Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Is Malaysia the Next Indonesia?

Written by johnleemk on 10:14:54 pm Feb 29, 2008.
Categories: ,

One advantage of taking a university-level course on Southeast Asian history is that I can pseudo-honestly bill myself as a Southeast Asian scholar of sorts. There are other tangible benefits, of course. Besides knowing more about the countries neighbouring Malaysia, you get to regret all the time you wasted on your history classes in school when your professor more than adequately sums up everything you covered from form two to form three in the span of one hour. (The amount of pointless fluff in our secondary school history curriculum is depressing — memorising the names of "revolutionary heroes" only obscures the more relevant points about colonialism.)

One other interesting benefit, however, is that now you can draw parallels between the situation in Malaysia and other countries in the region. One of the most obvious is perhaps the divisions colonialism wrought upon the peoples of Southeast Asia. Everywhere they went, they sowed mistrust and conflict between Southeast Asians, whether on grounds of race, religion, class, or all three. (One of the required readings for my course is an article by a historian arguing that the Malays were more than happy to treat non-Malay immigrants as equals until the British began harping on this idea that the Malays deserved special treatment by some virtue of having been here first.)

But one equally fascinating parallel, which might not be so obvious initially, is between Indonesia under Suharto and Malaysia as it stands today. Before continuing, it is probably worth highlighting that you cannot draw many conclusions from these parallels — you should avoid the "correlation implies causation" fallacy. Instead, what we should do is note that we cannot even hold our heads high compared to Indonesia — that lest we think we are better off democratically and economically, we are still little better than Indonesia under Suharto's military regime.

The most obvious parallel is repression of dissent. Malaysia has not fallen as far as Suharto's Indonesia in this regard — we generally do not kidnap people and make them disappear overnight. However, the very fact that we have political prisoners should reflect poorly on us. No country calling itself a democracy has the right to be proud as long as people are jailed for speaking their mind. What threat do people like the HINDRAF 5 pose? Do you mean to tell me that a few lawyers pose a real threat to national security? Most, if not all, men and women arrested under draconian laws like the Internal Security Act are in jail not because they pose a threat to the peace, but because they pose a threat to the government. How better are we than Suharto's Indonesia in this regard? If all we can say is that we don't kill our political prisoners — well, I guess I need not say much more.

Then, of course, there is the question of rigged elections. Again, ballot box stuffing and vote-buying generally do not approach the same levels as they did in Indonesia during Suharto's time. However, many of the mechanisms Suharto used to tilt the election in favour of the government are used here. All opposition parties had to be approved by the government in power before they could participate in elections. We should rightly scoff at any democracy doing this. But how different is this from the situation in Malaysia, where the Registrar of Societies is free to all but arbitrarily deny certain organisations the right to participate in our political process? The Socialist Party has been trying to obtain recognition so it can contest in elections for years — its application is still pending. The Students Party, which got some attention (having heretofore been practically unknown) after announcing it would challenge Abdullah Badawi in his own constituency, has been unable to secure recognition either. If the government is allowed to pick its own opposition, how can we call this democracy?

Then there is the question of campaigning. Malaysian elections are marked by an extremely short campaign period. In the United States, some candidates have been running for president for over a year now, with eight months left till the general election. In Malaysia, the 13 day period allotted to campaigning for the 12th general election is one of the longest in living memory! You might wonder what kind of campaign period Indonesia had under Suharto. How long was it? 30 days. Even a sham democracy like Indonesia had a longer campaign period than we do! What kind of democracy can we call ourselves if candidates can only put up posters and hand out campaign literature less than two weeks before going to the polls? Is it fair to expect the Malaysian people to make a decision which will affect our lives everyday for the next five years over the brief span of less than two weeks?

Patronage and corruption play an increasingly important role in the Malaysian economy today; nobody reading this ought to be surprised that these things were equally important back in the Suharto era. Suharto preserved monopolies and concessions for his cronies, refusing to open up markets to competition. He tolerated massive graft, benefiting those who had the reins of political power, and businesspeople with political connections. This sounds extremely familiar to Malaysians today, doesn't it?

In the last election, we elected Abdullah Badawi on a promise that he would fight corruption. We all know corruption increased under the Mahathir regime, and we all expected Abdullah to do something about this. What happened? All we have seen is even worse fiascoes and even worse scandals under the Abdullah premiership. Billions of ringgit were squandered on the Port Klang Free Zone — hundreds of millions alone could have been saved if the government had heeded advice that it was legally entitled to much lower prices for the land. It seems almost everyday that investigative journalists break news of some corrupt local official or local government abusing their powers to steal from the pockets of Malaysian taxpayers, and the Abdullah government acts as though it is powerless to tackle any of these things. It is not hard to see how, given enough time, we will soon be where Suharto's Indonesia was when it comes to corruption.

