15 July, 2007

Malaysia’s Politics Without Mercy

One of the paradoxes of politics in developing countries is how uneven that development can be at times: From Latin America to the Far East, the political culture of many a developing country betrays all the signs and symbols of a stunted politics arrested by the competing demands of modernity, feudalism and primordial values that pre-date the modern era.

Witness the development of the cult of leadership in so many countries, from North Korea to Libya and Iraq during the time of Saddam, where every bare space was utilised to promote and project the image of the ‘great leader’, said to be loved by millions. North Korea remains at the top of the league when it comes to the culture of leader-worship, where even the bad haircut of their leader-for-life has been passed down as an iconic image of the unreconstructed Cold War era.

Among the developing countries of the world, Malaysia ranks highly in the eyes of many. So high, in fact, that during his recent visit to Malaysia former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan waxed eloquent about the virtues of this modern majority-Muslim state, commending the government for its record in development and praising the ‘moderate’ Islamisation programme of the current Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Many keen observers of Malaysian politics, however, were taken askance by the comments of the former Sec-Gen of the UN. While it cannot be denied that Malaysia looks outwardly as a prosperous nation with a booming economy, close observation of what has been happening there for the past few years would throw some of Kofi Annnan’s praises into doubt.

For a start, it is hard to see how Malaysia’s brand of statist Islam can be seen as moderate and progressive by any stretch of the imagination, considering the fact that this is still a country where detention without trial takes place and freedom of the press is virtually unknown. Shortly after Mr Annan delivered his laudatory comments, a Malaysian blogger by the name of Nathaniel Tan was arrested by the Malaysian authorities and charged with cybercrime. Kofi Annan has spoken out against the arrest and harassment of media personnel and bloggers before, in countries such as China – yet in this case was curiously silent.

During the same week leaders of the ruling UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) party, a right-wing conservative ethno-nationalist party that has been in power since 1957, vowed to ‘crush’ the People’s Justice (PKR) opposition party in the country, once and for all. Had Mr Annan stayed a little longer in Malaysia (and had he been able to read the vernacular Malay press), he may have realised that such talk of ‘crushing the opposition’ is normal in Malaysia’s feudal political culture, where terms like ‘crush’, ‘destroy’, ‘eliminate’ et al. Are the norm in Malaysian political discourse.

Kofi Annan did manage to meet the leader of the opposition PKR party Anwar Ibrahim, though not much is known about what actually transpired at the meeting. Had he taken the time to enquire, the members of PKR and other opposition parties like the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic party (PAS) would have had other stories to tell, about allegations of vote-buying, harassment of NGO activists, threats of arrest and detention without trial, etc. that may have altered Mr Annan’s rosy picture of Malaysia a little bit.

But why, some might ask, is the tone of Malaysian politics these days so merciless? Why would a party like UMNO, that has been in power for half a century, need to totally crush an opposition party like the People’s Justice party? For some members of PKR, the answer is clear. In the words of Latheefa Koya, central committee member of PKR: “(UMNO’s) use of language like ‘to crush and bury’ a legitimate democratic multiracial party clearly indicates the fear of UMNO, due to its outdated politics. Defending things like the Internal Security Act (ISA), Sedition Act, Official Secrets Act and not showing an once of respect for fundamental principles of human rights; and resorting to thuggery, is a sign of bankrupt politics.”

Indeed, after half a century of independence Malaysian politics is still determined by the logic of racial – and increasingly religious – communitarianism, something akin to the divide-and-rule politics of the colonial era. One would have thought that after being in power for so long the ruling National Front coalition led by UMNO would have evolved a national politics based on equal citizenship instead, but this has never happened.

It is therefore left to the opposition parties like PKR, DAP and PAS to cobble together a new vision of a Malaysia that is genuinely democratic and multiracial; though this is not an easy task. The dominance of UMNO and the ruling National Front coalition means that the public domain of politics is dominated by their interests, and reflected in the government-controlled media in the country. In the meantime, any attempt to question the logic of racial compartmentalisation in Malaysia will be met with a similar response that has been meted out to the Justice party thus far: Total opposition and the determination to crush all alternative approaches to politics. Malaysia may be a modern capitalist state with impressive tower blocks and shopping centres that can beguile even the likes of Kofi Annan, but its feudal politics remains as primordial and merciless as ever.

- Written by Farish A. Noor (The Other Malaysia)



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