The Malaysian elections – something about the future?

The MALAYSIAN elections. Some immediate reflections on what it was all about to me and some observations.

I was elated when I woke up this morning to discover that the Barisan Nasional government lost FOUR states!!!! Whoa! Words could not describe my happiness.

For those of my friends from other countries who wonder what all this is about, the elections over the weekend in Malaysia was the world’s most successful demonstration of the power of the Internet, the mobile phone, cable television and the general availability of sound, considered thinking to energize the democratic elections of a very promising country. It was also the national elections of the ONLY truly successful multi-ethnic country in Asia and probably one of the few in the world. I am bloody proud of this country, because so much of what I am, even as an individual in a globalised world, is embodied by the best things about this country. When something right happens, as the results of today’s elections, it just gives me the privilege to bloat about this pride.

For a long while it did not look that way. Along with thousands of thinking Malaysians, there was so much worrying building up inside me. From the time of Mahathir’s assault on the judiciary in the mid 1990s, the endemic and shameless corruption at every level that he brought on, the fall in the quality of education, the corporate scandals – the negative DNA was becoming entrenched, or so I thought, and many of us who cared enough were despairing.

On hindsight, I see the process clearer. In the 1999 elections, after the then prime minister, Mahathir overthrew his deputy Anwar Ibrahim using trumped up charges, the Malay ground could only express its anger by voting for the Muslim majority party, PAS. This was read by many analysts as a swing towards Muslim fundamentalism, and as it turns out, was only partially true.

The Malay ground was at that time frustrated by their leaders, but the only way to demonstrate that frustration was to vote for the only other Malay option available, a Muslim party. Also, there was a swing towards religion because of intense uncertainty of what it all meant. Although the Malay electorate was already becoming diverse at that time, with liberals, fundamentalists and non-partisan Malays sharing the same umbrella, the political climate was not mature enough for them to express that diversity.

In the 2000 elections, when Ahmad Badawi became prime minister and promised a clean, efficient government (almost the same words used by Mahathir when he first became prime minister in 1981), the electorate gave him a chance. The natural tendency of Malaysians of all races is always towards the center. All they really want are jobs, a roof over their head, education and food. If their children are given the chance to excel in a ever changing world, that would be a bonus, and this I would say, the ruling BN (Barisan Nasional) government has done reasonably well through all the international initiatives that makes this the 17th largest trading nation in the world. We forget that this country is open to world trade and thrives on it. I can even say that trade is in the DNA of Malaysia because that is what Southeast Asia has been for over 600 years.

As long as these things are in place, the average Malaysian would vote the government back into power, no matter how good the opposition is, and until recently how corrupt. It’s just the way it is in Malaysia. It takes a lot for the middle ground to change its course.

But Badawi proved to be an inept prime minister. He was inept during a time when the very social dynamics of the country were being transformed by the internet, the mobile phone, cable television and even cheaper flights so that Malaysians of all races were travelling more around the world. These are things that governments can only facilitate but not control. Ideas no longer needed political structures to be disseminated. Even the state-owned newspapers had lost their clout and were crashing in their readership and commercial viability, even as Internet-based newspapers were becoming viable businesses in a way that they were not in any other country. The middle ground was giving way and the government did not know any better than to hold on to the structures it was familiar with.

Sometime after the 1999 election, people were becoming energized and listening and thinking in a way that was not possible ever before. Not just the intellectuals. In yet another transformational dynamics not seen anywhere else in the world, the intellectuals were actually reaching out the masses through their everyday activities and not through political parties. But the momentum of this phenomenon was not obvious in the 2004 election. That had to develop a little longer and became manifest in 2008.

Something not discussed anywhere in the global press is that the non-governmental (NGOs) movement in Malaysia is alive, well and reaches out to the population far more than the government does. There are NGOs for all kinds of things –from women’s rights to educating the poor to good eating habits in schools. Almost always run by very dedicated people with education and standing in society. Malaysia is a good example of a country where a weak government means strong community organisations at the grass roots. The political parties are generally aligned along sectarian lines (either racial or geographical) vertically from the top to the bottom of the society. Almost like a matrix that is aligned in the horizontal direction, the community level NGOs provided the other grid that holds the multi-cultural composition of the country happily together. The more the government failed through corruption and ineffectual policies implemented by incompetent managers, the more the NGOs became a real cable of hope.

It was at this level that much of the thinking was disseminated since the past election. This was not discussed at all in any media, in Malaysia or elsewhere, until one day Hindraf, the Indian phenomenon, was able to mobilize 30,000 Indians to the streets. Everybody missed the point and barked up the wrong tree saying that this is a manifestation of the “Indian problem” in Malaysia. Well, the organizers were all top lawyers in Malaysia who knew exactly what they were doing. They knew their constitutional law and their rights when arrested by the police. In the front line of this Indian phenomenon were school teachers and nurses and other well educated Indians, thank you very much. Nobody counted to see how many jobless people there were. Under-skilled probably, disenfranchised, yes, but jobless, probably none.

