THE rush is to think about impact on U.S.-Malaysia relations, but the more important thing is to reflect on relevance to Malaysia of what President Biden has to deal with in America.
Deep and bitter division in his country leading to assault on U.S. democracy led Biden to concentrate on American unity in his passionate and moving inaugural address last week. He rose above the fray and addressed his nation as a statesman seeking to bring his country together again to find its inner strength for the greater good.
In Malaysia, starting with Tun Dr. Mahathir from 1981, there has not been a statesman among Malaysian political leaders who has offered and worked towards national unity with honesty and care evident in Biden’s “liberating” ascendancy after almost half a decade of public service.
The Tunku, Malaysia’s founding statesman, brought the races together to achieve independence, but was felled by those in Umno who felt he did not bring the Malays enough economic benefit. From then on, in 1969, the “ultras” had to be placated by the institutionalization of a policy, the NEP, to eradicate poverty (irrespective of race, so very conveniently forgotten by all subsequent leaders), and to erase the identification of race with economic function.
Tun Razak, and his deputy Tun Dr. Ismail, the last two statesmen this country has had in power, conceived the audacious social engineering policy, which was intended to last for 20 years until 1990, to achieve national unity. Tun Hussein Onn, Prime Minister on the hoof after Tun Razak’s untimely death in 1976, was an honorable leader who did not have the time to make an imprint on the country because of his health and short tenure.
If he had continued longer, corruption surely would not have become rampant as it has today. When Tun Hussein resigned in July 1981, it marked a watershed, between Malaysian leaders of the past who were moved by the idea of nationhood and unity and honorable service, and those driven primarily by holding power through the politics of race and religion.
They used the NEP by prolonging it, emasculating it, and exploiting it for narrow Malay sectional interests, dosed with religious inroads to determine conduct and circumscribe discussion already throttled by strict laws.
There were three major moments since 1981 which gave hope but turned out to be a false dawn in Malaysian political history. Malaysia’s Vision 2020 (1990-2020) was informed by pretty words which gave great hope without honest political commitment, except in wanting the country to be fully developed economically.
The social and political side of being a fully developed nation “in all aspects of life”, was never a serious objective despite uplifting references to terms like “liberal” (now a word used to condemn everyone and everything not liked) and “Bangsa Malaysia” (again now a dirty word, a no go DAP threat).
When it was introduced with the Sixth Malaysia Plan in 1991, it was all so exciting, complete with the 7 per cent economic growth for the next 30 years to achieve developed nation status. I knew intimately all those involved in minting the wonderful words, and they may even have believed in them, but after operation lalang in 1987 and the emasculation of the judiciary in 1988, it was hard not to look at it as just another platform to secure a long reign, not a statesman’s honest target of achieving national unity.
Many events, including major economic and political ones in 1998, too involved to get into here, had already disfigured Vision 2020 before it ended largely forgotten last year.
Malaysia’s New Economic Model (NEM), which then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib unveiled in 2010, was the second moment of hope. A high income, inclusive and sustainable Malaysia, which will reduce the disparity between the wealthiest and poorest, to replace the NEP that had continued beyond its sell-by date, which Najib had criticized for its skewered implementation, was now on offer. It crashed against the hard rocks of Umno-Malay opposition and died with the 1MDB scandal.
This was a tragedy as Najib had the makings of someone who could have led Malaysia forward, if not to the ideal state of national unity, at least away from narrow sectarian thinking. Like his father, he was an able administrator, intelligent and quick to see economic benefit. Perhaps too quick for his own good, but a loss to Malaysia nevertheless of an opportunity to move ahead with a leader who has a vision and can work towards it.
Then, of course, there was May 2018. The biggest moment of all for review, reform and reset for a multi-racial and united Malaysia. Pakatan Harapan (PH) was the best and briefest hope that Malaysia ever had. I never saw or heard non-Malays sing the national anthem with such gusto as after PH came to power. Their country included them! Like everybody else who believed it was going to be the dawn of a new Malaysia they were to be betrayed.
Tun Dr. Mahathir could not rise above the politics of getting rid of Najib, which moved him to join the coalition in the first place, and obsession with making sure Datuk Seri Anwar did not succeed him, which finally caused the PH government to fall apart less than two years after it came to power. Most importantly the politics of race became the leitmotif of conduct which drove a wedge in the coalition with Mahathir ultimately falling on his sword as there were others now who knew better how to use race to cause his downfall.
