September 30, 2016
Manufacturing Consent in a Democratic Society
September 30, 2016
June 24, 2016
by Farouk A. Peru
In a week that saw Nik Abduh advising Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to spend his remaining years on the prayer mat seeking forgiveness, I thought I had seen my fair share of ludicrous remarks for the week at least.
Nik Abduh has taken over his late father’s place as the purveyor of silly comments, it seems. He told Tun Dr M that the latter’s time was short and so he should spend it in worship. How does Abduh know how much time anyone has left? And why should anyone spend it solely on the prayer mat when he could be helping society? Is Abduh saying Islam is only practised on the prayer mat? If so, he should withdraw from politics and spend it on the prayer mat himself.
The UMNO-sponsored BTN Troopers are told that” racism is a good thing”
But even Abduh’s comment could not overshadow those by the Biro Tata Negara (BTN) or National Civics Bureau in terms of ludicrousness. BTN used to be very sheepish about its institutional racism. After all, being racist is a shameful thing.
Around six years ago, one of its officers was caught using derogatory racial epithets to describe Malaysian Chinese and Indians. At the time, the usual excuses were given. Misquoted, misunderstood etc. Though I doubt anyone actually believed those excuses at the time, at least there was a sense of shame about it.
Fast forward to the present and BTN is actually saying that racism is good to bring about unity! There were no more excuses or being sheepish about it. This is a blatant, audacious and brazen proclamation: racism is a good thing!
I had to read the headline a few times to ensure I got it right; it had occurred to me that language may have betrayed them. Perhaps they meant “racialism” instead of “racism.” “Racialism” is the focus upon a particular racial group to benefit them but does not entail oppressing other racial groups. Call it cultural empowerment, if you will. Perhaps BTN meant this instead of racism. Except they did not.
They actually meant racism. They contrasted this racism with the fact that other races had their fair share of human rights (notwithstanding child abduction and bodysnatching for the purposes of religion, of course). They even said that most of the wealthiest people in the nation were Chinese as if this somehow absolves us of the sin of robbing others of educational and economic opportunities.
Apparently, they had lifted this concept of racism from the Arab nationalist tendencies of “asabiyyah” which was discussed by ibn Khaldun. Perhaps, in their uncritical approach which accepts anything Arabic as “Islamic”, they failed to understand that Ibn Khaldun was a sociologist and not a theologian.
Khaldun’s ideas were not necessarily Islam. In fact, the Quran does not condone any kind of racism or even nationalism. It sees our cultural diversity as a means of recognising one another (49/13) and that human disunity only came out of exploitative tendencies. That should sound very familiar to the BTN and their overlords, UMNO.
Let us now take a rational perspective. Can racism actually bring about any benefit? The proof of the pudding is in the eating and after nearly 50 years of affirmative action supposedly benefitting the Malays, even our leaders admit that they have grown used to their crutch! Instead of developing our competitive capacities in the wider world, we have chosen to create a controlled environment full of jaguh-jaguh kampungs. Kings of the small pond who would get devoured in the wider world.
These racist policies have had a terrible effect on the Malay mindset. We have come to have a privileged mindset and a sense of entitlement. Who could forget the speech last year by a young Malay woman bemoaning her struggle to make it once she graduated? Her sense of expectation is a depiction of the mindset Malays tend to have. This does not tally with our competitiveness at all and our lack of skills, especially in English, has been made into comedy material.
Racism must be also blamed for our current lack of national cohesion. Despite people seeing this as an increase in religious consciousness, Malays have not become more religious. Rather, they have mistaken another kind of racism (pseudo-Arabic racism, to be precise) for piety. Now, we even have organisations shamelessly peddling Islamisation while claiming their Malay rights!
Does a tacky logo point to the return of authoritarianism in Malaysia?
When institutional failures are commonplace, institutions are expected to fail. This cynical expectation may be passed off as sarcasm, but it is intrinsic to a growing sense of political detachment between the Malaysian government under Prime Minister Najib Razak and the people. Worse, the authorities have a vested interest in maintaining, rather than closing, this gap, to deter more direct political participation.
Kuala Lumpur’s new logo, recently released by the city council Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur (DBKL), was never destined to be popular. Rather, it is the public’s reactions that give it currency.
When it was first unveiled online, the logo prompted ridicule. Within the span of a week, a free template was created, in addition to several step-by-step tutorials , allowing netizens to make their own version of the logo with just a few clicks. Social media was immediately awash with parodies and caricatures, with netizens customising the logo with personal or corporate names, repurposing it for reasons other than its own initial intent.
