Malaysia at a crossroads

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.

Malaysia-What's wrong

 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.





13 thoughts on “Malaysia at a crossroads

  1. I have been watching the development of Malaysia in the distance. I first visited Malaysia in 1970.

  2. Actually most developing nation reach such crossroads and chose wrongly more often than not. Those that chose correctly, willing to do whatever necessary, reach developed status. However, more often, incorrect ones result in long recession.

    Most nation are flawly founded, their idea for for nationhood imperfect. Intrinsically, most founders of countries assume future generation would do what is needed. Even US laws and system vastly different from its 1776 version even some founding principles of its success no longer true to its detriment.

    There is nothing surprising if we chose the wrong choices, in fact it’s the norm. That is the real danger. It’s all too common.

  3. I beg to disagree.

    You say ” 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 industrialized 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”

    I say that Mahathir with his policies undeveloped Malaysia. Every democratic institution that existed was dismantled. Its a fact that anyone who spoke against his policies was either dismissed from service or jailed. The Judiciary is an example-it became another government department after Salleh Abbas was dismissed from office illegally, an outstanding AG resigned simply because the executive was putting too much pressure on her-corruption was encouraged-Immigration, Customs, Road Transport, Police departments went down this slippery slope with no oversight,transparency and rampant corruption. Every safeguard for a growing multiracial democratic nation like Malaysia was thrown away-segregation was encouraged rather than racial integration and I can go on and on.
    Today, Malaysia’s affirmative action program (as suggested by Thomas Sowell “Affirmative Action Around the World” ) has caused the target group to split down the middle and many are not included thus we are facing a Malay civil war of sorts. Non-Malays have become irrelevant thanks to Mahathir (unless needed).

    “Development” does not mean Twin towers, F-1 Circuits, white elephants-it means that we have excellent universities, good hospitals, policies that foster integration of the races, transparency, independent and strong judiciary, an unbiased AG, strong anti-corruption measures, strong oversight into the Immigration, customs and other department like the police and prisons. A strong human rights regime and good governance. Not sending Malaysians to climb up the Himalayas or travel into space.

    Today the Malaysian government in power wields more power than a dictatorship-thank to Mahathir Mohamed. The only answer to this is that the Malay ( majority race) decide that enough is enough! Vote on merit-no UMNO as a steward of Islam or Malay nationalism.
    DAP in my book is a party without principle when it chose to embrace the former Prime Minister in a desperate attempt to oust Najib.

    Sarawakians knew better when they reject DAP at the polls. Kit Siang is trying to be magnanimous and statesmanlike. But then isn’t politics the art of the impossible?–Din Merican

  4. Bro Din,
    I first thought it’s a Singaporean Minister speaking. Zairil is polished and his delivery is immaculate. We need many more of leaders like Zairil. His attire is so humble and simple. He is good looking and his deamanor seemed honest and clean. How many people in government falls in this category of leadership. We must produce such personalities if we want to enter the next century as a developed and successful nation. Bravo to Zairil.
    His party has compromised principle. And he himself is a politician. Never judge a politician by his words and demeanour, but by his deeds.–Din Merican

  5. Is there any hope that is realistically left for us now? Every angle that I look is a dead end. I’m seriously in the conclusion, that just like in life, when someone fails to take charge of his own future, it gets to be decided by others…

  6. Whatever one may think about Dr M, at least he is – deep down – a Malaysian patriot (in his own right-wing way) and was genuinely concerned about the plight of the Malays under colonialism and Tunku’s laissez faire regime.

    As for the present, he could just have stayed out and quietly enjoy his “golden years”. Instead, he is boldly speaking out (taking some personal risk in the process), and the Malay grassroots are listening, to the consternation of our outright kleptocrats who have no concern for the future of the nation at all.

    As for the DAP — welcome to the real world of hardball Malaysian politics.
    Participation in the arena of hardball politics is not for idealists, not when you are dealing with people as unprincipled and devious as the 1PM and his self-described “gang”.

    There’s an excellent book called “Three Intellectuals in Politics” by James Joll. The book deals with the liberal Walther Rathenau in Weimar Germany, the moderate socialist Leon Blum in Popular Front France and the fascist Filipo Marinetti in fascist Italy. Politics is about the art of achieving the possible, including taking the path of compromise sometimes.

