The current status quo of abuse of power, ethnocentric politics, a politicised education system and a suspicious, corrupt government must go, says Ronald McCoy.
Malaysia is at a critical crossroads, after 56 years of independence. Its historical struggle for freedom from British colonial rule has now morphed into a growing struggle to be free of the Barisan Nasional government, a neocolonial-like construct of racially structured political parties, cleverly dividing and ruling a nation.
Reeking with corruption, its abuse of power has gone on for too long. It has lost its way in a political jungle of its own creation by incessantly amending the Constitution; pushing through dubious laws to reinforce its power; crushing judicial independence; permitting arbitrary arrest and detention without trial; disregarding police brutality and custodial deaths; encouraging corrupt crony capitalism; allowing the flight of illicit money; ignoring the serious economic consequences of a ballooning national debt; and stifling dissent, freedom of speech, peaceful assembly, and other fundamental human rights. Yes, the country needs a change of government. It’s the only way to genuine reform, rule of law and democratic governance.
It was not always so in the first 12 years of independence, when the then Alliance coalition government was made up of the “Merdeka generation” of leaders who had a broad, inclusive nation-state view and a value system so different from the current ethnocentric Barisan Nasional regime.
Malaysia is predominantly Malay, but it has one of the most diverse societies in the world. This ethnic diversity has enriched its cultural and social fabric and strengthened its economic footing. And yet, its very diversity has generated serious ethnic tensions and divided the population, owing to unfair policies. The Barisan Nasional (BN) government has increasingly infused ethnicity into national politics, based on an elastic interpretation of the meaning and status of the inter-ethnic “social contract” which emerged in 1957 when Malaysia became independent.
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Dominated by the United Malay National Organisation (Umno), the BN government continues to shore up its support among the Malay majority by implementing affirmative action for the Malays and insisting that the social contract and Ketuanan Melayu (Malay dominance) are immutable and literally carved in stone. In practice, this has translated into systemic corruption, nepotism and cronyism, which has enriched only the anointed few in Umno.
Such ethnocentric politics has polarised a multicultural society and subverted nation building. It has now reached a tipping point. The time has come to dismantle racial politics by voting out Barisan Nasional at the ballot box and eliminating outdated political pygmies, before the country is irreparably damaged politically, economically and environmentally.
The status quo must give way to twenty-first century political thinking and nation-building that will embrace a Malaysian Malaysia, free of ethnic bias, religious bigotry and impenetrable mindsets. Such an opportunity for nation-building will present itself on 5 May 2013 when the nation holds its 13th general elections, arguably the most anticipated and contentious elections ever.
Nation-building requires a strong constitutional foundation which will support the many pillars of democracy: free and fair elections; judicial independence; the rule of just law; separation of powers; commitment to human rights, equity and social justice; honest, efficient, transparent and accountable governance; a free press; an ecologically sustainable economy; universal, equitable, quality health care; and a sound, progressive education system.
Malaysia is a federation of 14 states, with a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy. The Constitution was designed to embody the supreme power of the land and provide for the rule of law and a judiciary, separate from and independent of control by parliament and the executive. It aims to limit arbitrary, excessive use of power by the temporary holders of political office and wielders of power. But the BN government has for decades subverted the Constitution by repeatedly amending it at will to serve its own political ends, exploiting its two thirds majority in parliament.
The benefits of elections are not always assured. Elections can strengthen democracy or undermine it. Credibility and legitimacy in elections will depend on whether they are conducted in a clean and fair manner on a level playing field. Opposition parties must be free to organise and campaign without fear. Politicians, election officials, the bureaucracy and institutions must be held accountable to the voting public. Voters must feel safe from intimidation and be confident that the ballot is secret. Only then will they enjoy equal opportunity to participate in and influence the democratic process. Only then will the result of the elections be accepted without protest. But if protests are made, they must be peaceful.
There is no doubt that political donations, particularly from corporate entities, will undermine and corrupt the electoral process. And yet in the period building up to the elections, the BN government and the Prime Minister himself, in desperation, have blatantly resorted to handouts to various groups, on the incredibly flimsy excuse that this represents government aid for the poor and needy, not bribery. Poverty and need have suddenly become more visible to the government just before a general election! The prime ministerial bargain, “You help me … I help you,” deserves a place in our history books!
Bersih, a coalition of concerned civil society groups, has made legitimate demands of the Elections Commission to secure clean and fair elections. The response has not been very encouraging, confirming the general perception that the Commission is manipulative and pro-government. The national mood before the impending general elections is understandably sombre and anxious, reflecting fears and suspicions that the electoral process leading up to the polls has not been clean or fair, following reliable reports of irregularities, such as gerrymandering and the illegal registration of unqualified voters, including foreign workers and other phantom voters.
In almost every country, people distrust their governments and are eager for change. The 2012 Trust Barometer study by Edelman, one of the world’s largest independent public relations companies, has pointed to a severe breakdown in government trust globally. In Europe, less than 50 per cent of citizens in Ireland, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, Poland, Italy, France and Spain trust their governments. Only 52 per cent of Malaysians trust the Barisan Nasional government.
The study also shows that there is a growing public conviction worldwide that elected representatives have grown too remote, too arrogant, too corrupt and too closely associated with corporate interests to serve the common good. It confirms that incestuous cronyism between government and private enterprise increasingly raises suspicions of corruption.
People in most countries are increasingly aware of corrupt practices involving private enterprise and state bureaucracies. In its 2012 assessment of 176 countries, based on a new upgraded methodology, where the new Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) scores range from 0 to 100 (0 being most corruption and 100 being corruption-free), Transparency International indicated that Malaysia’s score was 49 with a country ranking of 54, together with Czech Republic, Latvia and Turkey. One very telling indicator of corruption was the result of a question asked of companies in Malaysia: “During the last 12 months, do you think that your company has failed to win a contract or gain new business because a competitor has paid a bribe?” Fifty per cent answered “Yes”, the highest score among the 30 countries surveyed.
Transparency International Malaysia expressed the view that a 50 per cent response may indicate that corruption in the public sector is systemic and in some areas institutionalised. It also indicated the need to reform the political arena to reduce monetisation of politics, strengthen law enforcement institutions, uphold the rule of law, overhaul the Official Secrets Act, introduce a Freedom of Information Act, enforce transparency and accountability in public procurement, and improve whistleblower legislation.
The BN government has politicised education and penalised and handicapped generations of schoolchildren because of their poor grasp of the English language, now a global language. Meritocracy has been abandoned and mediocrity or worse floods the country. The ambitious and talented flee across the causeway and Singapore thrives on our brain drain.
Medical education has been hijacked by the Ministry of Higher Education and farmed out to third rate medical schools in distant lands. Such medical graduates frequently fail to qualify for professional registration, but will swell the ranks of government medical services. The profession of medicine has been betrayed by the government’s policy of privatising health care. Medicine is a vocation. When government policy makes medicine a business, doctors will be forced to become businessmen.
There is widespread discontent across the country, deep concern for the future, and a strong desire for change. The political bottom line is that the people of Malaysia can no longer tolerate a government that first serves itself and its cronies and is incapable of mustering the necessary political will to reform itself.
The rakyat wants change. Business as usual and political accommodation are no longer acceptable options. A fat, corrupt and arrogant Barisan Nasional government is eminently replaceable. Let’s do it.