By Ilaiya Barathi Panneerselvam
“The checks and balances is a way to prevent [the] government from either devolving into an autocratic tyranny or an autocratic mob mentality.” – Beau Willimon, an American playwright
On 10 August radio station BFM hosted an interesting segment that discussed the probable classification of voters in Malaysia, with critical insights from political scientist Dr Wong Ching Huat and why it matters.
Though light-hearted, the discussion touched onn why we need to re-examine our voting preferences – whether it is based on our loyalty to a political party, a charismatic leader, the party’s ideology, the cause, our personal upbringing or a spur-of-the-moment decision.
Today the fate of six states in Malaysia may be sealed for another five years. The uncertainty over which side will win and take over the state governments makes these elections most interesting.
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While the “unity government”, for the first time, fields Pakatan Harapan and Barisan Nasional candidates as a joint force, the Perikatan Nasional coalition uses ethno-religious rhetoric to rally the support of voters eager to find an alternative to Umno-BN.
PN has also fielded ethnic minority candidates, which many view as a token effort to counter the racial slant the party has taken in building its support base.
As interesting as it gets, the politics of these major political coalitions is warped toward inducing fear, with possible repercussions if either faction comes to power.
Their narratives, even before the designated campaigning period begins, has shaped a national discourse in the public sphere about how terrifying it would be if one or the other assumed power. Except for a few candidates scattered throughout the country, this tide erodes local issues.
Amid these major coalitions’ tussle to assume power and show their might, relatively minor and newer political parties – the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) and Muda – have formed a pact. This has courted excitement, engagement and, as expected, some backlash.
The country needs a credible force to provide checks and balances at the state government level. But competing against well-resourced political coalitions in a first-past-the-post voting system is a major drawback. The playing field is simply not level.
Will the unity government, which has its roots in Reformasi, level the playing field to foster a healthier democracy where parties with financial support alone do not dominate the political space during elections? Time will tell.
Or will a credible opposition take the government in power to task?
Checks and balances needed
At present, the major coalitions have been in power, either at the state or federal level, for at least one term (five years). So they are not new, inexperienced or politically incapable.
However, at certain times, their political will to move towards collective progress for a better, inclusive and progressive Malaysia appears questionable.
Many may feel the current federal government, which is only eight months old, has to undo the turmoil and damage of the past 60 years perpetrated by various leaders in the Umno-BN coalition.
I agree, despite the shortcuts taken by PH to come into power in 2018 and 2022. While the situation last year perhaps could not be helped due to practical complications, the choice in 2018 – the inclusion of Dr Mahathir Mohamad in PH – could have been avoided.
The elections in six states that didn’t hold their state elections together with the last general election is a positive thing. It provides an opportunity for voters to assess the performance of the new federal government as much as the respective state governments.
But the rise of ethno-religious politics with fascist tendencies among PN members has made the future hazy for those who desire a more inclusive Malaysia.
Instead of focusing on the reforms with the powers at their disposal, PH leaders are rushing into regressive measures in a desperate attempt to woo the conservative bloc. Although the leaders perform marginally better than the alternatives, questions linger about how well they and their measures will resonate with the public.
A recent survey suggests the popularity of the PM (also to be interpreted as PH) has declined, especially among the ethnic Malays.
Think of the nomination of Najwan Halimi in Kota Anggerik despite his racist remarks, the continued use of repressive laws such as the Sedition Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the banning of Swatch watches and the early retirement of the lead prosecutor in Umno president Zahid Hamidi’s corruption case.
These and a few other factors have sparked discontent, mistrust and political fatigue amongst the once loyal voter base of PH.
How will fence sitters perceive all this? Will undecided voters be troubled by PH’s shifting stance shifts as long as it remains in power? Or will the fence sitters perceive the current compromises as a strategy to lose the battles before winning the war?
That said, PN can never function as a reliable watchdog in the halls of power where laws and regulations are drafted. Not only did their most intellectual representative get snuffed out by caretaker Economic Affairs Minister Rafizi Ramli in a public debate, the PN itself is wildly disconnected from the people’s basic concerns.
It would appear that policy discussions are not the PN leaders’ cup of tea, so they mask their shortcomings with racial and religious rhetoric.
These state elections are timely and, in some ways, crucial. The Malaysian democratic process is often limited to just voting. So, other forms of democratic participation by the masses and the role of institutions as watchdogs of democracy are often obscured. Or public participation is often confined to academic and intellectual discourses. But such discourses fail to resonate with the people and hence remain concentrated within urban areas and the elites.
This comes as no surprise, as a developed political conscience can pose serious threats. A conscientised mass of people will reserve their political support, which would be conditional on their needs being met, rather than provide dogmatic adulation to the major parties.
Choosing a credible force
The public must play an active role in identifying whether the incoming legislators are all members of the same few parties. Their ideologies and worldviews could be harmful to social harmony, positive change and public participation in government.
Analysing the manifestos is probably a good start. Do an internet search to identify the candidates in your constituency. Examine the candidate’s work with and for the community, as well as their declared wealth (if it has been declared. If the candidates have not declared their wealth, they should be compelled to do so, as elected officials are responsible to the public).
We do not want to endure another 60 years of mass deception and unchecked wealth accumulation through projects and developments that harm people and the environment.
Politics is not a domain for elected candidates to enrich themselves; it is a service that allows the formulation of progressive and inclusive policies through open dialogue with the public. Such policies should serve everyone, irrespective of their ethnicity or creed.
When issues that are central to the daily lives of the people gain prominence in political discourse, Malaysia will be transformed.
To achieve this goal, we need to organise a vigilant and critical civil society that would allow the masses to take on the role of a watchdog from outside the state assemblies. We must also send those with a track record of having the people’s best interests at heart into these assemblies to represent the public who are outside.
Critical long-delayed issues need to be tackled: inadequate affordable housing, the suspension of local government elections, a lack of democratic participation, environmental hazards, an inadequate social system to support workers.
These issues have cropped up due to the unchecked and arbitrary nature of the uncontested majority at places of decision-making. Or the opposing party may not be know or care about these issues or lacks the political will.
So let’s take a stand to be responsible for our future. Let’s not allow the politicians representing a single party or bloc to enjoy an uncontested majority.
Selangor will benefit from the progressive track record of PSM and its straightforward manifesto, which was developed through its engagement with the community it seeks to represent. For example, the party’s majlis perundingan rakyat (people’s consultative council) is one example of how such councils could empower the people to have a larger say in determining their future.
On the other hand, Muda’s aspiration to create a new Malaysia is a promising beginning that will aid in installing checks and balances. Thus, electing a credible opposition is safe and would serve the best interests of the public.
The writer is a researcher and secretary for PSM