Thinking the Thinkable: Politics after Mahathir (Parts 2 and 3 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

Part 2: Ethnic Relations

Politics after Mahathir will probably see ethnic relations becoming less significant. Thanks to the success of previous ethnic redistribution programmes begun long before Mahathir assumed the reins of government, Malaysian society is now more ethnically balanced in terms of income and distribution of wealth. Ethnicity has become less identified with certain professions and occupations, making for better ethnic relations.

However, even as ethnicity has declined in importance, its ‘twin’ - religiosity - has been on the rise. This is not just a local but a global phenomenon. The Kampong Rawa incident in Penang last year (see Aliran Monthly, Vol 18, No. 4) is a sober indicator that religious sensibilities are now even more significant than ethnic sensitivities in certain locales in Malaysia.

pas members
Muslim civil society should decide to what extent Islam should or should not impinge on the public lives of Muslims

There is some positive indication that in a post-Mahathir era, cultural and religious matters can be assigned to the realm of a ‘non-political’ arena where our major cultural differences will not be compromised. That is, there should be some consensus that certain issues are beyond debate. The 13 May 1969 political watershed more or less has set up parameters for debate over sensitive issues. Since then political parties have in a pragmatically and sensibly usually left the most contentious ethnic issues out of parliamentary and state assembly debates. This is done by mutual consent. Similarly, cultural and religious matters can be resolved within civil society through reasoned debate rather than through open politics and open politicking over them.

Let us look briefly at what is currently perhaps the most ‘sensitive’ issue of the day—the ‘Islamic State’. This is really a matter for Muslims to decide. Muslim civil society (or ‘masyarakat madani’) should decide where, how, and to what extent Islam should or should not impinge on the public lives of Muslims. The issue must be resolved as an intra- and not as an inter-religious matter since it is something that remains open to the process of interpretation (ijtihad) within Islamic discourse.

Currently, the political party PAS has taken a very helpful and pragmatic stance on this matter by not insisting that the Islamic State be an agenda of the Barisan Alternatif but rather only that of the party. It should take the further step to suggest that the Muslim Ummah (community) should arrive at a common position on the subject through a process of ijtihad as well as ijma (consensus) before it can even be proposed for national or parliamentary approval.

In a similar vein, it is inappropriate, for example, that a PAS MP in Parliament has tabled a Muslim apostasy law as a private member’s bill without a consensus among the ummah. What is worse is that UMNO MPs are conspicuous by their silence on the matter. To what extent have Muslims themselves agreed on such a matter, and how are non-Muslim MPs supposed to debate this issue?

Part 3: Civil Society

Civil society - the ongoing, active civil and political forces within the social fabric other than political parties - is bound to become more important in a post-Mahathir era. The social and political role that innumerable non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are already playing is extremely encouraging. It is unlikely that the process can be reversed. Indeed, despite the many obstacles placed in the way of civil society’s participation and engagement in politics in the past, these civil and political forces have remained steadfast and persevered in asserting their role. The difference between political parties and NGOs is that the latter do not vie for political power. Instead, NGOs see their role as watchdogs for society and as constant lobbyists and interest groups influencing governmental policies through legitimate channels. It is extremely important for a mature democracy to have a strong and vibrant civil society. It provides the necessary ‘social capital’ for a political system to function effectively and provides checks and balances against authoritarian ruleWe now have consumer groups, environmental groups, human rights organisations, women’s organisations, the Bar Council, and many cultural and religious associations, all of which play crucial roles in a plural, democratic society. The recent joint manifesto by more than 2,000 Chinese Malaysian associations calling for far-reaching national reforms is a sign that Malaysian civil society has arrived and that civil groups are no more cowed by the state and its apparatuses of dominance.

Indeed, the ‘eruption’ of peaceful, non-violent demonstrations by the Reformasi groups and individuals over the last year is a sign that civil society cannot be cajoled anymore by the empty rhetoric of government spokespersons or worse, be at the beck and call of the state. Enlightened and fair-minded Malaysian should salute the (mostly) young, reform-minded Malaysians for the resolution and perseverance they have evinced in pursuing their cause, risking arrest, battering by the police and jail terms.

If the above is the broad political template for a post-Mahathirian politics in Malaysia, what then are the more specific issues issue that need immediate attention? Let us look at some of the most important of these and see how the projected new political framework can address them.

a. Separation of Powers of the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary

In a post-Mahathir era, we should want to separate the current fusing of the powers of the Executive (the PM and his Cabinet), the Legislature (Parliament and state assemblies) and the Judiciary. The present situation is truly a perversion of these institutions and goes against the principle of separation of powers propounded by the French philosopher Montesquieu.

