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edu New Mandala, March 2012 Given the well-known parameters of political competition in Malaysia, talk of an opposition win even in a key by-election, let alone a general election, tends quite quickly to turn to murmurs of “regime change”—of a change not just in leadership, but in the underlying framework of Malaysian politics. Victory of the Pakatan Rakyat (or some cognate collectivity of opposition parties), the logic goes, indicates or embodies a fundamental shift in political culture and praxis. Faith in a soonforthcoming regime change in Malaysia, then, requires confidence that “the opposition” might win a parliamentary majority; that once in office, these parties will govern substantially differently from the BN; and that a change in elected leadership is sufficient to qualify as, represent, or induce “regime change.” The cynic might find grounds to doubt all three counts. Pakatan Rakyat, the current opposition coalition, has never offered a fully coherent organizational rubric, and the strength of its component parties is uneven at present. Yes, the BN is awash in scandals and recriminations … but when is it not? Second, Pakatan experience in, for instance, Selangor or Penang does suggest that these parties may introduce meaningful reforms—more open tender for contracts, enhanced freedoms of information and assembly, and so forth. Other commentators in this New Mandala [http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/category/malaysia/malaysia-after-regimechange/] series offer ample evidence to that effect, even while also noting where liberal rhetoric rings hollow. But the extent and precise direction of that difference defy prediction. It is not just Anwar who comes from “the belly of the beast” and might be expected still to retain at least a few habits and networks from BN days, but also others from within opposition ranks (even discounting perennial rumors of an imminent UMNO–PAS merger). Nor is Pakatan either scandal-free itself or unequivocal in rejecting Malay privilege, crony networks, or curbs on the public sphere. But the third, less inherently partisan, query is really the clincher. A “regime” is larger than the slate of office-holders at the government’s helm, and a given slate may be elected for all sorts of positive and negative reasons. For regime change to happen, turnover would need to permeate to the roots and the political culture would require “democratization”—shifts more substantial than any party or coalition can promise to deliver. All that said, I do, in fact, think regime change of a sort to be not only imminent, but already in train. Or to put it differently: to focus on elections as the index of the state of the regime is not just likely to bring disappointment, but also is fundamentally misguided. A longer-term, broader perspective paints regime change as a slow, however seismic, process. Regardless of what happens in the upcoming (or any other) elections, engagement not just within but beyond parties is what really constitutes and embodies change in the character and quality of Malaysian democracy. By way of demonstration, I offer three illustrative sectors-to-watch, although in fact, these dynamics are pervasive.
Indeed. the public is now less willing to accept norms and tradeoffs previously taken for granted or deemed unassailable. not to mention unusually noncommunal. but also help discursively legitimize students’ participation: they are held back not out of natural disinterest. Those constituencies not only force new issues onto political agendas.First. but by an imminently mutable law. Third. in the process altering the relation of ordinary citizens to both powerholders and issues of interest. as well. sped not least by proliferating smartphones (as well as more mundane printouts and travelers). hence. Online media have not only broken Malaysia’s information blockade. Second. Recent discussions of revisions to the Universities and University Colleges Act. accountability. it is from among this segment that future leaders of state and industry are most likely to emerge. and arrests failed to keep Bersih supporters off the streets last July suggests that the rakyat have come to see such . Online “new” media have restructured Malaysians’ access to information and ability to interface with newsmakers. for instance. however. ready to be mobilized offline.” It is not the system that has changed. pro-government). But for a host of reasons. blockades. the “digital divide” remains very much in evidence: urban. elections are arguably no less clean now than they were in years past. instance of mass mobilization in the run-up to these next polls has centered around electoral reform—Bersih 2. the flow and “spin” of information has irrevocably changed in Malaysia. But the fact that warnings. it is on this ground that a host of newly-mobilized communities have been able to develop or elaborate a shared identity. early socialization does matter to at least some extent. and incumbent politicians at least to gesture toward