Sunday, March 07, 2010

The journey of change

Looking back to March 2008 and the game-changing results of that election night, it is difficult to recognise how much has changed - and how little has changed.

A wave of popular revolution at the ballot box easily surged over the seemingly insurmountable breakwaters of race and religion constructed and defended by the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition for decades. All things seemed possible, including an almost unimaginable change in federal administration.

In the heady euphoria of March 2008 it was easy to forget that Malaysians have lived through another such popular uprising.

The multiracial secular coalition called the Malaysian People's Movement brought together an unlikely combination of intellectuals, Chinese "chauvinists", firebrand unionists, leftists, socialists, and student activists. The movement rode the wave of popular resentment of autocratic rule and broke the hold of the ruling coalition in Penang, Selangor, Perak, Kelantan and Terengganu.

It was a pivotal moment. Malaysia was poised to move forward in political maturity and sophistication.

But the moment passed.

A ruling elite gripped by the politics of race, religion, privilege and avarice responded with the brutality typical of despotic regimes everywhere. With that, Malaysia regressed into the political slumber of a conservative one-party state.

Of the personalities of that time, only four names remain large on our political consciousness: Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Tun Abdul Razak, whose name survives in that of his son, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Kit Siang.

And of that Malaysian People's Movement of 1969 only the travesty of the Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia remains, a pale effeminate shadow-boxer of indeterminate substance and existence.

How much has changed.

A new movement has arisen, a new thrust towards multiracilism. New heroes and villains capture attention.

Selangor, Penang, Kedah and Kelantan remain firmly out of the grasp of the Umno-dominated ruling elite. Malaysians accepted the momentous changes on the political landscape, guided by Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's calm acceptance of the results; despite the fury of an elite enraged by a calamity, life carried on.

But how little has also changed.

Defections led to a change in the Perak state administration, enraging an electorate robbed of its decision-making power by machinations behind the scenes. A suspicious death of a political aide once again cast into doubt the reliability of the institutions that bind a nation. Grand and petty subversions of the basic rules of meaningful political life yet continue relatively unchecked. Grand larceny continues unabated.

There is disrespect and disregard for the independence and neutrality of institutions like Parliament, the courts, civil service, security forces; disrespect for the separation of powers between federation and sovereign states, disrespect for the separation between party and government, disrespect for the freedom of the citizenry to think and speak and pray to their Creator.

All testament to the fact that deeply rooted within the ruling establishment lies a guiding philosopy of power at all costs. Cheap sloganeering bought at high price cannot disguise the rotting foundations on which the edifice has been constructed.

While the turbulent ebb and flow of party politics is endlessly fascinating to the public for its implications on where the power and the money lies, it also diverts attention from the recognition that the citizenry has diminishing patience with politicians who rule by law with little regard for the meaning of rule of law.

While the popular movements of 1969 and 2008 are milestones, more undoubtedly will still be needed. "Only by unintermitted agitation can a people be kept sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity," wrote the American anti-slavery activist Wendell Phillips when setting out his warning that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

It is worth bearing a reminder today. While coalitions have risen and fallen, the cry for change remains unstilled; for political parties are vehicles, and change is a journey, not just a destination.

courtesy of FreeMalaysiaToday

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