Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Making Politics Meaningful

Written by johnleemk on 5:24:38 pm Jul 28, 2007.
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One disappointing thing (at least to me) about many Malaysians is how detached we are from politics, despite its relevance in almost every part of our lives. People just cannot be bothered to care.

Tempting as it is to blame the people, part of the blame has to rest with the leaders and politicians as well. The government has made politics unappetising to the common man by making it the playground of the well-connected and by removing any possible grassroots involvement in political decisions.

The result is that the people never call the shots on anything. When our Constitution is amended, we are not consulted. When our tolls are hiked, we are the last to find out. Everyone knows how our schools, our roads, our towns can be improved, but nobody has a chance to try to improve them because our political system has been structured to resist any suggestion from the people.

And yet, tempting as it is to blame the establishment, I feel the opposition politicians deserve an almost equal share of the blame for playing into the hands of the ruling regime.

Opposition politics has rarely been riveting stuff. Compounding this problem, though, is the fact that opposition politicians prefer to harp on issues which appeal to their core supporters, but not necessarily to the man on the street.

Some of these issues of course could appeal to the typical voter, but would have to be presented appropriately — yet another failure on the part of the opposition, I am inclined to think.

Most saddeningly, I think there is a definite failure on the part of the opposition to offer an alternative vision for the country's future. To make politics meaningful to the hoi polloi, you have to help them imagine and visualise what their lives will be like under a different government.

Let's look at two political parties and two of their key policy planks. Parti Keadilan Rakyat has promised — if its advisor and de facto leader, Anwar Ibrahim, is to be trusted — to roll back the controversial failed New Economic Policy and replace it with a more equitable economic policy. Meanwhile, the Democratic Action Party has been campaigning for decades for a "Malaysian Malaysia" — only recently did they change it to a "Malaysian First" identity.

Anwar was hoping to capitalise on the growing non-Malay dissatisfaction with the aggressive but obviously unhelpful NEP, which did little to better the lot of either the typical Malay or the typical non-Malay. (It did prove a boon to the elite Malays and non-Malays, however.)

The trouble with this is that PKR failed to sufficiently articulate its vision of what Malaysia would look like under the proposed replacement for the NEP. (A replacement whose details, by the way, have yet to be fully revealed.) It's not surprising that there does not seem to have been much political headway made — the common man just can't be inspired or identify with it (heck, I can't be inspired by it).

What Anwar could have done, and can still do, is to tell the people how the proposed PKR policy will create true equality of opportunity for all Malaysians. He could paint a future where a non-Malay girl can dream of being Prime Minister, and a Malay boy can dream of being CEO. Bring home the reality of this future to the voters, and it's difficult to see them not being moved by an affirmative action policy that works.

The DAP has been trying to sell Malaysians on its Malaysian Malaysia, and now Malaysian First campaign, for years. Yet, not many people have bought it.

It seems to me that the DAP too has suffered from being unable to provide any true leadership on the issue. They are good at laying out the inequities of the present system, and at showing the changes they plan to make.

What they failed in doing is presenting and unfolding the future that would result for the typical Malaysian. They did not show how true equality of opportunity would be a boon for not just the non-Malays, but for the Malays as well. They were not even clear on whether they would provide equality of opportunity in the first place — at times, their rhetoric seems to have been hypocritical on the subject. It shouldn't be surprising that they've been terribly vulnerable to attacks of being nothing more than a party for Chinese bigots.

Whenever the failures of the opposition are brought up amongst those sympathetic to change, Gerakan is liable to be mentioned. Despite not having been an opposition party for over 35 years, it remains a touchstone for those unhappy with the status quo in both the ruling regime and the opposition.

Why is that? Because Gerakan has always, even till today, been able to present a clear and consistent vision for Malaysia's future. It has never been able to deliver on its lofty promises, especially since joining the ruling coalition, but it continues to ignite and spur the imagination of Malaysians sympathetic to change because it has been so successful in articulating the impact of its proposed changes on Malaysia. Every time I read something a Gerakan leader has to say, even though I know they are mostly hypocrites, I feel inspired because they have managed to articulate my sentiments in the way only a leader can.

During the turbulent two years when Singapore was a state of Malaysia, Lee Kuan Yew was feared as a political force throughout Malaysia because the establishment knew he had the power to articulate a vision for Malaysia and Malaysians, to lead Malaysia to a future different from the one plotted out by the government. (He had the federal government so spooked that they actively discriminated against Singapore, banning Singaporeans from voting in elections outside the state, and from running in elections outside the state unless they were born in West Malaysia.)

Over 40 years ago, Lee started campaigning for a "Malaysian Malaysia" — but unlike the DAP's campaign, his had teeth. Shortly before Singapore left the federation, he delivered a speech to the federal Parliament where he laid out his vision for a Malaysian Malaysia, and contrasting it with the broken nation we had then, and still have today:

How does the Malay in the kampong find his way out into this modernised civil society? By becoming servants of the 0.3 per cent who would have the money to hire them to clean their shoe, open their motorcar doors? ... Of course there are Chinese millionaires in big cars and big houses. Is it the answer to make a few Malay millionaires with big cars and big houses? How does telling a Malay bus driver that he should support the party of his Malay director (UMNO) and the Chinese bus conductor to join another party of his Chinese director (MCA) — how does that improve the standards of the Malay bus driver and the Chinese bus conductor who are both workers in the same company?

If we delude people into believing that they are poor because there are no Malay rights or because opposition members oppose Malay rights, where are we going to end up? You let people in the kampongs believe that they are poor because we donít speak Malay, because the government does not write in Malay, so he expects a miracle to take place in 1967 (the year Malay would become the national and sole official language). The moment we all start speaking Malay, he is going to have an uplift in the standard of living, and if doesnít happen, what happens then?

Meanwhile, whenever there is a failure of economic, social and educational policies, you come back and say, oh, these wicked Chinese, Indian and others opposing Malay rights. They donít oppose Malay rights. They, the Malay, have the right as Malaysian citizens to go up to the level of training and education that the more competitive societies, the non-Malay society, has produced. That is what must be done, isnít it? Not to feed them with this obscurantist doctrine that all they have got to do is to get Malay rights for the few special Malays and their problem has been resolved.
Now, bear in mind that that entire speech was delivered in the national language — Malay. Malaysia has not seen many visionary leaders since Lee (and yes, he has many flaws, but you cannot deny the power of how he could articulate where he wanted the country to go). That may be why politics has languished in this country — because we have not seen a leader who can fire up the imagination of Malaysians, and dare them to believe in a changed tomorrow.

We need a visionary leader. A true Malaysian leader. It is not enough to spew slogans, criticise the government and its policies, or even come up with your own proposals. That may be enough to get you elected, but it's not enough to get enough MPs elected to effect change.

If the political opposition in Malaysia wants the average vote, it has to make politics meaningful for the average voter. It has to make the average voter understand how it will tackle the bread and butter issues of the day that matter to him, and to articulate its vision of how its policies will create a better future for him and his children. It is this kind of leadership that will bring about the kind of sea change Malaysia must undergo.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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