“Justice can sleep for years and awaken when it is least expected. A miracle is nothing more than dormant justice from another time arriving to compensate those it has cruelly abandoned. Whoever knows this is willing to suffer, for he knows that nothing is in vain.”
– Mark Helprin (Winter’s Tale)
While I have always been sceptical of anything that comes out of the Penang Institute, I thought Ooi Kok Hin’s article in the Diplomat hit the target but missed the bullseye. I have argued in various pieces that ultimately what would bring down the Umno house of cards is an economic calamity brought upon by “ketuanan economics” and not any stratagems that the opposition comes up with.
I began the year by saying – “No matter how the government spins it, the economy is in bad shape. And when it gets bad enough, when the money runs out and when political bromides from either side isn’t enough to fill empty bellies, people on their own accord will take to the streets.”
Ooi ends his piece with – “If political change is not sufficient, will it take an economic downturn to bring change in Malaysia, like Indonesia?”
However, implying the rapid democratisation of Indonesia after despotic rule brought upon by economic instability exacerbated by policy malfeasances as something of a miracle and the only option opposition-voting Malaysians could hope for is intellectually dodgy especially after presenting a fairly cogent argument as to why Chairman Najib will most probably win the next general election.
Ooi made his first three factors as to why Najib Abdul Razak will win the centrepiece of his argument:
(1) Electoral malpractices: Keeping the incumbent in their seats
(2) Political fragmentation: Weaker and disunited opposition
(3) Institutional failures: Culture of unaccountability, graft, and state repression,
It is ironic that it is these three points that the opposition keeps harping about that has not gained them any traction with the demographic they claim is keeping the Umno hegemon in power. Indeed, there is very little the opposition can do against the rigged system (that are those institutional failures) and a frontal assault is akin to attacking a tank with a spear.
Counting on Sabah and Sarawak to deliver us from Umno is exactly the same kind of bankrupt ideology that Umno peddles and this meme that West Malaysians are ignorant and less sophisticated displays the hubris of peninsular oppositional types and the reason why they want us to stay the hell out of their states.
And strategically speaking as long as Umno has to rely on Sabah and Sarawak to maintain hegemony, the easier it should be to destabilise Umno in the peninsula. The fact that this has not happened says more about the opposition then so-called ignorant voters.
What is needed is to derail the tank’s track and this is where Ooi’s fourth factor – Societal fault Lines: One cleavage too many – is worth exploring because it provides the key to bringing down the Umno hegemon but it is also a record of the opposition’s failure to present a cohesive alternative to not only Umno but also policies that have no place in an egalitarian Malaysia.
While Ooi rightly argues that everything in Malaysia, is seen through the lens of race and religion, and correctly points out Umno’s part in this mess, he fails to acknowledge that the opposition has also contributed to the narrative.
While the ‘PAS for All’ fiasco was predicated on the pragmatism of the late Tok Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the systemic oppositional policy of chasing the ‘Malay’ vote by the same means as Umno has resulted in religion playing an even greater role in mainstream oppositional politics.
By neglecting the secular approach and instead embroiling itself with Islamic, Christian and of late Hindu political and social agitations, the opposition has turned out to be just another Barisan National clone peddling the same kind of manure. People outside the echo chambers are wondering why vote for the clone when the original can get things done not by rule of law but by fiat.
Here is a hint. If you want to stop religious and racial extremism, stop funding – on a state level – institutions that enable such impulses in the guise of reaching out to the Malay/Muslim community. As long as you are held ransom to the idea that in order to defeat Umno you must use the same tactics to secure the Malay vote, there is always going to be that Malay tilt to Umno.
Parties dance to Umno’s tune
The demonisation of the Chinese community is part of the larger narrative of the reactionary nature of Chinese communal politics. The MCA and DAP have positioned themselves as loudspeakers for the Chinese community hence there is no room for by bipartisanship on any issue, leaving important social, political and economic issues unresolved because these two parties dance to the Umno tune.
These contradictions of course are not lost on the voting public. While I argued that the MCA for instance “has by far had a more accessible position on this subject (hudud) instead of the conflicting messages coming out of the Muslim wing of the opposition front and their non-Muslim supporters; they stand idly by while the Umno hegemon sponsors state-sanctioned racial provocations against the Chinese community using the DAP as a proxy.”
Not to mention that now former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad is the de facto opposition leader, he continues reviving the narrative that the “Malays” will lose their land to “Chinese” interlopers, while Chinese opposition types warn against China’s investments because it is bailing out the Umno hegemon.
So on the one hand we have the narrative of Malays losing their land to Chinese pendatangs and on the other we have Chinese oppositional types confirming that the narrative that the country is being sold to the PRC. So this lens of race and religion is opaque and it is a grave mistake – although it plays well in echo chambers – to simply describe it as something wrong with Umno policy as opposed to describing it as the reality of Establishment – BN and Pakatan Harapan – politics.
Which brings me to Ooi’s most important point and one which is most often overlooked in favor of his other three factors. And this point to me, is the one where the opposition could do serious damage to the regime but unfortunately will continue being overlooked.
“There is a visible gap between the politicians, the city folks, the demonstrators who so urgently and desperately want reforms, and the voters outside the cities, who voted for candidates affiliated to Najib’s party” writes Ooi, which is axiomatic but for various reasons goes unnoticed by the power brokers of the opposition.
When Ooi writes, “people don’t mind the status quo as long as they are not affected at the most immediate and personal level,” he is not only speaking plainly but also truthfully and this of course is the reason why this country has endured the long Umno watch.
The opposition has a long history of being unable to organise an orgy in a brothel. Speaking plainly, ever since the opposition broke the magical two-thirds barrier, they have been coasting on their success, thinking that Umno has been playing defence while the reality is that Umno has only ever played offence.
All politics is local and the opposition has yet to figure out what affects voters ‘outside the cities’ beyond pushing the narrative that they are ignorant and living off Umno handouts. There really is no excuse for this type of political laziness.
Opposition politicians operating in the rural heartlands tell me that this obsession with urban issues has absolutely no traction in their communities and makes Umno’s job easier because it makes it seem that the urban elite – meaning us – have no idea what is going on where they live except to think of them as lazy and ignorant.
There are people in the opposition who know exactly what affects these people on an immediate and personal level but these issues do not get the attention that the latest stupid thing a BN potentate says or the latest corruption scandal that is part of the news cycle that plays well in the echo chambers.
Issues facing the folks outside the cities are exactly the kind of issues that Umno wishes to avoid and the latest outrage that captures the attention of city folks is manna from heaven for an ailing financially-strapped hegemon.
Waiting for miracles to happen absolves the opposition from actually doing the hard work of capturing the hearts and minds of people and allows job security for career opposition politicians.
S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.