Saturday, February 29

A deep state of reflection


AT a recent gathering, I was asked about my thoughts on the ‘deep state’. This refers to people and organisations, often within national institutions, that work together to further an agenda separate from the one intended by the formal institutions of state. In the context of present-day Malaysia, this agenda is one that opposes most of the stated goals of the present government, and prefers a structure of personal relationships, patronage, and clandestine deals to get things done. It also has no qualms using divisive racial and religious rhetoric in this pursuit.

As repugnant as that may sound to those who still believe in our Federal Constitution, the advocates of the deep state believe that such a system, apart from benefitting themselves personally, is essential for stability, since it is this system that people understand and have got used to. Interestingly, they might not actually be ideologically opposed to democracy, rather, they think that Malaysia is not ‘ready’ for it. At least, that is the best possible spin that can be devised in their defence.

Anyway, my reply was that I am not sure about a highly organised and full-blown conspiracy, but certainly there are deep interests that have coalesced. The prospect of reform is so terrifying to those with much to lose, and those who would rather keep their dealings secret, that individuals within institutions have been ‘adopted’ and tasked with blocking initiatives, disrupting change, or creating confusion so objectives have to be postponed.

It is perhaps because these frustrations have become so effective that the existence of the deep state is increasingly being taken for granted. Even senior people in government, including cabinet ministers and department heads, have complained in private settings that other organisations within the government, or even people in their own ministries and agencies, are impeding their efforts. It is already so difficult to change the people who are at fault (whether due to contracts signed previously or the rigidity of civil service rules) that every small victory is savoured.

However, these senior people lament, outsiders are unaware of the full picture.  They do not know how difficult it is to move the machinery and change mind-sets and attitudes, so in the end the people will blame the government and its leaders, even though the government is trying its hardest to fulfil their manifesto promises.

There is certainly some truth to that defence. But it also true that this whole notion of the deep state is a very useful scapegoat for the failure to make progress. It is all too convenient to blame a phenomenon in which the individuals cannot be precisely identified. Ultimately, however, these excuses have a time limit and voters will take an increasingly hostile view to them.

And unfortunately, the defence is further undermined by evidence to the contrary: that the old-style of doing things through cronyism and patronage is fully alive and well, occurring with the participation or consent of senior government leaders. Add to that some of the shenanigans of conflict and vendettas within political parties – perfect fuel to such transactions of promises of money and power – and it is no wonder that the term ‘Malaysia Baru’ has fallen from one of optimism to one of despair and sarcastic derision.

If there is any cause for comfort it is that civil society, the media and other checks and balances institutions (those parts which uphold their duties properly at least) are drawing attention to these cases like never before. In the past, exposés of how financial scandals or cronyism were relatively rare: now, every deal is immediately scrutinised. While theoretically a good thing, it sometimes means that the truth then becomes obscured with perennial claims of fake news, digital manipulation, or accounts being hacked. Unfortunately, some politicians will conclude that they can get away with it because they can still make the other side look even worse.

This in turn emphasises the importance of faith in our institutions being restored: so that beyond the keyboard warriors, a majority of citizens would believe, for example, that legal action taken against alleged terrorists or political leaders are due to actual offences based on the findings of an independent police force and judged by an independent judiciary, rather than being just for political convenience. Now is a crucial time for a precedent to be set, when future Prime Ministers calculate who they want to take revenge on, and who might take revenge on them.

The advocates of a deep state have no desire for this to happen; yet, those who promote the deep state theory to excuse their own failures also risk being thrown off course from the mission of national renewal.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.