Suara Keramat Pak Sako
Friday, January 29, 2010
In a speech yesterday, Mahathir Mohamad blamed PAS and PKR for dividing the Malays, putting this down to greed for power amongst different Malay factions consisting of disgruntled political aspirants desiring political positions.
If Mahathir’s logic is correct, then the split amongst the Japanese in Japan between supporting two different political parties with different cultures, experiences and policies must be a bad thing. These Japanese political parties are the centre-right LDP which had governed Japan and is noted for entrenching patron-client relationships between politicians and corporations; and the DPJ, a reform-minded, social-democratic party that claims to be more people-centric. These parties more or less reflect the distinction between Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat.
Going by Mahathir’s argument, then, this split would have seriously enfeebled the Japanese race, resulting in civil strife or at least hard rancour amongst them, or exposing them as a whole to “attack”, “manipulation”, “subjugation” or “domination” (or insert other terms to taste) by citizens of non-Japanese ancestry (smaller than in Malaysia as a proportion but growing) or by neighbouring nations such as North Korea, Russia or China (recall how we are made to fear Singapore).
But this has not been the case. Japan has not collapsed by having an ‘inexperienced’ ruling political party. Japan as a country is richer for having this new-found choice in being able to switch between alternative politics. Japan’s socioeconomic “evolutionary potential” is rejuvenated by the competition that the DPJ poses for the LDP. We, too, should ask ourselves, as the Japanese have, whether we wish to stick with the stale ways of the old guard whose interest it is to maintain the status quo, the old socioeconomic arrangement which benefits powerful special interests/elites; or whether we want renewal, a restructuring of socioeconomic arrangement that liberates us from the stranglehold of the elites so that the ordinary person can demand and receive a greater share of the nation’s wealth without being held at ransom by threats of unemployment (or inflation) and have a bigger, freer say in how we country to be like and how our social freedoms are defined?
The Malays are not not dividing themselves; they are opening themselves up to choices
In Malaysia, the Malays are beginning to explore choices, and there is nothing wrong in wanting a Greek salad over a nasi lemak. It could in fact be a healthier choice.
Accordingly, many Malays have taken the brave leap for change, to embrace newer values that enables them to bond better with fellow citizens and to rightfully ask for a fairer share of the nation’s “cake”. The Malays and other Malaysians demand this not from any particular race group, but from the politically influential — the governing/aristocratic/corporate class consisting of a mix of the various races. And in doing so, the new lower and middle-class Malays are forging a more harmonious and united relationship with their non-Malay counterparts. In doing so, they are not at all submitting their rights to the ‘others'; they are enhancing their collective rights as citizens in solidarity. The key point to note is that the problem is primarily an issue of socioeconomic class and class domination, not an issue race domination.
But this point is precisely what Mahathir’s and UMNO’s racial rhetoric is attempting to mask. The Malays that are vulnerable to such scare tactics cling on out of fear and ignorance to old, outdated values promoted by certain powerful groups. These groups dangle candies to society (government handouts or more shopping malls) to lull them, and bring about a basic level of ‘political stability’ through restrictive, questionable rule and extensive control of public apparatuses. This enables powerful groups and elites to appropriate the lion’s share of a nation’s wealth.
Why care about the elites? A snapshot of Malaysia’s political economy
So far in the history of Malaysia as an independent state, the majority of the people have conditioned to be content (‘puas hati’) with the moderate amount of income and wealth and fairly restricted social liberties that they have been accorded.
This situation was made possible because Malaysia has been blessed with an exceptionally high level of natural and human resources per capita, i.e., we have had an overabundance of resources relative to our small population size. Each Malaysian in theory could be very well off, with hundreds of thousands of ringgit sitting in their bank accounts, for example, or have superior social services such as those in countries like Canada, Australia or Sweden.
But this has not been the case.
What has been happening is that out of the total economic profits our country generates annually, most of the ordinary Malaysians have been apportioned the minimum amount of income, infrastructure and amenities necessary to placate or satisfy them while the remainder is reserved for the elites, a capture made possible by:
(i) widespread rent-seeking, which includes the collusion of politicians and the corporate and social bigwigs to apportion for themselves the nation’s capital to derive supernormal profits (defrauding by power and capital);
(ii) restrictive labour laws that discourage unionisation and wage bargaining power and keep real wages down (economic oppression);
(iii) distracting society with cheap entertainment, restricting free reporting of the actual state of the nation, and threatening possible imprisonment if the status quo is questioned using excuses such as “this shall destabilise racial and religious harmony”, etc. (dumbing down).
