Saturday 25 August 2012

Normalising Malaysian politics

Josh Hong

Malays under attack; Islam under siege; mass deception of the opposition.

Indeed, if one cares to read Utusan Malaysia or Berita Harian, or is so much at a loose end as to tune into RTM TV1 or Umno-controlled TV3, one would be forgiven for thinking that Malaysia has never left Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s glory days.

And Mahathir seems so full of certitude that his excessively long tenure has done more good than bad for the country, conveniently overlooking the culture of fear and political thuggery that he employed to keep himself in power.

NONELet’s consider Mahathir's legacies: bloated bureaucracy, rising costs of living, overpriced and under-performing 'national' cars, chronic budget deficits, rampant corruption, brutal police force, emasculated press, gutless judiciary, spineless government backbenchers, greedy ministers, his filthy rich sons and cronies... the list goes on.

I am pretty certain Malaysians who have survived his horrible regime of the 1980s through to 2003 can add much more.

So, still better the devil you know?

To be frank, I have my strong reservations about the opposition alliance. While the frogging season has started again in Sabah, I remain acutely aware Anwar Ibrahim was responsible for bringing Umno into the Land Below the Wind in the early 1990s and altered radically the political landscape there.

Had this not happened, the Kadazan Dusun community would not have been as politically marginalised as it is today. Yes, blame not only Mahathir, but Anwar and Pairin Kitingan also, the latter eventually succumbing to the allure of power and abandoning the very people that he claimed to represent.

Moreover, Malaysian politics is largely driven by personalities.

As far as Barisan Nasional is concerned, whatever promises of reform touted hinge very much on Najib Abdul Razak, with most of his cabinet colleagues – especially those from Umno – showing only lukewarm support.True to his opportunistic character, Najib simply steps back whenever the stakes are high.

The same is true of Pakatan Rakyat, as all hopes of its supporters are pinned on Anwar, Lim Guan Eng and Hadi Awang. We need to put more pressure on the opposition parties to integrate their reform agenda into a broader framework of deliberation, contestation and accountability, and base it on firm and concrete political institutions. Rhetoric alone will never do the trick.

Inferior taxis

But there is no denying that the March 2008 general election has provided a golden opportunity for Malaysians to break the political mould set by Umno since 1957. For the first time in more than four decades, Malaysians rediscovered the courage to dream dreams and to imagine a Malaysia without the omnipotent Umno.

More crucially, we have been seeing great awakening even among Mahathir’s own constituents, as more and more Malays begin to question why we must pay more for cars that can be produced more cost-effectively, and why the government must continue to make the rakyat foot the bill for an illusive car industry that is anything but efficient.

Just visit Jakarta, Bangkok and Taipei, and one can immediately see the difference in the taxi service in these Asian cities: cars are often in good condition, clean and comfortable, while drivers are generally friendly and professional.

NONEYet most of the taxis plying the roads in KL are substandard Proton Iswara that are old and smelly, complete with a clanking noise all because the national car project has grown into a chimera that is too expensive to maintain but hard to get rid of.

Be that as it may, we must complete the new political process that was put in place by accident since 2008, cognisant also of the fact that the transition phase of democratisation is invariably fraught with pitfalls and entails great uncertainties, as Indonesia has experienced since the fall of the Suharto regime.

However, it is a painful process that a semi-authoritarian country such as Malaysia must partake in so that we can one day be proud to say our political contestation is one that is rooted in fairness and transparency.
Creating a democratic consolidation.

In other words, democratic consolidation cannot be attained without political transition. Those like Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew may want to think they have ensured a ‘democratic process’ by having regular elections, but what both Malaysia and Singapore actually have is nothing but procedural democracy, all for the purpose of window dressing.

The opposite of this is democratic consolidation that contains substantive elements, including guarantees of basic civil rights, democratic accountability and responsiveness, civilian control over the military, neutrality of the police force, independence of the judiciary, impartiality of the media, democratic and constitutional checks on executive authority, and punishment of human rights abuses.

As Larry Diamond of the Stanford University argues, democratic consolidation only comes about when “political competition becomes fairer, freer, more vigorous and executive; participation and representation broader, more autonomous, and inclusive; civil liberties more comprehensively and rigorously protected; accountability more systematic and transparent”.

azlanIn the context of Malaysia, it means we are duty-bound to normalise our political process, in that everyone is equal before the law and no-one’s loyalty to the country or the community (religious, ethnic or else) should be questioned when he or she seeks to challenge the powers-that-be. For all this to happen, one must first remove the biggest obstacle, Umno that is.

The expansion of democracy no doubt scares people like Mahathir, who have everything to lose should it come to pass, even ending up in jail. But Mahathir is only the least of my concerns here.

I am more excited to see the day when transition of power happens on a regular basis while the politicians from both sides of the political divide can no longer hold themselves above the law.

We would not be regarded too kindly by the future generations should we choose to reverse a meaningful journey just because we are too timid to overcome transient pains.

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