November 4, 2008

NST: Change not for the sake of Changing

Posted in Malaysia, The Cause at 4:24 pm by egalitaria

Amidst all this talk about “Change” in the United States, here is an opinion article in today’s New Straits Times (Malaysia) about changing times in Malaysian politics. I am quoted somewhere inside, at the article here.

NST Online » Columns


OPINION: Change not for the sake of changing


(From left) Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim, Tricia Yeoh and Dr Chandran Jeshurun
(From left) Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim, Tricia Yeoh and Dr Chandran Jeshurun

At first, it captures our imagination. But the change mantra will quickly lose its lustre and appeal if real change does not occur soon, writes YONG HUEY JIUN

AMID the pulsating theatrics in the political battlefield, one theme stands out in the cacophony of dissenting voices. Call it reform, shift or renaissance, they all have one thing in common: they symbolise change.

Spellbound by United States Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s stirring speeches on hope and change, Malaysians are joining in the clamour for change. Before long, opposition and ruling party politicians alike are wangling support by adroitly declaring themselves as apostles of change.

Ironically, the chorus of chant, which transcends party affiliations, only threatens to widen the stark gulf between rivals as each tries to trump the other with their promises. But this climate stems not so much from Obama’s magic as the resounding clamour of the electorate in the March 8 general election.

In 1969, the Alliance (now Barisan Nasional) suffered a similar electoral setback as the one last March. The resulting blow led to a bloody race riot that forever altered the course of the nation’s history.
Nearly 40 years later, the same election results, again, fuelled racial tensions, but this time creating a tense equipoise that seemingly verges on political fragmentation and implosion.

Tricia Yeoh, director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies, attributes the calm after the political storm to the choice of parties available during these two very different periods.

“In 1969, the alternative to the ruling government was the single-race party DAP. Today, the alternative is a multiracial party — Pakatan Rakyat — and perhaps this is one of the reasons it did not ignite a similar kind of emotive response.”

Unlike the prevailing period of what some term as the “awakening”, the violence in 1969 was a “revival of ethnic antagonism”, which was rooted in the past, says Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim, a history professor at Universiti Malaya, who is also a survivor of the 1964 and 1969 race riots.

In 1964, Sino-Malay riots broke out in July and September, which eventually left about 40 people dead. The race riots were blamed on the Indonesian and communist provocateurs at the time.

As history has shown, anything can happen in politics and changes do not necessarily follow a natural sequence of events. On the continuum of change, some ascribe the present development as engineered change.

“It’s more or less a fait accompli that he’s been faced with,” says Universiti Malaya’s former academic Dr Chandran Jeshurun, referring to the pressure on Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi to step down.

Change is unavoidable but perhaps this is nowhere more true after 22 years of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s rule. A centralised top-down approach during his reign inevitably means that the transition to greater openness won’t be a smooth one.

Against this backdrop and a rapidly globalising world and wide access to information means the public will demand greater transparency and accountability.

“A more open and consultative approach… the whole new language of rights and freedom” is going to set the tone for change, says Yeoh.

With young voters making up more than half of the electorate in the March election, politicians who ignored them did so at their own costs.

“The younger generation is going to be looking for reform and they will be listening to the messages that can capture their imagination,” says Yeoh.

No longer struggling to be independent, many agree that it is time the country set itself higher goals. But racial polarisation threatens to backslide the country and reverse the progress already achieved.

“In 1969, we had just been independent for 12 years. Today, expectations are going to be greater because you can see all around you how change is taking place elsewhere,” says Chandran.

Beyond the conviction for the need to change, few leaders have outlined clear policies on where they want to move the country and how they want to move it. Instead of addressing the quagmires facing the country, efforts are expended on circumventing the opponent, unwittingly deflecting attention from reform goals.

At present, issues calling for immediate attention are in no short supply, from the current global economic crisis — still with no end in sight — to a deepening racial polarisation in the country, all of which are towering challenges requiring a sustained focus.

At a time when most of the world is embroiled in war and financial crisis, change offers hope to those who envision a better future. But Yeoh cautions the people against unrealistic expectations.

“We shouldn’t be too enchanted with it. I hope politicians are not using it as a catch-phrase.”

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