28 March, 2009

Politics in an age of unreason

Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak wants people to judge him by his actions and not to prejudge him based on perceptions and lies.

"Please be fair to me first, give me a chance to take office first. I only ask to be treated fairly," he said at a press conference at the end of the party's annual general meeting Saturday.

He pointed out that his actions would be seen in due course and he had not even taken office of Prime Minister yet.

Najib was responding to a spate of questions that he was going to clamp down on media freedom and other civil liberties.

Najib turned to the local and international media and asked:

"Why are you resorting to a certain line of questioning?" following a question whether his family and friends would play a major role in his administration.

"I will make changes and I will reform. I am aware people expect me to make certain reforms and we will do it,"

Najib said that the focus was on rebuilding the party and the economic agenda.

"There is a general feeling that there is too much politics in Malaysia which will sidetrack the economic recovery."

On race relations in the country, he replied: "I don't think we have come to the point where it is very tense. I think it can better. Issues tend to crop up from time to time but basically Malaysians are more mature, they know that they have to live in peace and harmony.

"You can have differences of opinion on sensitive issues but at the end of the day, we must find a way to resolve them and move on to nation building. I believe in the concept of One Malaysia, which I will expound on based on policy and programmes," he added.


Politics in an Age of Unreason

Faced with an economic crisis of gargantuan proportions, we are a nation in denial and unable to address the realities of the world face-to-face. Running to the bomoh and hiding behind the rhetoric of racial exclusivism are the same thing: A pathetic attempt to escape from the real issues that may make or break this nation, writes Farish Noor.


So now the bomohs (witch doctors) rule the roost it would seem. The news that a magic charm or spell was found hidden surreptitiously under the desk of none other than the Prime Minister of Malaysia does not bode well for the future of this country of ours. It may make the headlines under the ‘Strange but True’ column of foreign papers, but this historian has grown somewhat jaded by now by such ridiculousness dressed in the garment of wonderment and fantasy. No, this was no laughing matter (and if we did laugh, it was a pitiable laugh at best).

One recalls the blanket order issued by some political parties last year just before the general elections of March 2008, to the effect that politicians should refrain from calling upon the services of such practitioners of the ‘black arts’. That political parties have to issue such warnings in the first place speaks volumes about the state of Malaysian politics today, a primordial politics that is being enacted in an age of unreason.

As a scholar in Britain in the 1990s I remember reading a report about a Latin American country that had fallen into an economic tailspin of unprecedented proportions. As inflation rose to the level of more than a thousand percent, the hapless citizens of that unfortunate country wondered aloud about how their country’s economy could have fallen apart in so short a space of time.

It later transpired that the Cabinet Minister in charge of Economic Development and Finance had consulted a Latin American equivalent of a bomoh too. In the middle of the night he had snuck out of the capital in his air-conditioned luxury car to meet up with the half-naked savant in the steamy jungle. In the witch doctor’s primeval hut a chicken was readied for the task. The fowl’s belly was split open and the entrails were laid out for inspection. The witch doctor took a look at the shape and form of the animal’s liver, kidneys and intestines, and then gave his expert opinion as to how the country’s economy should be managed over the rest of the fiscal year. The Cabinet Minister dutifully took down notes and made the necessary changes to the budget. In a week’s time the economy had crashed and in this case at least we cannot blame the chicken for the economic collapse. The rest is history, and a sad one at that…

I shudder at the thought that Malaysia today may be heading in the same direction. We pride ourselves with the thought that we have the most beautiful international airport in the region; and that our capital boasts of having one of the tallest buildings in the world. But the word on the street is that one should not linger too long on the forty-first floor of the KLCC tower for fear that one may bump into the resident ghost who tarries along the corridor in the dead of night. And of course magic spells have the tendency to end up under your table if you happen to be the Prime Minister as well.

My despondent character is hardly improved by these revelations. Indeed it brings me closer to suicide every time I read of such nonsense that passes as politics in our benighted country.

Malaysian politics is in dire need of a heavy dose of reason and rationality. For too long we have become accustomed to a primordial politics based on sentiment and couched in narrow essentialisms of race, ethnicity, language and religious differences. Yet to build a modern nation-state and to engage in the effort of nation-building, it is our rational critical faculties that we need to draw upon. The abstract idea of a plural and democratic Malaysia is not the result of the bomoh’s arcane craft, but rather the result of careful planning and micro-management of a host of social and cultural variables.

Looking at where we are today, with a country that continues to be split along ethnic, racial, linguistic and religious lines, one is compelled to ask: Can Malaysia survive the next 50 years and will we remain on the map? The recent calls for the protection and promotion of exclusive racial interests that were uttered prior to the UMNO general assembly all point to the return of primordial politics with a vengeance. Worst of all, almost all of the politicians in this country have retained the ethnic-communitarian card til today.

This, my friends, is the real danger we face in Malaysia at the moment. Faced with an economic crisis of gargantuan proportions, we are a nation in denial and unable to address the realities of the world face-to-face. Running to the bomoh and hiding behind the rhetoric of racial exclusivism are the same thing: A pathetic attempt to escape from the real issues that may make or break this nation, while we perpetuate our collective conceit that we are a developing state-in-waiting. For our sake, and for the sake of the future generations of Malaysians, reason and rationality will have to make a comeback in no uncertain terms.

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