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Imagine if your grandma was in Parliament…

Sketch by Wong Soak Koon

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It is time we put empathy back into politics, Sonia Randhawa writes.

While we watch the farce that passes for Malaysian politics with a mixture of detached boredom and horror, I can’t decide whether Jacinda Adern’s victory in New Zealand should offer us hope or cause a deepening despair.

Sure, it is great for people in New Zealand to be able to affirm support for a leader who has taken unpopular but ultimately life-saving decisions. But, a part of me wails, what about us? Is it fair that after voting in a government that promised progress and reform, we are stuck in a quagmire of self-interested politicking? An adolescent part of me screams, we did the work, we had a peaceful transition of power, and the politicians didn’t play fair, Ma!

But my mother isn’t going to come and make things better. Eyes narrowed, we have to fix it ourselves. If this political mess isn’t what we voted for and isn’t what we wanted, then we need to work out how we got here and how to fix it.

The problem wasn’t the election result. It wasn’t even that the politicians acted in bad faith or that they are bad apples perverting the system. The system itself is the problem.

First, power has increasingly been concentrated in the federal government since the early 1980s. (Yes, that makes it Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s baby.) This concentration of power means the rewards are high for both the party and the individuals involved. There isn’t even a fig leaf left to hide the nature of what’s happening – naked power grabs, with no veneer of ideology or values.

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Second is the expensive nature of politics in Malaysia and elsewhere. Despite the limits on spending written into law, these are more ignored than observed; they seem to look pretty in the statute books.

And with all that big money, those spending it expect a return on their investment. The money in Malaysia seems to come primarily from the parties and the candidates. That means that politics is a rich man’s sport (so few women contest there isn’t much point in pretending otherwise). The parties themselves often want a return on their investment – which is why so much big business in Malaysia is concentrated in party hands – but so do the individuals involved.

The people not directly funding the elections are the communities, the poor, yet they pay the price, through more expensive services, through lack of pro-poor policies and through the corruption pervading the upper echelons of our system.

For decades, electoral democracy has been thought to be the beginning and end of democracy. There are attempts to tinker at the edges, and many of these changes are extremely important in safeguarding human dignity and rights – whether it is guarantees of freedom of expression or safety against arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.

Yet, the system continues to favour those who start out with privilege. We’ve not yet seen a factory worker sitting in our Dewan Rakyat. Those who sit in the august house are not representative of the general population – which means we are missing important perspectives, not just of gender, but of lived experience.

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Imagine, instead, if your grandmother was sitting in the houses of Parliament. Maybe it’s just me, but I know of few people with as little formal education and as much good sense as my grandmother. She could cut through layers of… nonsense more efficiently than a hot knife through butter. Despite each of her children having at least twice, up to four times, as many years in school, not one of them could pull wool over her eyes.

Now imagine if all the people sitting in the legislature had that common sense. Imagine they were genuinely looking out for community interests, because when their term was over, they would return to the communities they came from, and have to live day in and day out with the consequences of the decisions they had made. There would be no incentive to stack the system in favour of the rich, because these people would only be as rich as the general population. 

Across the world, experiments in deliberative democracy are taking place. The most exciting of these is the establishment and, in some cases, the institutionalisation of citizens’ assemblies. These comprise randomly selected, demographically representative groups of people who (usually) make decisions too difficult for politicians to handle.

It is time we, in Malaysia, stopped deferring to our antiquated system of electoral democracy, which has served only short-term elite interests, and started exploring better alternatives.

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