Thanks to everyone who came to our first meeting of the semester on #MalaysiaBaru. This session was a little different to our usual format in that it was much more audience-led, and we were glad to see that it did not prevent the audience from raising a wide range of pertinent points on the performance of the new Pakatan government and the role of activists such as ourselves today.
As a whole, the audience acknowledged that important institutional reforms were underway in the new government. Activists at home and abroad are making good use of the new opportunities afforded by a government that is willing to consult with them on policy questions. But while there has been some good progress on things like separation of powers, independence of the Election Commission and removing corrupt officials from office, there are a number of other issues that PH is too afraid or unwilling to deal with.
The audience raised the examples of child marriage, environmental and Orang Asli issues such as Lynas and the forest blockades at Gua Musang, the continued existence of repressive laws like the Sedition Act and SOSMA despite Parliament having been in session for 2 weeks, the failure to meet the modest 30% target for women representation in Parliament and Cabinet as instances where PH has faltered on its progressive promises.
We also discussed the backlash from conservative sections of the Malay community, including UMNO and PAS, who have doubled down on their rhetoric against non-Malays and are attempting to rebuild their conservative base. They have used the issues of the recognising the UEC exam standard, review of the New Economic Policy, and LGBT rights to spread fear amongst Malays that their rights are in danger. These strategies are playing out in protest actions they have organised in Malaysia, as well as in the ongoing Sungai Kandis by-election.
Strategy to Combat UMNO
The question of how religion became so embedded in Malaysian politics was raised. MPOZ members explained to the audience UMNO’s ideological progression in the aftermath of the May 13 1969 riots, when they took on the racist ideas in Mahathir’s The Malay Dilemma, and competed with PAS in a race to the right, trying to control the vote of young, newly-politicised Islamists returning from the Middle East after the Iranian Revolution.
In discussing how to guarantee the passing of progressive reforms under PH, the group came upon the classic question of ‘top-down’ or ‘bottom-up’ approaches. The audience was largely agreed that a mass base in support of reforms had to be built in order the make sure PH doesn’t capitulate to conservative pressure. While PH has been happy to consult with civil society, it has not reliably consulted with ordinary citizens so far, and there is no guarantee that reforms suggested by civil society groups will be accepted. Even Cabinet members with solid records like Education Minister Dr Mazlee face opposition from powerful bureaucrats in their ministries and university administrators outside.
As is common with major political shifts in many countries in recent history, GE14 triggered a polarisation in Malaysian politics. People are being dragged to the left and to the right. While PH is safely in power for now, the conservative east coast states and large sections of the Malay working class are still under strong UMNO and PAS influence. If PH does not make a serious attempt to win them over to multiculturalism by uprooting the narrative of Ketuanan Melayu, it risks letting UMNO return to power in 5 years time.
Instead, PH seems content to allow Bersatu to hold on to the Malay vote on its behalf, even as Bersatu members like Rais Yatim are lining up with UMNO and PAS and pressuring PH to abandon multicultural reforms. PH must instead move quickly to replace race-based welfare with needs-based welfare, and redistribute wealth downwards to the working people of all races, where this toxic Malays-first ideology can be cut off.
The audience also reflected on the ‘democratic’ transition that many felt had taken place after GE14, saying that although our institutions were being reformed, democratic culture of public participation, protest and self-organisation had not taken hold among the people. Without that culture returning, there is a risk PH will only pursue the very limited reforms that it feels comfortable with, and that Malaysia will be entrenched in a two-party system where people will be forced to choose between lesser evils in future elections. The building of a mass base to the left of Pakatan is needed to ensure that there is constant pressure on PH to move in a more progressive direction and uproot UMNO’s influence.
MPOZ resolved to take advantage of the new circumstances to renew our efforts here in Australia with regard to other Malaysian student organisations. The student population here has never been in greater need of quality political education. We will take on whatever opportunities present themselves in the near future to draw Malaysian students into activism and advocacy, so they can contribute to movements back home when they complete their education.
Even as change marches on slowly in Malaysia, MARA’s dodgy property dealings in Australia continue, Sirul (key witness to the 1MDB case) remains in a detention camp in Sydney, Lynas continues to pump radioactive waste into the Kuantan river, and Malaysian students are still being criminally underpaid by greedy restaurant bosses. We call on all Malaysians who want to build the change they seek, to join us today.
If you found this summary useful, you should consider joining us for future Malaysiaku sessions. We’d also love to discuss this topic or just meet up at any MPOZ activities! You can always find our upcoming events on Facebook.