Malaysia’s Helpless Liberals
Image Credit: REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad

Malaysia’s Helpless Liberals


“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” So goes the poem by William Butler Yeats, a line that could easily be used to sum up the state of affairs in Malaysia.

The Malaysian liberal can be a curious character. Holding views considered liberal when compared against many of his countrymen, but which may well run into the conservative in Western societies, he (or she) is a tragic figure, his way of life often under attack by his country’s ruling party and the groups aligned with it.

For news, he eschews the government-controlled press – the vapid broadcasts of RTM, the propaganda sheets of Utusan or The New Straits Times – looking instead to more independent media outlets. He listens to BFM 89.9 and reads The Edge and The Malaysian Insider, or foreign publications like the BBC, The New York Times, or The Wall Street Journal. He learns about the latest crackdown or the latest Malaysian fiasco to grab international headlines and he fumes or laughs in disgusted disbelief. He decries it later with his friends and acquaintances over supper at a mamak stall, or dinner at a restaurant, or drinks at a country club.

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If he’s young, he often expresses this discontent online. Apart from the usual photos and status updates, his Facebook wall features incredulous posts charting Malaysia’s slide deeper into tyranny. He posts and shares and likes, he pulls up dumb statements by the country’s ministers and tweets sarcastic rejoinders.

Speak to him, though, and he seems eminently reasonable, strangely mild in the face of all that’s happening. What does he want for the country? A variety of things, of course, but ultimately for people to be left free and in peace. How to get it? By eschewing confrontation, spreading awareness, building bridges, dialogue, and so on. He loves his country – still does – with the weary resignation of someone who’s been disappointed by the thing he loves and expects to be disappointed again. He is affable and temperate, cautious and considerate. He is also indisputably, utterly, helpless.

Any foreigner observing the rampant spread of corruption and Islamic extremism in Malaysia could be forgiven for asking how it’s come to this, how it’s been allowed to come to this. It’s a question many Malaysians ask themselves.

Over the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB – a state investment fund) corruption scandal alone, for example, Prime Minister Najib Razak has sacked the attorney general who was meant to be investigating him, had the offices of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission raided to hide evidence of his crimes, suspended The Edge (a local paper) and blocked The Sarawak Report (a whistleblowing website) for reporting on it, and claimed that the $700 million transferred to his personal bank account was a donation. How, many ask, could someone who has so blatantly betrayed the public’s trust remain in power?

For that matter, how could Malaysia’s government get away with jailing opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (whose coalition won the popular vote in the last election) over trumped-up sodomy charges? How could its courts get away with a ruling as ludicrous as banning non-Muslims from using the word “Allah”?

Much of the reason for this lies with Malaysia’s liberals – those you’d expect to check such abuse.

Liberal Response

I can tell you about them. There was the public intellectual and think tank director who tried to convince me that the best way to stop the government from censoring unflattering news online was to write a research paper on the benefits of a free internet. There were the civil society leaders who responded to the government’s use of the draconian Sedition Act to round up their critics by submitting a petition against it. There was opposition leader Anwar himself, who, when charged with sodomy, meekly submitted to the legal charade, and even expressed confidence that the Federal Court judges would be fair enough to acquit him, despite knowing full well they were the ruling party’s puppets – two weeks before those judges declared him guilty and sentenced him to jail.

The liberal response to the 1MDB fiasco has been similarly weak.

The leaders of the opposition parties issue statements and questions on the matter, which the government simply ignores.

The most tangible response is Bersih 4.0, a rally planned for the end of the month. Although it aims to gather hundreds of thousands of Malaysians together to protest in three of the country’s cities, its organizers intend to disperse it after two days, even if its demands for Najib to step down and for the implementation of institutional safeguards against corruption are ignored, which they probably will be. It is not expected to change anything.

Though suggestions have been made to expand the two-day rally into a mass civil disobedience movement – one that provokes confrontation with the authorities and occupies key areas in the major cities until its demands are met (probably the only strategy under the circumstances with a chance of success) – Bersih’s organizers seem to have rejected them, asserting instead that the purpose of the rally is to “send the government a message.” That the ruling party has ignored the message of previous Bersih rallies with impunity has not prompted a strategy rethink.

Those people I mentioned are good, courageous, earnest men and women who represent much of what is best in the country, which makes their helplessness all the more unfortunate.

Why do Malaysian liberals persist with methods they know to be so ineffective? Why do they continue to play by the rules of a game that’s hopelessly rigged against them?

A Malaysian psychologist I once spoke to described this phenomenon as “learned helplessness.” Malaysians, so habituated to oppressive rule, ignore obvious methods of resistance, thinking within the framework the government has set, beseeching the very authorities that are abusing them to save them from abuse.

Anyone can fall victim to this affliction of course, but it’s a particularly liberal failing to forget that ultimately it’s a question of power, and that power is seldom given up – it has to be taken. This is something the hateful fascist groups in the country, like Perkasa, never forget.

Last year, I attended a talk at a country club on the damage Islamic extremism was doing to freedom in Malaysia. I asked the panel how the spread of extremism could be stopped. Among the panelists who replied was Ambiga Sreenevasan, former Chair of Bersih and one of Malaysia’s greatest civil society leaders.

She responded that the solution was to send people to educate and spread awareness amongst the country’s rural Muslims. Even as the rest of the audience applauded, I was skeptical – even if we could educate Malaysia’s Muslims faster than the rabid imams could indoctrinate them (unlikely), something like that would take generations to yield results, generations the country cannot afford.

The strategy sounded hollow then. It sounds even hollower now.

Perhaps Malaysia’s liberals are too genteel to provoke confrontation, too diffident to risk chaos – the creative disruption necessary for real change.

Perhaps they console themselves with the notion that the ruling party’s moves against its critics are signs of weakness and desperation, that its bullying will only harm its position.

If so, they have some unlearning to do, and they’d best do it fast. They’re running out of time.

Shaun Tan is a freelance writer. Contact him at [email protected]

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