On Saturday, just as Malaysians were going to the polls, The Straits Times published an analysis giving various scenarios regarding the outcome and what they would mean for the country. By the terms of that analysis, one has to conclude the country has opted for the 'very bad' option, with the government having lost its two-thirds majority and Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's position as premier extremely tenuous.
As a result, "investor sentiment would be negative and the Malaysian stock market would suffer a sharp selldown", the article predicted. But is that really the worst that can happen? Comparisons with 1969, the last time the ruling coalition did badly in the polls, are tempting.
Like Tunku Abdul Rahman, the nation's founding father and premier in 1969, Abdullah is still respected. But just as the Tunku was eased out of office in the months following the 1969 debacle, the current premier appears to be nearing the end of his political career. And there is the unspoken--if not entirely rational--fear of political violence.
Which way forward? One road leads to decline as rival groups battle for political favours and the public becomes increasingly alienated from mainstream politics. Another road...offers the prospect of institutional reform and the implementation of policies aimed at addressing legitimate grievances.
The real point about 1969, however, was that it marked a political watershed. It prompted a major policy response that attempted to address the perceived causes of the decline in the government's popularity and the subsequent ethnic violence that hung like a dark shadow over the political landscape for decades to come.
Today, Malaysia is facing yet another political watershed. How will the political leadership respond? The national introspection that followed the events of May 1969 produced the New Economic Policy, a national programme that--despite its shortcomings--represented a serious attempt to address a deep structural malaise.
The identification of race with economic function was tackled, and the government undertook to make the elimination of poverty regardless of race a national priority.
Visiting Malaysia during the 1970s as a postgraduate student, I was struck by both the vigour with which government agencies pursued these aims and the idealism and sincerity of the national leadership charged with carrying them out. Even non-Malays who had reservations about official policies rarely questioned the sincerity of the national leadership.
It is hard to find such idealism today. Abdullah revived it briefly in 2004, promising a more tolerant approach to political debate and an attack on the corruption that emerged in the 1980s and took hold during the boom years that followed. But disillusionment with Abdullah's rule has bred cynicism, and it now seems that few Malaysians are inclined to believe their political leaders when they profess a desire to serve the nation.
During the same period, the national leadership also became so detached from public sentiment that they left serious problems unaddressed and made promises that were rarely followed up with effective action. A good example is the Malaysian national service programme introduced in December 2003 in an attempt to address racial polarisation. The idea--widely lauded when it was first mooted in 2001--was to encourage inter-racial bonding by bringing youths of the different races together in three-month physical training camps.
The programme has since faced numerous problems, not the least of which has been the lack of adequate government funding. But when I asked a senior official late last year what was being done about the situation, he dismissed the whole idea with a wave of the hand. "Such camps don't work," he said.
Presumably, the BN leadership is no longer complacent following Saturday's political tsunami. But public cynicism is a different matter altogether, and its persistence could eventually prove dangerous. In 1969, the task of picking up the pieces was made easier by the fact that those who led the country to independence were still around to provide the idealism necessary to get Malaysians working towards a common goal. This time around, those leaders are no longer on the scene.
And because the public has become so cynical, vague promises will not be enough. Today, Malaysia stands at a crossroads.
One road leads to decline as rival groups battle for political favours and the public becomes increasingly alienated from mainstream politics. Another road--long promised but yet to be delivered--offers the prospect of institutional reform and the implementation of policies genuinely aimed at addressing legitimate grievances. Forget the stock market. It will bounce back eventually. As for foreign investors, they will continue to show interest if the country provides legal certainty, strong national institutions and a stable business environment. But none of this is likely if Malaysia takes the wrong road.
This article was first published in 'The Straits Times'. Reprinted with permission.