Mahathir could not become, as so many had hoped despite his past, a statesman to lead the country towards unity and sustainable development, words I am taking from Vision 2020 in 1991. He is the best politician the country has ever had. But, alas, not a statesman Malaysia needed, and now still needs.
So when I am asked by the media to comment on how President Biden would affect U.S.-Malaysia relations, the thought that comes to me first is how much we need a leader like him to put my country together again. Someone who can rise above the politics of division.
Unfortunately there is not anyone in Malaysian politics today. We need first to find common ground from which a new politics not based on race can emerge and, with it, new leaders. How to achieve it should be the stuff of politics, rather than how to stay in power, how to get into power, and how to use the easiest and often basest appeals to stay in or get to power.
And in all this time a political plutocracy has formed which suspects different views, considers many of them as a threat, and rules by the low common denominator, on the foundation of the system and on the details of policy, that only yes-men can provide.
When I saw the attack on the Capitol, the assault on American democracy which Biden seeks to restore and reinvigorate, I also wonder who we have to restore and strengthen the institutions of democratic government in our country. If both the objective of unity and the constitutional governance are not the concern of Malaysian political leaders today, we are in for a dark and retarded period in national history, already blighted by the heavy cost of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Of course U.S.-Malaysia relations are not unimportant, although less important to America than it is to Malaysia. Saying this will upset people who have an interest in presuming how important Malaysia is, whether ambassadors assigned to the task or those whose task it is to elevate those relations.
This is another problem in Malaysia. Not recognizing where we are, not admitting to reality. Always ready to blame the messenger and not look at the news he brings.
We become mediocre that way. What happens to U.S.-Malaysia relations now depends most of all on what we make of it, what we want from it, how we position ourselves to identify and engage and develop those relations. Biden will be engrossed within trying to unite his country once again, although he cannot avoid giving attention to global issues.
Malaysia has to identify which of the global issues are in Malaysian interest and engage the Americans actively in the bilateral relationship as well as in multilateral forums. We must bring activity and quality to the table.
For example if the issue of climate change and sustainable development is of common concern, we should determine exactly how we would like to work with the U.S. on it. Whether at international or regional policy level, whether in economic investment and business or technology activities, which sectors, public healthcare, human capital development, clean energy and so on. We should prioritise and go for it with specifics. We cannot be jejune and driven just by issues which are the flavour of the month.
On the issue of trade, going bilateral is insufficient, as we operate in a multilateral context. That multilateral context is not served just by making generalized statements of belief in a rules-based free trade system. We have to work at it. Do we work in Asean to provide leadership to take a common stand in RCEP, on FTAs, in international forums?
Asean has been dismal at this. It is, for instance, represented at G-20 meetings: Indonesia in its own right, Singapore as leader of the Global Governance Group, and the Asean chair as observer ever since the London Summit in 2009. Have they ever got together to present a common front on the most pressing issues of trade? Would Malaysia want to get this going in Asean, provide leadership in Asean, or are we preoccupied with domestic politics?
Similarly, on the more difficult issue of the South China Sea, we cannot duck having clarity by simply saying we do not want to have to choose between China and the U.S. Biden is likely to reiterate the American position on freedom of navigation and the “global commons”, a stand made clear by the Obama administration since 2010. Does Malaysia support this? Do we stand by the principle that international law must be observed to provide security for smaller states.
Further, we cannot countenance Chinese incursions into our exclusive economic zone, and not prevaricate, as we have done in the past, by saying it is no big deal for us that China does so.
We have to make the point about principles we uphold and actions we do not accept. Singapore, and this is a point which galls many in Malaysia, has been able to be clear on its position, sometimes at cost, from which it has been able to recover through adroit diplomacy.
Even so, there are diametrically opposed views in Singapore on whether Singapore should take a stand. But they are discussed vigorously and resolved in dynamic fashion and then determined policy is executed effectively, with nobody considered negative for having a different view.
In Malaysia there is fear and disdain, if not worse, for those who have a different view. This way policy decisions and conduct do not pass muster.
The basis of our nationhood is severely fractured. Unless this is addressed we will continue to operate as a maimed country. For one, the conduct of foreign policy will be sub-optimal. So, if you ask me how U.S.-Malaysia relations will be affected by President Biden, my answer is, by his example, we should be thinking Malaysia, reflect more deeply than superficial enumeration of this and that.
The writer is former NST group editor and Visiting Senior Fellow and Member of the Advisory Board LSE IDEAS (Centre for International Affairs, Strategy and Diplomacy)