But having said that, the Indonesian economy did pretty well. Why? Lots of good luck. By happenstance, the Green Revolution came along at just the right time for farmers under Suharto to increase their yields manifold. The global economic climate was conducive to economic growth for most of the time that Suharto was in power, and the one exception to this actually benefited Indonesia even more — having oil fields under your control when the price of oil skyrockets, as it did in the 1970s, is a boon, to say the least.

Again, this sounds pretty familiar. Petronas broke records last year, taking in more revenue than it has ever had before. Skyrocketing oil prices have benefited the economy. The global economic climate has lent the government a hand — high palm oil prices keep agricultural smallholders happy. The economy chugs along, in spite of all the drag corruption exerts on it.

Speaking of the economy, Suharto's regime took pains to emphasise that too much politicking would harm the economy. In their view, things like freedom of speech and political freedom were dispensable because permitting these things would damage economic growth and investor confidence. This definitely sounds familiar to anyone who has opened a newspaper in the last four or five months. How has the Malaysian government responded to public demonstrations calling for electoral transparency and social justice? By declaring that too much freedom harms economic growth and investor confidence. Same old bullshit, different bullshitter, that's all.

It is difficult to even attempt to rebut this thinking, mainly because, as one physicist famously said, "That's not right. It's not even wrong." Wherever we turn, we see that freedom is compatible with economic progress. The claim that Southeast Asian societies are somehow different when it comes to their reaction to freedom has to be proven, but neither Suharto nor the Malaysian government has ever properly tried to prove this assertion. It is proof enough that they say it is so, which of course is completely preposterous.

The last key common aspect is the perception that the regime of the day will last forever. At the opening of 1997, hardly anyone in Indonesia would tell you that Suharto and the regime he installed would be gone within two years. By the end of 1998, that was precisely what happened. In Malaysia, BN is confident it will rule forever; the opposition is more (and probably rightly) focused on denying BN a 2/3rds majority in Parliament rather than actually winning power, at least for the near future. Even then, only the brightest optimist would tell you that BN is going to go any time soon.

The Indonesian experience has lessons for Malaysia. We've probably learnt the obvious one: racial violence is bad. (Then again, we had to learn this the hard way ourselves. The Indonesians may not have really learned this properly, considering it is only about a decade since Indonesian youths were raping Chinese women in Jakarta.) But there is more than just this.

One very helpful thing about Suharto-era Indonesia is that it helps us be a little more objective about the situation in Malaysia. If we look at the situation in Suharto's Indonesia, we feel rightly repulsed, and readily condemn it. We condemn the corruption endemic in Suharto's regime, the recalcitrance on the part of his regime when it comes to dealing with the problem; we condemn the sham democracy he creates, which is transparently undemocratic to our eyes. We can see clearly how foolish were his policies, such as those declaring any sort of public protest obviously harmful to the economy. We can recognise that much of Indonesia's phenomenal economic growth was a facade, stemming from easy oil money and coincidentally near-perfect global economic conditions.

But when we turn our eyes back to our country, we can and should realise that there is more to this than meets the eye. In many ways, we are travelling down the same road Indonesia took. If I pointed out all these problems in our own country to you, you would probaby try to justify them in some way. But once you have condemned them in Suharto-era Indonesia, you must either choose to be a hypocrite, or acknowledge that in some way, Malaysia is in trouble.

Of course, parallels can only go so far. I would be very wary, to say the least, of drawing stronger conclusions about the future path Malaysia will take. But if we see something as transparently wrong with the Indonesian experience, and realise that exactly the same thing is transpiring in our own country, how can we run from the truth?

The last parallel I mentioned is one which I think we should bear in mind. Biology has this concept of a "punctuated equilibrium". The idea is that something changes slowly over time, just beneath the surface. Without warning, this thing surfaces, and the whole situation is drastically changed. We shift suddenly from one equilibrium to another. This is what happened politically in Indonesia — over time, political opposition to Suharto built up, and civil society found its footing. When the conditions were ripe, they burst onto the scene, and within months, effected drastic change nobody could have foreseen.

I suspect that that is precisely what will happen eventually in Malaysia. The only question is how this sort of change will happen. Must we await the kind of violence that broke out in Jakarta in 1997 before we force out the corrupt leadership that continues to plunge our country ever-deeper into the quagmire of economic stagnation and political failure? Will we have to have an unruly "People's Revolution" like the Philippines was forced to endure twice in order to see out the corruption that pervades the top ranks of our political leaders? Or will we have a sudden, peaceful change at the ballot box?

The 12th general elections very well could represent a turning point in Malaysian history. Never before, I think, has the horrid situation we are in been so transparently clear to so many people. Never before has it been so clear how insincere our top leaders are in their leadership, how straitjacketed our good men and women at the lower ranks of the BN leadership are, and how totally our government has failed to accomplish the simplest of its goals. The question is, are we going to vote in peaceful change now, or are we going to await an unruly, possibly bloody revolution of sorts to undo the damage that this government is wreaking upon our country?


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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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