Chaos without ‘elites’ a big lie, says top academic


(The Malaysian Insider) – Malaysians have been fed a “big lie” since independence that the ruling class is needed to solve problems caused by the masses and avoid conflict in multiethnic Malaysia, says a senior researcher at Japan’s Institute of Developing Economies (IDE).

Khoo Boo Teik, who has also collaborated with the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), told The Malaysian Insider “the ruling elite who are supposed to solve the problems, in fact, are the source of a lot of problems.”

“Tunku Abdul Rahman thought politics was about chummy compromise. People get together, we know each other and what we say among elites will then be followed by the masses. But it was a big lie,” he said, referring to Malaysia’s founding father.

Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah cobbled together the Alliance Party, a coalition between Umno, MCA and MIC that took power when the British gave Malaya its independence in 1957.

The three race-based parties continue to form the mainstay of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) that now boasts 13 parties and governs Malaysia according to a consociational power-sharing model among each ethnic group.

The real dangers came in the very severe moments of political and economic crisis.

Khoo is most famous for his popular books on long-serving former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, authoring 2003’s “Beyond Mahathir: Malaysian Politics and its Discontents” and “Paradoxes of Mahathirism: An Intellectual Biography of Mahathir Mohamad in 1995”.

The former Universiti Sains Malaysia professor said in a recent interview that “for a very long time” the idea that “the problem of politics in Malaysia is how to manage these cleavages” due to ethnic prejudices and suspicions that were sources of instability and conflict.

This was to be solved by elites in different parties making compromises, “but if you look at the way the people who are ruling over us are supposed to have solved the problems, compared to how they’ve actually created a lot of the problems, there is a very big gap,” he said.

“Instances where ordinary people went after ordinary people because of ethnic reasons are very rare. The real dangers came in the very severe moments of political and economic crisis.

“Practically every decade, since independence, an economic crisis has gone together with a political crisis. It has got nothing to do with ordinary guys trying to go after the other ordinary guy who happens to have a different ethnic background,” he pointed out.

Dr Mahathir’s grip on power, which eventually lasted 22 years, was twice challenged from within Umno in 1987 and 1998, when tussles with Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, respectively, had followed economic downturns.