‘Controlled Chaos’ depicts M’sia in a state of flux
Foreword to Dr Azly Rahman’s ‘Controlled Chaos: Essays on Malaysia's ‘New Politics’ Beyond Mahathirism and the Multimedia Super Corridor’
This collection of essays, the renderings of a public intellectual, comprises primarily those writings published by Azly Rahman in his column for Malaysiakini. It also includes two lengthy articles, one dealing with an analysis of the life and thoughts of Malaysia’s fourth prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, and the other on the development of Cyberjaya and its sister institution, the Multimedia University.
The primary theme running through this collection is that of Malaysia in a state of flux. A thoughtful reading of these essays indicates a nation that is clearly struggling to cope with rapid change.
These changes were foisted on Malaysia by rapid industrialisation that contributed to an unexpectedly swift modernisation. While industrialisation has undoubtedly contributed to Malaysia’s emergence as a high middle income country, it has also left the nation, still divided by class and spatial cleavages, struggling to find a center that could hold things together.
Moreover, rapid industrialisation has contributed to numerous new inequalities, including the emergence of serious wealth and income disparities. Malaysia is one of the most unequal countries in Asia, with an unfortunately high Gini coefficient of 0.431.
Meanwhile, the quality of the public education system, once one of the finest in the region, is deteriorating precipitously; alarming high crime rates and appallingly high volumes of white collar corruption involving politicians are emerging as major scourges; and rural infrastructure is so poor that it is actively contributing to the persistence of hardcore poverty.
While many things need to be rectified, what is foremost in Azly’s mind is this - Malaysia needs a form of ‘new politics’ to address these problems that should not have emerged in such an industrialised modern nation. Azly’s primary contention is that we must get our politics right if we are to appropriately address major social and economic problems, including those that have been contributing to religious, racial, and class divides.
This theme of the conduct of obsolete, even reactionary, politics versus a society in the cusp of change runs through all his essays. Azly persistently argues for the (re-)introduction of a fine education system, the freeing up of people’s access to information, and the promotion of intelligent and considered dialogue. It is these mechanisms that can help stop things from falling apart.
Pursuing real change
How we, as Malaysians, address this unfortunate state of affairs is Azly’s core concern. He appeals not only to politicians in his urging for a ‘new politics’; he reaches out to all Malaysians to join his plea to pursue real change, one that will result in a nation where all citizens are treated equally and where social justice is the ultimate pursuit of the government, with its people holding politicians accountable if this goal is not achieved.
But Malaysians appear to be divided by state-led discourses based on race and religion.
Azly notes that those propagating such discourses and those who subscribe to them have little appreciation of what Malaysia has to offer: an energetic, driven multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation that has lived in peace since the unfortunate events of May 1969 - which some analysts now attribute to irresponsible politicians seeking to maintain themselves in power - where the middle class in particular now talks of the need for a post-racial form of politics.
This same middle class is ready to deploy its intellectual and economic resources productively to ensure a more equitable form of development. Azly stresses that with a fine public education system, similar to the one that once created this vibrant intelligent middle class, Malaysia will have the human resources that are capable of sustaining just social and economic change.
Malaysia, he also notes, has a dynamic business community with a high entrepreneurial capacity that can effectively help sustain economic growth, provided we have the right policies in place, specifically those that are needs-based and therefore do not discriminate along ethnic lines.
This is where our politicians have most seriously failed us. Following the 2008 global financial crisis which led to a serious economic recession in Malaysia, the government was aware that a new policy direction was required, including the need to dispense with discriminatory policies. And we were feted with a range of presumably reform-based public policies, released by the government of Malaysia’s current Prime Minister, Najib Abdul Razak.
These government proposals include the New Economic Model, the Government Transformation Programme, the Education Blueprint, the Economic Transformation Plan, and the Tenth Malaysia Plan.
But nearly half a decade after the introduction of these government plans, Malaysia’s grim social and economic problems have hardly been addressed, or reformed. Indeed, as Azly notes, Malaysia is no better off today than it was five years ago; in fact, we are probably worse off.
