The deep state and its manifestations

There has been so much talk recently about the ominous presence of the deep state within the government.

It is argued that the presence of this deep state is thwarting the efforts of the Pakatan Harapan government from implementing promises made during the last general election.

In fact, the inability of the government to control and manage the civil service or parts of it is described as an instance of the functionality of the deep state.

The earlier arrest of 86 Malays suspected of having links with the Islamic State group and the recent arrest of 12 Indian Malaysians for allegedly having links with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) can be seen as instances of the operation of the deep state.

Whether the arrests were made as a result of real or imagined threats to national security remains to be established.

Even if the PH government had the intention of doing away with the obnoxious aspects of the Security Offences (Social Measures) Act of 2012 or Sosma, the countervailing force of the police or its counter-terrorism unit have neutralised the efforts of the state.

In the Sosma arrests,the deep state’s certain overriding concerns were not reducible to those of the government.

When it comes to national security matters, the chances are that the government, lacking the expertise and information, has to rely on specialised bodies such as the police or the Special Branch.

Essentially, it is due to the lack of political will or control that the government is forced to rely on agencies that might not have the same interests.

In the case of the Sosma arrests, the police, by presenting convincing arguments of national security threats, could have convinced the government on the need for Sosma to remain.

The deep state might not be confined to the police alone; other agencies with particular interests might act to neutralise the efforts of the government.

The deep state might be clandestine or might not be.

It might be most effective when it comes to national security matters, on the position of Islam, threats posed to Malay dominance, on the position of royalty and other matters that are perceived to be harmful to Malays and Islam in general.

It is not a well-defined or recognisable authority, but a power centre or centres that might be defused, amorphous and decentralised.

It is the non-recognisable nature of the deep state that makes it effective.

A deep state is not a singular authority, it might be differentiated at many levels, they might come together on certain matters or might function informally at different levels.

It is not that the deep state is a recent phenomenon. It has always been there, but comes to the fore when things are imagined to be politically, economically and socially unsettling.

In a more pluralistic political context, the deep state can also be termed as interest groups. Unlike in the Malaysian context, they would be overtly recognisable and well-defined.

Perhaps it could be that the lack of democratic space and our overwhelming concern with racial and religious politics have submerged the deep state.

Deep state is also a function of the popularity or the general level of acceptance of some issue or matter.

If the government is seen as undermining the accepted conditions of Malay dominance, then there is every possibility for the deep state to emerge as a “saviour” of the nation.

There is no single dimensionality to the deep state. Under conditions of a high degree of consensus within the government in power, the deep state might remain camouflaged.

If the interests of the government and the deep state coincide, the latter will never be an issue. The problem starts when the government in power is seen to do things that might disturb the core interests of the elements of the deep state.

Under the PH government, the deep state is perceived to be flexing its muscles. Why?

The perception or over imagination that the Malays have lost power, that Islam has been challenged, that there are real threats to Malay political dominance, the calls for the expulsion of the Islamic preacher and fugitive Dr Zakir Naik and others might have activated the concerns of the deep state.

The role of the deep state is also a function of the level of the effectiveness of the government in office. If the elected government in office is seen as weak and not performing or not having effective control over its agencies, then this might send wrong signals to the deep state.

P Ramasamy is chief minister II of Penang and a DAP leader.

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