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Does power damage the soul?

Photograph: Sumisha Naidu/CNA

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Rosie Ong wonders if existing political power structures erode the central commitment and passion of serving the public, replacing it with gaining and holding onto power as the primary imperative.

When I heard the last general election result, my reaction was plus ca change – the more things change, the more they remain the same. Cynical, you might say – or prophetic?

I understood the euphoria others were feeling, but I believe that a two-party winner-takes-all political system like ours inevitably leads to corruption and deception and serves the rich, the powerful and the well-connected.

Vote once every four years – and then shut up, watch with dismay as election promises are lightly tossed aside, one after the other. Is that the best we can do? How can we be satisfied with that?

How did Malaysia Baru appear to transmogrify so quickly into Umno 3.0 with the wily old Mahathir back to his tricks, firmly at the helm?

The usual guilty suspects? Money, embedded corporate interests, unscrupulous bankers, centralised party pyramids, gutter politics, muzzled press, corrupt institutions, lack of vision, and arrogant male-dominated political elites losing touch with the reality of people’s lives, surrounded by yes men, enclosed in an inaccessible bubble of prestige?

Is there a deeper underlying cause that distorts the behaviour of political parties once they gain power?

Do existing political power structures mutate the central commitment and passion of serving the public, replacing it with gaining and holding onto power as the primary imperative, the rationalisation being that without power, no good can be done?

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A resulting philosophy of the ends justify the means is the beginning of a truly slippery slope into so-called politicking, back-door compromises, internal power struggles, the fudging of morality, the weaselly ditching of transparency and accountability.

Was democracy designed for the people – or was it a devious ploy by the power interests that have endured for generations, a breadcrumb to dissipate cries for change, while business as usual carries on in the dark.

For example, our automatic adoption of the colonial first-past-the-post system feels ruthless to me – a party needing to fight for only a simple majority of seats to become rulers with a licence to dominate. How is it morally defensible that the other half of the population is effectively disenfranchised?

Because of the way the system works out in practice, it skews behaviour in a number of ways – notoriously by benefiting divide-and-rule strategies, pushing parties into using race, religion and royalty as tools for political expedience.

Wong Chin Huat has analysed in-depth the first-past-the-post system. He proposes instead a mixed member proportional system, practised in Germany and New Zealand, to mitigate against the undesirable side effects of the first-past-the-post system.

Under the mixed member proportional system, seats are allocated proportionately based on the percentage shares of votes – so every vote counts. This provides incentives to political parties to become more moderate: they will not benefit by uniting purely to block their common enemies. The system also encourages cooperation and collaboration. How mature that would be!

This system is a concrete step towards realising a civilised society, free from parasitic behaviour and its distortions – one that is interdependent, ecologically sound, kind, empathetic, peaceful, equal, free.

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We have all been frustrated by “little Napoleons” – what the Chinese humourously call zhi ma guan, the sesame seed official – be it a secretary, security guard or condominium board member. Just a tiny bit of power can puff people up disproportionately.

An article in the Atlantic, titled “Power causes brain damage“, mentions the work of a few scientists.

  • Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist, examined the brains of the powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine and found impairment in a “neural process called mirroring, that may be a cornerstone of empathy”.
  • Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor, found that the powerful “acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view”.
  • David Owen, a neurologist, later UK foreign secretary, in his study of world leaders, identifies “hubris syndrome” as a personality disorder resulting directly from power, showing up as “manifest contempt for others, loss of contact with reality, restless or reckless actions, and displays of incompetence”.

Does power damage the soul? And does what is effectively absolute power, without adequate checks and balances, as we have in Malaysia, propel not only our politicians, but our country to the unknown realm where Jho Lo is hiding.

Rosie Ong’s passion is philosophy, particularly of power and how it distorts behaviour. For her, the root of society lies in the human soul, and the radical solution is a spiritual one. She recently attended an Aliran writing workshop with the theme “Writing for Change in the New Malaysia”.

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