The title of this review perhaps sums up my thoughts on the direction Malaysian politics is taking, having been a keen observer and commentator of it, since my first essay was published by Malaysiakini seventeen years ago in 2005, and after ten books, and more than 400 analyses later. When I was made aware that the collection of essays by Lim Teck Ghee and Murray Hunter is forthcoming and in the final stages of production, I offered to write a review of it after gladly agreeing to write a brief endorsement. An honor I could not refuse. These are essays written by two of the most profoundly analytical and scholarly academics whose work Malaysians should be proud of reading.
In the tradition of both a critical review and a reflective essay, I will briefly touch on the main thesis of the authors’ work, especially the ones written collaboratively, and those that capture the theme of the book in general. The driving question is: as we approach the next general elections as a ritual in a hypermodern and flawed Asian-styled democracy, is there light at the end of the tunnel, or is it still a New York A-train approaching for a head-on collision with Malaysians already in despair?
Dialectics and Rhetoric
Before venturing into mentions of exemplary chapters and passages that illustrate the highest quality of popular-academic writing in this volume of work, I share my observation of its main theme as it relates to how it is written. In the proceedings section, I will then present the details supporting my response to some of the key and representative articles.
From the standpoint of sociological analysis, the collection of fine scholarly essays takes the path of not only a Critical Theory of Society but one enriched, in many instances with investigative journalistic style of writing and presentation of the careful chronology of events analyzed. Those familiar with Liberation Theory and neo-Marxist perspective of society may find the familiar rhetorical devices employed.
These writers do not write merely to describe and in the typical shallowness of Malaysian academia’s writing to claim “objectivity” in their writings. They write to expose inner and outer contradictions, show us what dialectical thinking looks like, expose corrupt practices using facts and data, and ultimately ask readers to rise up and do something meaningful to affect change. Time is not with us, as these essays speak to us of the urgency of change, however. Trapped we are in a state of despair. The term “committed intellectuals,” popularized by the likes of Jean Paul-Sartre and Albert Camus, comes to my mind to describe Lim Teck Ghee and Murray Hunter.
Their work is a call for action. Today, writings in the Malaysian Social Science circles and enclaves and bubbles, are generally mundane and mostly careful enough not to get the authors in trouble with the State. Malaysian academics write with fear and in general, to curry favor. This is understandable since they write under economic duress, and they behave in their institutions to hope for quick promotions or not to have their brain frozen to the specifications of governmental delight. Academics like these do not rock the sampan of Malaysian politics. Gone are the days when academics write without fear or favor. This species is dying.
Not the writing of these authors though, as how I have been reading them for decades. These are fearless masters of rhetoric and analytics of social science writings. True grits in Malaysian academia.
The essays, whether written individually or collaboratively did not fail to present the readers with the genealogy, anatomy, and post-structural dissection of the issues facing us as another general election come trumpeting whether meaningful or otherwise. In reading Murray and Tech Ghee’s work, I immersed myself in the details of the commentaries, savoring the products of both the ethnographic and the investigative tools of rhetoric and composition the authors used.
Details, anecdotes, and events described with accuracies are what make the book an academic collection of critical essays accessible to the readers of any reading level, true to the ethos of these two writers as Malaysia’s or even Asia’s most prolific social scientists and analysts and public intellectuals who write with so much passion for the powerless, and as prolific writers who answer only to their souls, borrowing the words and in the tradition of again, writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Antonio Gramsci, and Noam Chomsky.
The central theme running through the well-organized sections of the book is one of giving us hope in face of the complexities of Malaysia as a multicultural polity. The last essay, a collaborative one, seems to be the best in offering such a hope grounded in realism and in describing what actually is happening on the ground, and what voters need to know before they chose who to represent them, as servants of the masses first and foremost.
The authors may even have different ideological slants made known in their essays, but precision and attention to detail in their analyses make the collection a good source of understanding the intricacies of Malaysian politics. From the collection in the first section analyzing the issues circa post-General Elections 14, from the despair on the state of ethical affairs to the politics during the early years of Covid-19, the reader is immersed in details upon details of events, personalities, institutions, ideology, and individuals that color the deepest quagmire Malaysians are in, as a consequence of political rot and seemingly incurable immaturity.
Murray Hunter and Lim Teck Ghee are masters of their craft in dissecting such complexities. Through the essays, one could understand clearly the strength, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats in the socio-political-economic of Malaysian politics –the life and times of Malaysia’s key political parties UMNO (United Malays National Organization,) PAS (Partai Islam Se-Malaya/All-Malaya Islamic Party) DAP (Democratic Action Party,) of the coalitions Pakatan Harapan (PH) and Pakatan Nasional, PN, and others, as these are dissected with socio-analytical precision. One could expect such treatment from Malaysia’s foremost historian and analytic-developmentalist writing for the betterment of Malaysians. The fact that these collections of essays emanate from weekly columns of these prolific authors attests to the keen-observations nature of the opinions, like a running commentary of critical events as they unfold lending currency to the subject matter. This is the mark of public intellectuals in constant observation of society.