The real phenomenon that we needed to pay attention to then was that it was possible to mobilize 30,000 people of any kind outside of a political machinery in the first place. Today, this is possible because of the internet and the mobile phone. That was the real phenomenon. Everyone missed the point that there were another two rallies of 40,000 people each protesting corruption and protesting rising oil prices, which were mobilized by non-political interest groups just like Hindraf.

In this way, Malaysia had developed many small interest groups that were unrepresented by the political process. A large gay Malay population hiding in the closet because their race disallows them from dealing with their position openly. English speaking Chinese landowners in Penang. The so-called disenfranchised Indians. Actually, if you listened carefully to Hindraf’s cries, they were really concerned by the fall in Indian representation in government because of the endemic corruption in the sole Indian party called the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), headed by the vile and corrupt gangster who was completely out of his time, Samy Velu. He was thrown out finally after more than three decades of interrupting the television screen.

But the single, largest and growing group that made me gape in wonder during this election was the liberal and non-partisan English educated Malays. This is a category of highly talented and vocal Malays who have been long fed-up with being defined along with the rest of the government’s self-serving statistics of what Malays should be. I was shocked to discover how many there are. If they had hit the streets, Hindraf would have not been able to hold a candle to them.

On the blogosphere space alone, one commentator in lists more than 20 of the more visible ones. Raja Petra Kamarudin of, Ahirudin ‘Rocky’ Attan, Nuraina A Samad, Ahmad A. Talib, Amin Iskander, Fathi Aris Omar, Ibrahim Yahaya, Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, Maria A Samad, Nizam Bashir, Norizan Bin Sharif, Ruhanie Ahmad, Rudi Mustapha, Sheih (kickdafella), Zaharin Mohd Yasin, Zan Azlee, Aishah, Fuziah Salleh, Malay women in Malaysia, Haris Ibrahim as only some of the increasing number of confident new Malays who have been vocal and expressing their own ground. Something simply not there in 1999. They do not fall into any traditional political structures, although they were not predisposed to protesting on the streets because as Malays, they were still “enfranchised” with preferred jobs and positions if they wanted them. Some commentators in even put Marina Mahathir of in this category. Although she is the daughter of Mahathir himself, the general consensus was that her opinions have been largely her own.

Today this will happen in Malaysia, tomorrow this will happen anywhere in Asia. The disenfranchised landowners in Liaoning province, the more successful pub owners of Mubai who are harassed by the police, the English educated foreign Koreans in Seoul, the Japanese farmers in the villages, the Chinese Vietnamese, the Burmese educated elite. Everywhere in Asia there are pockets of communities, defined along virtual, economic or communal lines who are now able to mobilize because of the internet and the mobile phone. Some of these communities are harassed in silence today but that are going to surprise us and their leaders in the years to come.

This phenomenon started first in China during the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989. It was the fax machine then, used to disseminate pictures to thousands of students all around the country until the government ordered the crackdown. Well, Malaysia 2008 is the internet and mobile version of that, but more for mobilization rather than dissemination. A subtle but important difference.

So, how should governments deal with this phenomenon? Well, the Singapore government does it by “stealing the agenda”. The gay movement in Singapore was becoming a very visible force, and one that could potentially embarrass the government if its views were not congruent with global trends. They were organising AIDS day and increasingly asking for representation – although not a political one. One of them even embarrassed minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew himself when during a call-in talk show on CNN two years ago, he called in to ask the minister mentor about gay rights in Singapore. Mr Lee answered very well and diffused the situation, because if he answered wrongly, I can only imagine the backlash that could come from anywhere. San Francisco? Sydney?

What the Singapore government did after that was to discuss gay rights in parliament and made a big issue about the importance of the pink dollar to the Singapore economy and so on, and completely took the agenda out of the hands of the blogosphere commentators. In a sense, that is all that the majority of voters want, that their government isthinking about the same things as they are, even if at the end of the day, the government does squat all about existing legislation that still makes it criminal to be gay in Singapore. As Janadas Devan, one of the few readable commentators in the Singapore Sunday Times, said, to the effect that the “gun is still loaded, but the government promises not to use it.” (I just want to put it on record that I am neither pro or anti gay. I deal with every human being as they are, and what they want to be is their choice and it is not a topic that I am bothered about in any way. In fact, I have some fantastic friends who are gay and lesbian and they are part of my daily life in today’s world, as I am sure they are of many others.)

