The transition from colonialism to national independence did not start and end with celebrations on Aug 31, 1957. For starters, it was not so much national independence that was nominally declared that day as the founding of a new country.
That country — Malaya — was to survive on democracy, federalism and multiculturalism, and the constitution was worked out to provide stable guidance for the building of that country without constricting its possibilities to leverage those principles.
How well have we done? To be honest, I suppose the more pertinent question to ask as 2022 comes to an end is: “How far have we drifted from those foundational aspirations?”; “Can we reverse the processes that have betrayed those aspirations?”; and most importantly, “Can Malaysia survive and thrive if we continue to drift away from democracy, federalism and multiculturalism and, if so, at what cost to its people?”
As we know, real change is essentially generational, pushed by the sentiments, aspirations and imaginings of the young, led by their own leaders. This is not to forget that success usually requires support from members of older generations who have been paving the way for that change.
The general election of 2022 marks 65 years of this transition away from the bad socio-economic and socio-political habits left behind by colonialism — and the results of the polling cannot help but reflect the present state of that transition. They are a report card on decolonisation.
Have Malaysians managed to build a political ecosystem in which they individually feel empowered and free? Do they experience a common purpose? Do they feel that they are pulling in the same direction, building a country that offers security to its weakest members, hope to its young, and inspiration to its neighbours? Do they trust their laws, their lawmakers and their judges?
Given the deep worries about political chaos and corruption, economic instability and inequality and social disintegration and unease felt throughout the last few years, the country has not been living up to its promise.
Democracy still lives
Though far from perfect, Malaysian democracy still breathes. It may pant more than breathe most times, but it has shown that it still functions. The Bersih movement for electoral reform which began in 2005 did revive the belief that the vote is still the best way to control power and create a free and fair society.
The fact that more and more states are now holding elections separately from the parliamentary election signals discontent with the centralisation of governance that the country descended into due to the troubles experienced in the first post-colonial years. There was the protracted communist insurgency to deal with, which sustained policing as the major professional attitude within the public service; there was the departure of Singapore in 1965 and the Konfrontasi with Indonesia in 1963-1966 which strengthened Malaysia’s sense of crisis over the patchiness of its territorial constitution; and there were the racial riots of May 1969 which pushed the country onto a path of racially-informed policymaking, where freedom of speech was tightly controlled, where political participation by the young was forbidden, and where centralisation of politics went to excessive lengths in most segments of governance.
With states now increasingly holding elections on their own terms and timing, this signals discontent with — and perhaps the beginning of the end of — the centralisation of governance ignited by the exigencies of the early decades of Malaysian nationhood.
One key campaign issue in 2022 has been the status of Sabah and Sarawak. The Federation of Malaysia, we are reminded, was created through mutual agreement between the Federation of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore (Singapore’s ability to exit in 1965 being proof of that point). Since 1963, however, the East Malaysian states have gradually been treated as having equal status with the Malayan states. This has grown into a big political hot potato after six decades.
That the political centre based in the Peninsula has been persistently undermining the equal status of the East Malaysians is not a controversial claim any longer. But what should not be lost in that discussion is the fact that the political centre’s centralising tendencies — and philosophy — have been exercised in all states. They are just more obvious in the case of the East Malaysians.
The inefficiencies, wastage and corruption that sustained centralisation under the dominance of Umno-BN have become too obvious and painful to ignore. The election results of 2018 were a clear reaction to that self-destructive path.
Sadly, whatever ambitions certain members of the Pakatan Harapan federal government of 2018-2020 may have had, they never had the chance to be fulfilled. It will be up to the next government, whatever its make-up, to release and realise the democratic and multicultural potential of a truly federal Malaysia.
The inevitability of multiculturalism
The present heightened role and level of political activism in East Malaysia spells trouble for those in Putrajaya who forget that Malaysia is a federation twice over and who can conceive of nation-building only as a process of standardisation and central control.
More importantly, this political empowerment among East Malaysians challenges the fantasy that the country belongs in the long run to one ethnic majority, however opportunistically and dubiously defined that majority may be.
On the peninsula, school children have been taught the inevitability of ethnic majoritarianism for a long time. This has a self-fulfilling function, and many of those classified as members of a minority subsequently begin planning at an early age to leave the country once their schooling is done. This insidious notion of race dominance threatens to grow into a dogma, and it is this fantasy that the East Malaysians now challenge, with their complexities in ethnicity and religion.
Diversity is refusing to be denied. And the possibility for multiculturalism to be considered Malaysia’s greatest advantage again has not been this high for a long time.
As Sultan Nazrin Shah, the Sultan of Perak Darul Ridzuan, said in his keynote address at the Sixth World Congress of Islamic Thought and Civilization held in October 2022 by Universiti Azlan Shah and published in full in The Edge: “Without multiculturalism, I believe that our world becomes infinitely poorer. Different backgrounds, different faiths, different ethnicities: we all have so much to gain and ‘learn from one another’, as the Quran enjoins! As the Prophet Muhammad sallallahu ‘alayhiwassalam encourages, in a popular saying from the Hadith, ‘Seek knowledge even unto (a foreign country like) China!’”
Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of the Penang Institute. His recent books include Catharsis. A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia (2018). See www.wikibeng.com.