Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Malaysia's unfulfilled destiny

I found this piece by R B Bhattacharjee in The Edge Daily resonant and objective.

AROUND Independence Day, it is customary to reflect on the many blessings that nationhood has bestowed on us. Indeed, it is important to take time, especially on such occasions, to renew our faith in the founding principles on which this country is built.

However, the events of the last year or two suggest that a new mood of self-inquiry is required to put the nation back on the path to its destination. The worry is that unless certain mistakes are acknowledged and rectified, our tryst with destiny may remain an unfulfilled promise.

Today, few would argue that the challenges that we now face present a clear and present danger to our well-being as a people. Ironically, such an idea seemed quite remote a mere decade or so ago.

The most visible of these crises is the political instability that has thrust itself onstage with the earth-shaking results of the 12th general election on March 8, 2008. The aftershocks from that event continue to be felt until today, and do not show signs of receding anytime soon.

In the disturbing ouster of the Perak state government, all the key institutions of our democratic system have come under unprecedented scrutiny. These include the role of the ruler in legitimising the government, constitutional issues, the interpretation of the Speaker's powers, the role of the courts, and avenues for public participation in governance.

Disquieting signs of a similar power struggle simmering in Selangor and a new threat to the Terengganu government continue to haunt the nation. Over and above these, the much-heralded crusade by Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to topple the federal government a year ago demonstrated the destabilising potential of the current political situation.

The tensions are not only affecting political groupings on both sides of the aisle — they are causing upheaval within the coalitions, and in the internal power relationships of the political parties, both big and small. Among them, the biggest change that resulted — the transfer of power in Umno, from Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to Datuk Seri Najib Razak in April this year — marked a new phase in the country's leadership.

Having ascended to prime ministership on the back of the Umno presidency, Najib has a gargantuan task before him. Before the next general election comes around by 2013, he must transform the worst erosion of support that the Barisan Nasional (BN) has suffered in four decades into a feeling that we are positively heading for a new political, social and economic era.

Such a feeling cannot be born by merely papering over the cracks that have appeared in the nation's foundations. The political crisis needs to be met with by a coalescent, not confrontational, response. Power can be wrested by undermining the political base of the opposing coalition, but that strategy will only drag the country into an internecine struggle for supremacy that will probably bring out the worst traits in the political culture that one can imagine.

The only lasting edifice will be one that demonstrates its architect's superior vision, stronger fundamentals and better service delivery than the rival camp's. This is the test that the BN and its rival, the Pakatan Rakyat (PR), face today.

Which of them can show better leadership in addressing not just the political entanglements they have got into, but also the institutional crises that have undermined the rule of law and good governance and the sociological challenges that are looming ever larger on the horizon?

The responses to date, both in BN territory and PR-controlled states, have not gone far enough to convince the electorate that lasting change is under way. On the BN side, the long stay in power has given rise to an extensive list of aberrations, from executive interference to the breakdown of accountability and worse.

For the PR, the mandate it has earned has produced some positive steps towards better governance. However, the slow pace of reform and the regular discovery of bad apples, among other troubling signs, sound a warning to the people that the new dawn that was promised may not be here just yet.

This reality sinks in by the day, while the political cliques continue to plot their enemies' downfall. In the meantime, the country is losing precious time to get its house in order on the economic front. Not that we have the luxury of figuring out how to remain relevant in a marketplace ruled by the new economic juggernauts.

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