But the Singaporean government approach is a defensive one. There is a higher road that the Singaporeans have chosen not to take and it is to allow associations of people who are not political but who are as much shapers of the future of our society as we know it to be –whether it be gay or the environmentalists or even the football association. The Singaporean approach solves a temporary manifestation, and may even stall for time as the society itself matures to be able to deal with it. Why Singapore is able to deal with it that way, I think is embedded in Singapore’s version of paternalism that is very different from the Malaysian or even Japanese versions.

In Singapore, it so happens that the leadership is as mature, if not ahead of its population. In Malaysia, the leadership is behind its population and in Japan, the leadership is inconsequential to its population. Japan thrives with hundreds if not thousands of kinky sub-groups that the government does not even bother with, unless something happens like the sarin gas incident by the Aum Shinriko group in 1995.

One of the quaint relics of Singapore’s approach is that there are no public fax machines in the airport in Singapore. The rule was put in place after the Tiananmen Square incident, just as public fax machinese were becoming popular at that time. Yes, we are way past the fax era now, but well, the leadership forgot to tell the officials that it’s okay to have public fax machines. So, the system can be self-correcting, but it has always got to be top-down. There is no one in the system to ask, “why aren’t we doing that now?”

If in the 1990s, the Singapore government banned artists from setting up artist colonies for fear of a hippie counter-culture with sex (bad!!) and drugs, in 2010 the same authorities might set up a multi-million dollar air-conditioned campus with hostel facilities for budding artists. Not exactly the same thing as the Dashanzi art colony in a Beijing’s disused factory, but that is the Singaporean way. If after this blog someone actually lifts the rule and allows the telephone companies to introduce public phones with fax features at the airport, that’s self correcting too.

The Malaysians are accidentally on the high road to diversity because the government is not organised to hijack the agenda. The opposition is, but the government, precisely because of its plural constitution, is not. When they do try, they do such a botch up job that they then leave it alone. It is for this reason that the Malaysian government appears to be constantly in a state of crisis, firefighting this and that, instead of leading this and that. In the best o his time, Mahathir as a leader did transcend this dilemma, but corruption discredited even that.

Accidentally, maybe that is the better way in the longer term, because it allows for inclusion and for diversity to blossom in a wild sort of way. In the best societies, government is even incidental to daily life, as it should be, and civic society is rich and creative, so that when one fails, the other elements of society can pick up the agenda and continue building. This is the road that Malaysia is already on, accidentally, but is such an uncertain road even if it can be interesting and character shaping for a society.

I watched some of the election coverage on Singaporean television from my apartment in Singapore. The two anchors, Brenda Chong and that irritating boy (I forget his name) who does not look like he even reads the newspapers everyday, were so bad because they had no clue what their own neighbouring country looks like. More Malaysians know more about Singapore than Singaporeans know about their own island, and this is a fact! These newscasters might have known much more about the US elections because of the flood of reading material that comes out from the US on Clinton and Obama, Clinton and Obama, Clinton and Obama ad nausem, but they sure were stumbling over their lines on Malaysia.

Then I changed to the Malaysian state channel, but unfortunately, that was just as bad, because the Malaysians have difficulty flowing ideas through the synapses in their brains. Every sentence is punctuated with an “…apa ini…” (what’s that) as their thoughts connect in staccato. “The election results are ….err, apa ini… a manifestation of …err, apa ini… the people’s will, and the government must… err, apa ini..” and so on. It’s a spastic Malaysian way of talking. The politicians do that. The corporate leaders do that. The TV commentators do that. At the end of the day, all they said through the night was “the BN should be a better government next time!” It made me nauseated, like a bad taxi ride, and so, I switched off the TV and went back to work.

Through the night I kept trying to click through to, the only reliable information on anything political in Malaysia, and their site was down! Crashed because they provided free access during the election period. This was the time to encourage one year’s subscription at the special rate! Not so smart, guys! But I do recommend as the fair provider of a sense of what is happening in my home country at the political, not business or social, level.

All of Asia is changing and changing so rapidly and in a profoundly fundamental way. I am a firm believer in the importance of democracy, but not in the way that the Americans shove it down the throats of countries they can bully. It is natural to look at Singapore and ask if the things that work here will work in countries that appear dysfunctional at the outset. Well, no, because Singapore is a city of 3.2 million for goodness sake (the other one million don’t even live here). The mayor of Beijing looks after 10 million. He has a greater diversity to manage, and he can’t pull down the artist colony in that disused factory in Dashanzi with all the communist power in the world, unless they step over the boundary.

I think what happened in Malaysia over this weekend was democracy at its best! Some people feared a 1969-like riots since the government got a thrashing, just as it did in 1969. Well, the commentators completely under-estimated that the education and the mental preparedness of the everyday man for this election was so high that at the slightest sign of fighting, all Malays, Chinese and Indians would have fallen over themselves to diffuse the situation. That is how much my country men and women of all races love our country.

