Living under the shadow of the ‘kerajaan’



By Farish A. Noor ~ October 15th, 2007. Filed under: TOM_Main.

(Note: This article first appeared on Malaysiakini.com in March 2000)

We are often told that the Malay word for government is kerajaan. This, for those who are aware of the subtle semantic shifts and differences that are constantly at work in the Malay language, is of course a bad translation.

Kerajaan literally means “to be in a state of having a Raja”. The concept kerajaan harks back to the feudal era where Malay politics was very much centred in and around the court (istana or palace) and where power was concentrated in the office of the Raja himself.

During the feudal era, “politics” as we know it did not, in fact, exist. For there to be politics, there has to be what contemporary political theorists refer to as the moment of the “political” (ie the process of contestating, engagement and negotiation that is characteristic of the political process itself).

“Politics” only comes into being when we have introduced a system of institutions, norms and practices that facilitate and make possible the distribution, negotiation and exercise of power in a society. These institutions did not exist in the feudal setting.

The Raja was, in effect, the executive, legislature and judiciary, all rolled into one. While there was some delegation of power and authority to other actors and agents, no one was deluded enough to believe that power-sharing took place during the feudal era.

Even when the Raja delegated duties and responsibilities to others, it was clear that he was the one who was in charge. Thus when the Sultan of Melaka allowed the building of the great mosque in the city, he made sure that the imam of the mosque was one of his relatives. This was to ensure that there would be no alternative sites of political and discursive activity which would exist unchecked and outside the parameters of his control.

One may wonder what all this has to do with the present state of affairs in Malaysia. The answer is simple, depending on how we frame the question.

For years, many political analysts, journalists and civil society activists have been asking questions about the Malaysian political system. There have been many attempts to label the political system in Malaysia according to a specific category. Is it an authoritarian democracy? A liberal-capitalist dictatorship? A centralised federation?

The answer is quite straightforward. Malaysia, like many other developing countries in the South today, is a hybrid entity that shares both modern and pre-modern features.

In terms of its institutions and services, it is a highly developed (and some would say over-developed) country where the latest in hi-tech systems and technologies are used to govern the state and carry out the daily task of management. Malaysia’s success in the race for development is beyond doubt. It is one of the most developed and well-managed countries in the region.

But Malaysia is also a state that suffers from the social malaise of uneven development, and nowhere is this more evident than in its political culture that remains rooted in the pre-modern feudal past.

Malaysia therefore has the latest technology that it utilises in the process of government and management of the state and its economy. But the authorities in the country also use this technology for decidedly un-modern or even anti-modern purposes.

Witness the way that the self-appointed “morality police” have used hi-tech surveillance technology to spy on young couples holding hands in the streets, meeting together in private, etc.

The state media also used the latest hi-tech facilities to spread its message to the national audience, thereby creating a “virtual nation” that is hooked up to a single mainstream culture that exists on television, radio and the Internet.

But the state media has also used this modern technology to build up a personality cult where the rulers of the country have been elevated to the status of modern-day icons, reminiscent of the feudal era where leaders were objects of veneration and worship.

The contradictions, however, do not stop there. The root of the problem lies in the feudal mindset and values that reside among the elite of the most dominant and powerful political party in the country, Umno.

Umno was, from the very beginning, a conservative-traditionalist party that was run and governed according to the values and worldview of the feudal era. The leaders of Umno, from the Tunku onwards, have treated the office of government as if it was a tool for them to use at will.

Successive Umno leaders have used the office of state and the bureaucracy to further their own political agendas, even when it came to settling scores between themselves in their own race for power within the party.

Attempts have been made to address and reverse this feudalist trend among the Umno leadership itself, but to no avail. (Ironically, the most stringent and vocal critic of the feudal values and culture of Umno was the present Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad himself, who condemned the style of leadership of the party in his book “The Malay Dilemma” in 1970).

This tendency to see the bureaucratic machinery of the state as an appendage of Umno and a tool of politics would be completely incomprehensible in the context of a modern liberal-democracy. But then again, a liberal-democracy is precisely what Malaysia is not.

Despite the trappings of modernity that dot the Malaysian landscape – from the tallest building in the world to the biggest dam – the country remains a modern neo-feudal state governed by elites whose values date back to the feudal era of 200 years ago.

This would also explain the developments we have witnessed in the country over the past two years. In the wake of the sacking of the ex-DPM Anwar Ibrahim and the protests that followed, many asked why the state had over-reacted to such an extent.

Was it necessary to arrest so many people? Was it necessary to use such force when dispersing protesters? Again the answer is a simple one if we know what kind of political system we are dealing with.

The devastating campaign to wipe out the supporters of Anwar and the reformasi movement might seem a tad over the top in a modern liberal-democracy, but not so in the context of the neo-feudal politics of Umno. After all, Malay history is full of examples of palace coups and rebellions against unpopular Rajas.

In all these cases, the reaction has been the same: The ruler has responded to the challenge by wiping out all his opponents and challengers. Mercy has little space or room to flourish in the feudal environment, and the feudal era saw few prisoners being taken by the victors in the internecine struggles that tore apart the Malay world.

When Umno used all the resources at its disposal to wipe out the challengers from within in 1987 and 1998, it was perfectly normal political behaviour from a party whose values are rooted in the feudalist logic of zero-sum confrontation.

This neo-feudal drama has been played out again and again, and among the latest developments include the relatively light sentence meted out to the ex-Inspector General of Police, Rahim Noor and the statement by the Chief Minister of Melaka Mohd Ali Rustam who said that in future all doctors, lawyers, architects and professionals who are known to be supporters of the opposition will no longer be favoured. He also warned government servants not to support the opposition.

Human rights activists, union members and proponents of civil society may lament these developments as further proof of the erosion of civil society and civil liberties in the country. But few have cared to recognise the simple fact that such a civil society has never really taken root in Malaysia anyway.

The relatively light sentence given to the ex-IGP and the blatant show of favouritism and partisanship on the part of the Melaka Chief Minister are all in keeping with how a feudal form of rule operates, where those who are on the winning side are allowed to benefit while those who oppose the status quo will feel the weight of the ruler’s power as it comes crashing down on them.

There is no consideration whatsoever given to ethics or propriety, as the whole purpose of the kerajaan system was to accumulate power and to maintain possession of it. Power, understood in the sense of the right to force and coerce, was in turn expressed publicly and with little reservation. After all, power would be useless and meaningless if the Raja did not use it in the most extravagant manner.

We are therefore back to where we started. Those who continue to wonder aloud about the state of the nation and who ask “what is this country coming to?” may themselves have been deluded all along.

From the day Malaysia became independent in 1957, the country has been living under the rule of a closed circle of political elites whose values and worldview remain firmly rooted in the feudal mentality of the past. It is therefore fitting that the Malay word for government remains kerajaan, for kerajaan is precisely what we have in Malaysia today.

Those who wish to struggle for a different kind of social and political order would do well by understanding what kind of order we have around us in the first place. The mistake of the opposition is that it has tried to introduce radical changes to a society which may not even be ready, able or willing to undertake such changes.

The enduring cult of personality and leadership, the highly personal and idiosyncratic form of government, the conflation of party and government, politicians and the bureaucracy: these are all symptoms of a state of confused and uneven development where material progress has shot ahead of intellectual, social and cultural development and maturation.

In the year 2000, we still live in the shadow of the feudal kerajaan of the past. We ignore this reality at our peril.

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