well as their privileged and selfish lifestyles. Weigh this against the growing difficulties facing Malaysians who find it increasingly difficult to live a healthy and happy life. Access to affordable and safe housing, adequate nutritious food, and clean water can no longer be taken for granted. It is also clear to every honest taxpaying Malaysian that the future of the country depends on its ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity, just as how instability will persist when the greedy privileged elite continue to neglect the people and nation building. The last two general elections are proof that the voting Malaysian public has matured considerably.

By the time Anwar Ibrahim took over as prime minister, the country was economically battered, which was due to a combination of the fallout from a global pandemic and the disruptions in the supply-chain economy of Southeast Asia that were precipitated by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in February 2022. By this time, the nation also reached political and social exhaustion from three unstable governments.

After two historic general elections (2018 and 2022), the nation has had four prime ministers in five years. This is historically unprecedented and, to a certain extent, psychologically disruptive for any society. Nevertheless, an explanation of “historically unprecedented” is needed here. For six decades, Malaysians have been accustomed to a one-party “governance” within what is projected as a democratic system. The people had endured sixty-one years of the Barisan Nasional (and UMNO-dominated) government, including tolerating the premiership of one individual over twenty-two years (1981–2003) and helplessly witnessing the incredulous accumulation of wealth among the political elite, top civil servants, and business cronies linked to politics. One is able to draw parallels between the endemic levels of corruption in Malaysia and ex-PM Mahathir Mohamad’s controversial ideas in his 1970 book, Dilema Melayu (the Malay Dilemma).

Mahathir criticized Malay politics of the 1970s, saying politics was the panacea that allowed for the accumulation of wealth and power among a few Malay elites. He wrote that politics brought “laws and policies that placed some Malays in a position to acquire great wealth, or at least a good livelihood without trying too hard.” Malaysian scholar Farish Noor aptly writes, “For at the heart of Mahathir’s ideology in 1970 was the enduring belief in the values and practices of feudalism and neo-feudal political culture. This becomes clear when we see how he defends the values and practices of feudalism itself.” Mahathir was correct then in highlighting the excesses of those in power, but he was practically silent about the expanding neo-feudal political culture under his twenty-two-year tenure as prime minister. Since 1970, not much has changed.

In fact, corruption has grown, and the wealth of political elites and their families has multiplied, enabled by feudal political culture. It is clear that this despicable culture gives new definition to politics and governance in Malaysia, where it is no longer about serving the public for the greater good or for nation building. Over the decades, corruption ensued because Malaysia’s political culture was concerned with the accumulation of power, wealth, and glamour for a select few. This culture has set Malaysia on a psychological trajectory that needs serious “therapy.” The country’s two successes at true coalition politics (i.e., after GE14 and GE15) suggest the possibility of ridding the nation of this feudal political culture. This is what is meant by the phrase “historically unprecedented,” which was mentioned earlier.

There have been significant positive milestones for the nation within the last five years, which suggests the potential for more sustainable reforms in the near future. First, a former prime minister has been jailed for kleptocracy, specifically for his involvement in the global 1MDB corruption scandal. Other former prime ministers, ministers, and top party leaders are also being charged and put on trial for various acts of corruption and money laundering. Second, compared to many countries in the Asia-Pacific region, Malaysia had weathered the COVID-19 pandemic reasonably well, keeping fatalities comparatively low. The austere measures taken during the various regulations of the MCO were largely adhered to by the public. There seemed to be a proactive collective understanding of the gravity of the situation. We decided and understood that lives had to be saved. Third, the coalition government under Anwar Ibrahim is dubbed the “unity government,” following the Agong’s mention of it in the lead up to appointing Anwar as the prime minister. What has emerged is a peculiar and worrying but very workable “marriage” of agendas and aspirations. In fact, one way of describing “diversity and inclusion” in the context of Malaysia is to look at Anwar’s new government. It is a coalition of very diverse multiethnic parties, which reflects what the people have consistently demanded over two consecutive election cycles. The electoral push for diversity and inclusion in our political culture is slowly being normalized. Furthermore, another significant initiative toward this “new normal” or paradigm shift can be seen in Anwar Ibrahim’s adoption of the Malaysia Madani slogan. Linking the concept of madani (civilization) to the country’s national identity implies a commitment to diversity and engagement while actively embracing difference.

© 2024 by the Association for Asian Studies, Inc.