This election was also one where we were all very prepared for intellectually and emotionally. Even if the political parties did not dictate the issues, it was all very clear and simple to the people. Also, there was real choice this time and the infrastructure for change was in place.

In some ways, I had become sick and tired of all the international media portraying Malaysia as having inter-ethnic strife and Singapore as the truly multi-cultural “country” in the region. One has the form and the other has the substance of a multi-ethnic country, and the world had no clue which was which.

To be fair to Singapore, the “form” is a credible, albeit shallow, one. This is the country where the young Chinese people can choose a Malay winner for “Singapore idol” singing competition if it appears to them that he is the superior singer. This despite the TV station trying to skewer the results because a Chinese winner is commerically more attractive. So the commitment to fairness is ingrained in the young people and that is a good thing.

But my best anecdote is the time two years ago when the Straits Times was reporting on “National Racial Unity Day” in the schools, the photo they used was that of three Chinese children in traditional Chinese clothes. It did not appear odd to anyone on the news desk that the photo was an oxymoron. I wrote to the editor, and he acknowledged the error.

Not many Singaporean Chinese men have many non-Chinese friends. To be fair, this is mostly because they are not faced with it every day. With a population of 75 percent Chinese, there is not much opportunity to practice diversity and as they grow older and older, they gravitate towards their own communities.

We need to call it by name and admit that the core is firmly Chinese, which is not a bad thing. That is what gives it the stability that Singapore exudes, and makes it confident in embracing the diversity that is imported from the rest of the world. That global diversity is kept distintly separate from the local community through policies aboutwho is local and who is not, hence again protecting the core. This rule in “protecting the core” is repeated in every country in the region, if not around the world.

Hong Kong takes a different route. It gives residents who have lived in Hong Kong for more than seven years the same level of freedom to participate in local life as citizens, even as critiques. I am not suggesting one is better than another, but it is a choice that leaders make for their countries.

When I go back to the west coast of Malaysia where I come from, my life is filled with people of all races. I have the scents of a traditional Chinese village home, a sweaty Sikh hockey player (my classmate who incidentally is now a pilot with SIA), an Indian temple, an American pastor’s children or the sweet smell of perfume in a Malay Muslim’s kampong family home all firmly embedded in my psyche from childhood. They are not unfamiliar to me. Just because a country struggles through its diversity does not mean that it is sick. It may mean that the country is ALIVE and KICKING! I am writing these lines with gusto because this election result has given me reason to hope that it is alive and kicking! For a time, we were not sure. But given a moment like this, I am able to pluck from so much around me that has always been there.

I say all these things not to compare one country with another, but to bring perspective back into the equation when we think about these things. In an increasingly globalised world, countries are discussed in statistical numbers, in percentages and decimal points, a little island like Singapore comes up tops over a slightly more complex country like Malaysia. Even with a 30 percent Chinese composition in a population of 24 million, there are more Chinese in Malaysia than all of Singapore for goodness sakes, and better Chinese schools and so on. But in reacting strongly, please do not get the idea that I am for or against Singapore or Malaysia. I guess it is difficult to discuss the issues fairly when the people I speak with have a weird idea of Malaysia. That is all I am reacting against.

Yes, there will be thuggish elements lurking, and I don’t like the idea that Khairy Jamaluddin the son-in-law of the prime minister and an angry young ultra Malay having won a seat, because he is a potential trouble maker in the same mould as the people in 1969. But what foreigners do not appreciate is the fundamental character of the country. It was ALL races that voted down the ruling party, Malay, Chinese and Indian. So, trouble makers will have difficulty finding their own ground.

One commentator, a Tim Condon, a Singapore-based head of Asia research for investment bank ING was quoted saying ‘This is probably not good news for the equity market or the ringgit.’ Well, I think the markets will not know how to react initially. Markets are so hypocritical. They prefer stability in recognizable political structures and players even if they are rotten to the core, which is what Malaysia was in the past two elections. They have no measurement on how to think when a force for good has hit the country.

Chua Hak Bin, the constipated ex-Monetary Authority of Singapore, ex-DBS and currently Citigroup economist, told the AFP, “fund managers will be concerned with the racial divide.” Really, Hak Bin? I don’t think the media needed an economist to tell them the obvious. Aren’t you Malaysian too? Maybe ex? Was this not one moment in time when we could give back to the country that gave us basic toothbrush, education and a childhood to grow into the adults we now are, by at least giving our considered views? So, what do you think about the racial divide, Mr Chua?

