Close to 30 years ago, I learnt about the RAHMAN prophecy, which began life as an amusing way to decode the sequence of UMNO leaders.
In time, it morphed into a beguiling prediction that UMNO’s stranglehold on Malaysian politics would end with its sixth prime minister: that the curtain would come down on the N in the acronym that spells out the names of the country’s leaders from the time of independence. It was introduced to me by the veteran newsmen and women of the M era in RAHMAN who guided me as a young news anchor at TV3.
Much has been made of the media’s complicity in supporting the government of the day. This de facto position of the media sits at thorny odds with the de jure, for, according to the constitution of Malaysia, under the law every citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression—Article 10, Clause (1). But also in the mix is a jumble of other clauses: (2), (3) and (4) are caveats that muddy the waters of press freedom.
The day they told me about RAHMAN, we nursed steaming mugs of teh tarik at a simple roadside stall in the shadow of NST’s Balai Berita. It was late afternoon, papers were being put to bed, and I heard in their voices the bottled-up frustration and battle weariness of the endless fight between their daily duty—to report without fear or favour—and their daily bread. Bread won. Boss won. Like that-lah, what to do?
Making up truths for ourselves, however flawed, is what gets us through the vexatious and the indefensible. Our minds are wired to want a world that is ordered, a world we can understand and navigate. For six decades, not only the media but all of us were complicit in a belief that was fed to us, ad nauseam: that only the government of the day could ensure peace, stability and development.
In our fledgling days of nationhood, perhaps this belief had its usefulness. We bought into this social construct, and if we had to close one eye now and again to machinations that were discomfiting, we did so. But over time that government took the power we gave them and employed it to divide and frighten. They hijacked the belief as a tool of political expediency to advance agendas and bully us into submission. And by the time N came around, the government of the day flexed its muscles thuggishly at the mere hint of dissent, fomenting discord at every turn.
It has been repugnant, corrosive and soul-destroying, through which Malaysians had little more than faith to provide the cold comfort that these invidious times would, some day, end. And when faith wavered, well, for me there was always RAHMAN. But ultimately, I think the government of the day did itself in with its pompous, arrogant slogan that begins “Hanya Kerajaan BN yang boleh …”, and really, the sentence ended there.
For a belief to sit comfortably within a person, it must be consistent with the other values that person holds dear. The kinds of values that make us the good people of Malaysia.
On 9 May 2018, in the millions we came together with one heart and one voice as we have not done since Merdeka, to take our country back and regain our sense of self. We do not need any more a government that tells us it knows better than us how to think, what beliefs to have. We do not need a government that says it is the only one that can keep us safe: we have shown we know how to do that, and furthermore, we can do so without ugly displays of spitefulness or racial hatred or intolerance. We have shown that we can look out for each other, and for our tanah pusaka, and reclaim democracy in the face of a juggernaut of despotism and corruption. We did it, together with leaders who have shown themselves capable of humility and forgiveness.
On 9 May 2018, we came of age, and the only stain was the purple one each of us proudly sported on our index fingers.
Already some are speaking of a new acronym. They call it MAHATHIR: M for the man who now has a second chance to get things right. And then it’s A, for Anwar, the designated prime minister in waiting. And who comes after that is anyone’s guess. That is for the next generation to decide.
My wish is that among the remaining letters of this new prophecy will be the names of Malaysians who will champion an era of true inclusion, because mere acceptance of diversity in government is not enough. Enough with race-based politics. Do not rewrite history. Embrace and reconcile with the truth of our ugly past and our place in it. And have the fortitude to lay the ground for atonement where atonement is needed.
May we all speak with a new voice of courage, respect, kindness and grace.
Bettina Chua Abdullah was Malaysia’s first international television news presenter at CNBC Asia, and is a co-founder and director of Hikayat, a confluence of arts and letters opening soon in Penang.
Charis Loke is an illustrator based in Penang.