Lessons in Malaysia’s political governance


John Teo, NST

All politics may be local and while Malaysians are consumed by heady political goings-on within, it took a more detached foreigner to make a deeper sense of contemporary Malaysian affairs and give them the larger, geopolitical context.

Bilahari Kausikan is no ordinary foreign commentator of Malaysian affairs. He was the top civil servant in Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and remains “ambassador-at-large”. Although he has never served in Malaysia, many of his most senior colleagues cut their teeth serving stints (often multiple stints) in Kuala Lumpur.

Bar Washington and Beijing, no other diplomatic post matters more to Singapore, such is the direct impact — for good or ill — Malaysia bears down on our southern neighbour. Kausikan’s views are thus superbly informed and Singapore being what it is, they will sink in, in capitals beyond.

For longer than anyone cares to recall, Malaysian officials treat Singapore with an odd mixture of brotherly condescension and disguised admiration. This was not helped by the widely held belief that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) of Singapore retained political influence across the border through its successor DAP in Malaysia, somewhat reinforced by the fact that a sitting MCA president was once arrested while at the other side of the Causeway.

Kausikan’s recent piece on Malaysian developments in The Straits Times disabused us of such notions. Reactions here to what he wrote — not least from DAP — ranged from injured lament that Singapore cared little about the popular clamour for good governance in Malaysia to contrived horror over any attempt by the island republic to insinuate itself into our political discourse.

It goes without saying that Singapore cared first and foremost for its own interest but as the title of Kausikan’s piece had suggested, where domestic developments in the region and particularly in Malaysia are concerned, Singapore is not an island insulated from potentially adverse implications.

Where Kausikan’s thinking can usefully add to that of Malaysians is through its clear if somewhat surprising distillation of what has changed in Malaysia and, more importantly, what has not changed. What is striking is how Singapore’s thinking towards Malaysia has evolved to now accept that matters to do with race are a necessary, unavoidable and possibly immutable factor in the overall understanding of what makes Malaysia tick.

That is the unchangeable reality about Malaysia. That Singapore has belatedly recognised this as providing the bedrock of political stability in Malaysia is welcome but had it dawned immediately after Malaysia Day in 1963, the tragedy of Separation would have been avoided. Kausikan is, in effect, calling upon the Chinese community in Malaysia to avoid a repeat of the conditions which rapidly led to Separation.

It is not difficult to imagine that proceeding anew on such a path will lead to something far worse than the relatively gentlemanly Separation. He thus provides Malaysians a sobering cautionary note and reality check.

On the other hand, there are those Malaysians who are disappointed that the global beacon of clean and efficient governance that is Singapore would seem to care little for Malaysians fighting for the same in their own country. Singapore, of course, never had pretensions to be a moralising crusader such as the United States. But perhaps Malaysians should accept as Singaporeans apparently do that on matters of political governance, theirs is a global exception and therefore truly sui generis.

An official like Kausikan illustriously serving a lifetime under PAP-ruled Singapore is perhaps also better positioned than most to see through the current public clamour in Malaysia for clean governance for what it really is: a cleverly orchestrated play for national political power by DAP which, if successful, will upend the political order in Malaysia as we know it.

DAP supporters and sympathisers naturally are sanguine about any such eventuality but Malaysians should have cause to wonder if the eventual promised land might not turn out more like Fiji, if not Iraq or Syria.

Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger in March paid personal homage in Singapore to his departed contemporary and intellectual soulmate, both of whom — if not for accidents of birth — might have gone on to become philosopher-kings on much larger stages: Lee Kuan Yew.

A new Kissinger biography by Niall Ferguson posited that the legendary political realist is in fact an idealist. Ferguson argued that Kissinger believed an insistence on “pure morality” is itself “the most immoral of postures” because “it often led to inaction” on the policy front. And action always required picking a lesser evil. Something global statesmen readily recognise and perhaps mere mortals should as well.

The writer is a Kuching-based journalist