  7. /// Having been our leader 22 years, no one can deny that Dr Mahathir has had the most profound impact on our nation,….

    … 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. ///

    Yes, this much is true. I agree, but for entirely different reasons than those proffered by Zairil.

    Mahathir’s rule indeed has had the most profound impact on the nation, and what we are seeing now is the direct result of the actions he took when he was the PM.

    His influence is pervasive – the breakdown in all the major institutions affects all citizens. The fact that Najib cannot be dislodged despite all the wrongdoings is made possible through Mahathir’s neutering of the judiciary, castrating the police/MACC, and emasculating the royalties. Ubiquitous indeed.

  8. At the ‘crossroads’ gives the impression that we could go four ways. But actually we are at the Y-shaped fork. Taking either route has its downside. Philippines a month ago observed the 30th Anniversary of the departure of His Excellency President Marcos. The steady population growth which now is going to reach 100 million compared to 60 million during the 70s has just added to that nation’s problems.

  9. ‘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 industrialized economy and brought Malaysia into the 21st century.’

    Sadly the road to transformation to industrialized economy also may have been a road to CORRUPTION AND CRONYISM where MERIT IS PERCEIVED TO HAVE HAD NO PLACE IN CIVIL SERVICE AND EDUCATION.

    The world perceives Malaysia as being the second place at the top in the corruption survey while our public universities appear to have disappeared from the top 100 world universities. The obsession with ‘creating’ millionaires for some groups and ‘creation’ of PHD holders is said to be another objective [and 90+% civil service from a single race has placed a high %age on the taxpayers’ expense] being rewarded without any merit criteria on a regular basis. These processes are perceived to have started over three decades ago and appears to have been refined by the current leadership which was his ‘student’.
    MISMANAGEMENT-FRAUD-CORRUPTION-BRIBERY-KICKBACKS cases may have followed the inflation rate and risen from RM-Thousands to RM-Million to now in RM-Billion category. Lack of any action and thus improvement in reducing the cases may be evidenced by the Reports of the Auditor General which lists the cases every year and though highlighted in the media for a few days the cases are soon forgotten with most of the suspects either subjected to nominal penalties or absolved. This may also encourage the honest to indulge in
    MISMANAGEMENT-FRAUD-CORRUPTION-BRIBERY-KICKBACKS resulting in the rakyat suffering the action of the few who were involved in the above activities.

    Effective Enforcement of laws against delinquents and deterrent prompt penalties appear to have been replaced with all round DISCOUNTS which tends to encourage to the honest to become delinquents.
    Malaysia can learn EFFECTIVE ENFORCEMENT AND DETERRENT PENALTIES FROM SINGAPORE but then this may be an admission of failure.

    On the plus side there have been several improvements in delivery methods such as issue/renewal of passports and driving licences and medical services for public which are also extended to foreigners.

  10. I am still not 100% convinced that Mahathir is doing it to “save” Malaysia, unless saving Malaysia also includes saving his sons, all his sons, not just Mukhriz. After having watched him rule Malaysia for 22 years, I will not believe anything he says or do on face value alone.

    As for DAP, well, they really have no choice. It’s a matter of the lesser of two evils. Public sentiments against Najib is so high that not joining in to save Malaysia with its presumptive overarching nationalistic overtone, would give their supporters confused messages, especially the Malays many of whom still worship the old man. If the question is asked, “what’s wrong with saving Malaysia?”, and if the answer is “because it is led by Mahathir”?

    Even Anwar Ibrahim who should hate Mahathir to the very depth of his being, (and probably still do as Siti Hasmah’s public behavior is quite telling), has to temporarily store away the hatchet for the higher goal of saving Malaysia, not supporting Mahathir per se.

    Mahathir has of course carefully crafted his campaign as an apolitical one which means that even UMNO members could join in, and it seems many did.

  11. PS We must all forget what happened in the past which has determined our future today. The future in going to be determined by what we are going to do today. And far as the future is concerned do not think to much about it. Our future will be determined by what we did in our past. The past, the present and the future are linked and in strange way and we have to diligent at every stage of the equation.

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