This is the Reality since 2009
While one could however laud the creative aftermath of this controversy, the reactions in fact display more cynicism than optimism. The parodies are suggestive of a growing detachment between the Malaysian government and the people, one that amounts to a credibility gap. But this gap should not be understood solely as a problem. Rather, it is an ideological façade perpetuated by the authorities to consolidate their power.
After the negative reception of the logo, DBKL responded that the design cost RM15,000, inevitably creating a greater stir. The logo received its second wave of media coverage when Visit KL, the Tourism Unit of DBKL, released a video on YouTube (removed from the official Visit KL channel, but re-uploaded by a private organisation) showcasing a row of tin ingots gradually crackling and breaking apart to reveal the logo. The tin ingots are supposed to symbolise Kuala Lumpur’s history “as a major tin mining and trading centre”, whereas the serif font selection is supposed to display “an Islamic scripture character with a modern twist”.
Nonetheless, any clarification provided by DBKL will never suffice. Be it RM15 or RM15,000, the reactions will be the same. In Malaysia, cynicism has been thriving during most of Prime Minister Najib administration, escalating with the 1MDB fiasco. It is a symptom that has developed over an extended period of time and out of repeated institutional failures. That these failures have become a norm means that not only are failures commonplace, they are expected to be so.
The expectation of failures feeds into cynicism and the credibility gap. This phenomenon should not be underestimated. Within the broader contemporary state of affairs, cynicism becomes integral to the political economy of the nation-state. To the Malaysian authorities, failures are ideologically productive: failures, again and again, produce cynical expectation, deepen political detachment and expand the tolerance for more scandalous failures.
If the banality of repeated failures cultivates cynicism, cynicism furthers the banalisation of failures and completes the crisis of political detachment.
Far from being a standalone problem, this crisis should be read against the context of the privileging of the personal over the public domain. It is a moment where political actions become more about the individual rather than the collective. . Parodies of the controversial Kuala Lumpur logo point to this direction. Amid the breakdown of the public political realm, accruing personal cynicism can only be satiated through further individualisation of political expression. That is, in this case, through the personalisation or customisation of the logo.
The credibility gap has effectively disempowered the public and has deterred the possibility of more direct political action. The Kuala Lumpur logo controversy and the subsequent reactions are but a sign. Resistance is now impelled to operate in a separate discourse of politics, which can resist and react accordingly without the gap ever closing, because it has been decoupled from the hegemonic operation of power.
The response towards the Kuala Lumpur logo has taken up a form that fuels political detachment. Increasingly, resistance has to capitalise on this detachment for more radical advocacy. Yet, it is on the very same detachment that the hegemony of power thrives. It is in this fashion that authoritarianism in Malaysia is returning.
Through the maintenance of credibility gap and political detachment, institutional failures are constantly rehearsed to accustom the public to expecting failures with amusement rather than anger. The crisis of institutional credibility has become so ordinary that recurrent failures sit within one’s comfort zone. And as the cronies do what they do best, resistant politics can only react more radically by deepening the sense of political detachment, and implicitly, by making failures ever more tolerable.
Tan Zi Hao is a postgraduate student in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He is also a conceptual artist whose artworks can be viewed at www.tanzihao.net. As both artist and writer, he is interested in the arts, language, cultural politics and mobilities.
May 20, 2016
No one of substance in government is bold enough to raise the right issues as most prefer wallowing in self-consolation hoping things will eventually self-correct.
by TK Chua
There is a management thought that says we must be honest and bold enough to raise the right issues or to ask the right questions. If we do not have the right questions, it does not matter much that we have the right answers. Right answers to wrong questions are useless.
1MDB is Malaysia’s Najib-inspired Blue Ocean Strategy Bull
Today, Malaysia is reeling from the reality that no one of any substance in government is bold enough to raise the right issues or ask the right questions as most prefer wallowing in self-consolation, hoping things will eventually self-correct. Rarely do they rock the boat and challenge the established paradigm. Instead, they pretend to support every phoney reform undertaken – from Pemandu, BR1M, BRAM, BROOM, NBOS Initiatives (watch video above), to GST and all the baloney that takes place in GLCs (e.g. 1MBD).
Malaysia’s Top Civil Servant with his Brains Trust
We know from history it is never easy to reform a system or a country from within. The death of the Qing dynasty and the French Revolution convey the same story – failed reforms.
People in power usually cannot see it or refuse to see it. They become insensitive and insular to the needs of others. Hence, while many in the country are struggling to get by, the ruling elite shamelessly and effortlessly indulge in obscene extravagance even for a simple event like a birthday or wedding celebration. We used to laugh at Marie Antoinette’s infamous “let them eat cake” joke, but I don’t think we have ever learnt anything worthwhile from it.
