We have the right to celebrate May 9. It is after all the first time in Malaysian history change at the very top happened. For years we were only chipping at the edge. Progress felt irrelevant. But now, here it is. Change.
Yet, not all or even most of the changes Malaysia needs will be instituted quickly. It will take time and work for these changes to happen. There will be residual resistance to change and perhaps using the adjective residual understates the problem at hand. After more than six decades of Perikatan/Barisan Nasional in power – seven decades if you go all the way to the first Malayan general election in 1955 – there is a kind of deep state the new Pakatan Harapan government will need to win over and even fight.
There will be disappointments, and Pakatan supporters and sympathizers will accuse the new government of betrayal and hypocrisy.
But before any of us levels those accusations, we must understand that the government will have to pick their battles. Some will be won. Some will be lost. Pakatan and their supporters will need to be smart in which battles they want to win.
More importantly, before throwing those accusations in the future, we need to understand the long arc of history all of us have to deal with. Malaysia’s deep multifaceted history – with dimensions of race, religion, Peninsula-Borneo, federal-states, urban-rural, national origins, class, gender, etc – is the proper context to judge the new government in the next few years. No action could be judged in isolation.
And the future is just as important as the past in understanding this new Malaysia and the new government.
Our demography and culture are changing at glacial pace. It is slow but the inertia is massive: our society is set to become less diverse in a meaningful way. By 2050 the Bumiputras will form 70% of total population from about 60% in 2014. So would be the Muslims. The Malay population share will rise to 60% from 50% in the same period.
At the same time, we will be an aged society by 2050, from our low median age of 28-29 years old and low dependency ratio.
I fear the two demographic shifts could make our society less open and less progressive in our values. It is not the Malays and the Muslims per se that I fear. It is the increasingly monolithic nature of our society, and hence, the possible intolerance of differences. I fear that future where the Malaysian mind would narrow to a point that leaving is the only reasonable option for too many people.
This is the reason why the 2018 election was the last chance to change in time. The trends are pushing against us, especially against the liberals. It is not simply an election rhetoric. It is a real long-term concern about the fate of Malaysia. This is why I feel spoiling your votes or not voting is unwise: the advocates of the tactics (who wanted some kind of change) are ignorant of history and blind to demographic changes.
It was also the last chance to change because substantive changes that Malaysia needs could not be made by the same side that benefited from the closing of the Malaysian mind. Najib Razak tried it in 2009-2013 and he failed. All his attempts were in the end reduced to mere silo economic targets that stood alone outside of multifaceted Malaysian contexts, making them utterly dissatisfying as a vision. So dissatisfying that we had to go back to the 1990s to move forward.
And substantive change will need more support from Malaysians. While the Pakatan victory is the first step, we have to remember Pakatan won only plurality in popular votes, not majority. Lasting change would require Pakatan to get more Malaysians on board.