Thursday, May 23

Memories in better health

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MANY people seem to have been sick recently, myself included. I had a short fever followed by an unpleasant bout of bronchitis, caused probably by the shifts in weather (from hot to rainy to hazy) in recent weeks combined with an overconsumption of veiny mandarin oranges over the Chinese New Year period, exacerbating irritation in the throat.

The relentless coughing wreaked havoc on the work calendar, with long-scheduled meetings and events having to be cancelled or postponed, and my usual routine of sport was rendered impossible, in turn resulting in a lower release of endorphins throughout the week. Since no one anticipates being ill, the knock-on effects of the disruption can last days or even weeks after one has healed. All in all, a rather disruptive episode, but thanks to medicine from Dr Helmy, it was all fixed in 10 days.

However, there can be a positive side effect to being ill – as long as one is not too ill – and that is in being incentivised to be as productive as possible at home. After clearing the emails, I finally addressed boxes of old stuff that have been waiting years to be emptied, organised, and categorised; admittedly spurred by a few episodes of ‘Tidying Up with Marie Kondo’.

Being quite a hoarder, I found old school reports, ticket stubs, photographs, letters and all manner of trinkets ranging from keychains (with long forgotten keys attached) and used squash balls. Jumbled all together, it was a challenge to place some items in the correct chronological order. But once placed in order, nostalgia inevitably kicks in, with memories of weekly routines in London and Washington DC over a decade ago being compared to present weekly routines in Kuala Lumpur, Seremban and Seri Menanti. Such contemplation might risk a slide into sentimentality, but an opportunity also arises to consider which beliefs one once held in the past have survived (and which should survive), and which ones have been abandoned (and should be abandoned).

One of the boxes contained politically-related memorabilia that I’ve collected from events (such as the programme leaflet of George W Bush welcoming Queen Elizabeth II on the White House Lawn in 2007) or that people have given to me, knowing my interest in the subject. This includes posters and cartoons about British politicians, but also old plates commemorating Umno’s anniversaries alongside books about our former Prime Ministers.

It is a given, of course, that the nature of politics has changed over time, and political parties – even the most ideological ones – have evolved in their messaging and approach. But these recent artefacts reminded me how much political parties – in the United Kingdom, in the United States and in Malaysia – have changed in my own lifetime.

Today, speculation abounds about the future of Malaysia’s longest-lasting and most successful political coalition. A generation ago it would be inconceivable that the alliance would end, and yet now people are talking about its dissolution. Conversely, those branded ‘infidels’ not too long ago are now formal partners. Accordingly, politicians who previously lambasted such possibilities have “seen the light”, though naturally some will ask whether this represents a genuine change of heart or mere political survival. On the other side too, the constant bickering about the future of leadership and blemished methods of co-opting support are feeding into a dissipating hope in that coalition, too.

The great danger in this process is that the politics of division, dishonour and deceit is seen to enjoy the support of the voters – regardless of which side wins. Because on both sides of Malaysian politics today, there are those who argue that they can only win if they adopt more divisive and emotional methods, and there are those who argue that they can only win if they pursue inclusively-minded reform guided by the Federal Constitution. The former approach, involving stoking passions and blaming others, is easier to take. The latter approach is much more difficult, requiring the telling (and proving) of a new narrative and making it electorally appealing.

During my time in the UK, a prevailing attitude was that by-elections are mere referenda on the government. Especially when the government’s majority in the legislature is assured, voters use by-elections to punish the governing party by voting against its candidate confidently knowing that it will not cause a change of the government. But by-elections also give political leaders an opportunity to experiment with different strategies and test their electoral effectiveness before the next general election.

In dealing with these contests, the question for the future of the Malaysian political landscape is whether such experiments are symptoms of temporary sickness that can be diagnosed, or whether they are signs of a long-lasting shift.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.