Deep State deconstructed
In the first section of the collection, the authors independently assessed the state of Malaysian politics entire. Readers have to savor each essay as they go deep into the inner workings of why the Malaysian project called “guided democracy” is not working. I use the term employed by the then CIA-backed Indonesian president Suharto who rule like the mythical Yudhishthira (of the Five Pandavas of the epic Mahabharata) with “Javanese fineseness spiced with Stalin-like brutality” Indeed, hundreds of thousands of Indonesian communists and sympathizers were massacred in the 1960s, in the process of building Indonesia as a nation guided by a Javanese-styled-and-dominated democracy.
The common theme in this section is about how Malaysian democracy works, as we must first understand how the “deep state” operates. The neo-feudalist ideology dominates Malaysian politics with the “Ketuanan Melayu” (“Malay dominance”) framed and deployed as superstructure, using a Marxist term to signify foundational ideas governing a modern state. Reading through the fine analyses, especially ones penned by Asian’s extraordinary scholar-journalist Murray Hunter in which he exposes how the system works, so that we may understand the historical dimension of the Malaysian dilemma, I am reminded of the theses of profound thinkers like the Italian Antonio Gramsci who wrote in The Prison Notebook about Mussolini’s reign and why the masses were subdued and saw the heroism in fascism, of the American transformational linguist – turned- opposer of the American foreign policy Noam Chomsky, and those writing to expose the deep state. Vladimir Lenin, the Russian revolutionary leader wrote in the early 1900s about the base-superstructure/economy-ideology of society, in his famous essay on imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism.
I sense Murray Hunter’s writing is informed by such a consideration, especially when he writes about the highly complex interlocking directorateships of the Malaysian political-economy system that uses race and religion as “superstructure” or ideology. Indeed, Murray’s essays are written with precision and analytical prowess for us to understand even the fact why Malaysia is still intact as a polity when the rot has gone microbial in its extent since the establishment of the “National Front” (post-Alliance post-colonial set-up) up till today to craft a deeper deep state and to install hegemony almost permanently. Any student of Malaysian politics must read Murray Hunter’s essays to have the best understanding of the issues, institutions, and individuals involved in the unmaking of a multicultural Malaysia project.
Murray unmasked these contradictions and pry through the essence of the issue, much in the tradition of highly intelligent investigative journalism. One can seldom find this approach used by those in the Malaysian universities and think tanks whose thought processes are put on track and in check by the government guided by a race-based ideology. Especially during the time of Mahathir’s first 22-year rule, the silencing of academia is deafening with those in the universities made to produce what is in tune with the Malaysian style of “guided democracy”.
Entertaining and enlightening it is to read Murray Hunter’s expose’ of everything he chose to observe in Malaysian politics. He scrutinized the deep Malay-Islamic state, lament the fate of Sabah and Sarawak, question the “bodek culture” (the political buttering and greasing for favors) of essentially Malay politicians, questioned who Anwar Ibrahim really is, and asked us to think of a “third force” in Malaysian politics. These essays are a must-read and discussed in classrooms when we speak about critical perspectives in understanding our choices in the next general elections.
Over the years I have come to know Murray Hunter as a prolific analyst of not only Malaysian but international affairs and of the culture of entrepreneurship as it relates to empathy. He writes like a Renaissance man engaging readers globally with his breath and depth of knowledge not only in his fields of expertise namely Development Studies and Politics, but also in Media, Organizational Psychology, Literary Analyses, and Humanities. A prolific and profound writer whose work must continue to be made accessible to all Malaysians.
In this section, Murray has offered us what is possible, to make Malaysia sane.
Tribute to a multiculturalist-icon
If there is a Malaysian scholar-activist and public intellectual that I have come to know for the last 15 years and admired so much for his principles it is Lim Teck Ghee, one of Malaysia’s foremost historians, a former World Bank advisor, a former professorial fellow at a renowned Malaysian private university, and a writer who continues to devote his time to writing about Malaysia. I am grateful to have worked with him on a volume of essays on multiethnic Malaysia, with another scholar based in Australia,
If there is a Malaysian politician who has devoted his entire life to ethics and the betterment of Malaysians of all walks of life and has been jailed without trial by the then Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, it is Lim Kit Siang, the senior mentor of Malaysian’s most progressive political party, the DAP or Democratic Action party and a prolific writer whose work for the betterment of Malaysia is relentless, as his calling.
