OPINION: 'Critical Optimism' Lights Malaysia's Way Forward

OPINION: 'Critical Optimism' Lights Malaysia's Way Forward
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A personal narrative of how GE14 flew in the face of expectations of a global democratic decline.

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On May 9, Malaysians made their way from cities around the country and overseas back to their hometowns to cast their votes.

Many carried with them fingers yearning to be dipped in blue – a burning frustration to oust a kleptocratic regime, but little did they realize that their actions would be etched in the history of this nation.

Were we hopeful? Maybe. Were we nervous? Oh, yes!

What was once Malaysia’s ruling regime for 60 years, had devised a plan to keep its mandate. The former coalition attempted to rig a game that it was evidently very afraid to lose.

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Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak arrives to give a statement to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in Putrajaya, Malaysia May 22, 2018.

The events of May 10 moved me in a way nothing else has been able to. Prior to this, I had felt a deep sense of alienation with matters pertaining to Malaysia’s future.

But my involvement in civil society organizations had given me the privilege to look into the complexities of hoping for change – much criticism had been directed at young Malaysians for their sense of apathy and aversion to political participation.

In fact, this contention had compelled some to form their own counter-narratives, marginalized as they may be. For instance, a left-leaning youth movement called Malaysia Muda attempted to shift the discourse of youth apathy towards how democratic participation could also manifest outside the realm of party politics, deriving its inspiration from the Malay left nationalist parties that were in existence before Malaysia’s independence from British rule in 1957.

There was also the movement to spoil votes, otherwise known as #UndiRosak, that embodied criticism of political parties on both sides for failing to demonstrate a wholehearted commitment to institutional reforms.

In spite of this move to widen the space for debates on Malaysian politics to go beyond the ballot box, it appears that this election convinced many, including myself, of the importance of voting. While I strongly sympathize with the causes advanced by these movements, there remained a void which I struggled to fill when it comes to figuring out where I belong in Malaysia.

It was through my work with Imagined Malaysia, a small project dedicated to advocating for awareness of history in shaping the everyday life of Malaysians, that I began to maneuver my way through a sea of endless possibilities in imagining this nation. It was through studying the writings of scholars like Benedict Anderson, Farish Noor and my mentor Sumit K. Mandal that I learned that I was not alone in dealing with this troubled sense of belonging. While engaging with the debates of Malaysian historiography is crucial, it also dawned on me that we Malaysians are continuously struggling to find the language to articulate our desires in governance and politics.

This election convinced many, including myself, of the great importance of voting.

As a student of political science and an aspiring historian, this is a dilemma that must be interrogated to understand Malaysia as a fragmented political community.

In my second year of reading International Relations, I took a module called “Comparative Politics.” The module was taught by Professor William Case, a well-known author of democratic change and “authoritarian durability” in Southeast Asia. In his lectures I developed a renewed interest in more closely examining politics in my country. We studied important political theories that allowed us to recognize a typology of regimes in Southeast Asia, alongside patterns of democratization in the course of the region’s history.

It is from these classes that I came to understand that the events that have transpired in Malaysia are truly remarkable. It had political analysts jumping in their seats in a time when democracy was perceived to be in recession. It is from Professor Case that I learned that Malaysia was best described by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, a “competitive authoritarian” state. Electoral manipulations and suppression of civil liberties had been necessary to maintain an uneven playing field and prevent a new ruling government.

[Malaysia] had political analysts jumping in their seats in a time when democracy was perceived to be in recession.

However, there was still a possibility that the ruling government would lose. This was what made the Barisan Nasional government a “hybrid regime.” It operated on the basis that legitimacy was guaranteed through illusions of democratic institutions and menial tokens of economic welfare.

Coupled with racial and religious polarization, Barisan was confident that they would be able to maintain the social and political order, just as they did following the tragic events of May 13, 1969, when Abdul Razak, father of the former Prime Minister Najib Razak and Malaysia's second prime minister, solidified the rule of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

Given that the 13th General Elections, those that took place prior to the polls on May 9 this year, displayed ruthless levels of authoritarian manipulation, it is surprising that Malaysia has now become a beacon of hope for democracy in Southeast Asia. This is because the climate was of that of “critical pessimism.”

Many had reservations about the possibility of regime change, and had concerns related to the internal struggles of the opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan. Yet, they recognized the importance of hope and embracing their agency by casting a vote. However, this to me is not the most remarkable aspect of the 14th General Elections – it was the fact that a peaceful transition of power has taken place.

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Supporters gather to listen to Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim, who was granted a royal pardon, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia May 16, 2018.

When it was announced that Pakatan Harapan was heading towards achieving a majority, there was an air of anxiety that filled homes across Malaysia. State-linked news channels appeared to stall updates on vote counts, rumors of the Election Commission delaying the announcement of results began to circulate. False reports of skirmishes in different parts of the country were being shared through text messages.

In spite of these events, Malaysians took it upon themselves to advise their friends and family to stay safe and avoid sharing news that may encourage violence. After all, what could be more ideal for a regime that is on the brink of being toppled than an opportunity to stay in power for the sake of national security?

Most importantly, Malaysians experienced a renewed sense of confidence in the rule of law. With the declaration of Pakatan Harapan’s victory, a sense of stability was granted to this transition because of continuous displays of support for the newly elected government. In the face of such unity, I can safely say that the so-called “peace-loving” nature of Malaysians is a quiet strength that we should be proud of.

Most importantly, Malaysians experienced a renewed sense of confidence in the rule of law.

While most political scientists, including my professor, seemed pretty determined that this election would spell the death of democracy in this country, Malaysia is now a shining example of peaceful democratic transition in Southeast Asia, at least so far.

If anything is certain, it is that Malaysia will never be the same. With this historic moment, I realized that change begins when we know what it really means. That realization comes at different phases in our lives. For me, it came as I sat in those lectures by Professor Case and in front of the television on the night of the elections. Hope does indeed save the day, but more specifically, a critical kind of optimism is key.

As I wrangle with my dream of Malaysia moving forward from its postcolonial fixation and into a newly imagined future, it is clear that the start of a new Malaysia is only possible when its young ones have hearts filled with hope, and critical minds. By taking the practice of democratic values seriously, change will not just be a dream, it will be a continuously transforming reality.

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Editor: TNL Staff