by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail 11 July 2015
As Ramadhan comes to a close, predictions about what will happen to our country after Raya have been accelerating both in terms of volume and the certainty with which people articulate them. Commentators profess to input carefully considered assumptions and extrapolate a timeline of events, though in reality these are Chinese whispers laden with conspiracy and bias: few armchair analysts are honest enough to keep their personal preferences entirely hidden.
An implausible number of people claim to have “inside knowledge” to augment the legitimacy of their version – sadly, this “inside knowledge” is often contradicted by another’s “inside knowledge”. There are so many “truths” out there, to the glee of the leadership: the longer opposing forces are in disarray, the greater the opportunities to delay and mitigate the damage. Equally, within the opposing forces some enjoy the fact that whatever they hurl will be lapped up by discontented citizens oblivious or inured to the fact that these accusations stem from personal, rather than national, interests.
The most visible evidence might belie contradictory intentions, while leaked documents or images are deemed by loyalists to be forged or photoshopped. We might find it incredulous that anyone could believe that these issues are concocted by foreigners to destabilise and take control of our country; but there are those who find it equally incredulous that we are too stupid to see that the Jews really are taking over. In the meantime, the coverage of the international and local press (let alone social media) suggests a schizophrenia far exceeding whatever can be imagined by the satirical card game Politiko or a hypothetical Malaysian House of Cards.
I do not have any special inside knowledge about the 1MDB saga, the deals made with local or foreign parties to service the debt, or the backroom negotiations between the small coterie of people whose decisions will actually determine the immediate fate of the country.
What I do know is that confidence in our national institutions is near zero, when every action by authority can produce diametrically opposed responses, like the raid on 1MDB’s offices on Wednesday: a seizing of documents in the interests of justice, versus an erasure of evidence.
But let us not mistake the existence of diverse interpretations as the existence of equal legitimacy in them. It might be simple enough to say “there is no smoke without fire”, but the Prime Minister’s failure to unequivocally declare that billions of ringgit did not go into his personal accounts is profoundly disturbing. Even if he is cleared by every institution charged to uphold the law, his office’s trust deficit is intractable, and the divisiveness is incurable. Visit the official Facebook page and you will see the extent to which the once noble office of Prime Minister has been devalued: it will take a heroic figure to restore its previous dignity. The only silver lining is that there are no consequences to critical feedback: freedom of expression has been bestowed by default since there are too many people to chase.
Our nation is in dire need of national healing: a restoration of our institutions based on a shared understanding of our history, our constitution and the intentions of our founding fathers. I thought this Prime Minister could deliver that when he said “the days of government knows best are over”, when he promised economic liberalisation and committed to repeal the Sedition Act. But whatever progress he has made has been utterly overshadowed by this crisis which has subverted our institutions. While public confidence was already ebbing in the police, the Attorney General’s Chambers, the decision-makers at taxpayer-funded entities, the political parties and Parliament, now questions are even being asked about Bank Negara.
Still, this institutional degradation is secondary in the minds of millions of families facing increased living costs courtesy of GST, petrol costs moving contrary to global prices, and who are concerned about the value of their shares in Felda Global Ventures and the safety of their savings in Tabung Haji. For thousands of income-taxpaying families, dreams to send their children for an overseas education have been dashed by the dwindling state of the ringgit. And all this before Grexit and a possible Chinese stock market crash.
What can we do after Raya, when “inside knowledge” claims more offerings will be made to the ra’ayat? Much depends on the nature of the offerings and the courage and convictions of those making them, but the main thrust for civil society must be to maximise the chances of transformative leadership. It might be true that some people will be enriched and protected from prosecution at the end: sadly, this may be a necessary price to pay for an opportunity at national healing.
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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS