KUALA LUMPUR, June 23 — Ask different Malaysians with different jobs, from different races, and different social-economic backgrounds what ails this country and what they want this government to do, and they will all have different answers.
To the businessman, the answer is stability and more government contracts and economic activity.
A conservative Malay family in, say Gombak, struggling to make ends meet will want the government to help them out more, either directly or indirectly.
As will an Iban just outside Kuching or a Sino-Kadazan in Sabah.
But in the social media comment boxes where so much anger is heard nowadays, you will regularly hear a Chinese still wondering why Malays are lazy. In Sarawak, you may hear the Chinese say the same thing about the lakia, a derogatory term for the Dayaks.
I once sat having a cup of coffee with a Chinese friend who complained about the same thing while Malay waiters worked without any rest around us. It was a working day and the both of us were having an extended tea-break but the irony appeared to escape my friend.
So if you ask many Chinese Malaysians what the answer is to what ails Malaysia, the answer will, if they were being honest, be that they ran the country and took all the contracts and could do whatever they wanted.
They might call that meritocracy, a system in which they believe would result in Chinese people being top scorers and high achievers in everything because Chinese people apparently are just built that way and are being held back by the need to help Bumiputera.
On the flip side there are many Malays who are self-entitled and expect university placement, government contracts, and just about everything to be the sole domain of the Bumiputera, on the basis that this is “Tanah Melayu” and that non-Malays should just keep quiet and be grateful to be allowed to live in Malaysia.
But ask a PAS-leaning Malay, and the answer is invariably an Islamic state, which by definition would be one based on justice and would be fair and equitable. A Christian will likely disagree, as would significant numbers of Malays and non-Malays.
So what’s my point? Very few people out there are really looking for a solution to what ails Malaysia. Most voices are populist, as in they are seeking an advantage for themselves as identified by the race, interest group or background from which they come from or belong.
Most of our political leaders — be they from PH or BN or PAS or GPS or Warisan — are identified with these different interests and are basically fighting for a bigger share of the pie. No one is of course talking about enlarging that pie. It remains, as it has been since independence, a scramble for a piece of the action.
Our politics is of course also part of a global trend of populism. As evidence you may refer to Donald Trump, Brexit etc.
Why is populism so popular? It’s because people feel disenchanted, disillusioned and disregarded. Populism appeals to ordinary people who feel they have no stake in the system and who feel powerless.
And boy, do many people feel like that in Malaysia.
Oh don’t get me wrong. This PH government most certainly did not cause this feeling of powerlessness. It’s been brewing for a while now. As I mentioned above, every Malaysian has a different reason to be unhappy with the system, regardless of whether it is justified.
And when we get upset enough we can collectively throw out a government as we did last May. But in between elections we head towards Facebook and Twitter and we unleash our racism and stereotypes and insults. Now why wouldn’t a populist approach win support from this mob?
So in steps Datuk Seri Najib Razak the Internet star and regular supermarket shopper. He is now a man of the people of course who embodies the regular man’s unhappiness with being sidelined by this government.
But let’s be honest. Najib and the Umno that he represents is not the answer we should be seeking. It is a sign of desperation that we even consider Najib. He represents a disconnect with the ordinary person which this government has not successfully bridged. It was this disconnect, among many other reasons, which resulted in him losing the elections.
This was a man who when he went off-script decided to tell Malaysians to eat more kangkung. This was a man who looked ill-at-ease having a roti canai in Brickfields. I will not mention all the criminal charges he is now facing because I sincerely believe a man is innocent until proven guilty.
It is pretty obvious that his very successful effort at trolling the current government on Facebook is the work of a pretty good team capitalising on the idiotically stupid behaviour of some of our current Cabinet ministers, but Najib is certainly no man of the people.
But here’s the problem with populism. It’s really messy. Again, as evidence, may I at the risk of being repetitious present as evidence Trump, Brexit, and of course the Malaysia Baharu we all live in today.
Before last May, everyone it seems wanted GST to be abolished. It was a hot button issue as it was blamed for prices going up. So the PH coalition promised to do it.
But of course when GST was abolished last year, there was a chorus of disapproval from many who then blamed the replacement tax for prices going up.
Oh then there was that removing highway tolls promise. It was never going to be an easy system to unravel, but this government can no longer catch any breaks. This week the government announced a plan to buy over four highway concessions and once again disparate noises have risen to suggest either better ways to do it or to not do it.
On May 9 we collectively practised democracy. And we continue to do so, for democracy is more than just a vote. It is noisy and it is where all voices are supposed to be heard and often at the same time. In other words it is messy.
Unless our political leaders can present a narrative we can get behind, the country will continue to pull in different directions and be very noisy and messy.
In Singapore the PAP government is just about holding it together with a combination of authoritarianism, censorship, a lack of real press freedom and a sense of superiority that they are not Malaysia. A national schadenfreude and a siege mentality if you will.
Under BN, Malaysian governments used to employ similar tactics of course. But we’ve moved on, you know.
The answer, some may say, is in the economy, stupid!
Dr Mahathir used to say that as long as people’s pockets are full they will not complain too much. In some ways that is still true. That is, the government has to be seen to be getting the basics right. Make sure roads are paved, lights stay on, the Internet works, the drains are not clogged and the people have money in their pockets. If those basics are fulfilled, especially the money part, then people will even excuse the occasional kickback or scandal.
But you still need a national narrative.
Singapore’s national narrative is a siege mentality where the government tells the people they are surrounded by hostile forces and any challenge to the establishment is simply too big a risk to the system which works (apologies to my many Singapore friends for being overly simplistic and a bit insulting. But jibes at each other is part of our Malaysia-Singapore narrative isn’t it?).
What is Malaysia’s national narrative now? It used to be Dr M’s Vision 2020. We had a target and a storyline whether you agreed with it or not. We were supposed to be a country punching above our weight.
Successive administrations have tried to sell us storylines that did not actually resonate. Najib’s 1Malaysia for example sounded like something thought up by an expensive PR/advertising agency that ticked all the boxes and got the best approval ratings from all the focus groups. What it will now be forever known for is lending its name to 1MDB.
Surely this government’s storyline cannot just be let us never return to BN again.
I learned from a friend in the stock markets something that is true for most things — that people want to know what is in their future, and that their future will be good and how will we get there.
But, actually what my friend told me was people want to know what price the share will be next week, or rather they want to be told the price will go up next week so they can buy this week.
But you get the drift.
Simply put, many want things to be better, but what is better for me is not necessarily better for others.
Do we want equality or just that special status for ourselves?
Others want things to remain the same but that is not possible. The world has changed and will continue to change.
So what's the storyline you can sell us, PH? What's your slogan? We need a story we can believe in. We need a story we can sell to others too.
Or else we are all going to continue to be noisy and vocal and messy and demanding.