Hak Bin says that the “shocking” election results could keep investors at bay for the next three months. I think the strange thing about economists of the Hak Bin ilk is that they tail-gate history and give hindsight assessments. Why was he “shocked”? Because he was reading the newspapers? What made anyone think that the government before the elections was sustainable in the first place? That the oil price hikes and the food price hikes were good for consumer spending, corporate performance and the economy as a whole? Or that three 30,000 people riots before elections would not amount to something? Shocked?

I think the markets will wait to see the composition of the government sworn in. Badawi will without a doubt be losing his job. That is as clear as daylight. If he keeps his job, he will have revolt within his own party. Najib Abdul Razak, the deputy prime minister, will without a doubt jostle for the top job – this is the moment he has been waiting for all these years. Will he make a good prime minister? I am not confident. Having said that, this is also his chance to put in power a slew of progressive politicians. Will he? That will make a big difference notwithstanding his own shortcomings.

Something that was not noticed very well in the past year was that Malaysian corporates were top performers in the region, declaring high, healthy and consistent dividends in the regional equity markets. Even as the international media was focusing on the political scene, the story of progress in greater accountability and performance in the corporate scene was hardly recognised. Even in the Singapore equity markets, some of the top performers were companies whose bosses were Malaysians. Malaysia continues to be the net exporter of regional talent to the rest of the region and the sense of corporate responsibility has been increasing. Whoever becomes prime minister does have a good pool of talent to draw from, Malay, Chinese and Indian, if he wants to.

A new factor has come into the equation. The ability of the opposition to implement policies and to help keep the focus. In four states now. Three, if you take out the wonderful and ultra-conservative state of Kelantan. I think there will be very strong and healthy debates on price hikes and immigration and a number of things that require solving. But voting for the opposition in Malaysia is not the same as voting for the opposition in the UK or the US. There is no receptacle to receive the mandate and carry it out. Just a motley group of people who will have to sort themselves out in the first place. Things can fail at this level.

Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, the 72 (sic) year old cleric who is the Islamic Party (PAS) chief minister in Kelantan said over TV yesterday morning that “as long as democracy is practiced correctly in Malaysia, there is no reason for PAS not to win the state of Kelantan”. And so it was. It was a triumph for democracy and he is my country-man and so are the others, whether I like them or not. Isn’t it wonderful to be Malaysian? I am an English-speaking, Christian Malaysian of Indian descent and I share this country equally with a turbaned-Arab and Malay speaking, ultra Islamic cleric of Kelantanese descent in another part of the country. I have no problems with that and for all his rhetoric neither would he and the rest of the world would not know how to understand that. The way it was implied over Singapore’s television by the inexperienced anchors (and in the Wall Street Journal in the past) was as if it was a problem that an Islamic party won an entire state yet again. Hello, that’s what democracy is about.

But the ability of the DAP now to turn around Penang’s fortunes after years of manipulation by the central government and also the state of Selangor, the most progressive show-case state in all of Malaysia is central to the agenda being taken to the next level.

All those terrible things that we have seen in the past in Selangor, top government servants building million dollar homes from ill-gotten gains without even the courtesy of obtaining a building permit, an aberration of due process that we thought were quietly destroying the law and order that the British left us with to build on, their day of reckoning finally came! The sick, horny Malay politicians who perverted the women’s charter and Muslim law to allow their equally sick Muslim friends to marry more than one wife without due consideration of their first wives, their day of reckoning came, and it came in the hands of their own Malay constituents.

The most horrible thing about corruption is that it becomes like the invisible hand that causes trouble by turning neighbour against neighbour, friend against friend because there is no transparent process that recognises industry and achievement, and in fact subverts it. May they burn in hell for perverting what was a very promising country. These are very corrupt men and women who thought there was nothing wrong with being corrupt. If the opposition can force some of these to be hauled up before justice and be put in jail, that will be another happy day for me and many others.

But will the DAP now be really able to take these states to the next level? Their own party is fraught with cronyism and the lack of skills. The civil service in states like Selangor and Perak may even deny them cooperation since the party is primarily Chinese and the civil service is primarily Malay. So, the next level of development is not a given. Again, a lot more depends on the civic societies. They must be as vigilant against the opposition parties as they were with the ruling government.

But what is most interesting in this whole election is the restoration of commitment to a multi-ethnic country. Let me say that Malaysia is the ONLY multi-ethnic country in ALL of East Asia. From Japan to Australia. Even in increasingly multi-ethnic Australia, there is a dominant ethnic group that holds the core, and it is not the aboroginies. Every country has a core race and with some concessions given to new immigrants and so on.

Malaysia is the only country where the one race that wants to be core, the Malays, have to share the country with other equally deserving communities. In a sense, this is an aberration from the way societies almost anywhere else are structured. I have a saying that whether in the United States with a population of 300 million or Singapore, which is 3.2 million (1 million overseas), all countries regardless of size, are ruled by just 300 people. These 300 people are not just politicians, but the priest, the singer, the corporate leader, the poet, the writer, the fashion designer. Just 300 people who define the core of that country.

