A few weeks ago Tony Pua, MP for Petaling Jaya Utara, Malaysia visited Perth and gave a presentation titled, Malaysia in a Tragic Year. I’d not met Tony before and he was a pleasure to watch and listen to, with the ability to speak to a roomful of people as if each was a friend and each worthy of a personal message.
By way of declaration let me state that I am only a fractional Malaysian on one side of the family based on a mother born, as her birth certificate reveals, ‘a British subject’ during the colonial period in Kuala Lumpur. Still, through my work on new media and Malaysia, and multiple visits throughout childhood and since, I’ve maintained a lively interest in Malaysian affairs. Being of the sort to prefer analyzing in the background rather, though, this was the first time I’d attended an event to do with Malaysian politics and politicians.
Tony’s talk was illuminating, not only because of his ability to carry his audience with him while voicing opinions on some of the most frustrating events besetting contemporary Malaysian politics. At the time of the event, the whole affair with the Menteri Besar of Selangor, the unseating, replacement and involvement of royalty had not been resolved. Matters have settled since with the appointment of Azmin Ali but the whole episode has caused the Malaysian opposition coalition dearly in terms of popularity and confidence in their cause to change the political landscape of the nation. He mentioned, for example, his own efforts to obtain financial information crucial to running the electorate on the behalf of his constituency and the double standards when it came to how the charge of sedition is interpreted and acted upon by the federal government. Quite rightly too, he also lamented the three Rs – race, religion and royalty – that always seem to stymie the push for reform.
One rhetorical question he posed struck me as astute, given the audience that, to my eye, consisted of one-third interested academics and two-thirds Malaysians and former Malaysians. That is, is there hope? Is there reason to believe given the dramatic turn of political fortunes in the 2008 general election and the anti-climax of the 2013 one? The short answer is yes, and by way of argument he went through the number of his colleagues who are of the younger generation and in their thirties, constructing a case for hope via a long-term struggle to be worked for over decades. It is easy to be cynical when politicians speak of change, especially in Australia where that irreverence for authority seems to have morphed into full-blown skepticism. By my reading, though, there was a real and earnest desire to change things for the better, bit by bit over the long duration for the people of Malaysia.
As for the future, Pua introduced some of the projects completed through Impian Sarawak & Sabah, which his party, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) had instituted. The social movement, as such, aims to have Peninsular Malaysians volunteer to travel to Borneo Malaysia to work on basic infrastructural projects such as bringing water, electricity and roads into rural areas. Though the states of Sarawak and Sabah are part of the Federation of Malaysia, the politics, lifestyles and people of what, in my time, used to be called East and West Malaysia are literally and metaphorically, thousands of miles apart. So aside from the unabashed bid to sway East Malaysians from their traditional support for the current Barisan Nasional (BN) government, Impian is also very much about bringing compatriots in that ‘imagined political community’ (Anderson, 1991: 7) called Malaysia face to face.
That alone was interesting to hear of and a worthy closing to what was an absorbing presentation, delivered in an unpretentious mix of English as spoken in Southeast Asia, Malay and Chinese. The question and answer session that followed was equally intriguing. Earlier before the presentation, there had been coffee and biscuits served and a chance to mingle where several attendees took the advantage of having selfies taken with Tony. I’d hung around and was intrigued at how popular the man (and perhaps the cause of political change in Malaysia) seemed to be. Amongst the audience that then sat down to Pua’s presentation there was a couple who, according to the lady whom I shall call Ann, had left Malaysia 40 years ago to pursue a tertiary education in Singapore and another, who told me she had just arrived in Australia to start the next phase of her career as a financial planner. There was also at least one Malay youth pursuing his studies in Perth and quite a few men from the engineering and health professions. Going by my quick visual count, about 40 people had actually take time out of their day to pause and hear Pua say his piece.
What struck me then and has since prompted this piece was how invested they still seemed in the affairs of Malaysia, turning up to an event like this and listening to a politician go on for an hour or so. Speaking from the perspective of a former Singaporean who even when I found the energy to be interested in the one-sided simulations of elections, could find no avenue for expressing that right to vote to effect change, the enthusiasm was infectious but also unfathomable. While someone else had asked: what holds the opposition together aside from the need to provide a counter to the hegemony of the BN government?, I stuck my neck out for once and queried Pua: ‘what role do you see in all of this for the Malaysian diaspora?’. Ann, sitting over to my right with her husband, gave several emphatic nods and true to Malaysian ‘rojak’ style, Tony whipped out the Chinese saying: 出钱出力 (chu qian chu li), meaning if you have money donate to the cause, if you have strength, lend us your strength. You can’t really beat that for a takeaway message from a presentation like this.
Anderson, B. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, London, Verso.