To Defect Or Not To Defect and Other Post 388 Musings

I must admit to some level of ambiguity here. A few weeks ago, I was quite certain that defections would do no good for a few reasons: the electoral pact between the three main opposition parties was still freshly minted and required some time through the fire, the new opportunities gained by the erstwhile political Opposition need to be tried and tested and the quality of defectors may leave a lot to be desired. However with the current developments on both sides of the political divide, I’m becoming much less certain of where I stand on this.

Retrospective observation plays a role in this. With the type of abuse and neglect that has occurred after decades of hegemony by Barisan Nasional (BN) and later by UMNO, the non BN parties really can’t do any worse. And with the recent developments towards formalising an alliance, known for now as the Pakatan Rakyat or People’s Pact/Alliance, the non-BN parties may actually be more ready than we give them credit for.

Of course the leadership of the Pakatan will still need to exhibit wisdom in dealing with their grassroots. Certain constructs come with its own in-built panic buttons and self-destruct sequences. For instance, “secularism” (in the mainstream Malaysian understanding of the term) is a four letter word for many sincere and conscientious Muslim Malaysians the same way “islamic values” elicits similiar responses from many sincere and conscientious non-Muslim Malaysians.

Politicians who have made their careers preaching reform and change should be the first to bridge this false dichotomy and promote mutual understanding as well as explore new frameworks to establish a more civil discourse on these matters. Reacting to grassroot sentiments only betrays the politician’s inability to rise above the circumstances and exhibit true leadership.

A lot of traditional myths were broken post March 8 2008 (known in some circles now as the 388 incident). The co-relation (urban legend?) between ethnic violence ala May 13 and the denial of 2/3 majority was one myth that was definitively busted. The perceived inability of the major non-BN parties to work across “ideological” and ethnic divides (are they really even ideologies in the first place?) was also busted—at least this time around—when we saw parties gaining support from non-traditional grounds. What was a real vindication to me personally was the breakthrough achieved by KeADILan in establishing a foothold in previously tightly guarded enclaves of influence, be they ethnic, religious or class.

We would, however, be badly misled if we continued to pat each other on the back and proclaim the demise of ethnonationalism in Malaysia. Au contraire, ethnonationalism can be much more resilient than we give it credit for and this is already evident in some of the post election disagreements both among the leadership and the grassroots: the perceived loss of the position of Malays, the perceived betrayal by some segments of the Indian community, the vocal rumblings between the “secularists” and “islamists” (whatever those terms mean). Major factors that have to be included into the equation of the Pakatan’s agenda would also be in the development and delivery of psychological, sociological and economic models to blunt the tendency of people to revert to ethnonationalism in periods of crisis.

As some sociologists like Ernest Gellner have observed, ethnonationalism did not develop in a vacuum nor was it a strange historical anomaly. Rather, it was propelled by some of the deepest currents of modernity. Competition between states created a demand for expanded state resources and hence continual economic growth Trillion-Dollar-Experiment . Economic growth, in turn, depended on mass literacy and easy communication, spurring policies to promote education and a common language —which led directly to conflicts over language and communal opportunities. So to those who look in nostalgia at the easier and less conflicted days of the 1950s and 1960s (which in themselves are probably more myth than reality), we must face the reality that those days are behind us and we have a new future to forge.

And this brings me to nation building and keeping the country running. The Barisan Nasional, and UMNO in particular, has generally been reactionary in the wake of March 8 2008. The administration, though technically and effectively not especially weakened despite the loss of 2/3 majority in the lower house (unless they too have fallen victim to their own myth weaving over the decades), is still trying to find its footing while parrying off attacks from within and political challenges from without.

To the Pakatan’s credit, they have been less concerned with trying to destabilise Barisan Nasional post-elections and more focused on consolidating their electoral gains and establishing stable administrations in the states that they control. There is a vested interest in making sure they succeed in delivering the goods as this unprecedented gain could just as unexpectedly be wiped out as it was gained.

So while I don’t envy the position that the Prime Minister is in right now, he has to start showing some resolve and get the country running. It isn’t the opposition to his party and coalition that’s destablising the nation now, but the general lack of momentum that’s been exhibited by the newly formed Government and the challenges that he is facing within UMNO himself. In all honesty, if he continues to show a complete lack of resolve and commitment towards moving the country forward, I’d be less inclined towards retaining a negative view of defections to the Pakatan to form a new government. And I’m pretty sure many other Malaysians would share such sentiments.

The problem that is Mahathir will remain but perhaps it might be good to remember what an observer has speculated as far back as 20 years ago. I don’t exactly remember where I saw this (I was relatively young then, still in secondary school) but the observer opined that with Mahathir’s tendency to focus power on his office, (whether for efficiency’s sake or some other more sinister purposes), through the whittling down of institutions that exist for checks and balances, he would either lead UMNO towards implosion (either due to his absence or interference if he’s no longer in the power heirarchy) or lead the country towards instability (the benefit of hindsight allowed us to see an almost similiar dynamics that occured in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe). It would seem that the former scenario is starting to unfold and the latter scenario starting to look like a possible path that we might end up in.

So, to the present government, “Buck up. If you can’t get your act together, the nation and 27 million Malaysians are way too much to gamble and a government-in-waiting is in place to steer this ship.”

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