The separation of powers of these three institutions of governance can be assured only if we also have a strong system of checks and balances. A turnover party system can be a major factor for such checks and balances. So too will the re-introduction of elected local government, which will reduce the concentration of power at the top.

A strong civil society where watchdog groups are constantly keeping vigil over actions of the government and legislature - especially with respect to their legality and constitutionality - is another way of maintaining a strong system of checks and balances. Unfortunately in Malaysia today, whatever decisions made by the Cabinet virtually become instant law because of the Barisan Nasional’s massive majority in Parliament. A strong opposition and the possibility that it can overturn an incumbent government is the best way to check the excesses of a strong state.

  1. b. Towards an elected Dewan Negara

To ensure that the Lower House of Parliament - the Dewan Rakyat - is not the sole arbiter of legislation, the majority of representatives in the Upper House - the Dewan Negara (Senate) - should be elected rather than appointed. This will ensure that Bills passed by the Lower House are not just rubber-stamped by the Upper House but will instead receive greater scrutiny. There is, of course, some merit to appointing several senators to ensure that smaller communities and constituencies are represented. Many Upper House models exist and given the variations, we should introduce a model that would most suit our political and social circumstances after an open consultative process with civil society

c. An independent Judiciary

As for an independent judiciary, the system in Japan may be of interest. In Japan, the judiciary consists of the Supreme Court, high courts and district courts, much like ours. The most important tier is the Supreme Court, in which the Chief Justice is appointed by the Emperor and 14 other judges are appointed by the Cabinet. (In Malaysia, all judges are appointed by the King on the advice of the government).

Most importantly in Japan, all appointments are subject to a national referendum in the general election following their appointment and after a ten-year lapse. An impeachment system also exists, the details of which need not be spelt out here. What is important is that all Supreme Court judges are subjected to the people’s vote of confidence twice during their tenure. This ensures some level of independence of the judiciary. Malaysians should seriously consider the introduction of such a procedure as a check on the independence of the now much-tainted judiciary.

d. Fundamental Liberties and Human Rights

The Malaysian constitution actually guarantees fundamental political and civil liberties such as freedom of speech, association, assembly and freedom of religion. However, over the years, a powerful state has been able to erode the provisions by the introduction of a host of legislation aimed at crippling these provisions. BN governments have passed or strengthened laws such as the Internal Security Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Police Act, and the Printing Presses and Publications Act, all of which effectively render meaningless the original constitutional provisions and guarantees of political freedom.

In a post-Mahathir period, we will have the daunting but necessary task of dismantling these repugnant laws. It would be appropriate to set up a non-partisan National Action Council comprising prominent jurists, lawyers, constitutional experts and notable members of the public to deliberate on how best to restore rightful liberties to citizens. Ordinary people should also be consulted about this and asked to make representations.

Further to this, a national referendum should be conducted to seek a mandate to fully restore these fundamental rights in our constitution. To ensure that rights also come with responsibilities, those holding high public offices such as the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, MPs and Senators would be required to take an oath to uphold the spirit, if not the letter, of the constitution. Any breach of this oath could subject the offending public official to an impeachment procedure.

e. Cronyism and Corruption

The eradication of decades of corruption perpetrated during the Mahathir era will be the most daunting task of all. However, an unswerving and unbending implementation of a refurbished Anti-Corruption Act through a series of Royal Commissions is evidently necessary. This process is not at all new in Southeast Asia. It has happened in the Philippines after Marcos and is also now occurring in Indonesia after Suharto. Why not in Malaysia after Mahathir?

In the post-Mahathir era, more important than merely bringing to book the perpetrators of corruption, the more serious task will be to ensure that old habits do not die hard. Laws, policies and programmes must be put into place to ensure transparency and accountability in economic activity and open tenders for publicly funded projects.

The Anti-Corruption Agency must not only be given more teeth but must ensure that its work is carried out without fear or favour. In keeping with this, the special oath that all ACA officers are required to take must specify unequivocally their responsibilities, powers and tasks. The recruitment of ACA officers must be subject to the most stringent procedures in keeping with the high level of conduct and integrity that is expected of them.

Special training programmes designed to test the integrity and mettle of these officers can be instituted. Serving officers should also periodically take part in such new training programmes. Finally, the appointment of the Director of the agency should be subject to endorsement by both houses of parliament, and the ACA itself should be answerable to Parliament and not the prime minister.

As can be surmised from these remarks on the kind of ideal political system that Malaysians need, we have a rather long way to go. The first step along this tortuous and excruciatingly long journey begins with the upcoming election. If we make the choice for change, we will definitely be setting out in the right direction.

Prof Johan lectures in political science at a local university