Socioeconomic changes will foster a more democratic, accountable, and representative political system. They have been doing this since the 1970s.
In previous decades, modernization and globalization were two key concerns. Today, technological change, most notably the rise of new media and Malaysia’s vibrant online society, may augur well for political liberalization.
Indeed, since 2007, political developments in Malaysia have suggested that political liberalization may be on the horizon. Empowered through technology, ordinary Malaysians along with the country’s opposition have together undermined the incumbent BN regime’s organizational and informational advantages, which over time may render the political status quo unsustainable.
Any predictions of political change as a result of the rise of Bersih series are premature. We can read the script as below whenever Bersih occur (just fill in the blanks).
On ________ (month, day, year) a peaceful ________ (choose one: protest /march / demonstration / rally) by ________ (organization or group) representing ________ (aggrieved community) in Kuala Lumpur turned violent when ________ (state security apparatus) intervened. Reports indicated that at least ________ (number) individuals were detained under the ________ (choose all that apply: ISA / OSA / Sedition Act / Societies Act / PPPA / UUCA). Unofficial eyewitness accounts also report that ________ (number) were ________ (choose all that apply: tear gassed / hosed / beaten). Minister of ________ (choose one:Home Affairs / Internal Security) ________ (name) credited ________ (state security apparatus) with acting swiftly and evenhandedly. Prime Minister ________ (name) accused those arrested of ________ (choose all that apply: threatening national security / harming the economy / unlawfully organizing / inflaming ethnic tensions / being exploited by foreigners). He also announced further measures meant to ________ (choose all that apply: ensure political stability / restore order / calm ethnic tensions), and called upon all Malaysians to ________ (platitude).
There is good reason why such a script could so easily be compiled into a news item on the events surrounding any significant political upheaval since Malaysian independence in 1957.
Despite truly dramatic changes in Malaysian society—the consequences of modernization, globalization, and technological development—the logic of political conflict in Malaysia has remained nearly identical from 1957 until today , and as a consequence the legal and rhetorical tools employed by the incumbent BN regime remain the same as well.
Viewed in historical perspective, the basic cleavage structure of Malaysian politics (a Malay/non-Malay cleavage overlaid by a class cleavage) looks strikingly similar to the cleavage structure at independence.
Malaysia’s cleavage structure congealed amidst the political contestation preceding independence. Since then, the broader socioeconomic context sustaining this cleavage structure has changed, but without upsetting this essential foundation for Malaysian political conflict.
The identity of the “players” of Malaysian politics has changed over time, and that the social, economic, and global political contexts surrounding Malaysian politics have changed in important ways that should not be ignored.
But until either a particular individual or event, or a set of social or technological changes, can unsettle the fundamental logic of Malaysian politics, political change will be superficial, any overtures toward political liberalization will not be genuine, and disappointing crackdowns on peaceful oppositions will continue.
Individual elites and important opposition groups may favor political liberalization, but Malaysia’s political order will resist because incumbents do not want to reform the policies and institutions that sustain it.
The rise of Malaysia’s new media as having political consequences that are similar to those generated in previous decades by modernization and globalization. New media help to create new coalitions, place new challenges on the incumbent regime, and introduce new tactics for the political opposition, but they do not themselves cause political liberalization.
Political change will most likely occur only after Malaysia’s cleavage structure fractures. Socioeconomic change has shaped the ethnic and class cleavages that drive Malaysian politics, and in response, Malaysia’s political order has rearticulated these cleavages in ways that protect the existing political order.