Malaysia: Time for long overdue democratic change

For as long as they can remember, Malaysians have been told time and again that there can only be political stability in the country as long as the status quo is defended.

By Farish A. Noor

Published: Sat 29 Mar 2008, 9:01 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:13 AM

This rather uninspiring message was, of course, delivered by none other than those who were already in power and who had every reason to wish to remain in power for as long as humanly possible. Since it became independent in 1957 Malaysia has been ruled by the same coterie of right-of-centre Conservative-nationalist parties led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its allies in the former Alliance coalition and now the National Front. For more than half a century Malaysians were told that this was the natural order of things and that to even entertain the idea of there being a different government was tantamount to political heresy of sorts.

Yet a quick survey of the political landscape of many a post-colonial nation-state today would show clearly that almost every post-colonial country in the world has experienced a change of government, and in many cases this transition has come about without leading to chaos and tumult in the streets. The nationalists of Algeria were eventually kicked out of office after it became patently clear that their brand of conservative nationalism served only to disguise what was really a corrupt mode of patronage politics. In India the Congress party that had for so long rested on its laurels and prided itself with the claim that it was the party that won India’s independence has been soundly beaten at both the national and state level; again for the same reason. So why not Malaysia?

The election results have shown the world that in Malaysia at last race and communal-based voting may soon become a thing of the past. This may have been a protest vote against the lackadaisical performance of Prime Minister Badawi, but it did nonetheless send a very clear message to the government and all the parties in the country. It signalled that the Malaysian public was tired of empty promises and having sweet nothings whispered in their ears, while the government continues along its inebriated pace of mismanaging the country. It also reminded all politicians from all parties that the Malaysian voters will no longer vote along racial or religious-communitarian lines, and that henceforth they will vote for the best candidate who can do her or his job better than the other bloke.

If this is not a sign of political maturity and responsibility, then this analyst doesn’t know what is. The Malaysian voters were literally warned by the ruling parties to vote for them, yet they defied the might of the government and were prepared to take the costs.

The fact is that the changes we have seen in Malaysia over the past two decades are not unique to Malaysia and are in fact simply the signs of the times we live in. All over the developing world we have witnessed the creation of better-connected, better-informed and better-educated urban constituencies that are more plural, cosmopolitan, diverse, hybrid and politically literate and informed.

Now that it is increasingly clear that Malaysia may have a change of government sooner than many Malaysians themselves had expected, it is imperative that Malaysians accept and understand the need for change: Political change is as natural as breathing and sleeping, and is nothing more than a mere normative aspect of modern democratic political life. As was the case with the fall of the Congress party in India, those political parties that stay on too long in power can only grow weak, corrupt and inefficient as a result of the exposure to the luxuries and temptations of power for too long.

Other post-colonial societies like Malaysia should heed this lesson well and learn to accept the fact that calling themselves ‘democracies’ means having to be democracies and behave like democracies as well. The failure of the National Front coalition in the recent elections speaks volumes about the degree of disconnect that has set into the upper ranks of the ruling parties. For the UMNO-led ruling coalition to remain in denial and to deny the fact that the Malaysian political landscape has already shifted from underneath its feet would be to compound the problem faced by themselves and the country. For this reason alone, the responsibility now lies with the leaders of this enfeebled government to admit to their mistakes and pave the way for change, even if it means sacrificing their long-held position of power and dominance over the country. For the question remains: If and when change is long overdue and can no longer be resisted, would not the preservation of the status quo be the cause of tumult and chaos we have dreaded all along?

Dr Farish A Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the research site

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