Delivering Malaysia’s Reformasi : From kleptocracy to democracy

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 12 May 2019

All good: Dr Mahathir is hailed by many as the hero of New Malaysia but the writer believes that it is also imperative for youths to play a role in Malaysia’s democratic growth. — AP

But the messy process must never be assigned to any one particular ‘extraordinary’ person. It needs to be undertaken by each ‘ordinary’ citizen, especially the young. 

WHEN the 1998 political reformation movement, better known as reformasi, arrived in Malaysia in September after erupting in neighbouring Indonesia several months earlier, I was in the midst of starting primary school, and had absolutely no awareness of the domestic or foreign political developments that were taking place.

What was more important to me back then, understandably, was making new friends, enjoying lessons in class and being as hyperactive as possible.

However, as the years went by, I grew to be more attentive to my surroundings and gradually expanded my horizons through varying degrees of personal achievements and regretful failures. And some 20 years on, I voted for the very first time on May 2018, and along with millions of fellow Malaysians, participated in making history.

The common practice of patronage politics carried out among cronies and elites from the previous Barisan Nasional administration had resulted in the mega scandal of 1MDB and several other disgraceful misappropriation of public coffers.

At the same time, corrupt leaders and their kin had gleefully plundered the national wealth with their extravagant lifestyles and arrogantly abused the executive branch via kleptocratic practices without shame or guilt. Average Malaysians, no longer able to bear such travesties, decided to exercise their democratic right in electing the Pakatan Harapan coalition to change government for the first time after six decades of independence.

It is now just over a year into this “New Malaysia” that emphasises key ideals within a democratic framework. Concepts like rule of law, good governance, accountability, transparency, separations of powers and integrity – as often touted by the ruling coalition – had offered hope to many Malaysians.

These ideals had resonated really well especially with those from the middle-class segments and urban youths such as myself, who felt the burden of rising costs, high amount of debts and constant pressures of city life.

But it has so far been quite a disappointing, frustrating even, year for most Malaysians as they come to terms with the truth that this new government is unable to fulfil their immense expectations with relatively ‘green’ ministers and policy-makers.

There is also an ever creeping suspicion of resistance to reform agendas coming from the spectre of the notorious “Mahathirism”, a Machiavellian-type politics that pragmatically utilises authority to consolidate power.

Then there are the existing local complications and dynamic global trends affecting various stakeholders in government services, business communities, civil societies and the academic fraternity.

For Malaysia at the societal level, the long-standing issue of identity politics revolving around racial and religious prejudices remains fiercely prevalent due to its exploitation by low-class politicians.

A protracted yet unsurprising alliance between Umno and PAS has essentially been brought together for political survival despite decades of bitter disputes under the pretense of “unity”. This strategy became official in the aftermath of the recent by-elections as an attempt to appeal to the sentiments of disgruntled Malay-Muslim majority voters. The same sort of inclinations can be traced all over the globe with the upsurge of far-right groups and xenophobic views emerging across North America, South America, Europe and Asia. Most countries today have a tendency to support “tough” personalities who promote anti-diversity, anti-globalisation, anti-choice and anti-cooperation in their rhetoric.

These conditions can be further clarified into three alarming global trends that would potentially impede democracies everywhere, namely the decay of institutions (as described by Francis Fukuyama in Political Order & Political Decay), disruption across various industries (as elaborated by Klaus Schwab in The Fourth Industrial Revolution) and rising populist leaders (as highlighted by Sam Wilkin in History Repeating: Why Populist Rise & Governments Fall).

The modern landscape is filled with uncertainties – as noted by scholar John J. Mearsheimer and veteran diplomat Richard Haass – consequentially from a general failure of western liberal hegemony and volatile capitalist free-market system to provide equal prosperity or universal harmony.

Malaysia’s current state of democracy is still considered a maturing one, hence it is imperative that proper institutional reforms, research-driven policies and progressive civil education be instilled among the masses in order to position itself sensibly against a backdrop of a global retreat towards devolving dangerously into what is mentioned by Amy Chua as polarising “political tribalism” or by Fareed Zakaria as destructive “illiberal democracies”.

As a casual book reader, I find that the works of Noam Chomsky, George Friedman and Yuval Noah Harari serve as a refreshing guide to help navigate through the intricacies of an ever turbulent world that is increasingly ironic.

Moreover, our obsession to enhance national security has come at the expense of personal liberties to the point of suppression, and this only escalates random acts of terrorism. We also have plenty of intelligent experts in numerous fields but somehow void of ethical boundaries. Such erratic varia­tions place vast external pressures on maturing democracies such as Malaysia to resiliently carry out its necessary reform agendas.

Democracy is far from being a perfect concept. It is meant to be a messy process to reach a consensus. That is precisely why it must never be assigned to any one particular “extraordinary” person but ought to be undertaken by each “ordinary” citizen. It is paramount for youths to participate in designing a momentum that can echo such ideas.

Youths have a decisive role in learning to adapt and adopt beneficial thoughts that help them plan ahead for a sustainable long-term as opposed to being distracted with instant gratification.

The younger generation of Malaysians today are encouraged to be critical but we can’t allow ourselves to turn into cynics. As we eagerly attempt to explore brand new politics while at the same time brace for an ambiguous future, we must retain a measure of levelheadedness and not panic or become careless.

If Malaysians were to surf the Internet, he or she will find how toxic social media has intensified the racial tensions or religious sensitivities. Democracies are accompanied with responsibilities. Malaysians should not be diplomatic only at the international stage but must be committed to being courteous among its own communities to answer the severe problem of silo mentalities.

They must put an effort to become productive problem-solvers with an energetic determination for social justice and a reformist mentality.

These are very important qualities for youths to operate reform agendas within the flaws of a democratic system. When youths are able to give constructive criticism and viable solutions, a meaningful and relevant social movement will emerge in Malaysia that focuses on enhancing cultural traditions, uncover innovative welfare and produce thought leaders.

The key to attaining wisdom is having a balanced personality that is always rational, celebrates multiculturalism, remains tolerant and is respectfully dignified.

The recipient of “Tokoh Maal Hijrah 2018” Siddiq Fadzil, in his books, gave brilliant descriptions of refining character and inculcating wisdom mainly among Malay-Muslims. In essence, he stresses the importance of self-reform and empowerment of the inner moderate within oneself. These are the key assets for a reformist and a democrat, he says.

  • Halmie Azrie is an intern at IMAN Research, and also a young scholar of Political Science and International Relations. He is currently completing his bachelor’s degree at the Asia Pacific University.
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