Malaysia On The Cusp Of A New Political Order


From Liew Chin Tong
The country’s political reconfigurations in 2020 and 2021 have yet to coalesce into a new stable and functioning order.
With a highly urbanised population, with women holding a significant place in society while being politically underrepresented, a very well-connected online citizenry, and the influx of younger voters due to the lowering of the voting age and the implementation of automatic voter registration, I argue that Malaysia is about to enter into another “political order”.
While the demise of Umno’s hegemony has been accompanied by prolonged uncertainties, it provides space for a new compact premised on a multi-ethnic middle ground attracted to polemical ideas of social and economic justice.
We may hopefully call the new order the Malaysian New Deal.
While events in 2021 reflect enduring complexities in Malaysian politics, they underscore the pressing need for new settlements as well.
The Emergency rule by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin discredited the administration and failed in its principal mission of containing the pandemic, while the memorandum of understanding between Muhyiddin’s successor Ismail Sabri Yaacob and the opposition Pakatan Harapan, and the recent Melaka and Sarawak state elections, demonstrate how heavily the onus lies with the political class to respond to public demands and craft a new equilibrium that provides for an effective reformist government.
A new combination of factors is needed which can bring economic growth and political stability; this need was made painfully poignant by the Covid-19 health crisis and the resultant deep economic crisis.
What needs to be accomplished?
First is a New Malaysian Identity.
Without addressing identity politics, no new compact has a chance of lasting for long. The lessons learned from the last few decades testify to this. Malaysians may be culturally different, but that can easily be an asset.
Dealing with ethnic identity is not about abolishing identity but about giving meaning and purpose to a broader and more encompassing identity, in short, a new Malaysian identity based on citizen rights. Framing every issue in a racial perspective can only go so far, and Malaysian politics has obviously gone way past that point.
Second is a system that is capable of Nurturing Democracy:
Malaysia has been seeing declining support for Umno-Barisan Nasional and increasing support for its alternatives since the 2008 general elections.
The new normal today is such that there is no longer a dominant party and Malaysians would be better off realising that it can achieve better governance through more vibrant coalition building between parties of similar strength, and through an empowered parliament.
The Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s statement on Aug 18, 2021, captures the spirit of our times succinctly, that winners don’t win all, and losers don’t lose all.
Furthermore, Malaysia’s federalism has always tilted too much in favour of the central government. Devolving more powers and resources to the state governments, especially Sabah and Sarawak is a necessary dynamic in building a new and stable polity.
Third is the Building of a Fairer Economy:
Malaysia needs to build a virtuous cycle of higher pay, higher quality, higher technology and higher productivity. Only if this is achieved can equitable and dynamic growth be possible and credible.
The oil money that has allowed for Malaysian governments to be wasteful and ineffective without needing to tax ordinary citizens cannot last forever. But instead of focusing on tax revenue, the conversation should be broadened to ask how Malaysia can move away from a pyramid-shaped income society that has a huge bottom to one that is more diamond-shaped and reliant on a large middle class.
Failure to address the structural imbalances that marginalise the “educated underclass” will assuredly trigger some form of revolt. An economy that is fairer to this “educated underclass”, above all through bolstering wages and elevating a broader segment into the middle-income tax brackets, is necessary for any stable system to evolve.
Economic development and recession, democratic awakening and its associated movements, the rise or fall of identity politics – these are all key denominators in Malaysian politics.
Interpreting the series of previous shifts in Malaysian history is not just an academic undertaking. It is more to show that the dynamics of history are more like a pendulum than a speeding train, and that our understanding of the past changes over time.
This helps us to imagine — emboldens us to imagine in fact — possible positive changes in the 2020s.
New orders come out of flux. Understanding the flux allows for the best possible orders to emerge.
Excerpted from a commentary published at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
A former MP and senator, Liew Chin Tong is political education director of DAP.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

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