Why do I say we are addressing the wrong issues? Let me list a few examples:
i. We use the GST to perpetuate our wasteful ways, not instill financial discipline and prudence in the public sector. The GST, therefore, will not solve our fiscal unsustainability problems. It will not help stabilise and strengthen the ringgit. It will only reinforce the government’s spendthrift ways.
ii. Pemandu did not transform the government machinery.Like any bureaucracy, it only added more outfits and programmes to it and drains our national coffers. Therefore, it will only incur more expenses but with no efficiency gained.
iii. National development is not about issuing bonds or raising debts, setting up giant corporations and listing GLCs that the earlier generations have taken decades to nurture and build. Why are we indulging in buying, investing, selling, restructuring, paying off debts, and renegotiating with “partners” endlessly? Why instead of creating value, are we moving from one protracted problem to another? This is worse than children playing the game of monopoly.
iv. Foreign workers are supposed to come here to supplement our needs, not dictate the “production function” of this country. Now we have Malaysians leaving the country in droves while foreigners are allowed indiscriminate entry. In the process, our value chain goes down the drain and our way of life turns upside down.
v. We keep saying the future of this country is in the hands of the young. But what future have we created for them – an increasing pool of unemployed and unemployable graduates?
vi. We were told to be magnanimous and live in harmony, but every day we are reminded of protests over altars here, tokongs there and the general lack of piousness everywhere. If we are so godly, why are we so filthy and depraved? Why are we experiencing mass food poisoning so often? Why are our children so prone to mass hysteria? Why are our women subjected to snatch theft, attempted rape and rape so often? I know what you are thinking – when compared to other countries, Malaysia is not so bad. Maybe that is why some say we are good in jumping on the spot.
vii. Our idea of multiculturalism is when one marries a spouse of a different race or religion. Our racial tolerance is to adopt a son or daughter from another race or foster a child of another race. Our idea of inclusiveness is to produce a video portraying groups of different racial backgrounds dancing or singing together for a GLC’s advertisement or a national event. However, in our daily life, we don’t care whether our policies are fair and just.
When push comes to shove, we just hoist our flag of race and religious supremacy. We just need to divert blame onto others – and cry out at how others have tried to sabotage and undermine our vital interests; how we must be ever vigilant to keep them in the box.
I think it is enough for now. You may add on to the list if you want.*
*There is no need to add to Mr. Chua’s list. We must take the blame because we continue to allow an incompetent UMNO-BN government led by the corrupt Prime Minister Najib Razak to operate. We are indifferent and do not have the guts to sack the Prime Minister and his cabal who are in charge of our national coffers. To make matters worse, we have a political opposition which will do the same if they are given the opportunity, that is, they can be equally arrogant and corrupt. We are already a failed state.
Only a failed people will want the status quo. So, our voters will allow UMNO-BN to win the forthcoming by-elections in Kuala Kangsar and Sungei Besar like they did in Sarawak recently. We deserve the government we get. –Din Merican
April 21, 2016
by Nicholas Chan
In Malaysia, it’s not a clash of the titans that sees major personalities rule. Rather, political institutions are set up to keep the country’s leaders in power — regardless of who sits in the top position and how weak they are.
Like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Indonesia’s Suharto, the long reign of Mahathir Mohamad, who held the reins of power from 1981 to 2003, marks a period of personified politics for Malaysia.
Malaysian scholar Khoo Boo Teik even coined the term ‘Mahathirism’ to typify the man’s contentious politics, development focused economics, and a foreign policy that was strident and very intimate to Mahathir’s world view.
As the ‘Grand Old Man’ of Malaysian politics still looms over his successors, some would argue the ‘Mahathir factor’ is very much alive today. Observers and activists still hold their breath in anticipation of Mahathir’s upcoming political moves after he filed a lawsuit and started a campaign to Save Malaysia, supported by many of his former political adversaries in a bid to oust scandal-soaked Prime Minister Najib Razak.
However, as the casualties of his ‘oust Najib’ campaign pile up, including a Deputy Prime Minister, a Menteri Besar (first Minister of a state), and an Attorney-General, the Prime Minister’s seemingly unshakable position prompts one to ask whether Mahathir has lost his charm?
Or has UMNO politics transitioned from the kind of personified politics many would associate with its neo-feudal setup; one where warlords reign supreme and loyalty to the party leader is widely held as a tradition, obligation, and virtue?
UMNO’s obsession with personified politics is nothing new. The party’s major rifts since the Mahathir era have always been seen as battles between giants; Mahathir’s clashes with Tengku Razaleigh/Musa Hitam in 1986; Anwar Ibrahim in 1998; and Abdullah Badawi (and then Mr. Najib) in the post-2008 era.
