By Karim Raslan
MALAYSIA, my Malaysia... I know this is going to sound faintly ludicrous, but the Malaysia that has emerged after the March 8 elections is still better than the one that existed before.
It’s more open, more diverse and infinitely more lively; in short it’s less “Barisan” and more Malaysian – because (surprise, surprise) the two are not one and the same.
The coalition and its leading party Umno are no longer the dominant voices they once were. Instead, they have been reduced and sidelined by other infinitely more energetic, impassioned and exciting voices.
Of course the liveliness also has its costs. Businessmen and women are concerned at the disruption caused by the incessant political chatter and melodrama, most notably the storm surrounding Anwar Ibrahim.
The allegations against him have cast an extremely dark shadow over the nation as people try to figure out the difference between prosecution and persecution.
Perhaps we despair too quickly, however. We can’t, after all expect change to be smooth and seamless. This is not the time to roll back on the openness of the days after the last general election.
The more we as a people discuss – and openly – the “what”, “where” and “how” of the nation’s progress the stronger our national consensus will be, going forward. We need more, not less debate, especially over “sensitive” issues.
Malaysians are definitely ready for this – it’s just a shame that the politicians are not.
We now have the makings of a Malaysia that is of our own making – however imperfect, and not the one carved out for us by our masters.
However, all these changes are merely the beginnings of a process to really open up the system. And as the post-Merdeka social contract slowly unravels we will have to create a new, deeper and more dynamic understanding both across the racial chasm and also increasingly across the “class” divide.
We cannot afford to let our political masters control this process. We must not be passive on-lookers. We can’t fall back on our old cynicism.
A Malaysia that refuses to vote, think and speak out simply because politics is “dirty” or because “no one can really make a difference” is the sort of country that the reactionaries want. Apathy will roll back the changes that have been taking place in our country.
Malaysians must be committed, bold and determined. The age of strongman leaders has to give way to that of an engaged and virtuous citizenry holding up the nation. But this doesn’t mean a rejection of politics.
We need it more than ever, in fact. Why? Well, both sides of the political spectrum have their own agendas and we need the different contending voices to balance one another out.
On the one hand, the Barisan will try to curb the reform agenda whilst on the other hand; PAS from the Pakatan side will wish to impose their at times harsh and narrow view of the world on the rest of us.
Barisan will certainly resist reform in certain critical areas – most notably the ISA, the judiciary (look at how the Judicial Appointments Committee has been stalled), press freedoms and other civil liberties.
They’ll be wrong to do so and those who advocate the old-ways – I’ve termed them the “conservatives” – will be punished by the voters in the next election.
Some would have us believe that the people in the kampungs and your average Malaysian salaried man don’t care about such things. It is they who are mistaken. Time and our evolving demographics are on the side of change.
Another word of warning, this time to the members of our esteemed Cabinet. Remember, just as you’re watching us, the nervous “scribblers” in the newspapers and Internet – rest assured that we’re watching you and more importantly, judging you.
You have been weighed, measured and found wanting, as a matter of fact. You can silence individual bloggers or columnists, for example but the media is like a multi-headed hydra – chop off one head and 10 new ones will sprout.
The desire to write and comment on our own world is now firmly lodged within the public experience. Freedom of expression is something we demand. It cannot be extinguished and people no longer fear the long arm of the law as they once did.
But as we move forward one of the most important challenges will be for the Malays, in particular to learn to accept and live with the diversity within the community. There’s going to be enormous pressure from PAS for example to assert a particular spectrum of morality and behaviour.
In this respect, the ulama-led PAS possesses the same will to dominate that Umno currently exhibits.
Whilst many PAS leaders are genuinely incorruptible and deserve credit for this, their self-righteous moralising is unacceptable and we need to defend our public space from them. We will regret the day that one set of tyranny has been exchanged for another.
Part of the subtext of what’s been happening over the past few months has been the way Malaysians has asserting their individual identities – declaring their independence from the widely disseminated “truths” of nation building.
I’d like to end by recounting a personal anecdote. Back in 2002, I published my third book. It was a second collection of articles and essays called Ceritalah Two: Journeys Through Southeast Asia. Rereading the preface now, is a slightly disturbing experience.
Back then I was just coming to terms with what I called “the ugliness and injustice of Anwar Ibrahim’s case”. Despite being a confirmed Anwar sceptic, the events of 1998 – the selectiveness of it all has haunted me. I never quite got over the idea that Malaysia – my Malaysia – could be such an unjust and evil place.
We can’t avoid viewing political events through the prism of our own personal experiences and the last Anwar debacle was to shake me very soundly.
I resolved not to be dependent on Malaysia for my livelihood. As it happened, Indonesia was to become my second home and workplace. Indeed, Indonesia has been very good to me and I am forever indebted to this magnificent country for its welcome.
However, home is still Malaysia for me. I cannot deny my childhood years. I cannot reject my emotional, familial DNA. For all its infuriating flaws and foibles, it is home.
We often hear how Malaysians denigrate their country compared to other places like Australia and (God knows why) Singapore. Listen closely and you will hear frustrated love rather than disdain.
We only hurt the things we love. We complain because we care.
The “turmoil” that our country is undergoing is a sign of how deeply invested all sides are in its future, which makes the anxiety we feel perfectly natural. If it feels like we need to battle, then it is because this country is definitely worth fighting for.
Still as the dark cloud extends further and further across the nation and as the “conservatives” secure their power many of us may well chose to move away once again. We cannot let that happen, as it would mean letting them win.
I hear too many stories and I see too many things. Gross abuses of justice, leaders who are little better than street thugs, men and women who delight in devising ways of ripping off the exchequer.
We are surrounded by those who feel no shame in abusing the system to their own ends.
We have to take back Malaysia for the people. We have to set the agenda. We must speak for ourselves, as one nation. The Bar Council demonstrations. The teacher who racially abused her students. Those are not the faces of the real Malaysia. We are.
Malaysia will not become a “failed state” despite the prophets of doom. But only if we stand up and say, enough is enough; it is time we move forward.
The people of Malaysia will get the country they deserve. Many people groan at this, but I think of the long way we have come, the opportunities that lie ahead – and think otherwise. I believe in the rakyat. I believe in Malaysia.