In the US, that 300 is essentially white. In Singapore it is essentially Chinese. In India, it is essentially North Indian. There is a core ethic element in that identity. Only in Malaysia do the Malays have to share that influence with the Chinese and the Indians, and as this election has proven, it is formula that the system will not allow them to veer away from.

All of us who have been critical of the Malay people because they have been unfair to their non-Malay constituents, do not realise that they have been suffering this instinct to be the core. It is easy for the bloody Australians to say “we are a multi-ethnic country” as long as the core is Christian and white. Threaten that and the whites themselves will become racist, if they are not already so. To some extent, the equation in Malaysia was thrust on to the Malays by the British over 200 years, but in a whole load of sense, it is something that they brought on themselves because over the past 400 years, they were the most accommodating and least prepared for the modern world.

I do hope that even with this bizarre election results and the government’s recognition of a multi-ethnic country, the work required to build a Malaysian core will continue, albeit in a constructive manner. Although I am ethnic Indian, I believe that the core must be firmly grounded in a confident and benevolent Malay race. Of all the races across Asia, the Japanese, the Koreans, the Chinese, the Vietnamese and the westerners amongst us, the Malays are the most accommodating. Their ability to absorb diversity and complexity far exceeds any race I have seen in the world, and I have seen many.

It may be that the Malays do not have the 5000 year complex history of a China or an India. But that also means that they do not have as much historical baggage and are far more malleable for tomorrow’s world than any of us with complicated histories. They WERE tomorrow’s world 200 years ago when there were no other multi-ethnic societies anywhere in the world. It was their benign nature that enabled the British to bring in the Chinese and Indians to work the mines and the estates and so on, from which this region establish nationhood.

I spend a lot of time in China, and so much about the modern young Chinese is today has no bearing on their so-called 5000 year old history. The fact that young women have equal rights as men. That people can change jobs as they like. Individual expression and identity. All these are new elements and such forces are changing so many societies across Asia.

We misunderstand the good natured manner of the Malays. They misunderstand it themselves. Juxtaposed to the southern Chinese who are Malaysians, the Malays appear lazy. Man, juxtaposed to the Chinese cooks in Paris, the French appear lazy! We put way too much emphasis on immediate comparisons and too little on the value add that is increasingly more important in today’s service driven economy. We have convoluted models playing in our head when we think about people. If the results of this Malaysian election is to be taken to the next level, surely it must be to take the Malay people to the next level. The ability for diversity exists in Malay society and what it will take to get them there in my mind is firmly dependent on the progress of the Malay people under today’s circumstances.

But I am concerned about the Malay ability to deal with corruption. That same 200 year history, unfortunately, was founded on what I call a “rent-collectors” culture, collecting rent from the colonial government in exchange for being left alone, that has not quite left them.

Then when I think about Mahathir’s quixotic dreams for the Malay people and so many of the incongruous things that he did, the allegory that immediately comes to mind is that old P.Ramlee movie “Anak-ku Sazali,” (“My Son, Sazali”) which I first watched in the 1970s.

The genius of that old-time Malaysian film maker, P. Ramlee was that he was able to capture succinctly the essence of his own people, which at that time, we used to laugh about. But today, these quintessential flaws in Malay culture comes to haunt us. It was a story about how a father indulged his son to corruption in his adulthood that came back to haunt the father. It is a strory that is being played again and again today with every act of corruption and the unwillingness to prosecute. The indulgence in his own people was Mahathir’s greatest falling, as it was that of the father in that movie.

…I have many thoughts on this that should not be elaborated in a blog for fear of being misunderstood.

Traditional Malay society was always elitist. The emergence of popular elections and modern society brought perversion as Malay politicians manipulated the masses instead of mobilizing the elite. So much has to be done to bring the balance again and find the way forward. I am not sure if the leaders even understand the huge historical forces under which they are but pawns acting out their instinctive roles like animals during an earthquake. The time has come to calibrate these forces, measure them and direct them for the future.

Corruption perverts even the obvious. The current acrimony over the simple matter of the deaths of non-Muslims classified as Muslims has very often been the result of administrative incompetence and corruption. If the Muslim officials themselves had kept to the rules when recording births, deaths and conversions, so many of the issues would not have surfaced. Corruption is like gangrene, eating up the inside and manifesting in so many non-corrupt ways and destroying the fiber of society.

A confident and progressive Malay race IS the single most important determinant of a progressive Malaysia. All of us who are not Malays have to contribute to this idea. Because of the endemic corruption in recent years, we have come to fear things that we perhaps should not fear.

