In 2021, the hashtag #KerajaanGagal trended in waves. It is usually translated as failed government or failed state. Though kerajaan in Malay now refers to the government in everyday parlance, the more archaic ‘kingdom’ better reflects its root meaning. What was the deal with #KerajaanGagal? In 2018, a new coalition Pakatan Harapan formed and successfully unseated the Barisan National (BN), the ruling coalition that had effectively been in power ever since Malaysia’s independence in 1957. This electoral defeat was achieved, despite the usual voter suppression tactics and political gerrymandering, in large part by the erosion of confidence in Barisan National due to the massive fraud committed by the then Prime Minister Najib Razak and his accomplices. At the tune of several billion USD, it was a scale of corruption that eclipsed the day-to-day backdoor dealings that are a staple of everyday Malaysian politics.
Whenever Malaysia makes the world news, it is almost a mythic event: a massive embezzlement scheme that helped finance the 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street, starring US actor Leonardo DiCaprio and gift a glass piano to Australian model Miranda Kerr, or the mysterious disappearance of passenger flight MH370 in 2014. Najib himself first made the news in 2006 when he was linked to the gruesome killing of Mongolian translator and former model Altantuya Shaariibuu, an intrigue involving bombs and a French submarine deal.
Ini Kalilah: The post-BN landscape
Anyway, Pakatan Harapan had been in power just shy of two years when an internal power struggle shifted political alliances, causing the ruling coalition to collapse in a political gambit now called the Sheraton Move, losing its majority in parliament. A newly formed coalition, Perikatan Nasional, took its place in early March 2020. It was derisively called a backdoor government, having not been democratically elected by the people. But the COVID-19 pandemic came soon after, and such parliamentary alliances are fragile. Under the cry of kerajaan gagal, ostensibly over the failure of the new backdoor government to properly contain and manage the coronavirus outbreak (to say nothing of the preferential treatment given to politicians, such as reduced fines for violating quarantine rules), the then Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin resigned in August 2021, dissolving the cabinet and once again reshuffling the reins of power. Predictably, the kerajaan gagal refrain continued, aimed at the new cabinet. Old wine in new skin.
Electoralism in Malaysia has been embroiled in race politics, financial corruption, and a potent mix of feudalism and nepotism from the very beginning. The racial divisions, of course, were tenderly cultivated by the British colonials, with the classic divide-and-rule applied to migrant populations that they played no small hand in bringing over from east and west as labour, working hands for British extractivism. The feudalism, on the other hand, is a homegrown product to the extent that as Islam spread across the Malay Archipelago centuries before, becoming dominant over earlier Hindu and animist beliefs, sultanates arose with their attendant hierarchies. (To say nothing of hierarchical relations in other worldviews, of course.) All this to say that the trouble with kerajaan did not begin when European colonizers imposed their systems onto us: the sultanate served the sultan, not the people.
But to the average Malaysian, electoral politics is a farce: it is the subject of idle coffeeshop talk and jokes over the kitchen table. It is a tragicomic scene: there’s not much one can do about it but laugh it off, move on, and hope for better days, where government funds are not used to buy millions of dollars’ worth of accessories for the Prime Minister’s wife. In that sense, the 2018 election came as a surprise, even as many hoped it would turn out the way it would. Indeed, people spoke of the “RAHMAN prophecy,” after the names of the successive prime ministers: Tunku Abdul Rahman, Abdul Razak, Hussein Onn, Mahathir Mohamad, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Najib Razak. It predicted that following the fifth prime minister after Malaysia’s first, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Barisan Nasional would fall. Immediately afterwards people spoke of the MAHATHIR prophecy, as Mahathir led the opposing Pakatan Harapan to its victory, and promised that his deputy Anwar Ibrahim would succeed him in two years. But just before the clock ran out, it was Mahathir himself that was reluctant to hand over power, and the ensuing power struggle leading to the collapse of Pakatan Harapan. The new prophecy failed.
When we speak of failed states, we tend to think of bad things. When we hear of them, they tend to be about places in the Middle East or Africa, places where we are told bad things happen. But really, there is no agreed upon definition of a failed state. Moreover, if we go by Max Weber’s definition of state as one that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, then perhaps being a successful state may not be one to aspire to. After all, states that have a monopoly on violence almost invariably authorize their own violence against others: refugees, racial and sexual minorities, poor people, dissenters, outsiders.
White flags and autonomous care networks
But with #KerajaanGagal — whether or not the slogan was used cynically for political gain — the cry was grounded in the suffering of the rakyat (the people), who were being dealt a slow violence by a government that imposed strict and often illogical and inequitable restrictions in the form of Movement Control Orders and Standard Operating Procedures, yet did little to support the lost livelihood of the people. These restrictions were enforced by a corrupt police, who issued fines and even detention to violators, targeting dark-skinned people and migrants as usual.
