A duel between dual anniversaries 1

If we learn the right lessons from history, perhaps we can demonstrate that strong institutions are essential to achieve the desired economic growth and prosperity. 

TWO anniversaries of profound Malaysian political events occurred last week.

May 9 marked the first anniversary of the first electoral ejection of an incumbent governing coalition (or more technically, its candidates) at the federal level in our nation’s history. The idea that a government can be peacefully replaced is intrinsic to democracy, and now that it has been achieved, a psychological barrier has been lifted.

Before this, the argument that “chaos would result if the opposition won” might have gained significant traction. But there was no chaos (though it was alleged that certain parties desired it).

With this precedent, changing the government at future general elections should be regarded as relatively unremarkable.

My colleagues at Ideas have offered numerous opinions about the performance of the government since its inception, observing that “the energy and promises borne out of last year’s election results have dwindled, and the people’s dissatisfaction with the slow pace of economic, political and institutional reforms is becoming more evident.

“Balancing competing demands from different groups is challenging and has forced the government to take positions to appease these various interests, often at the detriment of racial and religious harmony.”

These dynamics are a recurring feature of politics, which is why the delivery of long-term institutional reform must be sustained, so as to protect the nation from excessive shocks that such dynamics could inflict.

Chief among these is the strengthening of parliament, which was termed one of two “dynamos of democracy” (the other being the Federal Constitution) by our first Yang di-Pertuan Agong.

The creation of standing committees, increased (albeit unequal) resources for MPs and greater interface with civil society mean that legislation will be better scrutinised and backbenchers should enjoy greater independence.

The Election Commission is demonstrably more independent than it was, as we have seen in by-elections, although limited resources and powers remain an issue. Hopes for a truly independent judiciary have increased with the appointment of a Chief Justice widely considered to be courageous and fair.

Excitement has accompanied the welcome stance of the new Inspector-General of Police towards the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC), which Ideas’ predecessor organisation supported back in 2006!

What remains is the promised abolition of draconian laws.

In this regard, the impatience for change is fully justified, particularly when most of these repeals do not have financial implications.

It is partly the legacy of the other anniversary – of 13 May 1969 – that keeps these laws in place. The Kuala Lumpur racial riots have been invoked by the political establishment for so long to justify authoritarian measures “needed to preserve the peace” that there is an irrational fear of removing them. And it seems that 50 years on, our society is split on how best to move on.

On one hand, some don’t want to mention it at all, to avoid drawing attention to a dark episode and painful memories. Others wish to re-examine all the evidence under the ambit of a Truth and Reconciliation Commis­sion to seek closure and draw lessons to benefit future generations.

I tend towards the latter approach, but with caution.

It is hyperbole, for example, to claim an equivalence with the Rwandan genocide or South African apartheid, in which millions were killed or forcibly relocated over a sustained period of time throughout those countries.

Furthermore, we should not extrapolate the experience of 1960s Kuala Lumpur communities to the rest of the country.

The history and sociology of Malay and Chinese inter-ethnic relations in Melaka or Sarawak, for instance, is different and that difference should be acknowledged, rather than be obscured by how we choose to deal with May 13.

Finally, we should take heed of the diversity of scholarship that, for example, suggests that the objective of the episode was to remove Tunku Abdul Rahman as Prime Minister, rather than racial violence per se.

On May 9, Tun Dr Mahathir, who in 1969 blamed the Tunku for the riots – resulting in the former’s expulsion from Umno and contributing to the latter’s resignation as Prime Minister – spoke of a new economic model to provide a decent standard of living for all Malaysians by 2030 regardless of class, race and geography under the new catchphrase of “shared prosperity”.

Naturally, people will disagree on the details (expect furious debates on redistribution and growth) and implementation might be inconsistent – as experiences from Islam Hadhari and 1 Malaysia would suggest – but certainly all citizens should support its intentions.

If we can learn the right lessons from history, perhaps we can finally demonstrate that strong institutions as envisaged by the Federal Constitution are essential to achieving the economic growth and prosperity that all of us desire.

Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is founding president of Ideas. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.