LOST IN TRANSITION: Malaysia under Abdullah by Ooi Kee Beng (SIRD, 2008, 196 pages).
Whenever I come across a new book on contemporary Malaysia, the first thing I do is look at the Index to see if I am in it. Sure enough, I am here, but with my name misspelled! The horror!
Although this flub did not immediately endear me to Lost in Transition (and the dull cover didn’t help much), there is much fun to be had; in a responsible, scholarly sort of way, of course.
Ooi (who bears a striking physical resemblance to the Kelantanese poet Lim Swee Tin) had a bestseller on his hands with The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr. Ismail and his Times (2006). That book came at an opportune moment – just as our current Establishment was running out of ideas, here was a glimpse at how a genuine Malaysian statesman saw us and measured our possibilities. The bit I will always remember is when Ismail said, “The biggest mistake the Malays made was to coin the term ‘bumiputera.’
How did that book come about? Ismail’s son, Tawfik, held on to his father’s papers for decades before finally depositing them at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, where Ooi is now a Fellow. Why Singapore? Doesn’t Malaysia have a credible enough research institution that can do the papers justice? One need not be an expert in Malaysian academia to be able to guess the sad answer.
Ooi even runs something called the Malaysia Study Programme there. I wonder if any Malaysian institution has a Singapore Study Programme.
In this new collection of previously published opinion pieces (yes, it’s one of those books) Ooi devotes space yet again to Ismail’s forgotten legacy, in the fields of foreign policy and also the New Economic Policy (NEP). One of the best pieces in here analyses how a ‘leftist’ policy like the NEP managed to transform into a ‘rightist’ one.
Another good one is the debunking of a prevalent, politically convenient myth that Malaya had been colonized for over 400 years, whereas the real characteristics of a colony only started being evident six decades before Merdeka.
But the bulk of the book, as its subtitle makes clear, examines the performance of our current Prime Minister. While Ismail was a ‘reluctant’ politician, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi needs other adjectives; ‘cautious’ would be a kind one, but some would say ‘bumbling’ too.
It has been said that Dr. Mahathir’s sins were those of commission while his successor committed sins of omission. Certainly, the Abdullah cabinet’s seeming lack of commitment in carrying out reform plans did not endear him to voters. Then there are all those policy reversals over even minor matters like the ban of petrol to foreigners. Seen in this respect, the dullness of the book’s cover might have an ontological purpose.
Just think of how his predecessor would have handled the fuel price hike, for example. He would NOT have mumbled the rationale at a bank of microphones. He would have blamed some foreign conspiracy or scolded us for being wasteful. That wouldn’t have made him a better person, true, but still…
Published just before the election, this book provides a nice contrast to Hishamuddin Rais’s Keganasan, Penipuan dan Internet, which we discussed months ago. While Hishamuddin targets the Malaysian Joe Public as reader, Ooi’s pitch is somewhat different, as most of the articles were written for the Singapore press.
Although frequently blunt on the performances of Malaysian politicians, a juicy opportunity to say something about Lee Kwan Yew is squandered in the one essay here, which chooses to drown itself in phrases like “sufficient discursive commonality.” It’s nice to know that readers of The Brunei Times, where this article appeared, know such big words.
This is a pessimistic book, as well it should be, because it assumes the continued dominance of a one-party system. Not just any party, mind you, but one which has been painting itself into an unpretty corner through its arrogance and insularity. If a party cannot capture the imagination of its young, what hope is there?
As befits someone who works overtime at being a Very Serious Person, there are some genuine insights in Ooi’s book; it’s sometimes witty but never sensual. He studied for many years in Sweden, so I wonder how that, if at all, contributed to his demeanour. His book’s not as sexy as Ikea catalogues, but look at what he had to work with!
(Malay Mail, 25 June 2008).