Thursday, December 3

Finding hope amidst frustration


EVIDENTLY, some readers of this column missed a notice in my by-line a month ago, specifying that I would thenceforth appear fortnightly, rather than weekly. As such, I was not, as accused, deliberately avoiding writing about topics on many of my usual readers’ minds last week.

Not that things are any more settled this week compared to last, though.  Memes about water disruption in the Klang Valley can hardly get any more sarcastic.

Though the pain of another CMCO is generally accepted as necessary given the spike in cases of Covid-19, subsequent frequent changes to (or at least, confusion in interpreting) the rules about who can go to work, who can go shopping (and for what), or how people should be seated in a vehicle and in what configuration (whether self-driven or in a hired car) is causing frustration for colleagues in large multi-national corporations as well as small businesses (“11 per cent of my job is management and the other 89 per cent is work!”).

Responsibility over the increase in coronavirus cases continues to depend on whether you’re totally disillusioned by the political class in general, or sufficiently partisan that you’ll blame one side more than the other.

Regardless, for Malaysian politicians there is seemingly always room for scheming, betrayal, unlikely deal-making, and against-the-odds hedging regardless of whatever calamity is befalling the people.

And so, in the past week, many have asked me whether I think the present government will fall and who the next Prime Minister will be, hoping that I have access to inside information and thus, able to give superior insights.

Ah, I reply, there is no shortage of analyses out there mapping out the players, their supposed risks and motivations, and even the specific ministerial portfolios they are after.

Read them all, I say, while always bearing in mind that some analysts have more skin in the game than others: some are official or unofficial advisors to prime ministerial hopefuls, others represent organisations that might be hired or favoured by some political leaders but not others.

In reading these many pieces, I reflected on my own interactions with the people mentioned.

The Tan Sri Muhyiddin with whom I chatted about jazz before he spoke approvingly of public-private partnerships in the Malaysian education system at an Ideas conference in 2011; the Datuk Seri Anwar who energised Reformasi-chanting student friends in London in the 2000s; the Tengku Razaleigh who officiated at Ideas’ launch in 2010 and spoke about his relationship with Tunku Abdul Rahman during Semangat 46 days; the Tun Mahathir Mohamad who I was vociferously critical of back in school, who later became the a charming conversationalist at classical music events; and the many current and former ministers and backbenchers who have always been cordial regardless of their shifting party affiliations.

Much more could be said about the extent to which they and their minions are masterminds, or feel compelled to participate in these power games, having committed themselves to a career in politics and the mantra that the ends justifies the means.

But for what. In the short-term, the nation can only hope that whatever constellation of individuals are in power, their priorities will be the health of citizens and the economy. Only then can we sustain the long-term mission of restoring the tenets of the Federal Constitution.

Adherence to the Federal Constitution was what Tengku Razaleigh appealed to in his letter to the Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat asking that the confidence of the House be tested.

The most optimistic among colleagues argue that when that happens, whether as a specific motion or the Budget, that it might result in a more stable, less divisive government (whether it is the same or new one).

But if that does not happen, then the insurance policy should surely be that of civil society, in partnership with charitable and corporate allies and yes, even well-intentioned politicians who say they believe in the Rukun Negara; who want to build confidence in national institutions and recognise the distinct roles of federal, state and local governments; and to imbue each with mechanisms for accountability. With each incremental step in that direction, the less damaging and disruptive future federal power contests will be.

Those who were once blinded by euphoria or dithered through complacency now realise how much of a marathon this will be, and it may go backwards before it goes forwards.

Yet, in this space too is opportunity for new actors who understand the level of disgust and cynicism against the established political class. Whether they are able to rise without becoming too tainted themselves is a hope that a post-Covid generation has to ensure.


Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.