The following article speculates as to whether the rise of the opposition in Malaysia should lead to a more progressive economic policy reform using participatory Latin American models rather than the current capitalist one. - Editor
Tuesday, 25 March 2008
Following the stunning resurgence of the opposition alignment at the recent Malaysian general election and with a global recession looming, John Hilley says there is a need for a radical set of policy debates within the broad opposition to look into how economic policy can be made to serve people rather than capitalists. And, more critically, how to challenge the dominant agencies of capitalism which set the terms of economic and social policy.
Following the stunning resurgence of the opposition alignment at the recent Malaysian general election comes the now more sobering business of how it prepares for the next decisive challenge: unseating the BN and taking the country in a, hopefully, more progressive direction.
The words "sobering business" call to mind the post-revelry 'Monday morning' problems any proto-progressive government has in keeping the barons of industry and finance reassured while trying to launch a model of socio-economic 'development' that puts people, rather than market-makers, first.
The standard 'answer' to this dilemma is usually some variation on the liberal market; a social democratic view of markets as the driving force for inward investment, increased growth, international competitiveness and 'derived social benefits'. It may even come with rejectionist caveats on extreme neoliberalism.
But, does this really constitute a decisive alternative? Even with a relative re-emphasis on the role of SMIs and domestic, rather than international, capital, does this takes us, in any qualitative sense, beyond the 'business as usual' format?
Anwar Ibrahim deserves credit - much credit - for his decisive part in pulling this coalition together. A not inconsiderable feat when we take account of past opposition enmities and, of course, the BN network's ready ability to encourage and exploit them.
There is, of course, Anwar's culpable UMNO/BN past. Yet, though part of a government which deployed the ISA and other instruments of state oppression, we must accept the possibility of one's political development, even enlightenment, particularly if that comes with some measure of humble acknowledgement and atonement. A key test here has been whether Anwar has sought re-entry to the UMNO fold. That hasn't happened. Nor does it now seem likely, even if he is courting elements of the BN to 'change sides'.
Chandra Muzaffar's pre-election attack on Anwar said more about his own misplaced politics and failure to unite behind the people than about Anwar's apparent unsuitability for office. A 'veteran' such as Chandra would certainly have understood the ways in which his denunciation of Anwar days before the polls would have been read - and, again, gleefully exploited by the BN and its media cohorts.
Yet, this all rather obfuscates the more structural issues at stake here. Beyond the personality politics, the more challenging question is whether Malaysia can pursue a model of development, even on a transitional basis, not slavishly based on market-driven policies.
In this regard, Anwar has:
"pledged to defend and promote [a] free-market economy, foreign investment and continue the development process. But he emphasised that progress and wealth will now benefit the poor of all races, not the rich and ruling elite. "We are confident that under our leadership and working closely with our partners (in the opposition) we will begin to implement policies to ensure a stronger and more vibrant economy in Malaysia," he said."
We will ensure that investor confidence remains strong during the transition period and also to identify areas of concern that our new governments (state governments) will address in enhancing and improving their operations and performance in Malaysia," he said." Prudent words. But, does this 'balance', in practice, weigh towards market interests or people interests? Again, we hear the stock - or, perhaps, stock market - answer: it benefits both. It's a seemingly solid argument for financial and economic stability - a gathering concern given the prospect of a US banking crisis and global financial meltdown - coupled with the promise of sound investment, new jobs and economic rewards for all.
Yet, haven't we been here before? If Malaysia, as elsewhere, feels the knock-on effects of the global credit crunch and looming recession, which agencies will be calling the 'remedial' shots? Most likely, the Wall Street/IMF elite. As usual. Which begs the question: how differently would a non-BN administration handle such a crisis? Indeed, what kind of alternative model to the 'Washington consensus' might any new government pursue in an effort to offset that dependency?
Anwar's own US-sided associations and past leanings towards the 'consensus' are well documented. Again, this, in itself, does not invalidate Anwar as a key figure in the politics of reform. But it does signal the need for a radical set of policy debates within the broad opposition as to how this 'balance' can be made to serve people rather than capitalists. And, more critically, how to challenge those dominant agencies of capitalism which set the terms of economic and social policy. This is an issue which reaches well beyond Anwar and the politics of leadership. It's a central question for the whole movement over whether, and how, it seeks a more imaginative agenda.
It's a question, for example, in Penang where people have demonstrated their rejection of free-market development projects like the Penang Global City Centre (PGCC).
It's a question in Perak, one of the new non-BN ruled states, as in how PAS and its parliamentary partners can work together - hopefully eschewing racial politics - in forging domestic policies which are people friendly rather than market friendly.
In short, it's a question of cultivating a real, serious alternative to prevailing market hegemony.
With five states now under opposition control, there's never been a more opportune time to develop such strategies at the localised level. Meaningful change doesn't happen overnight. It has to be worked through, in practical, demonstrative ways and seen to be effective by those who stand to benefit: the people. Communal politics, socially-led policies and participatory democracy initiated at the devolved level can all serve to build a new progressive politics at the national level. A bottom-up model motivated by social need rather than the top-down 'imperatives' demanded by political and market elites.
Lessons from the barrios?
Malaysia may not be about to embark on a Venezuelan-style model of Bolivarian, community-driven reform. Yet, why should Malaysians be held hostage to the same old dictat of 'market delivery'? Why shouldn't they desire and pursue qualitative freedoms that don't depend on market efficiencies and ruthless competitiveness?
Human rights don't only come at the ballot box. Health, social security, cultural fulfilment - these are also human rights. Rights that our friendly marketeers would have us believe can only be achieved through privatisation, deregulation and other 'market freedoms', the encroaching privatisation of the Malaysian health system being an alarming case in point.
In contrast, consider how, despite half a century of US sanctions, Cuba has built a health service envied around the world. Unlike the frightened millions of uninsured Americans - as brilliantly depicted in Michael Moore's Sicko - Cubans don't want for any kind of health care. Cubans don't go hungry. Cuban children don't go destitute in the street, unlike kids in other parts of Latin America's market-driven region.
During a recent UK-wide
For many others at the meeting, and those who look beyond the loaded media version of what's happening in that region, it gives a tremendous sense of hope that people can organise and deliver just social provisions without recourse to market dependency.
Malaysia may not be in a politically comparable situation to Venezuela or Cuba. Yet, how Malaysians challenge and resist the dominant ideas and demands of capital is every bit as crucial.
It's worth bearing in mind that Hugo Chavez is nothing without the people who put him where he is. They continue to support him because he's enacting devolved policies driven by their - and his - social and political concerns. Those people don't just want a few more crumbs of the market-dispensed cake. They want meaningful change in how the social cake is made and divided, which requires co-operative control of the 'bakery' itself.
Malaysia's opposition will, no doubt, be exercised in this next critical pre-election phase by other types of division: sectarian, racial and party political.
Yet, hopefully, Anwar and the other leaders within this, seemingly, bright new opposition will stay alert to the concerns of the people they, apparently, speak for. Otherwise, it's 'business as usual' for most Malaysians.