interaction and. less privileged fellow citizens. details on opposition parties. but embody new horizons for full democratic citizenship.0. Undergraduates are especially germane to this analysis. The underlying premise of Bersih is that parties alone should not monopolize political space and that democracy requires more than just going through the motions of elections. successor to the Bersih coalition formed five years prior—signals the seriousness with which Malaysians today take the idea of “democracy. to boot. have simmered down only somewhat since the late 1990s. not only respond to demands for just that. the apparent yen now for learning the history of “student power” suggests students’ awareness of their own former/potential stature—and hence framing of their own identity less immature and gullible than uniquely empowered. so long coached and coaxed to be apolitical (or at least. Such a frame is clearly at odds with an “authoritarian” ethos. sentiments among youth in Malaysia are a harbinger of regimes to come: however much political attitudes and behaviors change as today’s youths age. of course. democratizing access to critical perspectives. the fact that the largest and most vociferous. None of that is novel. One of the enduring trends Reformasi set in motion was the increasing politicization of youth. from HINDRAF to Seksualiti Merdeka. lessthan-rosy news. comparatively wealthy and welleducated Malaysians are more likely to enjoy broadband access than their rural. and a heap of mindless chatter. teargas. Clearly. Moreover. Campus elections. The Internet seeps ever farther and deeper through Malaysian society. even in Malaysia. but have arguably pressed mainstream media to open up. to legalize students’ taking part in politics.
and among campaigners for a truly level electoral playing field. is absolutely critical. epiphenomenal. with all that entails. as well as Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia. or unrelated. in online new sites. Malaysia boleh. 207. perhaps.1 Those who meddle from the margins. is an enduring status. Mirror. elections represent citizens’ chance to hold the powers-that-be. for instance. the fact that citizens express a voice. blogs. “Regime change” is not a messianic or immediate process. I suggest that what matters most is what happens beyond parties and elections: if the public sphere is more capacious. while regime “transitologists” tend to fixate on electoral turnover as the ultimate sign of democratic health. calibrated by those power holders. But we need to take those margins seriously in assessing the character of the Malaysian regime. on a regular basis. to account. Mahathir—have asserted. but “success” might take a while. if Malaysia is to call itself a democracy. completely. or that-want-to-be. Regardless. She is the author most recently of Student Activism in Malaysia: Crucible. Sideshow. inclusive. That actors from civil society claim a stake in Malaysian political choices and outcomes fundamentally challenges the definition of “democracy” Malaysian leaders—most stridently. Singapore: NUS Press. Indeed. in this reading. In other words. as among frustrated undergraduates. and is coeditor of Social Movements in Malaysia: From Moral Communities to NGOs and the forthcoming Student Activism in Asia: Between Protest to Powerlessness. punctuated by euphoric elections and legislative shifts.” Quoted in Karminder Singh Dhillon. Elections are revealing because it is about and during them that these claims about democracy are most clearly made and that we see in sharp relief the extent to which media and activist efforts have kept debate alive and informed. the state of civil liberties. it is a long-term slog. and vibrant as a general rule. At the most basic level.voice and such claims as legitimate: as their right. he deemed it perhaps “good for the religious deviationists or cultists. Such a lens acknowledges that politics happens year-round and that democratic citizenship. Malaysian Foreign Policy in the Mahathir Era (1981-2003): Dilemmas of Development. Who actually controls the government is hardly unimportant. It is never accomplished quickly or. Mahathir’s equation of liberal democracy with the right “to carry guns and flaunt homosexuality”. Current Recall. but requiring a lot more than these. a caveat: one should not read too much into these signs of change in political culture and popular political behavior. and on Facebook. 2009. Meredith Weiss is Associate Professor of Political Science at the State University of New York at Albany. 1 . But this reading is increasingly challenged. p. and clamoring at the margins without any signal that the center has heard or cares is frustrating and enervating. and see that expression of voice as itself legitimate indicates a process and pattern of regime change in Malaysia. are but “thorns in the flesh” and saboteurs. but not exclusively.
and clientelism and patronage in Southeast Asia.projects focus on the impacts of new media. . collective identity and mobilization.
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