July 22, 2008

Review of “Lost in Transition”

Posted in Malaysia at 5:26 pm by egalitaria

This review came out a bit late, but nevertheless documents my reflections of Ooi Kee Beng’s latest book…

The makings of political Malaysia
Tricia Yeoh

in Transition: Malaysia under Abdullah by Ooi Kee Beng is a rich addition to the growing number of books documenting contemporary Malaysian affairs. And it emerges at no better time than this – as the man himself comes under severe fire on many fronts, despite recent efforts.This collection of columns written throughout the period for which society has been most critical of the Barisan Nasional-led government epitomises a prime minister struggling to maintain order amid downward spiralling public appeal. Through his succinct analyses, Ooi marks in chronological order key events and factors that have led to this complicated political knot.

Several themes are consistently focused upon, which shed interesting light on the position BN is in today, four months or so after March 8, 2008.

First, the title’s play on the phrase “lost in translation” is amusing, where coupled with the front cover’s picture reflects perfectly Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s infamous silences on key issues throughout his tenure. This stubborn characteristic was highlighted as early as June 2006 in the piece “Silence is No Longer an Option” where his early refusal to respond to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s scathing criticisms showed initial signs of weakness. These impressions no doubt contributed to public perception of his inability to make firm decisions. The recent attempt at a no-confidence motion by the Opposition in Parliament did not succeed, but did send psychological shockwaves to the public nevertheless.

In fact, the Mahathir-Abdullah war raging on over consequent months resulted in two things: Mahathir grassroots loyalist supporters casting doubt on Abdullah, and increasing fractions within Umno, (showcasing its) “internal tension and hubris”, both leading to where Abdullah stands today.

Second, Ooi intentionally deconstructs concepts held as conventional truths. He challenges present stories of the road to Independence that sweepingly black-mark all communists, regardless of the positive role some played. He also questions the number of years Malaya was colonised before independence – claimed as more than 400 years – hence reducing the intensity of white-man subjugation and justification of “affirmative action for the Malay majority”.

All roads in Malaysia lead to the elusive NEP (the New Economic Policy, affirmative action with preferential policies for the bumiputras). Quoting his hero former deputy prime minister Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, the special position of the Malays is regarded “as a handicap”. More strongly, Ooi writes that the NEP was meant to “make itself superfluous, and not to found a racist system”.

In recognition of this, non-Malay undercurrents swelled and emerged, with Hindraf as just one manifestation of this creeping disease. The book is replete with similar warnings, urging the real need for ideological and economic reform in favour of all alike.

The predictions he gives may be considered alarmist, but he also provides the key in unlocking Malaysia. Ultimately, the answer lies with the Malays. The most necessary but biggest challenge is to “(convince) Umno at large about the need for (NEP) reforms”. Despite recent Pakatan Rakyat bids at replacing the NEP, this will not actuate until the Malays at large are equally convinced. Further, there has been no material fleshing out of the PR’s “Malaysian Economic Agenda”, which this writer awaits.

Moving ahead, some phrases are comical on hindsight, where he speaks of the “impotence of opposition politics”, not knowing the position the DAP, PKR and PAS would then occupy. However, he notes that “not all diversities can unite”, perhaps indicative of the initial struggles faced by PR in its administration of state governments. But Ooi’s language eventually ends on a hopeful beat, pointing to individuals who continue to champion the cause for national unity.

Lost in Transition makes for a good narrative of events between 2006 and 2007, an excellent reader for the non-politically conscious to put things into perspective. Analysis is thorough, although stated in a somewhat matter-of-fact fashion, which political pundits would already know at the back of their hands. Some sarcasm and humour were detected faintly across the sheets, but not quite enough, given that the subject matter has much room for parody.

Finally, Ooi gives a precise description of Abdullah’s “cautious and consensual style of leadership”, which will be his possible downfall. Promises of hope and glory, unity and good governance, fall to naught without the gumption to follow through on them. He swings between “being race champion and national leader” – what he failed to accomplish and hence, ending in his eventual decision to hand over the reins of power to Datuk Seri Najib Razak in mid-2010. This book offers valuable insight into the makings of political Malaysia today, and draws critical lessons from Abdullah’s leadership for the future leader in two years or sooner – whoever he will be.

Tricia Yeoh is the Director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies. She thanks Ooi Kee Beng for the many animated discussions shared, and joins him in hoping for a mature Malaysia.

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