By Yusri Supiyan, PhD Candidate in Political Science
On Tuesday, November 6, UW Emeritus Prof. Charles Hirschman, his wife Josephine, UW MA student Choriun Nisa, and I drove up to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver to attend a seminar titled “Harapan: A New Page in Malaysian Politics?” UW alum Joe Kinzer also drove up to Vancouver separately to join us. The seminar was hosted by the Center for Southeast Asia Research, led by the director and my good friend Dr. Kai Ostwald. The seminar dealt with the topic of the groundbreaking May 2018 elections in Malaysia which finally ended the decades-long rule of the Barisan Nasional (National Front, or BN) coalition dominated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). The seminar kicked off with a talk by Sophie Lemiere, a political ethnographer whose research led her to shadow the Mahathir campaign in the lead up to the May elections. Dr. Lemiere began by describing much of what she had purportedly observed while tagging along with the Mahathir campaign. Fifteen minutes into the talk, she abruptly stopped and asked: ‘Now, which of what I have just told you do you think was true at all’? Her larger point was that Mahathir and his campaign were consciously attempting to remake and reimagine the ‘myth’ of Mahathir himself – from the one who was a direct participant in the entrenchment of UMNO’s unchallenged rule to the ‘savior’ of Malaysia as the leading face of the opposition. Mahathir was now being ‘reborn’ or ‘resurrected’ as the ‘messiah’, and the message and the signals that his campaign was sending out served to recast him in this image. What I found most intriguing was a point that Dr. Lemiere made towards the end of her talk – in many religious mythologies or eschatologies only one ‘messiah’ exists. The reimagining of Mahathir as the ‘messiah’ clearly conflicts with Anwar Ibrahim’s longtime role as the chief regime dissident and ‘savior’ of Malaysia beginning from the days of Reformasi in Malaysia twenty years ago. How the battle over who will be the true ‘messiah’ of Malaysian politics plays out in the near future will be something for all of us to watch out for.
Dr. Lemiere’s talk was followed by a question & answer session which also included Dr. Hirschman, Elvin Ong, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center, and Daisy, an undergraduate student from UBC. For the last forty-five minutes of the talk Steven Sim, the Malaysian Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports, Skyped in for a question-and-answer session with the Malaysian undergraduates. The topics of conversation revolved around the various ways that Malaysian youths can contribute to Malaysia under the new Pakatan government, as well as the various initiatives that the Youth and Sports Ministry is undertaking. One major program that Deputy Minister Sim was excited about was the continued support of the Youth Parliament program that had started under the previous minister, Khairy Jamaludin, as a means to continue to get Malaysian youths politically active and involved.
Choi and I also managed to explore the UBC campus briefly as well – we found it to be really beautiful! We managed to take some snapshots of the campus as well. I am certainly looking forward to many more future events in UBC and possible collaborations between the Southeast Asian Studies programs in UBC and UW.