COMMENT | Malaysia’s ‘theatre state’ - more losers than winners

Bridget Welsh

Modified 19 May 2020, 2:42 am

COMMENT | In 1980, famous Princeton University’s anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) published one of his seminal works – ‘Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth Century Bali’.

One of his main points he argued was that the noble rulers of Bali were less interested in actual governing but rather in using rituals to dramatise their rank and power. He further contended that these rituals – steeped in spectacle and symbols – were in fact their power.

Yesterday in Malaysia, as the Parliament gathered for around two hours, the country stepped backward into history – as rituals were on display in the short ceremony.

The norm set by Umno president Hussein Onn in 1976 when he became the country’s third prime minister – to call for a vote of the House after a change in leadership – as well as international democratic standard in parliamentary practice was set aside. Hussien, a lawyer by training, understood the importance of the rule of law and how democratic procedures should follow standards for his leadership to be legitimate.

Much can be made over the importance of rituals and spectacle in Malaysian politics. No question, events of the past months have been theatrical to say the least. Depending on the political box you are in, developments have been either a horror show, tragedy, murder mystery or farce.

Whatever your view, one cannot ignore that Malaysia’s democratic institutions and practices are sadly under attack.

Some may see yesterday’s sitting as a meaningless show and point symbolically to the masks on the parliamentarians as silencing their voices, the voices of the people. I contend there was in fact more substance in yesterday’s ritual than it would seem.

First of all, the sitting showed that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s current power comes from the Agong. So far, his Perikatan Nasional (PN) government continues to derive its legitimacy from this powerful Malay institution rather than from representatives elected by...

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