For comparison, observe that this has not been possible in Indonesia because given its resources Indonesia has a large population and so it is harder to create this critical mass of satisfied, contented middle class citizens. This has also not been possible in Thailand which has not been endowed with plentiful high-value resources like us (and they have a substantially large population too).
In this view, Malaysia is indeed economically unique and blessed. But it also means that a braver, more vigilant and empowered society is all the more crucial to prevent easy abuse by those who govern it (elite capture).
As Malaysia’s resources run out (the depletion of its natural resources from its wasteful, inequitable squandering and the loss of human capital as a result of severe “brain drain”), sudden belt-tightening policies are proposed and instituted. These policies ranging from the imposition of the GST, the drastic removal of subsidies, and the scaling back of government expenditure on public services such as healthcare. There is an acceleration in the rate of liquidation of natural and environmental resources such as our remaining forests and wetlands in a desperate bid to generate cash.
In connection with this is a rash of license issuance to foreign commercial and investment banks either inject more liquidity into our financial markets and/or to allow foreign investment in various development projects the details of which we know precious little of. At the same time, there is a stagnation of real incomes; the nominal wage of a fresh engineering graduate in 2000 was on average RM1700 and this has remained more or less the same in 2010, ten years hence, even as the prices of goods increased.
The bulk of the burden of these actions fall on the ordinary rakyat, whether Malay or not. It may fall disproportionately on the ordinary rakyat depending on how the “economic pie” is cut. It is possible that Malaysians are suffering the economic pinch a little excessively because:
(i) the elites may be trying to maintain their cut of the economic pie and their present standard of living, without having to reduce the amount of gains or profits that they have been receiving, or by only slightly sacrificing these gains, or by eliminating contenders (e.g., the shooting down of people linked to the previous prime minister): and
(ii) the government is unwilling to appropriate and repatriate past gains and profits (that may be squirreled away overseas) made illegally and through corrupt rent-seeking, or stem practices such as the excess resource allocation or rent-seeking for the influential interest groups concerned
This issue of the influential class requires highlighting because not only is it the crux of the matter, it is also a matter of justice. It is about whether you feel that some groups deserve to enjoy super normal profits, political privileges and positions at the expense of the rakyat’s welfare. One could even ask whether they are intentionally distracting the rakyat from thinking about this question by conditioning them to believe that their enemies are their fellow citizens of a different skin colour (or that they risk being enslaved by other races if they aren’t united as a race themselves).
So is PKR and PAS bad for giving Malays and Malaysians as a whole the choice to alter the socioeconomic arrangement of Malaysia?
Those groups offering the Malay choices in styles of governance (greater transparency, responsiveness and reduced corruption and rent-seeking) and different opportunities for improvement (e.g., greater social empowerment and alternative modes of development besides the build-malls-and-shop-all-day approach) should be praised and supported. Those who try to instill fear in the Malays in an attempt to hold them back from thinking broadly and limiting them from freely expressing choice should be censured.
The fact is that the Chinese or Indians are not going to take over Malaysia and turn the Malays into slaves. Although there are safeguards, these groups do not intend to do that to begin with. Believers of social Darwinism should rein in their alarmist attitude and understand that social cooperation and fair and equitable rules improves everyone’s lot and that not all the needy belong to a single race group. These social Darwinists should also not underestimate the potential for adaptation and improvement or cooperation of any race group.
As we can already see by what is happening on the ground, especially post-March 2008, the ordinary Chinese and Indians want to and are willing to live and work together with the Malays if given the chance. This is evident from the momentum of the Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (SABM) movement, to cite an example. The Perkasa group which Mahathir extols is precisely the type of groups fomenting division amongst the Malays. They frighten off the Malays from contemplating choice and taking a leap and they do this for various self-interested reasons. That they are lobbying the sultans to support their partisan political stand is disturbing.
Mahathir is in essence barking up the wrong tree. If he is indeed worried about the division of Malays, then he should encourage them to unite under the more reformist and progressive umbrella of Pakatan Rakyat. Their fellow non-Malay Malaysians are waiting for them there.
Note: Read also Suflan Shamsuddin’s The Fallacy of Malay Unity.