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Yes, Tun Mahathir – we can fault the BN concept and governance September 21, 2008

Posted by Sverre in : Malaysia, World politics , trackback

In this post on his blog chedet.com, former Malaysian Prime Minister, Tun Mahathir Mohamad, of whom I have previously written quite a bit asserts his claims that the recent election losses by the Barisan Nasional coalition have been caused by loss of confidence in the BN leadership rather than because of genuine support for the opposition.

His analysis is for the most part sound. It makes sense that people would vote for a genuine opponent rather than a utopian third party candidate if what they wanted was to punish the BN. I believe he is right that at least a good portion of the opposition votes were the result of BN disillusionment. I do however think he underestimates the genuine support in Malaysia for reform, and most importantly I think he is mistaken with regard to his final point:

14. We cannot fault the BN concept and governance. We have to look elsewhere for the loss of confidence in the party.

For reasons I have discussed at much more length earlier, there are several things that make me believe that the very UMNO (and BN) system is unsustainable in the long run:

1. The system of patronage is dependent on prosperity continually increasing for the majority of the people. As the system presupposes that a class gets special privileges, there must be enough wealth to go around to make sure the remaining population also see things continually improving. Every fluctuation in the economy thus becomes a serious threat. If we are heading for another major recession, things could get ugly.

2. The effectiveness of media censorship is decreasing drastically. The internet has all but killed this. For example in the case of Malaysia Today, not only did the message still get out, but the actual censorship itself created much negative attention for the current leadership. The reason for this ineffectiveness is the massive amount of channels for alternative news now available. The difference is striking from how it was in the country when I lived there in ’98, and my friends in Europe were better informed than I was in Malaysia about certain currents event the government wanted to keep hushed up.

3. Economic globalization also excerts pressure on the Malaysian system. Even through the Malaysian economy has proved much more resilient to change than many less successful nations, and has shown that a third way is indeed possible, I think this will become harder and harder. The “Japanese model” of protectionism may still be a viable option, but if one for example wishes to attract internet-based industry, it will be hard to continue to try and censor media. It seems reasonable to expect that such pressures will continue to emerge.

4. A viable option to the current regime has been allowed to grow in credibility. For decades there was no realistic alternative to BN rule. The opposition was no more than a nuisance, and very few people actually believed in it. Now the opposition has been able build a base – not yet to rival the BN, but real enough that it migh potentially do so in the future.

5. To some extent none of these things are new, and the BN regime has been able to live with all these things before. Why should it not continue to do so? The main reason, I believe, lies at the very heart of autocracy: It is greatly dependent on its leader. An autocratic regime must necessarily lean for a great part on the authority of its leader. When temporary failures of the system (as are bound to appear from time to time) appear, the leader must be able to lend his authority to gloss things over until the problem can be fixed. For the regime to be able to prevail in the long run, it therefore needs to have a continuous string of great leaders. And I believe the job is getting tougher and tougher as much of the world are pushing stronger for liberalism.

6. Abdullah Badawi is no Mahathir Mohamad. I may never have liked Mahathir and his rule, but no one can claim he wasn’t successful for decades. All the way up til ’98 he managed to steer the country with a firm hand, beating down crisis after crisis and keeping the rickety structure of the system standing. I see little of that strength in Mohamad Badawi. He has at several times appeared as an insecure and desperate man trying to copy the policies of Mahathir with no where near his skill. He also fails to be innovative and adapt to changing realitites the way Mahathir did. A perfect example is how Mohamad Badawi tries to censor Malaysia Today, while an 83-year-old Mahathir Mohamad sees which way the wind is blowing and has become an active Facebook member.

To sum things up: Mahathir is right about the fact that a weaker leadership is threatening to break the BN system apart. I do, however believe that it is a series of inherent weaknesses in the system that allows it to do so. The benefit of a liberal democracy is that the system is able to work independent of failing leaders. The essentially autocratic Malaysian regime will need to reform itself into a more robust form if it isn’t to come crashing down.

…then again I might not mind all that much if it were to happen.

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