The illusion of power in post-Reformasi Malaysia

The planned anti-ICERD-turned-“thanksgiving” rally marks a significant point in where real political power resides in post-Reformasi Malaysia. In this article, I wish to suggest that the Pakatan Harapan (PH) leaders have a false understanding of real political power in Malaysia in the present time.

Real political power in post-Reformasi Malaysia no longer lies in the Cabinet offices of the many ministries. Real power is actually what the Reformasi movement sparked off. The victors of the May 9 general election need to understand that what they inherited after GE14 was a rickety and worn-out Cabinet chair that couldn’t support even a sleeping cat. PH leaders need to know this before it is too late.

Real power lies not in the plush meeting rooms of ministries, the Cabinet meeting room or even Parliament building, but out there in cyberspace, in people’s forums and rallies. If the PH Cabinet fails to understand this new context of power, their policy changes will come to naught because there is no cultural force to change it.

Ironically, it was the Reformasi movement that set in motion the new power structures of our society. Although the powerful Barisan Nasional (BN) government used the police and national media, this was not enough to stop the oncoming tsunami that swept Umno away. The Reformasi movement gave birth to mass rallies that eventually led to the famous Bersih demonstrations of pure people power in a sea of yellow. Later on, Jamal Yunos rode the wave of mass rallies with his famous Red Shirts rally. Now we have the anti-ICERD rally that could have the power to change the Malay-Muslim mindset, however ignorant and narrow minded it may be.

The second power structure is the WhatsApp war. Even with the Anti-Fake News law in place, BN could not stop the truths and half-truths floating in cyberspace. The third power structure is that involving forums, talks, ceramahs and dialogues that rained on the country until the deluge flooded the seemingly impenetrable fortress of Umno.

The fourth power structure created by the Reformasi movement is the news portals that are free, accessible, mostly reliable and completely indispensable to everyone with a smartphone. Fifthly, there is civil society whose voices are ringing louder and louder. These are the new power structures that are neatly wrapped up in the idea of freedom of speech in this new-found democratic climate.

What are the new ministers doing to change Malaysia? Attending meetings. Making press statements. Appearing on Astro Awani. Posing for Berita Harian and Utusan. Making speeches. Opening or closing conferences. Leaving conferences after posing for media pictures. Holding conversations in limousines. Heading back to the office. Attending parties for dignitaries and royalty. Arguing in Parliament. Attending dinner meetings. Lunch meetings. Breakfast meetings. Did I cover the life of a minister? Oh… travelling overseas to attend meetings and conferences, or following the prime minister or royalty as ministers-on-call.

If this is all there is in their life, the PH government will probably not last beyond the next general election. The BN government lasted for 60 years because the times were different. Firstly, there was no democracy. Secondly, they had the police to run Operasi Lalang or launch commando raids on Anwar Ibrahim’s house. Thirdly, there was only RTM and TV3. With these power structures, it was possible to stay in power for a very long time.

Now, the PH ministers are doing almost exactly the same things. But times have changed.

Ministers such as Maszlee Malik and Mujahid Rawa are honest and hardworking individuals. Their main problem is that they think they are “powerful” and can change mindsets about education and religion. They both think that by changing this policy and that policy, and having meetings with scholars or appointing new vice-chancellors, the wheels of change will dutifully roll on.

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Guys, this is the new era. If you do not hit the ground to change things, nothing will change.

My advice to the PH leadership is as follows. Put the party machinery back in the “opposition mode” of forums, rallies, talks, ceramahs and media statements. Currently, party members are busy jostling to place themselves on the gravy train; looking at who is going to be appointed where and who will get what is the concern.

The party machinery must be placed as nation-building agents with funding and aid from the PH ministers in Cabinet. The party machinery should be in the “educating mode” while operating in the traditional “opposition construct”. Ministers must show leadership by attending public forums, presenting talks and staying to mingle at conferences. Ministers MUST NOT fight the media. Some ministers are blaming news portals and acting like they are prima donnas.

Dear Mr Minister, the media will publish news in whatever manner they see fit to present their take on the situation. If you think they are wrong, write your own media articles to set the story straight. The new news portals are not the Utusan or Berita Harian of old, prostrating themselves before their political masters. The new news portals have seasoned veterans of the Reformasi era. I find it completely embarrassing when ministers chide the media because of a so-called “misquote” or “sensationalism”.

If you, Mr Minister, had not opened your mouth in a thoughtless manner, there would have been no misquote; so don’t blame the media. The “sensationalism” is simply your own media presentation blunder. Admit it and move on… please!

The ministers and second and third level party leaders must cultivate good relations with civil society by funding their forums, talks, publications and book launches. These lower levels of leadership must cut their teeth in the “opposition construct” before being elevated to a higher position of influence in the party and government machinery. These second and third level leaders must give stirring speeches at outdoor ceramahs once again without waiting for a by-election. Rafizi Ramli’s moving stage must roll out once more with new and old speakers travelling back roads and muddy country lanes.

The two discredited parties, Umno and PAS, have found their voices and are milking this strategy to the core. They are helped by state religious officials writing khutbah and making religious statements that will further divide this country. With a Malay-Muslim population that has been taught to be narrow-minded and selfish in thinking only about their own race and faith, Malaysia will have no real peace. Change must come from the ground, not policy papers and press statements.

Finally, I wish to leave the PH leadership with these parting thoughts: deploy 90% of the party machinery back in the “opposition construct” to fight the racial and religious bigotry of the discredited opposition parties as well as NGOs; strategise the real civil society into entities that would help fuel change and not be in opposition mode; cultivate good rapport with the news media by not treating them as simple reporters and by making more thoughtful statements and helping them spread the message by penning your own viewpoints; and unleash the power of public university academics by funding their books, research and attempts at changing mindsets on race and religion more than the scientific or engineering research that have brought the nation nowhere.

Times have changed. The new power structures are the remnants of the Reformasi era and they must be rejuvenated as part of the government machinery for real change. Last, but not least, get out of the meeting rooms and into the cyber and social grounds once again to make real eye and WhatsApp contact with citizens and netizens.

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