Where do I stand politically? — Clive Kessler
MAY 11 — These days I am increasingly asked about where I stand politically.
Where? In general? In relation to the politics of Australia, where I am a citizen? And to those of Malaysia, whose political evolution I have been observing, thinking about and analysing professionally for half a century?
In general, I suppose, I am an odd amalgam: a cultural conservative, a social progressive, one with a strong streak of political independence.
In earlier times that rather strange combination would perhaps have made me a so-called “Tory radical.” In these times it has made me, well, me.
In other words, a principled, not an erratic or idiosyncratic, gadfly. An ironic, intellectually motivated challenger of simple political ideas and conventional political attitudes.
What this also means is that where I stand, or more often sit, politically both in Australia and Malaysia is on the sidelines, as a commentator and questioner, not in the centre of the political arena as an actor.
In Australia, I am a member of the Australian Labor Party, a very inactive member.
Perhaps I retain my ALP membership simply in order to give myself the moral and political standing to complain about it when it disappoints me, and these days also to despair of it.
I often say that in Australia, as in many other democratic countries, we have two great political parties. One exists to break our lives, the other to break our hearts.
I am a member of the heart-breakers. One who expresses his membership by voicing his anguish that his heart is so often broken.
My ALP membership, in other words, is a statement of identity, a symbolic declaration, rather than a strategic choice or a matter of seriously pursuing any practical political career or agenda.
After growing up in Australia, I spent 15 years overseas, in Britain, Malaysia and the US.
While I was away the ALP Whitlam government was elected in 1972, and then forced from power in 1975.
It was dismissed in what was, at our national level, a precursor of what occurred in Perak in March 2009.
At least in Perak, the claimed “royal prerogatives” or reserve powers were exercised — rightly or wrongly, depending upon how people see the matter — by royalty, the Sultan.
In Canberra in 1975 those royal powers were invoked and exercised in the Queen’s name by the Governor-General — peremptorily and, some would even say, deceptively — in a way that the Queen herself (or so the evidence of her own actions over the years suggests) would never have done, either in Australia or at home in Britain.
It was, many people felt, a constitutional outrage.
The events that Sir John Kerr set in train by dismissing the Whitlam government poisoned Australian public life for a generation.
Or so many of us hold.
So when I returned from overseas to Australia in 1980, I could do so in good conscience, I felt, only by aligning myself with the ALP, in a statement or gesture of disapproval at the constitutional impropriety that had brought to power the government of Malcolm Fraser.
That same government still held office at the time of my return to Australia.
By default or inertia, I remain a member of the ALP, but on the sidelines of active Australian political life.
In Malaysia too
When people ask me where I stand in Malaysian politics, I similarly reply “very much on the sidelines.”
As a non-citizen, there is — rightly — no other place for me.
But I have been seriously following Malaysian political developments for a long time, half a century. I wrote an essay about Malaysian Merdeka for a high-school history course in 1957.
Because I still think, and write, about Malaysian politics there are people who wonder, and worry, if, in doing so, I am not going beyond an active interest to active involvement and even interference.
In response to my Malaysian Insider column on “Malaysian exceptionalism” (January 27, 2012) one irritated reader suggested exactly that.
Again, after my recent remarks (The Malaysian Insider, April 28) about the Bersih 3.0 events of April 28, a friend challenged me. What was I doing, he asked, “shouting out” — albeit in print, in a written column anyway — some populist slogans?
I had to point out that the words he referred to — the catchcry of “Bersih! Merdeka! Merdeka Bersih!” — were in “inverted commas”.
These were not my words but the clear meaning — one that any competent political anthropologist or analyst of symbolic politics would have placed upon it — of the Bersih call to rally together in Dataran Merdeka and so reclaim a popular stake in the historic events that had occurred there in 1957.
A call to say symbolically that Bersih’s Merdeka — the nation’s independent post-Merdeka political order — must itself be unimpeachably clean, bersih.
Those words were not my own political cry but a summary of the intended if implicit political meaning of the event among those who had organised and then supported it.
Where then do I stand these days on Malaysian politics?
The answer that I will now give will likely lose me many friends, on both sides of Malaysia’s now great, even at times terrifying, political division.
It will please the protagonists on neither side.
My position these days is defined by two main conclusions.
These, alas, are two conclusions whose combined meaning and import are, to say the least, rather depressing.
First, I look at modern post-independence Malaysian political history and political evolution. When I give heed to the import of the “broad sweep” of events, I come to the conclusion that Malaysia as a nation can still be governed only by Umno, or an Umno-led government — which is to say a centrist, a reform-minded, a reforming, and hence also a reformed Umno.
This conclusion, that there is still really no alternative to Umno national political leadership, is perhaps not an easy conclusion to accept.
But it is one that remains, and will remain, persuasive to me so long as the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition remains an improbable, inchoate, and largely opportunistic or pragmatic combination of mutually incompatible elements.
What, if elected, would its policies be? How would they be implemented? Who would hold its key Cabinet portfolios and exercise those responsibilities?
