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Fear of reform

I REMEMBER as a child, every time my sisters or I misbehaved, my parents would threaten us with these six words guaranteed to induce good behaviour: “I’ll send you to reform school!” Of course, back then, I had little idea of what a “reform school” was, but from the way my parents brandished it, I gathered it wasn’t a good place to go to.

As an impressionable nine-year-old, I asked my older sibling about reform school. She told me it was a school for bad girls, and run by evil people. It’s like having to stay with a cruel and hated aunt who would beat you senseless for every mistake. By the time you get out, you’d either be a model citizen, or dead, she explained.

Alien (Pic by CMSeter /
Wide-eyed at having my worst fears realised, I vowed then never to get caught misbehaving.

The concept of “reform” being associated with punishment of some sort is not alien — one of the meanings of the word is “to bring from bad to good“, and that’s only looking from the angle of the reformer and not the person on the receiving end.

You only reform something that is bad, and not something that is okay. Reforming an addict, for instance, would involve forcing the person to detox and undergo counselling, among other things. Though it is indeed for the addict’s own good, it may seem like a severe punishment, at least in the beginning. He or she may accuse the person trying to help as being cruel. The adage, you have to be cruel to be kind, is apt in this instance.

Cleaning out the country

The television series, The Cleaner, starring Benjamin Bratt, is a show about an extreme interventionist who takes whatever measures necessary to save a person from his or her addiction. Each week, he and his team of former addicts help clients who, more often than not, have no idea they need reforming in the first place.

In that regard, Umno and the Barisan Nasional (and before that, the Alliance) are very similar to the addicts in the television series. For half a century, they went merely along, feeding their addiction, growing ever more dependent on their money-making pipeline of development contracts. As long as the money supply was uninterrupted, the line of addicts continued to grow, each day requiring higher and higher doses to satisfy their hunger.

Benjamin Bratt (and Benjamin Bratt) in The Cleaner (© A&W Television Networks)

But even in a land as bountiful as Malaysia — not for nothing was Tanah Melayu called the Golden Chersonese — the richness can slowly start to peter out. An addict’s body can only take so much before it takes its toll. And in the case of Malaysia, it happened in 2008.

Twenty-two years of Mahathirism was followed by the false dawn of Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s administration. Greeted with euphoria in the 2004 general election, the BN’s marvellous win proved, really, to be the final attempt of a weather-beaten body to shrug off the twin drugs of systemic corruption and greed. Abdullah indeed, was supposed to be Malaysia’s very own Cleaner, doing what needed to be done to detox the country and sweep away the malaise affecting the nation.

But as I mentioned earlier, you need to be a little cruel to be kind. And Abdullah tried to be many things, but he did not possess the steel needed to carry out the kind of reforms Malaysia needed.

According to Ooi Kee Beng in his latest book, Arrested Reform: The Undoing of Abdullah Badawi, the now former prime minister waited too long to enact badly needed systemic reforms.

The Abdullah years

This is actually the third book in a series of opinion pieces and analyses which started in 2006 chronicling the Abdullah administration. The first book, Era of Transition (ISEAS), tackles the first two years of Abdullah’s term, which began with so much promise and ended with the demise of his wife, Datin Seri Endon Mahmood.

The second book, published last year, is Lost in Transition (ISEAS & SIRD). It compiles the political analyst’s views on Abdullah’s failure to enact reform, and ends with the pivotal Bersih demonstration on 10 Nov 2007.

Arrested Reform (Refsa) compiles Ooi’s opinion and analyses pieces covering a one-year period, from the Hindraf (Hindu Rights Action Force) demonstration on 25 Nov 2007 to December 2008. Check out this video by Al Jazeera:

The mis-steps made by Abdullah in the run-up to the March 2008 general election are picked apart. The aftermath is allowed to linger until a poignant portrait emerges of a man who made all the wrong choices in his last two years in office. He was weak when he should have been strong; and overly strong when he should have chosen a softer line.

Yet, despite all the hounds baying for his blood, Abdullah managed to outmanoeuvre his enemies within Umno and cling on to power for another year. Not even the Tunku managed that, having effectively been sidelined by Tun Abdul Razak after the 13 May 1969 riots.

Deal or no deal?

Ooi, in the articles after 8 March 2008, opines that the election results would result in the remaking of the BN coalition; and that a new deal would have to be struck between the parties. He based this on the fact that several of the key components within the coalition had performed so badly as to have almost lost all support from their respective communities to the opposition parties. Yet, more than a year on, despite some early noises about reform, the Barisan Nasional has on the whole retained not only its shape, but its content too.

The reason for this is simple — without any real reform within Umno, the largest and most important component, there is no point or even will for the smaller component parties to enact or demand change.

Instead of using 8 March as a way to reflect on its flaws, Umno chose instead to bury its head in the sand and pretend that everything would be fine once Datuk Seri Najib Razak took over.

Umno chose to make Abdullah the scapegoat, and the gentleman prime minister could only avoid the chopping block by making desperate deals for the transition of power that pushed back the party elections to March 2009. It was a vain attempt to allow Abdullah the chance to push through much-touted reform bills through Parliament as a way of shoring up his legacy.

But as Arrested Reform‘s 40-odd articles clearly demonstrate, it was all too little, too late.

Book, pepper grinder and coffee cup

Arrested Reform: The Undoing of Abdullah Badawi retails for RM30 (softcover) and can be found at major bookstores or ordered here.

N Shashi Kala just about managed to avoid being sent to reform school. She ended up in Sultan Ibrahim Girls School instead.

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3 Responses to “Fear of reform”

  1. foosan1 says:

    I wonder why Abdullah, after such a positive start, bungled so badly? What happened in the last two years of his administration? Did he have a change of advisors? Was Khairy too much in control? It cannot be that he just lost the plot.

  2. Magan says:

    The ‘Cleaner’ in the television series can succeed as the people being reformed eventually realise the need for reform. Reform within Umno/Barison can only happen if Umno/Barison itself recognise that they need to change and the collective mentality is somehow pushed towards this end. Cleaning has been attempted within Umno but the Cleaners got cleaned out. An example is Zaid Ibrahim.

  3. Miaah says:

    Is being sent to reform school a form of punishment? Then perhaps all the Umno leaders should be sent to one. They won’t learn their lesson otheswise.

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