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Perspectives on regime change in Malaysia

E-Media

mal-puzzleThe New Mandala, a regional online publication, recently featured a series of sharp commentaries in a continuing series that explores the idea of ‘regime change’ in the country.

Its various contributors shared thoughtful perspectives with the main objective of getting Malaysians and the political leaders to think seriously about the imminent 13th general election, its likely outcome and its consequences both positive and negative.

Given the partisan public discourse on current political developments, the independent input provided by this compilation provides useful and relatively more neutral insights into the complexities of change and reform.

The academic analyses by the New Mandala guest writers are based on their respective areas of expertise and reflect what they surmise would be the possible scenarios post-GE13.

By anticipating the various probabilities – including some which most Malaysians would be reluctant to contemplate – the first batch of articles below, in our view, provide a backdrop for more critical and rational discussion on the country’s future political development than can be garnered from the noise and propaganda spewed from the conventional media outlets.

PAS and Islam After Regime Change – Thomas Pepinsky

With or Without Barisan Nasional: Regime Change and Identity Politics in Post Authoritarian Malaysia – Kikue Hamayotsu

Religion and Civil Engagement in Society After Regime Change – Joshua Woo

Saving Federalism in Malaysia – Ooi Kee Beng

Malaysia After Regime Change – Meredith Weiss

Crony Capitalism in Malaysia: Breaking the Business and Political Nexus – Tricia Yeoh

SUMMARY

(Click on the author name to read full article in the ‘New Mandala’ website)

March 3: Thomas Pepinsky

(Assistant professor of government at Cornell University)

Going into the watershed election, Pepinsky forecasts that Malaysian politics in a Barisan Nasional versus Pakatan Rakyat landscape will merely restate the ethnic framework without moving past it.

Delving into the concerns that many non-Muslims in Malaysia have about the role of religion in public life, he points out that demographically, Malays are no longer as easily distinguishable from non-Malays due to the rapid urbanisation. In this blend, and for a country where political identities are constructed through an ethnic framework, religion hence becomes a core issue.

It is reasonable, Pepinsky allows, to wonder what Malaysian politics would look like with an avowedly Islamist party like PAS in government while at the same time keeping in mind that “the meaning of Islam in Malaysian public life cannot be separated from the dominance of ethnicity in Malaysian politics”.

Undoubtedly, it is Umno that has presided over the rise of Islam in public life albeit the religious issues facing Malaysia run far deeper than the ruling party’s religious outlook. Therefore, having PAS in government is best understood as “the outcome of decades of social change and religious conflict rather than a possible independent cause of future religious tensions”.

Pepinsky notes that although a PAS-led government might go further than the BN has in prosecuting perceived insults to Islam, or in expanding the domain of Islamic family law, such worries already mark Malaysian public life under the current BN government.

He does not discount the possibility that in the event of the BN failing to secure a workable majority, Umno would seek to ally itself with PAS.

“Umno, whose membership is not restricted to Muslims but is overwhelming Muslim anyway, would likely not hesitate to return to power with a new coalition partner,” believes the writer.

This alliance could prove all the more attractive to PAS considering that in a PR-based government, the Islamist party would have to struggle to balance its goals with the DAP’s largely non-Muslim constituency.

March 7: Kikue Hamayotsu

(Assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Northern Illinois University)

Would ethnic and religious identity recede from politics if the opposition came to power? Or would Pakatan Rakyat ensconced in Putrajaya only fuel politicisation of identity even further to threaten otherwise relatively oppressive but peaceful inter-communal relations?

Hamayotsu observes that PR have tellingly chosen to stay mute on fundamental issues related to communal identities and religion that they have no wish to discuss or negotiate.

She notes that in spite of the competing identities represented by PKR (Malay-Muslim dominant), DAP (dominated by ethnic Chinese) and PAS (“a puritanical Islamist party”), the trio have nonetheless managed to reach a compromise in order to achieve their political goals.

However and as such, the ethnic and religious identities of their members – highly politicised over several decades – will not easily go away even if the BN falls from power.

The key question here, says Hamayotsu, is whether the Malay-Muslim community are ready to accept a new set of deals. “All possible signs thus far seem to suggest that they are not.”