Whatever one’s political affiliation may be, there is no denial that Lim Kit Siang has done so much as an Opposition leader, in providing that much-needed check and balance in politics. One may call him a Chinese-chauvinist, a residual figure of Malaysia’s Communist Party, or a man who wished to stay forever as leader of his party and trust only his offspring to govern it, there is no denying that Lim Kit Siang’s intention is clear: his life is that of a “lonely-long-distance-political runner” who will not give up in making Malaysia better. Lim Teck Ghee wrote a special essay alluding to Kit Siang’s marathon run in politics.
The essays in the first section penned by Lim Teck Ghee, as I read them are a tribute to this DAP’s “political stalwart” as many would call Lim Kit Siang. Teck Ghee writes about Kit Siang’s selfless contributions and why the DAP is still in business. Four essays are devoted to the work of the seasoned politician and the strong-willed party, the DAP. As in reading Murray Hunter’s essays to get to the theme of deconstructionism and the Malay-Muslim deep state and the constellation of issues surrounding Malaysia as a failing polity, one must read closely Lim Teck Ghee’s tribute essays to understand firsthand what “democratic action” entails and why most of the analyses by the enemies of DAP can be considered faulty. Lim Teck Ghee’s writing indirectly tried to correct the misconception that Lim Kit Siang and his party are fundamentally interested in fighting for the Malaysian Chinese.
I had that sense after reading closely Lim Teck Ghee’s essays in this section.
Politics in times of Covid
One of the most exciting sections of Murray Hunter and Lim Teck Ghee’s volume I am reviewing is the second part that addresses how Malaysians confront the global pandemic of Covid-19.
Because the essays were written as the pandemic was progressing, the authors provided an ethnographic commentary on how the country deals with the issue. Without going through the specifics of each essay, which is not the intention of a review as well, suffice to say that Murray Hunter and Lim Teck Ghee’s analyses are amongst the finest I have ever read when it comes to analyzing Malaysia as a case study.
From Teck Ghee’s caution that we must not criminalize China for the alleged Wuhan origin of the global pandemic, as how the issue of Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang is misrepresented, to Murray Hunter’s excellent thoughts on how lockdowns are politicized and used by the government to police and put the citizens under unnecessary surveillance, this section gives readers a contemporary socio-political and problem-managing feel of a nation dealing with a “black swan event” exposing the level of preparedness of crisis management of such proportion.
Of tremendous value is that the essays provide comparative narrative and qualitative data for scholars to study how nations respond to Covid-19. As we are aware, no country is spared of the scourge of the virus of which millions of deaths were recorded and many millions of infections were documented. From China to Europe to the United States and to the entire planet, virtually no country is spared of the revisit and reincarnation of the pandemic of 1918, the “Spanish Flu” which actually began in a military facility in Kansas, USA. It is estimated that 50 million died worldwide and 500 million (one-third of the world’s population) were infected. To call Covid-19 a “Wuhan Virus” is to demonize a nation and its people, as we know when we speak of the impact of such practices in times of war. Covid-19, before its vaccines were developed and deployed, was Nature’s war against Man’s lack of empathy towards the planet entrusted to human beings to be taken care of, as an “ecosophical/ecological-philosophical” perspective would offer as an explanation.
Murray Hunter and Lim Teck Ghee’s writings to document this event as it pertains to the Malaysian response are helpful as we continue to learn how to deal with pandemics that will come visiting.
Each essay is in this section a gem that must be read closely to understand how these scholars in social analyses view a world in crisis.
I now proceed with my view of the final section of the book. What then must we do? as Vladimir Lenin would ask, as we speak of a call to action, as Malaysia awaits the date for yet another ritual called “general elections”, as politics continue to assume its absurdist twists and turns revealing yet another road that looks like one leading to despair.
But what will hope look like?
Two essays in the last section of Murray Hunter and Lim Teck Ghee’s Malaysia Towards GE-15 and Beyond conclude this volume with a word we love most about political change: hope.
In introducing the book, the authors wrote:
” … Ours is the hope or aspiration of what is needed to take on the dark forces and to spark Malaysians towards real change. We hope that the afterword offers some optimism to Malaysia’s politics in the spirit that some of the new political groupings are trying to put across today. A new vision, a new mission based upon equality, secularism, and consensus, where people are not divided or manipulated by race or religion or other concocted cleavages can unshackle the nation’s youth for the long journey to the Malaysia that they deserve. … “
These are fine words of encouragement to readers in tune with what the essays throughout proposed. Hope for a new coalition, for new and cleaner blood in the old parties, hope for a “third force,” hope that there will be no buying off of politicians, and hope for a new beginning of something — the authors had these in mind.
In my own work in conjuring hope, in the tradition of analyzing Malaysian politics since my graduate studies days back in the early 80s, and in books such as the first collection of essays Allah Controversy and Other Essays on Malaysian Hypermodernity to Dark Spring: Essays on Malaysia’s GE-13 to the ninth High Hopes and Shattered Dreams: The Second Mahathirist Revolution I wrote about hope in the Murray Hunter-Lim Teck Ghee vein.
