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The immediate aftermath of Malaysia Baru was filled with great expectations -- some too difficult to achieve. The result is public disapproval and disappointment, and clear signs of disillusionment nearly two years after the 14th general election. But the story at play is not as simple as it looks -- different people with various political affiliations banded together to vote for the impromptu coalition for different, sometimes contradictory, reasons. With these different expectations going on, it is no surprise that the Pakatan Harapan government has, in some ways, taken on the look of a government in crisis.
Another reality that the electorate is grappling with is the nebulousness of the term “Malaysia Baru” itself. What does this mean? The implication is that some sort of regime change has happened, but at a structural level, this has not been the case. The changes are mostly cosmetic: new ruling parties and new faces in power, but the underlying mechanisms of the state remain intact. Mass media still has a pro-government slant and even the presence of more women politicians, even in positions of power, has not changed the overall patriarchal mode of governance. Certain politicians, such as Nurul Izzah Anwar, seem to be the victims of double standards, and the presence of female involvement in various levels of the government, such as the judiciary and in cabinet, is not necessarily indicative of major changes. In this scenario, one particular challenge that still exists is that women are not taught that they can be leaders, and Malaysian society has conditioned them to believe that they are meant to be obedient. Even the cover of Rebirth has come under scrutiny for being potentially insulting to the jata negara. Tolerance, a painting by Sarawakian artist Shia Yih Yiing, was used for the front cover, which is attracting attention for its unorthodox use of national symbols in a slyly subversive manner.
The other major issue at stake right now, which will likely continue to be even more important in upcoming years, is East Malaysian politics. Long regarded as peripheral to overall Malaysian politics, the implosion of the “fixed deposit” myth has brought questions of identity, race and class, particularly issues pertaining to the Malaysia Agreement of 1963, to the forefront of the discussion. The recent Kimanis by-election, in which voters were divided over issues such as the recognition of Filipino refugees in Sabah and economic opportunities, is indicative of a wider trend of discontent at a grassroots level. In Borneo, just as on the peninsula, it has become clear that any sort of discussion, carried out with regard to equity and equality, remains murky. On both sides of the sea, the issues of race and class, both flashpoints in their own right, cannot be discussed in isolation. It has always been easier to talk about class, than race, but we really need to look at these issues on a broader scale, instead of through narrow ethnic or socio-economic lenses.
So what we need now is a rethinking of what national identity really means, and what kind of narrative is prevalent today and the kind that should be written. While discontent is rife, perhaps it may ultimately be a good sign. The electorate is fatigued, but this is an indication that we are still a developing democracy. We still lack enough “tools in our toolbox” to grapple with the difficulties of living and working together in a multiethnic nation, and to exercise our rights as citizens. Many issues have not been normalised yet -- but in time and with experience, perhaps there is still a chance for a true rebirth.
Featuring Beth Yahp, Gayathry Venkiteswaran and Vilashini Somiah. Moderated by Masjaliza Hamzah. Rebirth is now available for sale.