Above all, how would the different coalition partner-parties with their own distinct histories and outlooks consent to and manage these arrangements?
How, in many substantive areas of government, would these parties live with a minister and policies that might be uncongenial to them, notably in an area of policy responsibilities that was close to the component party’s own distinctive agenda and clear, long-standing concerns and even defining identity?
In other words, the Pakatan formula is an excellent device to avoid splitting opposition votes in a “first-past-the-post” electoral system.
But it is largely that.
It is an electoral device or stratagem, not a policy framework or a governing formula.
So long as that remains the case, the Umno-led Alliance and then BN governing coalition — with all its evident problems — seems still to be the only historically proven formula that has yet managed to achieve any “grip.” It still seems, even in its currently deformed and deteriorating condition, “the only game in town.”
“With all its evident problems.” That is the nub of the matter.
For “the BN way” to be and remain viable, the ruling coalition must be led by an Umno that is — or seriously wishes soon to be, and is committed to taking the necessary steps towards decisively becoming — a genuine “centrist” party.
A party, above all, that is to say, of inter-ethnic conciliation and inter-communal reconciliation.
A party, in other words, that is seriously committed to overcoming the very communalism — the ethnic divisions and antagonisms, the deep fears and pervasive political resentments, the historically “rationalised” mistrust — upon which the entire Alliance and then BN structure has always, from the outset, been built.
What are the chances of Umno now facing up to this reality, addressing this challenge. Of taking the lead in overcoming its own past?
Here we come to the second of the two jointly depressing conclusions. If the country’s broader history suggests that Malaysia can still (so far at least) only be ruled by a reforming and reformed Umno, a similar consideration of Umno’s own history and of how it has become what it is today unfortunately suggests that Umno is totally incapable of reforming itself.
Worse, its chances of ever doing so seem ever diminishing.
The accumulating, trans-generational consequences of BN’s communally-based politics become ever more burdensome to those who are excluded.
Meanwhile, Umno itself becomes ever more “locked into”, dependent upon and obsessed with the benefits that come its way (and into the reach of its many functionaries) from the long dominant BN device and framework.
As these two dynamics intensify, the overall national outlook becomes ever bleaker.
And Umno, so it seems, becomes ever more incapable of reorienting and reforming itself.
So the conclusion is a forlorn one.
On the one hand, the country (or so the historical evidence so far suggests) can only be ruled, and saved from misfortune, by Umno, by an Umno-led coalition.
On the other hand, Umno (or so its own history compellingly suggests) cannot save, cannot reform, cannot heal itself.
If Umno cannot manage its own fate and prudently secure its own future, how can it possibly manage the country’s?
This is a depressing dilemma, a grim conclusion of “no way forward.”
So just as I despair of the ALP and of Australian politics generally, I despair too of Umno and Malaysian politics.
I must be getting old …
But at least I am “even-handed” in my political judgment.
No way out?
Must things be so bleak? Is there no basis at all for hope? No ray of hopeful light?
Well, yes, actually there is.
Or might be.
Given the above “scenario” and impasse, what might one hope for? Where might one imagine some possibility of relief.
There is one way, one direction to look.
If this overall political configuration is what now holds, might there not perhaps be some resources for transformation within it, within the governing Umno “power bloc”?
Let us, just as a pure hypothetical daydream, imagine the following.
Let us imagine that there were two key political ministers, the prime minister and the minister for home affairs, who were “men of the world”, intelligent men, well-educated cosmopolitans, not kampung political “strongmen” and “ground-level operatives” who had climbed up the ladder to state and then national office.
Imagine too, that these two men were not only, as individuals, men of some generous experience of the world, of broadened vision and understanding.
Try to imagine that these two men also had another enormous advantage: the great advantage of birth and notable political “lineage” or family origins.
Imagine that these two men enjoyed not just the credibility of their own personal standing and achievements but also the inherited credibility and acquired prestige of a notable family history.
Imagine, then, that these two men, these two senior and politically most central ministers, were themselves the sons of great, highly regarded, widely admired and respected men, conspicuously principled and reforming national leaders, even perhaps of prime ministers.
Then, we might hope, these two crucially placed ministers might have the personal standing and vision and also the accumulated and inherited political prestige and potential authority to move Umno forward as it urgently needs to be moved.
Not just forward, but towards the centre.
Such men — working together from their key strategic positions and drawing on their great strengths of character and family standing — might summon up the prestige and authority to lead Umno towards necessary reform.
To transform Umno by reforming it: by turning it into a reform-minded, reforming and reformed political machine capable of leading the Malaysian nation forward by “ruling from the centre.”
What a wonderful vision, what a wonderful hypothetical scenario!
What? You mean that that favourable set of circumstances is already “in place”, is already in existence?
Perhaps that is so.
I had forgotten.
So if those men are in that position and already have that possibility, why don’t they, why won’t they, act in that way?
That puzzles me.
But then, politics is a strange business.
And I don’t know politics from the inside, from the centre of the arena.
I just wonder about politics, wherever I may find myself, from the sidelines.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.