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The politics of division - a Malaysian rhetoric

COMMENT Being a politician is like playing a game. This is especially so in developing countries, where politicians have the ability to shape the history of a nation and determine how it may progress in the future.

Therefore, the use of rhetoric by leaders trying to persuade and garner support of the public, so that they may be able to implement their vision, is part of the game. But as the times have changed, so much the rhetoric used to convince the populace who have entrusted their futures and the future generations into the hands of an elected few.

Rhetoric can no longer be used in the same way it has been in the past. This lesson is noticeably being learnt in Malaysia.

With a growing urban population strengthened by the extension of 21st Century media, Malaysia is showing gradual signs of an evolving participatory democracy, vaguely resembling the evolution of the British democracy in the 19th Century.

Tomorrow and on Sunday, Aug 29 and 30, the federal government of Malaysia – a government encumbered with scandals and which is rapidly becoming infamous for its autocratic leadership, will face the fourth Bersih (Clean) demonstration, Bersih 4, where predictably 30,000 Malaysians in attendance will be calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak.

Najib, much like his predecessors, has ruled Malaysia with an iron fist, using archaic, draconian and unconstitutional laws such as, but not limited to, the recently repealed 1960 Internal Security Act replaced by the 2012 Peaceful Assembly Act, the 1948 Sedition Act and the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act to stifle, silence, censure and limit the rights and privileges of Malaysians and its media as granted by the Federal Constitution.

The ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), of which its main party, Umno, continues to use similar strategies and rhetoric as previously used by the colonial Britain in 1948 when they were being challenged by the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) and Chin Peng, or as Umno in 1969 under Abdul Razak Hussein’s premiership when BN first loss its two-thirds majority in the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives).

The loss of support had forced the leaders of the time to use exaggerated notions of what may happen to the country if they had accepted change.

These strategies seem to have remained despite the changing of times. The current prime minister and his band of newly-reshuffled cabinet ministers continue to bombard the public with propaganda that promotes a rule by divide to those who are obtuse enough to listen.

Accelerating rate of domestic discontent

Yet, even with an accelerating rate of domestic and international discontent and disapproval in its methods, Umno continues to cascade the rhetoric of fear and divide in hopes of attracting enough of the masses to vote for them in the next election.

The use of threats and draconian laws by government officials against political opposition leaders, public servants, public dissenters and disappointed citizens has become a common practice in Malaysia.

Moreover, the abuse of power by the police in facilitating corrupt practices by the government is becoming alarmingly frustrating for a heavily burdened public. No one is safe from persecution for speaking out against a seemingly totalitarian government.

Picture George Orwell’s 1984. Now picture Malaysia. A vastly similar characteristic of the two is the importance of the party: Umno would have Malays believe that what is good for Umno is good for the Malays. Malay citizens are being led to believe, albeit with little success, that it is ‘us’ against ‘them’; and that without Umno, they would be treated as outcasts or second-rate citizens.

The fear of what if’s and the false prediction of the state of the Malays in a world post-Umno is the embodiment of BN’s political strategy. So much so, the brave and mighty Bugis warrior Najib and his loyal, yet seemingly unintelligible army of supreme ministers who lead a self-proclaimed mature and vibrant democracy still use colonialistic claims like the Malays becoming ‘bangsat’, meaning destitute or bastardised, if Umno loses power. Power politics has become the new religion in Malaysia.

Therefore, the implication of their messages is, bluntly speaking, what is good for the party is good for the country. But yet, the same government that articulates these messages is audacious enough to say that it is not promoting racism, divisive politics, or stirring conflict, but rather, in addition to asking for the people’s trust to fix the mistake it created, it argues that it is only protecting their interest - the interests of the Malays and in broader strokes, the interests of the people of Malaysia.

Ironic to its democratic claims, the government has issued trumped up and unsubstantiated claims and charges for “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy” against dissenting Malaysians to protect the government by inciting fear and to cause divide between the Malays and the Chinese and Indians.

Malaysians shocked, stunned and amused

Malaysians all over the world are shocked, stunned, but more than anything, amused at the level at which Prime Minister Najib will stoop just to stay in power. Although successful in the past – especially within rural Malaysia – the tactic of using divisive rhetoric is becoming more and more futile as the people of the country are starting to feel the burdens of the economy in their daily lives.

