Sunday April 25, 2004
The Star

Scholars' Choice: The State of Malaysia

Review by ONG KIAN MING
THE STATE OF MALAYSIA: Ethnicity, Equity and Reform
Edited by Edmund Terence Gomez
Publisher: RoutledgeCurzon, 258 pages

The 11th Malaysian general election delivered an unprecedented victory to the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which won over 90% of the 219 parliament seats at stake. The events leading up to the 1999 general election seemed largely to have been forgotten and the cries of “reformasi” had whittled down to a whimper.
A question worth asking is: Why has the reform movement failed to make an impact in Malaysia? Edmund Terence Gomez, editor of The State of Malaysia – Ethnicity, Equity and Reform (Routledge Curzon), hopes this book will answer that.
Its eight chapters are timely reflections on different aspects of political, social and economic developments which resulted from the economic and political crises of 1998. Although this volume covers topics ranging from by-election analysis to telecommunications liberalisation to the political ramifications of zakat management, there are some common threads throughout the discourse which explain why the short-lived reform movement petered out.
Sumit Mandal's piece titled “Transethnic solidarities, racialisation and social equality” and Bridget Welsh's “Real Change? Elections in the reformasi era” focus on the inability of the opposition to move beyond rigid and externally-imposed ethnic paradigms, at least in the political sphere, despite genuine attempts to do so in the then Barisan Alternatif context.
Welsh, as well as William Case (“Testing Malaysia’s pseudo-democracy”) and Jason Abbot (“The Internet reformasi and democratisation in Malaysia”) point to the clamp on certain civil liberties such as the restriction on the distribution of opposition newspapers and ceramah and the detention of key Parti Keadilan Nasional leaders under the Internal Security Act (ISA) as possible factors in slowing down the reformasi momentum.
Another important thread which these four writers, as well as Claudia Derichs (“Political crisis and reform in Malaysia”), also refer to is the failure of the BA to mobilise the middle classes as agents of change. The conventional theory that an emerging middle class that is more affluent and better-educated will demand greater political reform and freedom was instead replaced by that about a “fickle” middle class that “had too much to lose” from changing the status quo.
The strong link between the business community and the government, as represented by the ruling coalition, also proved a barrier against the reform movement. Gomez (“Governance, affirmative action and enterprise development: Ownership and control of corporate Malaysia”); Lorraine Salazar (“Privatisation, patronage and enterprise development: Liberalising telecommunications in Malaysia”) and Kikue Hamayotsu (“Islamisation, patronage and political ascendancy: The politics and business of Islam in Malaysia”) examine the strong linkages between the state and key business leaders, and how the dependency of certain business leaders increased during and after the economic crisis.
The three of them also examined the role of the central figure in the reformasi movement, Anwar Ibrahim. The picture they present is that Anwar, during his rise to the Deputy Prime Minister's position, used and manipulated the “system” to further his own political career.
Gomez writes that “Anwar appeared to use his influence in government mainly to develop his political base in Umno. This led to the rise of a large group of businessmen whose primary motive was to use their corporate base as a means to secure ascendancy in Umno.”
Each of the eight chapters reveals interesting insights. In his introduction, Gomez tries to correct the misperception that the Chinese vote by and large stayed with the Barisan in the 1999 elections. Welsh’s analysis on the voting patterns of different age groups within the same ethnic group has interesting implications.
Mandal’s assertion that there is no single “pure” race, in the Malaysian context, merits attention. Abbott’s cautious optimism and lessons learnt from the Internet experience is noteworthy. Hamayotsu’s piece on the political implications of zakat management is most fascinating, especially for those in the dark about this particular aspect of government administration.
Perhaps my one criticism of this collection is that it does not push the envelope far enough concerning the fundamental question of why sustained reform did not take root. For example, how did Anwar’s record of using the “system” while in government affect his credentials as a genuine reformist and, subsequently, Keadilan's agenda? The role of the opposition parties themselves within in internal organisation and external presentation also could have been investigated further.


Ong Kian Ming is a Fellow of the Asian Center for Media Studies (ACMS), and a member of the Malaysian Social Science Association.
The association was set up in 1977 to help advance research on Malaysian studies. It aims to promote publication of new research on various aspects of Malaysian society and, through this column, draw attention to stimulating books on the country.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"