A movement arose in the place of governmental support: those that were at the end of their rope would put out white flags (which were just sheets tied to sticks), literally bendera putih, outside their living quarters. Compassionate neighbours and passersby, seeing the distress call, would then leave food and other goods by the person’s doorstep, as spontaneous acts of collective care. This also led to the spontaneous establishment of some community foodbanks. In this register, #KerajaanGagal was based on the failure of the government to provide adequate care to its citizens (let alone non-citizens), measured by the extent that ordinary people had to step up to care for their own.
The phrase mutual aid, a cornerstone of anarchist praxis and a wider movement in the Western world during the pandemic, never quite entered the vocabulary of most Malaysians. Its translation, gotong royong, on the other hand is well-known and carries benign meanings such as cleaning up a schoolyard together, though in Indonesian contexts it has become fused with nationalism through Sukarno’s appropriation of it in his declaration of a “gotong royong state” in 1945. In any case, it becomes quickly clear that the Malaysian practice of a gotong royong ethic is also an index of state failure.
But just as aid networks are largely homophilic because people are, such as with the volunteer organization Kita Jaga Kita that arose — we take care of us — the question of who is kita quickly comes to the fore. The group directed people to organizations that did charity work for particular populations, creating a network of giving and volunteering for those in need. (But as migrant workers and refugees suffered disproportionately under the strict lockdown, a protest that they too are human, migran juga manusia, grew as a general critique. The queer community, on the other hand, was a less “ideal” recipients and continues to care for their own.)
But charity, of course, is quite different from mutual aid: an inherent power imbalance exists, and a more exacting moral calculus is applied. No one wants to receive someone’s charity. Recipients of charity should be model citizens. On the other hand, mutual aid should only be celebrated for what it is and nothing more: an aspect of a liberatory possibility where through interconnected, non-hierarchical networks we are able to care not only for our own and each other, but also for others quite different from us.
This is what I call a “small anarchism,” or an instance of anarchism that has no name, that only reveals itself in praxis. Such small anarchisms build up to no large theory or even position oneself against the state; they are simply acts of survival and care in the absence of state infrastructure. A more drastic and ongoing scenario is the Myanmar revolution, in which the state has largely ceased to function per se following the latest military coup in 2021, triggering a nationwide protest, this time including the Bamar majority, and evolving into a wide-scale armed revolution by the people against the military junta. For the most part, people don’t join an armed revolution because they want to, it is a position one is forced to take. For the most part, people resort to small anarchisms.
Black flags and bourgeois revolutions
On both ends of the left and right, broadly speaking, are those who look for a rupture, even hope to agitate for it through actions like the propaganda of the deed, so that at the end of a violent revolution a new world will be born: the one they want. For many observers at the time, the pandemic was going to be it: the great social upheaval that would lead to a blessed post-capitalist future, especially as the George Floyd uprising spread across predominantly white or Euro-American nations that also faltered in their coronavirus response. (This revolution did not happen.) In Malaysia, there was even less social unrest of the sort: the racial politics in which everyday Malaysian life is mired has largely calcified over half a century ago. Still, the raising of white flags led to its complement: black flags protesting the government. These bendera hitam signalled a general loss of faith in the ruling government: kerajaan gagal.
The anti-government protests grew from the simmering discontent beginning from the bloodless coup of the previous year, slowly exacerbated by the poor coronavirus response, into a general call for accountability, including for Muhyiddin’s resignation, the reopening of parliament, and the end of the state of emergency that had been called following the pandemic. (This state of emergency, which was last invoked during the 1969 race riots, effectively shut down any opposition to Perikatan Nasional’s takeover.) The new slogan lawan, to fight, appeared, calling for resistance against the state, or perhaps more accurately, against those who ran the state at the time.
It was a bourgeois protest, in the end: no revolution, peaceful or armed, was sought; simply a reckoning for those who have jockeyed for power, abused it, and caused suffering to the people. Among the main organizers of the protests was the Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat (SSR), a loose coalition of youth from oppositional parties and non-governmental organizations. They were unprepared for the police repression that quickly followed: interrogations and arrests were made on the ground of sedition. As ineffective and corrupt as the Malaysian police may seem on a day to day level, they yet retain the authority of the state to suppress dissent when it arises.
Bendera hitam was a more direct assault on the failure of the state to perform its functions, in this case prioritizing political manoeuvring and cronyism at the expense of the people, but the fight that lawan had brought was short lived. The SSR quickly fell apart in the wake of police repression and the resignation of Muhyiddin — not to mention the lawyer engaged in their lawsuit against the unlawful arrests was accused of sexual misconduct — and many returned to their political or non-governmental silos.