The Malaysian civil service does have its redeeming features. Skilled staff. Noble policies. In banking, it is the only regulator in Southeast Asia that talks about financial inclusion. Objectives and processes in place. The sensible use of technology (the chip card embedded into the Malaysian passport works better than the one at Singapore’s airport – just stand at the automatic clearance queues at both airports KL and Singapore, and watch the locals clearing through and see which ones have trouble! Passports in Malaysia are issued within 24 hours, credit card processing style – world class). All they need now is exemplary leadership.

For everything that the foreign media says about “ethnic problems” in Malaysia, it is the country that boasts of regional Chinese tycoons like Robert Kuok and Quek Leng Chan as well as ethnic Indian tycoons like Ananda Krishnan and Tony Fernandez and highly capable Malay entrepreneurs like Syed Mokhtar Albukhary (of Malaysian Mining fame). No other country in this region is as multi-ethnic in substance. I think South Africa is, in its own way. I can’t think of any other.

Again, I am boasting about all this, because today I can. The election results makes sense of all the good things we have had hidden away somewhere that we could not really boast about because we were embattled for years.

Managing this substance has not been very difficult. Wealth and wealth creators continue to prosper in Malaysia, often despite the political process, which is a good thing. We did lose a good 10 years since the Mahathir era to fight against corruption and structural decay. In a sense, even if the elite in every ethnic group understood what the problems were, we did need to wait for those 10 years for the Malay masses to catch up, and for there to be enough options and education in place for them to decide on the issues independently and wisely, and so retain the democratic process as well as the elite required to hold the country together.

Someone on the streets of Kuala Lumpur was quoted in the newspaper today saying, “It feels Malaysia is a whole new country. It feels like it has been reborn.’ That is exactly what I feel like today! I put aside everything else I was doing today to write this blog. I am over the moon.

Whatever it is, what a great start! I hope we don’t miss the chance to take this to the next level. Knowing my country, there is every chance that we might botch it up again. There will be enormous difficulties, but having come so far up the mountain, it is time to sit on the ledge and take the view! What an accomplishment. There are days in the history of a nation, when the people must stand up and cry for joy. This is one of those days. Malaysia Boleh!

(quickly written, forgive spelling, grammar etc)


  1. Hi E

    Well written and here is some post election entertainment…….enjoy

  2. I never knew you were so passionate abt Malaysia. Congrats on the results and I hope the politicians make the best of this to showcase what Malaysia truly can be.

    On another note, that comedy duo from Comedy Court are hilarious. If they have lewd in their repertoire, they will be upstaging the Russell Peters of this world!

    On another other note, the election results are a clear indication that so many people read the ground wrongly. First, Abdullah had another year to call elections but he thought these snap polls were appropriate. He must have thought they had a good chance, despite the growing disgust with the corruption, failure to control escalating prices for the man in street and also the disenfranchisement of the minorities amongst other the litany of other problems. Clearly, he read the ground wrongly.

    In fact, even the opposition and commentators seem pleasantly surprised with the swing and results. Overall, it seems never have so many people read the ground incorrectly…

  3. Cont�d�

    But most tellingly, it is clear BN has lost touch with the ground. What are your thoughts on how this applies to corporate leaders and business owners?

    What are the signs that one should pay attention to that one is losing the boardroom, the staff or the business?

  4. Dear samy (how many of you are there out there 😉 talk about reading the ground wrongly… I think the first problem going forward is that the “gravy train” is stalled. While part of Malaysia's economy is export driven, a good part of the domestic economy is driven by govt spending. That was what Badawi did not get right in the first 2 yrs of his premiership. When he figured it out by 2006, he did not give enough time for new mega projects to set roots and feed his cronies before calling for an election. Now with a reduced majority and the economically most impt states in opp hands (Selangor, Perak and Penang), the “gravy train” mechanism is going to be severely affected. I think blue chip Malaysian corporates have strong fundemantals and can ride these things, but a broad segment of the population who are under-skilled and with very domestic economic roles will be hit big time for a while. How the opp reacts is also impt. In Selangor for example, a coalitiion opp means they will hv…

  5. …to agree on their priorities, of which they hv several to choose from, and not end up bickering btw thmselves. Badawi not resigning up front is also a problem. Same thing happened after the disastrous elections of 1969, for which Tunku, the then PM took nearly 1.5 years before being forced to resign. I attribute this to deep Malay pride (their pride is much deeper and quieter than Chinese or Indian pride). At best, Badawi might step down 6 mths from now, at worst only after things get ugly. Whatever it is, the BN has now lost yet another chance to come across as renewed from this election. For Najib, this whole thing is weirdly dejavu, cos it was his father in exactly same position after Tunku lost election in 1969. There is same urgent need for a new, enlightened Malay leadership as there is today… but the closest candidate is on the other side of the fence, just as was in 1969. I see 3-5 yrs of ugly wrangling which will make the Mahathir years look like the golden years of ….

