Thinking the Thinkable:

Politics after Mahathir

(Part 1 of 3)

After nearly two decades of domination by one man, the character of politics in the post-Mahathir period is bound to be radically different

by Prof Johan Saravanamuttu

after mahathir
Mahathir turns 74: due for retirement?

Malaysian politics is at a threshold. The current catharsis that has been unleashed by the Mahathir regime virtually heralds its own inevitable and imminent end although no one can tell just yet when that end will come.

Given the umpteen occasions that Mahathir has intimated that he wishes to retire, we shouldn’t be faulted for assuming that it won’t be too long a wait. After nearly two decades of domination by one man, it is safe to assume that the character of politics in the post-Mahathir period is bound to be radically different.

The thrust of this analysis is to point to some plausible future scenarios. That is, thinking the thinkable. Let’s begin the task of imagining the future by focusing on three factors crucial to political change and transformation in Malaysia. These are 1. party and electoral politics, 2. ethnic relations, and 3. civil society.

Party and Electoral Politics

To visualise a positive development in party politics is not necessarily a pipe dream. There have been some very encouraging movements towards a two-party ‘turnover’ system. At the broadest level, this simply implies that governments can be changed through periodic elections. In other words, voters will have a real choice between at least two parties or two coalitions, with possibly a strong third force entering the fray.

This sort of system exists among advanced democracies such as Britain, the United States, Germany, Australia, Canada and Sweden and among developing Commonwealth countries such as India, Jamaica and Guyana. The important thing here is that any competing party or coalition of parties can be returned to power through the ballot box based on its political platform, programmes and policies offered to the electorate.

The coming together of the various opposition parties to form the Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front)(BA) is a healthy movement towards such a two-party system. For once in our political history, voters will be given a clear choice between two viable coalitions - the Barisan Nasional (BN) or the Barisan Alternative (BA) - aspiring to form the next government. Whatever the election results, hopefully the two fronts will remain largely intact with their distinct characteristics and programmes so that future voters will continue to have a real choice.

In Malaysian politics, where ideology does not seem to be very important, the two sets of competing agendas or programmes should be different to make it easier for citizens to choose.

Already it is clear that the alternative front has more socially oriented programmes and is more reformist-minded than the BN. Some of the BA’s pledges include limiting the prime minister to two terms in office and restoring elected local government. The BN as the incumbent relies heavily on its track record of economic development, stable ethnic relations and continued distribution of the economic cake among various ethnic groups. The BA has challenged the efficacy of these BN goals and offers instead more social democratic, welfare-oriented programmes in its economic policy.

Related to party politics is the electoral system. Our system, inherited from the British, is based on single-member constituency representatives. Amendments have resulted in a rural bias in the delineation of constituencies: the number of rural as opposed to urban seats is disproportional to their respective populations. While this is not necessarily an unjust policy since urban voters usually have more channels of communication with the government, this provision of giving more seats to rural areas can be abused.

For example, gerrymandering has allowed some ethnic communities to be disproportionately represented while others have no effective representation at all. Post-Mahathirian politics must address this issue and institute meaningful democratic reforms to strengthen and stabilise ethnic relations while ensuring the rights of smaller minorities. How can we do this?

The first agenda should be the restoration of elected local government, which was removed in the early 1970s supposedly because of corruption and inefficiency. Local government refers to representative government at the municipality or city level. Our municipalities are already well defined and currently administered by the federal state.

However, as citizens we pay assessment and other charges to this level of government and are directly affected by its policies and administration. Shouldn’t we be represented by elected officials and not just by appointees as is the current practice?

To take an Asian example, Japan has an extensive tier of local government based on its 47 prefectures (including Tokyo, which is the largest with 13 million people). Each prefecture has its own elected governors and assemblies. At the true local level, it has tens of elected mayors and hundreds of elected councillors in cities, towns and villages.

In Malaysia, having real local government would mean allowing the people to elect their own representative to the various town, municipal and city councils. It would mean allowing the people to elect city mayors as well.

Electoral reform at the federal and state level may be problematic but it is essential. Our system favours big parties or coalitions and neglects small minorities. Even the ethnic Indians, who form a significant 10 per cent of our population, do not constitute a majority in any constituency. What more the Thai minority, Portuguese Eurasians, Penans or Orang Asli? And what about religious minorities such as Taoists, Christians and Sikhs?

Some countries have opted for Proportional Representation (PR) because it is considered fairer. Indonesia introduced such a system for its general election this year. Sweden is another such example. Each party has a list of candidates and wins a number of seats proportionate to its share of the popular vote in an election. To qualify for seats, however, a party must have at least 4 per cent of the national vote and a candidate no less than 12 per cent of the vote in his or her constituency.

In Malaysia, because of our ‘first-past-the post’ single-member constituency system, losing candidates with large shares of the popular vote don’t get elected. Neighbouring Singapore, which un_der_took electoral reforms since 1988, introduced the Group Representation Constituency (GRC). Up to six candidates on a party slate can be elected in one constituency. Minorities get represented by joining a party’s slate. However, in the Singapore case, this system works against the weak opposition forces.

There is no perfect system of course but some change has to be made in future to ensure better representation at the local, state and federal level. A mixture of locally elected councils, single-member constituencies, GRCs and some form of PR may be a good system for Malaysia, given our highly plural society. An all-party National Task Force should be set up to study such electoral reforms in the post-Mahathir era.