EVEN as the Health Ministry assures Malaysians that the 1Care healthcare reform plan is not yet finalised, its minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai responds defensively to critics. Even as the Election Commission (EC) agrees to use indelible ink and to relax postal voting restrictions, its chairperson wants to forbid non-taxpaying overseas Malaysians from voting. Even as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak promises to relax the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA), he wants to appeal against the court decision that declared the Act unconstitutional.
Even before the Malaysian state’s crackdown of the 9 July 2011 Bersih 2.0 rally, the state has been struggling with itself. In Malaysia’s case, there seems to be a lack of certainty now on what the state needs to do or will do next to assert itself. Push for democratic reforms, strengthen authoritarian tendencies, or do a bit of both?
Beyond Khairy and Rafizi
On one hand, caving in to the demands of the opposition or civil society undermines state power. As an extreme example, the former Sudan’s agreement to hold a popular referendum resulted in South Sudan’s independence. Nevertheless, brute authoritarianism may also be untenable in terms of a state’s viability.
The 29 Jan 2012 United Kingdom and Eire Council of Malaysian Students (Ukec) London conference provides a good case study about why continued and unbridled authoritarianism may no longer work.
Perhaps the most-talked about segment of this year’s Ukec Projek Amanat Negara (PAN) event was the US presidential-style debate between Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin and Parti Keadilan Rakyat director of strategy Rafizi Ramli.
I do not need to elaborate on the intelligent, civil, and mature nature of this debate. Columnists Karim Raslan, and Mariam Mokhtar from Malaysiakini, and New Straits Times correspondent Zaharah Othman have already praised it. Also, the YouTube video of the debate has already attracted more than 71,000 views.
The easy thing to do is to yell excitedly: “The youth are the future!” The opposite, cynical reaction is just as effortless: “Easy to do it in London. Wait till some of them come back and get slapped by The System.” Much more helpful, though, would be a sober analysis of facts and trends.
What do the facts say?
The facts are:
Ukec’s PAN is now an institutionalised programme. “Institutionalised” does not mean it is state-led or partisan. It just means it has its own organisational structure, resources and momentum, and is now an annual event. PAN 2012, as in previous years, was student-led, from the conceptualisation of panels to the event’s logistics.
Although it might not be a sign of sustained growth, attendance this year was around 400 Malaysian students, according to the organisers. Last year, it was fewer than 200. Incidentally, the Ukec’s YouTube videos of interviews with its 2011 PAN speakers received fewer than 2,000 views combined, compared to this year’s single Khairy-Rafizi video. This year’s viewership, however, might be an anomaly given the star power involved.
Ukec invites a wide range of Malaysian public figures to speak at its events, from Barisan Nasional to Pakatan Rakyat leaders to journalists, social activists, academics and corporate leaders. Both The Nut Graph editor Jacqueline Ann Surin and I have been panellists at the PAN conference.
In a nutshell, what we have is a student-led movement that facilitates a concentrated yet diverse exchange of ideas among Malaysians. This exchange happens at multiple levels. It happens among Malaysian students in the UK and Ireland, between students and senior public figures from “back home”, and between those physically present at the event and everyone else they share the same social space with. This social space includes e-mail discussion lists, Facebook friendships, Twitter conversations, blogs, and reports in the traditional and new media.
This in itself would not be significant. It becomes significant, however, when these shared discussions are placed in the context of the political climate on Malaysian soil. For instance, when PAS’s Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad defends Sisters in Islam co-founder Zainah Anwar’s right to her interpretation of Islam, the significance is not lost on the 400-odd students in London. Especially when, via shared social spaces, they are aware of how politicised any discourse on Islam is “back home”. By extension, those “back home” now have access to these faraway discussions via shared social spaces, and this indirectly challenges the status quo’s chokehold on Islamic discourse.
It is important not to overstate the case, though. When the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships fell in early 2011, some commentators were quick to attribute this to the role played by social media. Other commentators denied that social media have any power to topple dictatorships. The truth, as it so often happens, is more nuanced. While social media platforms are no more tangible tools or weapons as are “states”, they have considerable disruptive and transformative power.
For example, look at how the Health Ministry is now at pains to explain 1Care in part because of vociferous online debates about it. Look at how despite continued demonisation by the traditional media, Bersih 2.0 managed to organise successfully in part through the strength of its social media networks. Look at how the EC has since been compelled to consider and make changes. Even the Najib administration has since been forced to the negotiating table, on issues from repealing the Internal Security Act to UUCA reform.
Of course, reality is messier than a single news commentary can account for. These negotiations between the state and citizens are still fraught with uncertainty and a degree of mutual hostility. The outcomes are far from predictable. Also, while it is neither undifferentiated nor homogenous, the Malaysian state still has huge coercive powers at its disposal. We have also not adequately considered the disruptive role and potential of the ruling party’s own cybertroopers.
Nonetheless, the list of citizen initiatives in new, shared, Malaysian social spaces provides an overall picture that is vibrant and hopeful. From anti-Lynas protests to Bersih 2.0 to LoyarBurok to Ukec, a new and civil Malaysia continues being defined from the bottom-up despite the state’s coercive efforts to retain its top-down definition of “Malaysia”. Of course the state could, like Egypt before Hosni Mubarak’s resignation and Iran circa 2009, simply shut down these social spaces. And if it did, citizens may be suddenly disadvantaged.
And yet, the truth is, social change happened long before the internet became a tool for sharing ideas and resistance. And sustained human resistance, as we know from history, is neither futile nor fruitless for long no matter the measures that the state may take.
Shanon Shah is a PhD candidate at King’s College London.