Even now, attempts to challenge Najib are portrayed as personality-centric. By collaborating with the opposition, the 90-year-old Mahathir is seen as stepping into the leadership void left by the highly charismatic, albeit imprisoned Mr. Anwar.
It is also reported that Mr. Razaleigh, Malaysia’s longest serving MP, was allegedly planning a parliamentary coup. The political maneuvering seems to be a game of musical chairs favouring political veterans.
Yet, such House of Cards-esque description of Malaysian politics, where power is personified and the winner is the ultimate Machiavellian champion misses one point; the advantage of incumbency is institutionalised rather than personified — even if the prime minister’s opponents are mustering support based on personalities.
Even in the public domain, personified politics do not fare well. Najib’s attempt to capitalise on his personal popularity via the 1Malaysia campaign, a program he initiated calling for politicians and bureaucrats to emphasise ethnic harmony and national unity, has failed miserably – despite his approval being greater than his own party’s at the time. Having lost the popular vote in the 2013 election, it was only the electoral system, and some rural gerrymandering, that kept him in power.
Seen in this perspective, former PM Badawi’s resignation is likely a matter of personal choice rather than an inevitable event after the traumatic 2008 election results – which saw the long-ruling Barisan Nasional led by UMNO win an election by its slimmest margin ever. In hindsight,
Dr Mahathir’s long-term survival in the party, despite the many close-shaves, is also as much about political shrewdness as it is about the fact that he enjoyed institutionalised power for being Prime Minister and UMNO’s President.
As much as many would like to describe Malaysia as a ‘failed’ state, the fact remains that the state has been able to maintain a strong, if not authoritarian, grip over the nation.
Unlike Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, there are no pockets of rebellion or lawlessness within Malaysia. The secessionist (or parochial) calls by certain parties in Sarawak and Johor are merely rhetorical. The government has also handled the so-called Islamic State (IS) threat convincingly so far, unlike the aforementioned countries where attacks has been successfully carried out by IS, or its affiliates.
Extractive capacities remain strong, as seen in the imposition (and execution) of the unpopular Goods and Services Tax (GST); a success that proves to be a saving grace to a weakened economy threatened by currency devaluation and low oil prices.
Nevertheless, the ability to regulate and control does not automatically translate to popularity, more so in the face of a mega-scandal that involves the 1MDB state fund and the prime minister’s personal bank accounts. The government’s approval rating has recently sunk to an all-time low of 23 per cent.
More importantly, Malay support, which has been the prized vote bank of UMNO, has plummeted from 52 per cent to 31 per cent in just 10 months (January- October 2015), breaching the 50 per cent mark for the first time since polls were first taken in 2012.
A popularity crisis will call for greater institutionalisation of power, whether through legal or extra-legal means, to buttress and secure the position of the leader. Institutionalised power — in the authoritarian sense — differs from personified power, for it allows for powers to be centralised and accrued to the apex position regardless of who sits in that position.
The Malaysian case, where the investigation of the 1MDB affair was swiftly closed by a newly minted Attorney General, Mr. Apandi Ali, after his predecessor was removed in a sudden turn of events, and despite the Central Bank thinking otherwise, stands in contrast with Brazil — a nation also embroiled in a mega-scandal involving a state-owned agency, Petrobras.
Institutions in Brazil were not set up to support the weakened leadership. Instead, judges and prosecutors have shown fierce independence, to the point of detaining former president-cum-Chief of Staff, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, for investigation.
The methods and dilemma of institutionalised authoritarian power
Many avenues are available to institutionalise authoritarian power. Chief of all, it is the ability to dictate, control and deploy coercive apparatus (empowered by legislative tools), not only towards perceived external detractors (such as blocking news websites), but also internal ones, as in the case where the investigators of an ongoing scandal were themselves investigated.
Another vital component is the institutionalisation of an electoral system that disadvantages the opposition so that legitimacy of rule is still preserved through the semblance of ‘democracy’. Findings from the University of Sydney and Harvard University-based Electoral Integrity Project conclude that the 2013 General Elections were of “low integrity“.
Finances also matter as there is a need to sustain a patronage-based political economy, which is enabled by the state’s deep tentacles into the economy. A cursory review of the top 10 largest companies by market capitalisation reveals how Government-Linked Companies (GLCs) and conglomerates with strong government-ties continue to dominate the Malaysian economy.