The globalised effects of an ill-perceived national leader has led to the decreased petroleum subsidy, the badly timed and unorganised implementation of the goods and services tax (GST), and the depleting international purchasing power of ringgit.

Furthermore, contrary to the preachings of the cabinet ministers, the lowered ringgit, coupled with political instability and the GST, has not increased, but as Bloomberg has suggested, greatly decreased foreign direct investments and export levels in Malaysia.

With 1MDB, a five-year old sovereign fund, RM42 billion in debt and the issue of US$700 million being deposited into personal bank accounts of Najib – who is also finance minister and chairperson of the 1MDB advisory board – under the guise of a ‘non-partisan’ political donation from a mysterious source in the Middle East to be used in the 2003 general election to help Umno win against the opposition, the damage is done.

The confidence and public trust of international, but more importantly domestic, investors is based on the perception of what is truthful – but nothing the prime minister or his ministers have said sounds truthful. For which even Umno insiders, such as former Wanita Umno chief Rafidah Aziz, questioned how it was possible “to accept such a large donation from foreign sources without compromising the security, welfare and future of the nations.”

Asia’s worst performing currency is now at its lowest level in 17 years. But what is the Malaysian government doing about it, other than playing with mere rhetoric?

The government will blame the uncontrollable oil crisis, the looming global financial crisis or even a former prime minister who has managed to stir up a great deal of trouble for Umno by simply raising questions about the nation, questions that the government has worked so hard to suppress, censure and silence the public from asking. But it refuses to put the blame where the blame is due – on itself.

Malaysia headed towards Dark Ages?

The truth is, Malaysia is headed towards the Dark Ages under the façade of national interest. It is burdened by the GST, laden with a rising cost of living with nominal annual increases in wages or strategically selective government handouts and afflicted by corruption at all levels.

The dollar today is valued at RM4.26, when not more than a year ago, it was at RM3.15, making the ringgit the lowest it has been in 17 years. It is predictably going to decrease if there is no actionable plan to stop its decay, other than intangible hearsays based on trust.

The Central Bank of Malaysia, Bank Negara, does not have enough reserves and has ruled out currency control against the slithering ringgit. En route a global crisis, Malaysia’s plummeting stock market linked to bearish investor expectations combined with all-time low crude oil prices, high national debt levels and systematic scandals has left Malaysia almost barren.

What used to be a model economy and country for the Southeast Asian nations to follow amidst the success of our neighbouring state, Singapore, Malaysia may soon become the Asian version of Greece.

Although the government is trying to do everything in its power to reduce the deficit, it is doing more damage than good at the expense of the people. What used to be an economic, social and political pillar in Southeast Asia is now increasingly becoming an international example of a failed state, with its leaders disgraced, but not embarrassed.

The resignation of Najib would not be an immediate fix to the real problems Malaysia has, but it will be the beginning of a new era, where politicians will have to be on their toes. The perceived change will drastically improve the nation’s fortunes, even if Umno under a new leadership remains in power.

Malaysia is an impending time-bomb, the loss of confidence in Malaysia ranging from the international financial community to domestic public trust needs a catalytic change backed with a paradigmatic shift in thinking, leadership, rhetoric and policies. An already factioned Umno is getting weaker day by day because of a failed leader and a lack of internal and external trust.

It is time for change, which is why the peaceful, yet illegal Bersih demonstration – which was deemed illegal for failure to issue a complete notice to the police, even after trying to comply with the police and the Peaceful Assembly Act countless times, is necessary for Malaysia because it would increase the international condemnation and awareness of the abuse of powers and biases of authority in Malaysia. But more notably, it will be another hard-hitting realisation for a government that is deliberately ignorant of the continuous dissatisfaction within Malaysia.

With Bersih, Malaysians are entering the crux of the battle against the status quo that has led to its demise with the hope of achieving a real democracy through non-violent means. As DAP leader Lim Kit Siang put it, “Bersih 4, and Global Bersih all over the world, will be Malaysia’s “coming-of age” as a parliamentary democracy and a message to the world that a self-confident Malaysian democracy has arrived to join the ranks of world democracies – turning away from the path to a rogue state, where there are only the trappings but not the substance of democracy.”

PHILIP GEORGE is a Malaysiakini subscriber.

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