Hope is an elusive word, though in this section the authors made it sound clear and readily achievable. This is my concern for essays that speak of hope, including the hundreds I have written as well, on why we must also continue to interrogate hope as a catchphrase for any revolutionary change we wish to have.
The reality of hope is that we all have it but it might as well be a word of comfort we have in a world plagued with hopelessness. In Malaysian politics, the BERSIH Rally to install the Pakatan Harapan regime gave us hope. The May 2008 “Revolution” gave us some hope. The 18-month tenure of a hopeful band of formerly-Opposition parties -helmed by Mahathir Mohamad ironically, gave some hope and later that was shattered. Then the “Sheraton Move” destroyed everything and with Covid-19 that came knocking and stayed with us, hope was totally shattered and we are all plunged into a hopeless situation.
What then is the reality of hope we are talking about? When race and religion as contributors to our “Kiekergaardian dread” and “hopelessness” are still the dominant forces of hope for those clinging on to power? When race relations as they relate to party-politics is still an existential threat and in fact a reality that cannot be shed?
These are the questions outside the realm of this review I throw in for us to reflect upon as we read the excellent essays that give us hope for a better Malaysia.
Hence the title of this review essay.
The Finest Passage
If there is a quote from this fine collection that resonates the most with what I believe in, having written in this vein for more than 20 years, it is this paragraph in the Addendum:
” … What really needs to be prioritised in advancing Malaysia’s actual place within the region and world today, and what Malaysia might want to tout internationally is the nation’s achievements based on merit, capacity to compete and technological advancement. This will require putting aside the baggage of race and religion which has acted as a drag—see our loss of human talent and the brain drain since the NEP— and reforming national policies on education, agriculture, industry, innovation, and equity to prepare for the real challenges of tomorrow. Malaysia, if it is going to take up the challenges of today and tomorrow, at both regional and international levels must radically change its perspectives and policies to be race, religion and class blind while drawing on the best from all Malaysians. … ” (Addendum, pgs. 156-157)
Powerful ideas of hope are in this passage. This is the ideal that can be translated into political action, should the level of socio-political consciousness of the people is raised through a very responsive and cognitive-ethically-enhanced system of education.
This is the lamentation of most Malaysians — despair and dread of a philosophically-dead scenario of change. I suppose the authors too, evident in the essays preceding the last section, the Addendum, have made it clear that they too do not see the light at the end of the Malaysian-Kafkaesque tunnel. A situation of hopelessness permeates our psyche as politicians transformed into Mark Twain’s-type of jumping frogs of Calaveras County, for their political survival, to escape prosecution, and to ensure that this and that person they hate do not get to become prime minister. Ever. Not over the dead body of the most senile politicians still in power.
And so, that’s how the Malaysian story goes, as narrated in this fine scholarly collection. We do not have a good system of checks and balances. Nor shame we see in the elected representatives we have and in the politicians we have seen running and ruining the nation.
Race and religion continue to be the centerpiece of a center that can no longer hold, as it relates to Malaysian politics.
I end this review of Malaysia’s GE-15 and Beyond with the feeling the Lim Teck Ghee and Murray Hunter have not only provided a statement of hope, in a world of Malaysian political despair, in which things have fallen apart, and the center cannot hold (borrowing the words of WB Yeats) but also suggested a way we can think of and act upon, as we collectively resist the onslaught of the yet other gangs of political parties that will orchestrate attempts to take over the state, come General Elections-15. A glimmer of hope is provided in that a “third force” needs to be put on the theatre of the absurd of Malaysian politics. They proposed groups such as Gerak Independent to collaborate with progressive fronts, in order to craft meaningful change to the quagmire the nation has been further plunged into.
Will this remain a hope? Or is this still the beginning of a shift in voter-consciousness the effect of that changes now trumpeted as “a new vision for Malaysia”? The authors have not only incisively analyzed the anatomy of the malaise but offered a solution to remedy the situation. This is something new I have seldom come across in writing by Malaysian academics trapped in the dungeons of pleasure built by the ruling regime, writing only to pleasure the Pied Pipers of Malaysia’s Hamelin.
This book is a must-read by anyone interested in seeing the change that they wish to see for their children, especially. If hope is what we still have, let us make it spring eternal. And next, make change happen. Peacefully. The process might be slow and careful and the path filled with more hope but at least it will not be horrifying. Not like the French, Russian, Chinese, and even any modern-day revolution that drew blood of many. By the millions in some cases.
Azly Rahman is an author of ten books on Malaysia and Global Affairs, an international columnist, and a global educator. He teaches courses in Cultural Perspectives, Global Issues, Cultural Studies, Cognitive Psychology, and Sociology of the Future. He writes at Across Genreshttps://azlyrahman.substack.com/