I Know What Is Wrong With Malaysia

It is unfortunate that Mark Colvin’s interview with Barry Wain (What’s wrong with Malaysia) concentrated so much on TDM. Perhaps it is natural since Mr Wain’s book IS on TDM. However it has been made to look as if Malaysia’s problems are almost entirely due to TDM. I think it is an error to think in this manner especially for those fighting for reforms in Malaysia. 

By batsman

The main fault is that such a blame game is not really actionable. As Mr Wain himself admitted – “I don’t think he has a lot of power. He has a blog site and it’s a very popular one ….” The most one can do is to try and reduce his popularity and influence. 

For those fighting for reforms, it is entirely necessary to be clear minded. There are the basic objectives of the reforms for which any blame game is a total distraction. Then there is the main opponent for which a blame game is entirely relevant. Finally there are the targets which are secondary for which a blame game may be considered a waste of effort and resources if carried on too much. 

The basic objectives of the reforms are to correct the structural errors and perversions in the institutions of society as well as government, perhaps even of the economy. This can be seen as an engineering problem. It is a waste of time to play a political blame game here. 

Then there are those who try to keep the errors and perversions in the institutions of society, government and economy because it benefits them (the perversions were designed to offer unchecked power to these people). These people form the main opponents of reform and it is entirely relevant to play a blame game here as it is part and parcel of the political process. 

Finally there are the bit players and retired politicians still unable to retire properly. These are secondary targets and it is a waste of time and resources to be too obsessed with them. Often the obsession is carried to ridiculous extremes. For example, there are many Mamak Kutties in Malaysia. Blaming one particular person by calling him a Mamak Kutty fudges the thinking process making it a matter of allusion and poetry rather than good politics. It is entirely emotional and has no constructive component whatsoever and may in fact turn off a few decent people by all the name calling and vulgar adjectives used. 

As to the institutional and structural problems of Malaysia, I disagree with Mr. Wain’s implication that it all started with TDM. Mr. Wain does seem to contradict himself somewhat when he made 2 assertions – 

“The broad area that he (TDM) did most damage was in institutions; he really cut the institutions adrift in Malaysia. The institutions, as inherited from the British, generally worked.” 

“But after 50 years of the party being in power for 50 years, a half a century, the bureaucracy and the heads of those bureaucratic institutions have become extensions of the ruling party.” 

The first assertion seems to put the blame entirely on TDM who only became PM about 25 years ago. The second assertion seems to suggest that the process of perversion started right from the beginning. 

It would make complete sense if the truth is that the institutions at the beginning (the ones we “inherited” from the British) were already faulty or incorporated germs of perversion that TDM manipulated to the full during his tenure as PM. Mr Wain, being a westerner, may be forgiven his preference for the “correctly working” institutions we inherited from the British. 

For example, the quarrel over the Malayan Union and citizenship rights of non-Malays as well as the special rights of the Malays already existed long before TDM. For a nation comprised several different races a permanent racial bias is a guaranteed formula for future quarrels – if not now then sometime in the future and then again and again. We will never be free of it unless there is racial equality in the law and in all our institutions as well as in society itself. Reformers need to think of this very seriously even if it is not something that can be resolved overnight. 

The absolute power of the executive which TDM used to the full was also already built into our laws and institutions. It only needed someone with a megalomaniacal bent to release it from the legal mumbo-jumbo and pathetic half-measures of checks and balances. E.g., the independence of the judiciary was dependent on appointment of senior judges by the Agong. Unfortunately the power of the Malay Rulers were already curtailed by the British Residents, so in the modern context, the position of the Agong himself is only ceremonial. This means that the judiciary for all intents and purposes is appointed by the executive. Again reformers need to think this over very carefully and put in stronger measures of checks and balances. 

I could go on and on, but suffice to say that the system put in place by the British was never a free and fair system. It was designed to work to protect an established status quo. Such a system could be seen as reasonably fair when applied to members of the status quo. Such a system could be totally unfair when it became threatened by plebian systems meant to replace it entirely such as socialist or Islamic systems. This is only natural as the system could only protect itself. 

TDM’s frequent and roundly cursed role in this is that he used the inherent unfairness and hidden absolute power to grab all power for himself. This absolute power, his successors inherited. UMNO is now a small elite with unchecked power. Whether the chicken feed UMNO warlords of today can hold on to this power is for you to decide – perhaps in the next GE. 

However, I would like to point to the global trend that power seeps down to a broader and broader base as time goes by. UMNO is bucking the trend by concentrating unchecked power in the hands of a small elite. Even in international relations, our neighbours and bigger powers are finding UMNO’s absolute power unpalatable especially if wielded by incompetent chicken feed warlords. 

The condition for reform is, as always, for the people to be mature and competent enough to SHARE and wield power. Are you guys up to it? Are you better than chicken feed warlords? If not, are you guys prepared to support power wielded by a different set of more decent, broader based and fairer status quo? Otherwise you may continue to think of politics as distasteful and continue with your own business and daily lives, vacate the political scene and allow the UMNO elite will rule for a few decades more. The choice is yours.