Azly’s essays indicate that he is well aware of the core problems that have to be addressed. The first matter, one probably closest to the heart of this philosopher academic, is the need to fix the deplorable state of Malaysia’s education system.
The other issue that obviously troubles Azly is the need to practice one’s faith in a more ‘moderate’ manner, involving an openness to dialogue and where there is respect for other religions. There was a time was this was the norm, until the early 1980s when conservative, even reactionary, forms of religious practices began to emerge.
Azly’s primary concern is that conservative interpretations of religion appear to have become the norm, with those espousing them showing the capacity to even capture control of the state. The government appears to be subservient to conservative religious views, with an unfortunate reluctance by political elites to hold accountable those who propagate divisive discourses about religious supremacy.
Dealing with real-life absurdities
What the essays in this volume reflect is that the author is willing to deal bravely with the real-life absurdities of our politicians, speaking truth, without fear, to a nation living under a highly authoritarian political system.
The topics Azly raises are ticking time bombs, created by irresponsible politicians in the pursuit of power, ostensibly to bring about change. The issue of race, if not religion, predominates every discourse when politicians take to the rostrum. Right wing and reactionary groups who espouse the need for ‘immigrants’ - that is, ethnic minorities - to return to their ‘homelands’ are feted in the mainstream press, controlled by the government or parties holding office.
Yet, government slogans such as 1Malaysia, Bangsa Malaysia, and Islam Hadhari proliferate, only to be undermined by other slogans such as 1Malay coming, ironically enough, from the hegemonic party in the government, Umno, whose leaders unabashedly raise the kris to profess their desire to defend their ‘race’.
Of equal irony is that poverty among the bumiputeras remains a major concern, in spite of affirmative action programmes to help them, now in place for over 40 years. The wealth and income disparities between the ‘new rich’ Malays and poor bumiputeras is now all too evident, necessitating even a comment by Prime Minister Najib, couched interestingly enough in multi-racial terms. The stark difference between rhetoric and reality could not be any clearer.
There is a subtle message running through the essays, if read thoughtfully: there is an evident call to arms to Malaysians, to dislodge a political system that alienates and divides its citizens, that disrupts social harmony, and that fosters gross new inequities.
As Azly argues, we, Malaysians, need to be the agents of change to bring about the ‘new politics’ that this country so badly needs. This is not a hopelessly naïve plea; after all, the results of the 2008 and 2013 general elections indicate that Malaysians are angry and unmistakably aware of the problems with Malaysia’s unfair and unfree political system.
We, Malaysians, have to respond to this urging to create a ‘new politics’, though not merely only during general elections. In order to respond more effectively, even prevent politicians from dividing us through race and religious-based discourses, Azly suggests that we need to be more introspective about the dogma spewing forth from religious bigots and racist politicians; and, we need to listen more to voices of reason and wisdom now crowded out by the former.
This is imperative as information, Azly notes, is controlled by political elites. But institutions exist that serve to provide views and information from alternative voices. One such institution is Malaysiakini, the conduit through which Azly’s call for change is currently periodically channeled.
Many themes without a single narrative
These essays may come across as a staccato succession of thoughts - many themes without a single narrative - with plenty of philosophical undercurrents. This disconnectedness is primarily because these essays were Azly’s responses to gross injustices in Malaysia as and when they occurred.
This should not detract the reader from the fair-mindedness of these essays - and their courage - and their emphatic urging for a thoughtful discussion on the nature of ‘change’ that Malaysia desperately requires.
This is imperative as the overriding idea that comes through from reading his essays - the need for a ‘new politics’ - is urgent as there have been a series of most unfortunate events occurring in Malaysia in recent times, issues that can be detrimental to the well-being of our country. Azly’s urging to us is to condition ourselves to reject the constant divisive and conservative discourses propagated by the government which can do us irreparable harm. We must heed his urging.
EDMUND TERENCE GOMEZ is professor of Political Economy, Universiti Malaya.