Religion and race (tribalism) are instruments of divide and rule, traditionally used by dominant classes for the purposes of power and money.
Anwar Ibrahim, on the other hand, has seen his political path as bringing a more modern democratic agenda to Malaysia, based on the rule of law and equal rights. This is the model adopted by most advanced economies and Malaysia’s yearning to be one of them has become the essence of the movement termed ‘Reformasi’.
However, such reforms plainly present a threat to those presently at the socio-economic pinnacle in Malaysia – “liberalism” was the term thrown at Anwar by his erstwhile ally, the 95 year old Mahathir, this week and he described them both as ‘dangerous’.
So what is Mahathir’s preferred ‘conservatism’? The system that has evolved in post-independence Malaysia and was cemented under Mahathir’s first term of office could be accurately described as democratic feudalism: a system of political patronage where politicians channel a diminishing flow of national booty downward – in return for tribal loyalty from their constituents.
Under this system politician X looked after ‘his people’ and did deals with his partners in the governing coalition (few operated outside the dominant coalition pre-2008) in return for a share of pork barrel handouts based on the relative influence of his client constituency.
For this reason, it was important for social groups to assert primacy over others. Forget the fundamental democratic principles of equality and rights under the law. Malaysia’s adjusted constitution has been abused to create a tribal pecking order with the majority race on top, allowing politicians to play constituencies (and races and religions) against each other.
The game has relied upon the centralisation of so much of the nation’s wealth. There was limited private ownership of resources in Malaysia at the time of independence and therefore control of most of the country’s assets passed into government hands.
As a result the political classes control over 50% of the country’s economy through government linked companies (a socialist regime would sigh with envy) and during the years since independence they have started to treat that bounty as their own.
The post-war technical boom unlocked the vast resources that has fed this system up till this point, raiding a national depleting treasure chest of now largely squandered wealth – timber, oil, coal, land-banks, urban development, fishery, sand, gold, cement.
The elected officers (politicians) who controlled this wealth helped themselves liberally and used the remaining cash to cement their positions through communal based patronage (cash for votes) as well as by greasing the other supposed ‘checks and balances’ in the constitution, namely the royal families (encouraged to do business involving state resources), the civil service and even the judiciary.
All of these professional and social hierarchies positioned themselves comfortably under the shower of resource-generated cash, unleashed by careless capitalism on our finite planet. They took care to ensure the blessing of religion by keeping the clerics happy likewise.
For decades the system was easy to manage, as long the dispossessed and poor knew no better or had no choice than to ‘thank their benefactors’ with their votes. The kickback culture is openly tolerated in Malaysia under this system of paternalistic patronage – with the dedak diminishing down the pecking order.
In the same manner the Lords of England had controlled their ‘rotten borough’ seats in 19th century Parliaments until reformers championed rights for the people, meaning that social support now comes directly from the government as a universal right and no longer has to be begged from local bigwigs.
This is now the agenda of democratic reformers like Anwar Ibrahim, which is to establish rights and reforms that will directly improve the lives of the disadvantaged across Malaysia – regardless of their background.
Under the conservative system, which those in charge (the businessmen politicians and their cronies) are so desperate to keep, people are told to expect their ‘political boss’ to look after them in return for loyalty, as opposed to acting as the servants of the people, which is their proper democratic role.
This is the clash that has caused Malaysia’s establishment to describe Anwar and his democratic allies (now the majority parties) as ‘dangerous’ and it is not really to do with race or religion it is to do with power and money. The ruling classes want to keep the voting public as beggars rather than the people being in charge, which is what democracy is supposed to be about.
The majority of voters had trusted their politicians to bring through promised Reformasi in GE14. That trust has now been broken by the Azmin/Muhyiddin defectors, who still think they can continue with the old system of democratic feudalism by simply cheating on their promises and re-joining the forces of corruption championed by Najib.
The old conservative, the former prime minister must decide which is the lesser evil or the people will decide themselves.