  6. …Malaysia. Mahathir was unique in that he created an international role for the Malay pp. I don't see any of the current BN leaders that way. (…as I am writing and reflecting on this, I am saying to myself, oh no….!). The opp is dominated by progressive pp, the civil service is dominate by progressive pp, the corporate sector is dominated by progressive pp., but the govt is not, and the gravy train is not moving. As the euphoria settles down, I am beginning to think that without a leader who can steer the country to the next level from this great election, it's almost like after riding a huge storm, we come into quiet waters and suddenly there is no captain. What can I say. The prognosis is not good, at least not for the next six months. There is a likelihood that a change in PM is already underway, but only when they are ready, not when they're told to. In the meantime, there might be some good work quietly underway to strengthen the battered judiciary and civil service. The opp shd get down to progressive work n not digging up dirt. No time to waste.

  7. oh dear!
    Could anyone have predicted what is happening in M'sia now?

    Talk about defections from the ruling coalition to the opposition possibly leading to the Opposition forming the federal govt.

    Malaysian royalty stepping in to enforce their choice of Menteri Besars.

    Machinations in UMNO to overthrow Abdullah. Could this lead to a call for snap polls?

    And on top of that, the need to implement a new social compact, rein in inflation and strengthen the judiciary.

    I hope there is a conclusion to some of these sagas by May…

  8. hi Datuk, actually I am quite pleased with all that is happening. It is a necessary process, human beings trying to influence human beings. As long as they are all playing by the rules and trying to keep within the constitution, I think it will work itself through. Sure, there is some stupidity in the process even in the opposition – for example, surrendering the right to appoint a chief minister to the sultan in Perak by giving him three names to choose from instead of one at a time. What we hope does not happen is the government declaring emergency and then changing the rules. They did that in 1971, changing the rules despite the Alliance losing the 1969 elections. That was really bad. There is no conclusion in something like this, only a process that will work itself out over the next 2-3 years until a clear leadership emerges to take it to the next level. In the meantime, education, social confidence and a good economy are all more important than any of the skirmishes we see.

  9. As a former Malaysian, it's heartening for me to have found a blog (by a Malaysian for other Malaysians I feel) on how the political wheel is turning in the country that I still call home in my heart of hearts. It would seem that one is truly thrown back to one's roots and core of being when detached from it at a level that goes beyond mere geographic distance. Thanks once again for a blog with honest insights into the heart of Malaysia, i.e. the people.

  10. now Mike Denoma is stepping out of stanchart and Steve Bertamini is his replacement. Could you please comment on this?

  11. New Yankee Stadium - It's just not the same!

    emmanuel, nearly 2 months without a post?

    so much is happening right now, there is an embarassment of wealth in topics

    i would like to hear your opinion on any of the following:

    – did GIC screw up the timing for their UBS purchase?

    – global bank after global bank embarassed (now that even RBS and Wachovia have stumbled, who's next?). Will one of Asia's own blow up yet?

    – asia's leading retail bankers on the move. Within the last 6 months Mike Smith, then Edmund Koh, and now Denoma. Where wil Denoma surface?

    i meant to go to the asian banker summit, but well, as you know, march was insane. heard very good things from the people who did manage to go. where is it taking place next year?

  12. I am always proud of being a Malaysian.

    You talked about Malays being more accommodating than the other ethnic groups, which I only partially agree. It should not be the Malays only, but the Malaysians- Malays, Chinese and Indians. I still have the vivid memory of the day when election results were announced. I logged on the msn, everybody was in a hysterical mood, congratulating each other and also discussing what the future holds for our beloved country. When talking about the difficult decision on how to form the local government in Perak and Selangor, most Chinese conveyed the same concerns, hoping that DAP would be more far-sighted and give up the leadership role if necessary. A Malay leader should be elected. We hope that DAP could send a clear signal across the country, especially to give assurance to the mass Malays, that Chinese will always respect Malays as the core constituent of our country…..

  13. I do not know what is so special about Malaysia that has successfully produced the people who always respect each other and become so accommodating of differences, be it the culture, ethnic, religion…. Thus you are right on this one, Malaysia is the ONLY true successful multiethnic country.

  14. Hey guys, can you write your comments under the correct threads. Liek the questions on Mike Denoma and Steve Bertamini are best discussed under one of my banking leadership type entries. Anyway, I entered a new post today that answers this question.

  15. Lee Ching Yan

    I am Singaporean, but I like, respect and admire your patriotism, nationalism and optimism (no connotation intended).

    The Federation of Malaysia is an interesting country. It surely is very much alive and kicking. I sincerely hope that your great country will progress further.

    Malaysia boleh!

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