Friday 3 August 2012

The benefits of a two-party system in Malaysia — Galvin Wong

AUG 3 — Before the 12th general election, Malaysia had never possessed an effective and united opposition. There had been various moments in history when the opposition threatened to actually challenge BN to the leadership of the country. But they flattered to deceive.

Therefore, it came as a shock when not only did Pakatan Rakyat (PR) deny Barisan Nasional (BN) a two-thirds majority in Parliament, but it also obtained majorities in four states including Selangor, the crown jewel in Malaysia. And for the first time in her 51-year history, Malaysia found herself with a two-party system.

Four years have passed and we see today obvious signs of the benefits from this two-party system. I shall point out and delve into three major benefits it has brought us.

Probably the most important contribution is the policy competition that has been brought about. Policy competition refers to both parties proposing individual policies on certain matters and it brings about three outcomes. Firstly, the older, possibly outdated and much less effective policy is abolished, replaced by a newly proposed one. Secondly, elements from the newly proposed policy are incorporated into older policies to form more effective ones. And lastly, if a policy is a new one, good elements from both proposed policies are incorporated before the policy is passed in Parliament.

The 12th GE marked the rise of the three component parties in PR as political forces to be reckoned with. They moved away from being mere disturbances for the BN into being major political rivals that the BN could possibly lose to.

This has resulted in an influx of talented individuals volunteering with the purposes such as developing policy for the state government (Tricia Yeoh and Zairil Khir Johari are good examples) and also forming policy that political parties could put forth (Rafizi Ramli in this case). It is possible that two (Zairil and Rafizi) of these three people mentioned above could have entered politics even if March 2008 did not occur, but GE12 must have had positive impact on their decision.
Another major impact is the ability to raise funds for opposition parties which is crucial in order to support researchers. Fundraising was probably the toughest to do in previous years. Malaysians never really donated sums of money in support of opposition political parties mainly due to BN’s dominant support from the people. However, this has since changed and the recent campaign to raise funds to support Tony Pua’s Syabas case is testament to that.

These two factors combined have resulted in Pakatan Rakyat being able to put out policies that are effective and can be implemented almost immediately if it comes to power (think the Buku Jingga 100-day plan).

Policies such as PTPTN and most recently the reform of the National Automotive Policy introduced by Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) have resulted in much debate being generated. Although not many changes have occurred, these policies have been highlighted, an alternative has been produced, pressure has been placed on the government and they will be forced to improve these policies some time in the future because of the need to remain relevant to the rakyat.

The second advantage the two-party system has brought upon Malaysia is the improved state of our democracy. Malaysia was languishing in the pits four years ago with a whole slew of Acts, namely the Internal Security Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Sedition Act, limiting democratic freedoms. However, the increase competition for votes and the need to stay relevant to the rakyat have forced BN to repeal and amend many such Acts. Examples would be the ISA (replaced by the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act) and most recently the Sedition Act.

It is clear that these steps taken are baby steps to full and complete reform. Certain Acts that were repealed have been replaced, and those that were amended have had only certain restrictive clauses removed. Nevertheless, we are moving in the right direction.

The competitive environment post-2008 has also brought to the forefront of Malaysian politics many younger, newer and capable leaders. These leaders are much needed in order for political parties to relate to the younger generation as well as be faces of reform.

The inflow of new blood will be crucial for our country in the long term. They will be the ones fighting for and pioneering reform both from within and outside government. Policy ideas and contributions to our democratic practices may very well come from these leaders as well. Already we are starting to see their impact. One new trend in Malaysian politics is the political debates that have been held consistently for the past two years.

Debates, especially constructively ones, are integral in any democracy in order for the people to know their leaders well in terms of what they stand for and whether they understand their stands on an intellectual level. It also a good place to share ideas and to improve on one another’s policy suggestions. These debates started with Khairy Jamaluddin and Rafizi Ramli, both notable young leaders on both sides of the political divide.

The final issue I would like to highlight is the improved scrutiny on accountability and transparency processes.

The PR government rode to victory in Selangor and Penang on the ticket that it will improve transparency and accountability back in 2008. And improved it has. In Selangor, a Freedom of Information law has been passed and conventions such as offering the chair of the Public Accounts Committee to the opposition have been reinstated.

This kept promise will be a factor for PR to differentiate itself from BN. Not many of the accountability processes practised in Selangor and Penang are well known around Malaysia. But as time passes, word will spread and the pressure on individual state governments and the federal government alike to implement these measures will be increased.

Besides this, the recent slew of scandals on both BN and PR has also sounded a resounding warning to both governments to keep on their toes. BN’s NFC, George Kent and SEDA scandal have damaged the coalition’s reputation badly. It has to cut down on corruption if it is to continue holding on to power. If such scandals continue, it will not be long before its support crumbles. One reason for the large number of scandals brought to the open by PR is the increase in resources and talent mentioned earlier.

In the same way, the MCA exposure of the Talam scandal showed that it too is scrutinising the Selangor government’s so far spotless record. Although many of their arguments about Talam has since been shot down one by one not by PR, this lesson would ensure they learn from their mistakes and will obtain solid proof and better formed arguments the next time they reveal any wrongdoings by the PR government.

In conclusion, the two-party system is alive and well and will likely continue to be for the next five years.

There are certainly drawbacks to this system, mainly dirty politics and constant mudslinging by both sides, but as Malaysia matures, these incidents will hopefully be few and far between. —

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