May 13, 2016
Malaysia at a crossroads
by Zairil Khir Johari
Executive Director, Penang Institute
Every so often, in the evolution of a nation, crossroads would appear at which critical decisions have to be made. There have been many such epochal moments in our history. In 1946, the first mass demonstrations took place in the country, culminating in the rejection of the Malayan Union and the formation of the Malayan Federation two years later.
We have since encountered many other critical junctures in our history, including the formation of Malaysia in 1963 and the eventual separation with Singapore. 1969, 1987, 1998 and 2008 are also years that represent defining moments in Malaysian history, when the country was faced with important choices. Indeed, decisions that were made each time, either by the government or the people, have led us to where we are now, for better or worse.
Today, we are faced with another such moment – but perhaps one that is unprecedented in both its magnitude and the unlikely alliance that it has engendered. Bitter rivalries have been set aside, hatchets have been buried and sworn political nemeses such as Lim Kit Siang and Dr Mahathir now appear together in solidarity. All for a cause that is dubbed the “Save Malaysia” coalition.
Certainly, Malaysia has never seen more troubled times. We have a Prime Minister that is now the subject of international fraud investigations all around the world. Our economy is haunted by a financial scandal with an audacious money trail and a list of characters that would not be out of place in a Hollywood movie script, while our political landscape has been rocked by the dramatic sacking of the former Deputy Prime Minister, the former Attorney-General, and other machinations that would rival the infamous political drama,House of Cards.
The Economist recently listed Malaysia at second spot on the crony capitalism index, noting that cronyism has now led to political instability in the country. Meanwhile, the Ernst & Young Asia Pacific Fraud Survey Report Series 2013 lists Malaysia as one of the top 10 most corrupt countries in the world. In short, we are facing a crisis of confidence and credibility.
It is these reasons and more that have led to the formation of the Save Malaysia coalition, a non-partisan alliance of political leaders from both sides of the aisle and activists from all ends of the spectrum, all coming together to demand the resignation of our Prime Minister and reform of our compromised public institutions. Today, we are pleased to have with us one of the prime movers of this coalition, former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad himself.
Having been our leader 22 years, no one can deny that Dr Mahathir has had the most profound impact on our nation, having steered our country through its transformation into an industrialised economy and brought Malaysia into the 21st century. While much has been said about his 22-year administration, there is no denying that his influence has been pervasive and central to the shaping of modern Malaysia. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that his influence continues to shape perceptions and opinions in this country.
Whether we agree with him or not, and I am sure there are many amongst us who do not, there is perhaps no one else with comparable experience, depth and vision who could better inform us about the future of our country, which is the topic of today’s lecture.
Quo vadis, Malaysia? Where do we go from here? Certainly, there is no hard and fast answer to such a question. How do we address the institutional shortcomings that now fail our country? How do we deal with a government that is more inclined to divide rather than unite its people? How do we solve the multitude of problems that plague our nation, economically, politically and socially?
Dr Mahathir may not be able to give us all the answers today, but I have no doubt that his invaluable insights would help enlighten us and provide sense and context to these turbulent times.