To be sure, such institutionalisation of power at the Prime Minister’s position did not begin with Najib. It can be traced back to Dr Mahathir’s era of domination where governments institutions were subverted via subjugation (as in the case of the judiciary), homogenisation (the reduction of ethno-religious diversity in the civil service), and ideational reconditioning (through the use of the infamous national civics bureau, or BTN, where civil servants were allegedly ‘inculcated’ with the doctrine of Malay supremacy and anti-opposition rhetoric).
The incumbency advantage were also extended to the party level, for example, through a now defunct electoral rule that stipulated UMNO’s presidency could only be contested by candidates that secured 30 per cent of nominations from 191 delegates. However, a dilemma exists whereby the process of institutionalising power actually weakens the institutions involved in exercising such powers.
The outcome is an expanded yet docile ethnocratic bureaucracy that is competent enough to ensure regime preservation, yet not necessarily so in terms of delivering good governance — unlike the case of capacity-orientated institutional building in the equally strong-state Singapore.
In any case, total subversion can never be completely achieved. Having demonstrated certain proclivities of its own, the religious bureaucracy, also greatly strengthened during Dr Mahathir’s era, is expected to be a wild-card in the future.
That said, conformity is expected for now, as the religious bureaucrats dovetail comfortably with the government’s ‘Islamic’ agenda, reveling in the attention, protection, and budgetary endowments received.
The limits of institutionalised power
The importance of institutonalised power in Malaysia’s political system is also reflected in the fact that personified and ideological politics is much more prevalent in opposition parties, such as the Anwar factor in PKR, as well as DAP and PAS’s secularism versus Islamist dichotomy.
The lack of institutionalised support makes these characteristics important binding factors within these parties. But ironically, it also makes building coalitions among such parties difficult – if not impossible.
However, institutionalisation of power does have its limits. The fact that the federal government still needs to please and pacify political parties in East Malaysia, like the 29.2 billion ringgit worth of developmental projects (even in times of government austerity), demonstrates that a weak party still requires popular support.
What is clear is that personified power, if indeed invoked, has very limited utility in challenging a position that has access to unchecked, centralised and institutionalised power. In this sense, a solution in the form of a ‘Save Malaysia’ messiah from the opposition would most likely be a pipe dream.
As such, two pertinent questions need to be asked. First, if the opposition is deprived of institutional means to challenge Mr Najib, the only alternative they can resort to is mobilising popular support, be it via electoral or non-electoral means.
In the event of such a success (which is a gargantuan task to begin with), would a standoff between institutions and the people occur? Where is the tipping point where the reliance on institutional means can no longer justify the preservation of unpopular power?
Second, if current events have demonstrated the privileges of institutionalised power, is there any incentive for those who seek power to reform it?
Nicholas Chan is a postgraduate student with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
April 4, 2016
by Scott Ng
Najib’s No. 1
UMNO Supreme Council member Tajuddin Abdul Rahman is making a name for himself as one of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s fiercest defenders. Tajuddin wants you to know that Najib has a good reason for spending a lot of money on his wife, Rosmah Mansor. It’s because it makes her happy, he says.
Just like any married man out there, the PM wants to impress the missus and, according to Tajuddin, giving her handbags is an important part of the process of wooing your lady. He says it is especially acceptable for the PM to do this because, as a high-ranking public official, he can afford it.
No one would disagree that there is no problem with pampering your lady within your means. But the key phrase here is “within your means”. Now, it has been alleged that Rosmah loves Birkin bags. One of those can cost anything from RM40,000 to RM1 million. The Prime Minister’s salary, on record, is RM22,825.65 a month, though his actual income is likely far higher, given the allowances our government officials are paid. Whether it is within Najib’s means to buy Birkin bags is a conclusion for someone else to draw.
Mohamed Rahmat’s Son
We are not saying that Najib actually buys Birkin bags for Rosmah. All we’re doing is analysing Tajuddin’s statement. It is important to note that Tajuddin was responding to allegations made in the ABC’s Four Corners report on Malaysia. It said the PM used credit cards to spend millions buying jewellery for Rosmah. It also alleged that Najib had received tons of money from dubious sources, not just from Saudi royalty.
If Tajuddin had been a dependable defender of his boss, he would have done some research so he could shoot holes into the allegations. Instead, all he has succeeded in doing is to embarrass the PM further. His so-called defence of Najib raises eyebrows so high that they disappear into our hair.
Yet Another UMNO Bungler
Certainly, Tajuddin is not the only bungler among the PM’s men. The confusing narrative that we’ve been given threatens to derail any attempt at defending Najib. The defenders are out in full force, and they are saying different things. One insists that the Four Corners report is one-sided and inaccurate, and another tacitly admits that it got some things right.
The more Tajuddin and his fellow defenders talk, the shakier the ground the government stands on looks.