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Can the middle class save Malaysia?

October 22, 2017

Malaysia needs big ideas to tackle issues such as middle-class income stagnation and rising healthcare expenses as voters will swing to parties capable of providing such ideas.

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By Lim Yi Wei

Last week I organised and moderated a forum in Petaling Jaya titled “Can the middle class save Malaysia?” The speakers were Prof. Edmund Terence Gomez, Professor of Political Economy from the Faculty of Economics and Administration, University of Malaya, and YB Steven Sim, MP for Bukit Mertajam.

Conventional wisdom says that with their relative economic affluence, the middle class is likelier to call for and spearhead movements for greater civil and political change. However, in some societies, they are reluctant to rock the boat when it comes to regime change. In China, a booming middle class has been content to reside under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule.

Grand narratives vs. “making politics boring again”

Prof. Gomez spoke on how revolutions in Asia were largely driven by student movements. Only when they gained sufficient traction did the middle-class throw in support and resources.

In that vein, he advocated the need for a grand narrative in Malaysian politics. Malaysia needed big ideas to tackle issues such as middle-class income stagnation and rising healthcare expenses. Voters would swing to parties capable of providing such ideas.

Meanwhile, Steven expressed a desire to “make politics boring again” – to return to the business of governing properly.

Before the rise of alternative and social media, the opposition had to resort to “making noise” to vie for coverage in BN-controlled media. This resulted in consumeristic politics. Big announcements, theatrics, and scandals are unveiled regularly just like an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians.

With Penang and Selangor governed by Pakatan Harapan for almost 2 terms, Sim argued that the people can now see the difference. There should be less focus on grand announcements and more on substance, in the form of efficiency and results, hence “make politics boring again”.

Both arguments have their merits but glossed over the scheme of things: one-sided politics has had a deteriorating effect on grand narratives and governance. Even today, the playing field, which includes institutions like the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and the Election Commission, is tilted in BN’s favour. The present “grand narrative” of race and religion feeds our appetite for the scandalous and the sensational while distracting us from the ultimate purpose of policy-making: to channel state resources to those who need it.

Ultimately, everyone feels marginalised. The B40 toil to make ends meet with little hope of upward mobility. The middle class feels sidelined by politicians’ pursuit to win over rural voters. The elite can afford to wreck their votes. To expand on political analyst Dr. Wong Chin-Huat’s theory of communal incoordination, even if there is a desire for regime change across socio-economic classes, the anger of being left out may lead to class in coordination.

The middle class has means, but not the rage

In his work Politics, Aristotle said that “poverty is the parent of revolution and crime”. This corresponds with Prof. Gomez’s argument of students – who had fewer resources and more at stake – leading the way in revolutions in Asia, followed by the middle class.

In Malaysia, university students have been largely depoliticised. Those who can afford it, study and then migrate. Those in local universities who dare question authority are subjected to inquiries and guilt-tripped for “rebelling against their second parents”.

In the past few years, student activists have reemerged. However, a mass youth or student movement like in Hong Kong and Tunisia is not yet on the cards.

The compelling case of TTDI vs. DBKL

If students do not lead the way, perhaps it falls to the middle class to lead in saving Malaysia.

Last June, Taman Tun Dr. Ismail’s Residents’ Association (RA) protested against Kuala Lumpur City Hall’s (DBKL) plans to build a luxury condominium in Taman Rimba Kiara. After protests, petitions and public hearings eventually resulted in a court date, TTDI’s lawyers, engineers, and architects volunteered their expertise and resources towards saving the park.

More importantly, they mobilised themselves without direction or intervention by any political party. In the process, they became closer neighbours.

For big ideas and grand narratives to succeed, detailed execution is required. The TTDI residents did not only call for the park to be saved. They also combined expertise and resources to dive into the details of how it could be done.

Within the present narrative of race and religion, it may seem like our society is falling apart. The TTDI vs. DBKL case shows that the middle class, with their education and resources, can come together to change society for the better. In so doing, they can show and lead the way in saving Malaysia.

Lim Yi Wei is Special Assistant to Tony Pua, MP for Petaling Jaya Utara, and a Petaling Jaya City Council councilor.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.


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