“More alarmingly, such anxiety among a community perceived to be under threat or siege at a time when the regime is undergoing unpredictable transition is a ready recipe for communal tension and potential violence,” she cautions.

The uncertainty as to whether PAS will remain moderate once it gains power, plus the party then having access to the existing conservative religious bureaucracies and patronage, leads the writer to wonder if “the much-waited transition to democracy will in fact bring a peaceful and happy future for all Malaysians as many had wished”.

March 10: Joshua Woo

(Currently reading theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore)

Should a regime change happen, Woo posits that one main challenge which has to be taken up by the national leaders is the facilitation of civil engagement in two areas: Between Muslims and non-Muslims; and among Muslims themselves.

This means that the state would have to guarantee civility in the society by providing avenues for these engagements to take place, especially where civility has been missing before as evidenced by the several acrimonious public skirmishes between adherents of the different faiths.

“Each community has to own its role as the guarantor of civility in the society despite racial and theological differences. Within such context, political parties have to work their way through the differences and similarities of these communities,” he advocates.

March 14: Ooi Kee Beng

(Deputy director of Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies / ISEAS).

Ooi discusses the consociational model of governance that in Malaysia has been dominated by Umno for half a century without interruption.

The key to the longevity of the BN coalition is that Umno remains acceptable to the supporters of its allies – that is, if the party stayed moderate, and if it maintained the goal of creating ‘Malaysianness’ as opposed to defending and prioritising ‘Malayness’.

For Malaysia with its culturally diverse societies, consociationalism was adopted as the more ideal choice. The popular alternative elsewhere, i.e. the nation state model – artificial in essential ways – is deemed “a uniform that is too narrow and stiff to wear for too long”.

Nevertheless, the constraints and contradictions of the BN model have inevitably surfaced over time. It is these inherent limitations that have paved the way for Pakatan’s appearance at this historical juncture when Malaysian society is searching for a proper expression of itself.

Ooi believes that in the context of the moment, Pakatan might rightly be considered as a necessary option.

March 17: Meredith Weiss

(Associate professor of Political Science at the State University of New York)

In their fixation on electoral turnover, many Malaysians are failing to realise that what matters most is really what happens beyond parties and elections. “Regime change is not a messianic or immediate process; it is a long-term slog,” writes Weiss.

Genuine democratisation requires shifts more substantial than any party or coalition can promise to deliver, she states. Real change in the character and quality of Malaysian democracy can only be effected in the longer term through engagement not just within but beyond parties.

Weiss offers three illustrative sectors to watch and through which to gauge discernible changes in the evolving political culture of Malaysia.

The first is student power set in motion by the Reformasi. After long being coached and coaxed to be apolitical, the present-day students who are increasingly empowered have become aware of their potential stature.

Second is the flow and spin of information which has irrevocably changed after online new media restructured access to information as well as the Malaysian voter’s ability to interface with newsmakers. Not only is Malaysia’s information blockade broken but a host of newly-mobilised communities, ranging from Hindraf to Seksualiti Merdeka, have been able to force new issues onto political agendas.

Third, the mass mobilisation that centred on the electoral reform group Bersih 2.0 signals the seriousness with which Malaysians today take the idea of democracy.

While the system has yet to change (elections are arguably no less clean now than they were in years past), Weiss feels that “the public is now less willing to accept norms and tradeoffs previously taken for granted or deemed unassailable”.

March 24: Tricia Yeoh

(Former research officer to the Menteri Besar of Selangor)

Yeoh focuses on crony capitalism which is the close relationship enjoyed by the government with the private sector.

Tracing the blurring of boundaries between politics and business that has developed over the last decades ever since Umno and MCA commenced their partnership, Yeoh shows how the stage is set for political parties to continue to receive funding from “not just Chinese tycoons, but all tycoons regardless of race”.

Aside from those eager to give money to politicians in return for securing business favours, even private sector players who are not part of the political infrastructure would still require close connections with government figures to develop their businesses, her findings indicate.

To Yeoh, it is inevitable that the political leaders have to succumb to the demands of corporate interests no matter which political coalition comes into power.

Thus she proposes that a new government must seek to “strictly regulate and enforce political financing” if the long-term strengthening of democratic institutions is to be successfully carried out.

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