Friday, February 6, 2009

The Day After

It has been said that Malaysian politics lost its innocence in May 1969. Certainly the country was not the same then after the 13th of that month. Whilst the country and the people were certainly able to pick up the pieces and plough forward, we knew that there would have to be unprecedented changes necessary to ensure a constructive path forward. The rest, as they say, is history.

But just as they will likely never be a defining moment in an independent Malaysia like May 1969, it is equally noteworthy that 3’08 was another one of those watershed moments in the country’s young history. Yet this was not so much a moment that marked the loss of innocence as much as it can be characterised as an awakening. A political awakening that was arguably long overdue. Much too long indeed. This awakening signified a considerable amount and it would be rather easy to oversimplify both what it truly embodied and its significance as well. Like 1969, there was so much to digest and process – and it seems in more ways than might be comprehendible, a large number of Malaysians have in fact been thoughtfully processing the developments of 3’08 in order to appreciate how far we as a collective have indeed come politically to appreciate the importance of standing up and being counted as citizens, and truly taking a more deliberate approach to exercising our franchise as citizens.

In other words, a large segment of us seemed liberated – somewhat – from the shackles of an increasingly stale, stagnant and often times what appeared as a transparently flawed formula for nation-building.

It is true that there were also other watershed episodes and events between 1969 and 2008, which left an indelible mark on the conscience and consciousness of the nation. Of course we cannot downplay the importance of Operation Lalang and the constitutional/judicial crisis. Those events were, among other things, reminders about how perilous, fragile, and perhaps even co-opted the institutions of democracy in the country truly were. It also raised serious alarm bells for the public whether this country’s slide toward increased authoritarian rule could ever be stalled, let alone reversed.

This is perhaps all the more reason why 3’08 was an especially extraordinary breakthrough for Malaysia. In the eyes of many, the country had triumphed not because BN suffered some humiliating defeats and its power significantly eroded. It was because there seemed to be a potential for a new political culture to develop; one with greater political competition that would engender genuine debate about issues of public interest. A new political culture was seemingly possible where someone’s political perspective need not be suppressed for fear of being persecuted, and where one’s patriotism does not get dragged and challenged merely because one is inclined not to subscribe to the monopoly of the regime. This was, in other words, also an awakening for us get beyond the ‘bad old days.’

Alas, the coup d’etat in Perak has shown that there is still quite a long way for us to go in cultivating a more mature political culture. What I can’t figure out is does all this amount to us going one step forward and then two backward, or is it two steps forward and one backward?

G. Krishnan