Looking back at 2018 – Don’t lose the GE14 victory

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THE May 9 GE14 defeat of the ruling Barisan Nasional after 61 years of one-party rule was without doubt a high water mark in Malaysian political history.

Its significance is not just about that victory of the opposition Pakatan Harapan – unexpected, against all the odds, historic which it is – but perhaps more so about what has been laid bare on the state of the nation.

While its corrupt practice was at the heart of opposition to Barisan rule, the depth and extent of corruption exposed have been nothing short of astounding. It was a total kleptocracy, a system infested. Malaysians must be ashamed – so this was our country!

Yet, not all Malaysians are ashamed. Not those who supported Barisan even as evidence mounted of pervasive and systemic corruption. Not those who continue to support Barisan, particularly Umno, even now. Not those who were at the peak down to the foothills of the mountains of corruption that was Malaysia. 

The ruling political patricians, Malays dominant, caused corruption to become a disease of society. It is not just about money. It is also about how the system was run, who by, with what application of rules, for and against whom. There were murders and disappearances. All institutions, particularly but not exclusively governmental or government-linked, were infected. It was a struggle to get fair treatment and objective justice.

There was a relief from this oppression with the GE14 result but we are a long way from being cured of the sickness. A gargantuan task lies ahead to develop and find people, to reform, revive and rebuild institutions, on which will be founded the Malaysia we want.

How many in Pakatan appreciate the magnitude of the task? How many realised the huge challenge ahead even as Pakatan took on the previous government? How many in government today are capable of fashioning deep systemic change in the governance of the country, even as they try to manage its day-to-day administration?

We are in many ways fortunate to have the magisterial leadership of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. But he is 93. It is too much and too long to expect from him alone the future we want.

Actually, what exactly is the Malaysia that we want? Is there a consensus even among the Pakatan coalition, let alone among Malaysians at large?

Dr Mahathir’s strength is his ability to cut through the thicket of issues that confront Malaysia, prioritise and concentrate, and to start the process of rebuilding Malaysia. As well as to have the strength of character to call a spade a spade.

First of all, rooting out corruption by making it plain for all to see. But all do not see. Some – the Malays who did not vote for and do not accept Pakatan – have sunk so low they are willing to tolerate and support the lowest of the low acts of corruption and mismanagement, including cheating at the institution designed for Muslims to fulfill one of the five pillars of Islam.

This is how they think: “Never mind. The government will come to do the bailing out. We can cheat. We can plunder. Whether for the crumbs or unimaginable largesse. So we must make sure we always remain in power. If it gets too hot, we’ll bring in religion - Islam, which nobody dares to challenge even as we violate it as it suits us.” Thus Umno and PAS. Race and religion.

Dr Mahathir is blunt about all this. He says the Malays have become totally corrupt. Well, not all. Not the 30% of them who supported Pakatan as they could no longer countenance the unconscionable corruption that had become a plague in Malaysia – money and the hedonism, rotting institutions and machinery of government, leaders and followers of Umno and PAS.

Now for the other 70%. How do we make them see there is something rotten in their state of Malaysia? Had BN remained in power Malaysia would have become bankrupt in every sense and divided in every way. This is the political narrative and discourse parties such as PKR and Bersatu must embark on in Pakatan – not internal and personal divisions, such as in the recent PKR party election.

Not retreats and prevarication such as over Icerd, which actually allows for provisions such as Article 153 of the Federal Constitution. Even if it is subsequently realised that Icerd is not a priority as Pakatan has to fight on so many fronts, make a tactical retreat.

Do not throw the baby out with the bath water. Say clearly that Icerd would not negate Article 153. Put that marker down. Save it for another day.

The play on racial and religious politics remains strong in our country. Pakatan, having a mountain to climb against corruption and rebuilding institutions, does not seem to have enough energy to imagine and strategise how to begin to take on this pernicious politics. But race and religion cannot be allowed to fester and feed on the body politic.

In the euphoria of the GE14 victory, the non-Malays too have to be careful not to go around suggesting Article 153 cannot stand. The victory, indeed, was founded on a return to the rule of law and to the Constitution. The violation of the rights of the non-Malays that had been taking place cannot be tolerated – but remember those of the Malays, like under Article 153, must also be recognised.

This is an important bedrock of a point. The Pakatan government should make this clear and then come up with a strategy to defeat the politics of race and religion – the politics of violation, threat and fear.

The dismemberment of Umno may be the good combative start, but the greater challenge is the construction of the new Malay-Muslim mind.

From the time of the founder of Umno, Datuk Onn Jaafar, to Dr Mahathir in his first long term as Prime Minister, this has been on the table. But that mind had been turned and twisted, and gotten worse.

Pakatan is not really having a go at it, even with Mahathir Mark II at the helm. Too much to do and not enough time and people to do it. Who and how will Pakatan take it on after Mahathir?

Or are we going to continue to slide from side to side, and allow the politics of race and religion to forever hang over Malaysia like the Sword of Damocles – with society intolerant and economy sub-optimal?

As 2018 draws to a close, and seven months after Pakatan’s famous GE14 victory, the euphoria has subsided. Many feel the Pakatan performance is underwhelming. Perhaps expectations were too high, and detractors might want to think where we would be if Barisan was still in power.

Nevertheless, this is not enough. Pakatan must deliver the New Malaysia if GE14 is not going to be a Pyrrhic Victory. It must not be chased and defeated by the politics of race and religion. It has made a bright start in the fight against corruption, but Pakatan needs to show leadership and gumption in the battle to establish a tolerant and truly multi-racial Malaysian nation.


Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, a former journalist, is a corporate leader who is also Visiting Senior Fellow at LSE IDEAS. The views expressed are his own.