What remains to be seen, perhaps, is whether the political turmoil of the last few years will have radicalised youth to the point of looking beyond the band-aid of electoral politics. After Ismail Sabri, who hails from what was Barisan Nasional’s core, UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), well-known to be a Malay supremacist organisation, took over as the latest prime minister in August 2021, the seasonal monsoon rains in December brought with it terrible floods that displaced over 70,000 people and killed at least 54.
Governmental aid was so slow in coming, that what arose instead was again a spirit of mutual aid, where informal networks quickly sprung up to evacuate and aid those in need. Social media here played an important role, even as physical infrastructure collapsed and roads were no longer navigable, sending out cries for help and the location of those in need of rescue. The combined disaster of the floods and rising Omicron wave was a double jeopardy. Quite fittingly, the refrain kerajaan gagal returned, this time aimed at a government with a new cabinet and prime minister at the helm. But was it really the new government’s fault? The rot is much older. In many cases it was a systemic failure and the non-maintenance of infrastructure: some neighbourhoods collectively purchased water pumps in order to manually divert flood water away from houses, as existing water pumps that had been designed to do the same were no longer working.
It’s easy to laugh at the tragicomedy that is the Malaysian state, as has been captured the last two years by comic artist Ernst Ng’s wildly popular series “If Malaysia was Anime,” because many Malaysians are by nature good-humoured and in many cases, fact really is funnier than fiction. It does not have to be made up or caricatured: just cleverly represented and repeated.
Now in October 2022, Ismail Sabri’s government has dissolved parliament and is calling for general elections to take place within the next sixty days. It will be the first nationwide democratic vote since the 2018 wave. Some people are hopeful once again, seeking a referendum on the ruling coalition that got there by party hopping members of parliament, criticized as frogs, or katak. Others lament the holding of elections during monsoon season, when travel will be difficult due to the rains. Mahathir, now 97 years old, announced that he will once again defend his parliamentary seat, despite the drama of the last two years, and of course, being UMNO’s premier for 22 years until retiring in 2003. A new youth coalition Malaysian United Democratic Alliance, formed in 2020, will compete, as will the older Parti Sosialis Malaysia, which has gained some popularity in recent years. All told, the farce continues, and we wait for new jokes to tell.
Of course, it’s also difficult to say what gains may have been won eventually were Pakatan Harapan to have remained in power. Though if it’s any indication at all, it did not seem as if the welfare of LGBTQ or refugee populations, some of the most vulnerable, improved much in their short tenure. One notable incident was the public caning of two Muslim lesbians in Terengganu, under the Islamist state government PAS in late 2018.
Biarlah kerajaan gagal
To proclaim biarlah kerajaan gagal is a quiet revolutionary call to let a failing government die. It is not a question of who is in power but rather the fact that such hegemonic power exists in the first place. What state will welcome refugees and migrants, defend indigenous rights (beyond the conflation of Malay supremacy and bumiputera rights), abolish both capitalist and carceral structures, replacing them with infrastructures of mutual aid and care networks? What state will look after those who raise white flags, accept criticism from those who raise black ones, and safeguard the people within its borders from the collapse of capitalism and ecological crisis?
To proclaim biarlah kerajaan gagal is to acknowledge that the state will not save us. It will not care for our sickest, our poorest, our most vulnerable. It will not love us queers and even if it does, it will surely be conditional. The spiderweb of strings attached will entangle us; there will be no freedom given that cannot be taken back. There is no salvation for the least of us that will come if only we can get the right people in parliament.
To proclaim biarlah kerajaan gagal is to happily accept that the state is failing to function: the Malaysian bureaucratic regime is slow, inefficient, ineffective, and that is just fine. Let it die. We prefer a government that does not work to one that does: successful governments control, surveil, oppress, bomb, detain, torture, invade, colonize. To collectively fail to perform its task is a grand gesture of the antiwork sentiment in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, a silently anticapitalist subversion, an anarchism without anarchists. Anarchism by a thousand small anarchisms. It is likely that the Syed Hussein Alatas’ famous Myth of the Lazy Native was as much about sabotage and subterfuge, what James Scott called the weapons of the weak, as it was European orientalist racism. (The same can be said of police: better useless cops than effective cops, though even better is no cops at all.)
What’s left instead is to no longer hold our breaths for a government that works, but to seek our salvation elsewhere: we have always had to take care of ourselves, and let us do better. Electing new rulers may change a few things for better and for worse in the short run, but we seek a longevity in our movements. For our survival, of those who are in our care and our neighbours, let us wake up to ourselves.
To be sure, this is also a call for building alternate infrastructure, institutions, and networks that will enable us to effectively care for one another. To say let the government continue to fail, without any political vision, leads to chaos, not anarchy. Anarchy is about horizontalism, mutuality, and reciprocity; surviving — thriving — without the state requires deep effort, care, and work. So there is much to do, because we know to no longer expect it to be done for us. As the old saying goes, we are the ones we have been waiting for. Biarlah kerajaan gagal.