Democracy should not be just about making promises; people also need to know what promises can be made and delivered, says Nicholas Chan.
Politics is about getting solutions. We practise office politics because we want solutions for a good promotion package or a conducive, peaceful environment to work in or both.
That is what makes politics exciting to talk about because, apart from the flair and drama, it is about looking for solutions.
However, the validity of the solutions proposed comes from political literacy.
Malaysians are getting more politically literate, especially after the watershed moment of the 2008 general election.
The fact that the government is sitting on the edge of its seat makes everyone sit on the edges of their seats too.
But how does one judge political literacy? This literacy, as I observe it, can happen in two forms, which is not to say they are mutually exclusive.
The first is being knowledgeable about domestic affairs in general. It involves a knowing of who’s who, who-says-what and who-has-done-what. A good reader and follower of the news can easily fit into this category.
The second type would be those who are more invested in finding solutions other than just who to vote for – by virtue of self-interest, career choices or just a deep sense of patriotism. And this is the type of political literacy I wish to elaborate on today.
The reason is that this group not only forms the discursive material for our discussion and understanding of politics; they are also in many ways at the frontlines of politics and policy-making.
They are the practitioners, preachers, lobbyists, opinion leaders, community organisers, and even brawlers (in the metaphorical sense) of politics.
We rely a lot on them to reach our much coveted developed nation status, and once we reach it (hopefully in every sense of the word), we will need them even more.
Therefore, it is important to look at their DNA, or orientations, and there are mainly three different ones:
The first would be what I call the philosophers. They have a tendency to theorise, a good grasp of what forms an ideal society, and a remarkable sense of time, space and mankind. They are usually your thinkers, public intellectuals, university lecturers, clerics, rights activists and movement leaders. Their concerns are long-term, ideological and multi-dimensional.
The second orientation would be the wonks, a term made popular in the United States due to the advent of the age of data and an increasingly quantitative spin in US academia and policy-making. They are usually people who are good with numbers, knowledge management, and data visualisation. They are your public policy consultants, research analysts, project managers, or the technocrats of government or international bodies. Their focus is often project-based, empirical and with specific goals to fulfil in the short or medium term.
The last group would be what I call the practitioners, your doctors, engineers, councillors, law enforcers, teachers, penghulu, and social workers; the ones in the frontlines handling government services provision. They have very specialised knowledge, a deep ‘profession-consciousness’, and are primarily concerned with the smooth day-to-day running of services or operations.
These are not neat categories, of course. For example, a politician can be at either level or can be at all levels, or none.
A politician that is very adept and focused on local issues is closer to a practitioner; and you have also others who are very good with the spreadsheets (wonks); and those who pontificate about how politics, the economy, and society should be organised (philosopher).
You can see that I am using a very broad definition to not confine the interlocutors of politics to just the public intellectuals or personas; but to expand it to corporate, bureaucratic and technocratic players, because simply, they matter. What they believe and what they do, determines how our expectations of politics are shaped; how they are actually practised; and more importantly, the gaps in between.
Despite their overlaps, the divide between these orientations (which is what made them into categories in the first place), can pose significant challenges and problems.
One can always sense the rivalries, misunderstandings, and even disdain of one group towards the other. And herein lies the problem because it makes good policy articulation and implementation difficult.
For example, the philosophers will tend to see the wonks as being too immersed in the corporate-consultancy culture and neglect the humanistic side of things, while the wonks will dismiss the philosophers as too airy-fairy with less empirical data to back their theories nor any concrete plans to realise their ideals.
The divide between the practitioners and the other two orientations is always the grouse between one thinking the other being too detached from the reality on the frontlines (like the soldier versus civilian debate), while the other thinking the former one is being too myopic, entrenched and complacent.
I named these differences orientations because I see their differences, provided they are bona fide intentions, as being just that. Subjects that are formed by education, profession, experiences, the banalities of work, and sometimes the luxury to ponder about deeper questions.
I don’t hold any orientation being inherently superior to the other. Indeed, it is the hermetical –and sometimes arrogant – outlook that poses the greatest problem.
Without an exchange of ideas and an empathy of positions, a philosopher would risk being an idealist, while the practitioner too immersed in his/her day job would miss the bigger picture, unable to comprehend the need or ways for greater reforms.
Similarly, a wonk too engrossed with numbers (and performance indices), without any guiding philosophy, can be too single-minded in achieving numerical targets that he/she disregards the actual impact or worse, performs statistical sleight-of-hand to make sure targets can be reached.
One example of it is Malaysia’s poverty line that is said to be set too low – only slightly above the minimum wage of RM900 for an average household size of four – hence giving a false sense of achievement in poverty eradication. Another can be seen in this critique of the UN poverty reduction campaign.
Disconnections between the head and the tail (figuratively speaking) are very common as a result of this incongruence in orientations.
The big ruckus during the implementation of the school-based assessments, which some would argue is a good policy going by international experiences, bears witness to that.
Better political literacy should be one that fosters greater understanding of the ideals, challenges, contingencies, and rationalities that dominate thinking at every level, from policy conception, to planning and to implementation. To be more realistic does not entail being less ideological.
In fact, better empathy and synergy between multiple actors (and their orientations) ensures that ideologies get translated into workable and running policies.
If we have enough of how endearing policy papers never get actualised, we should insist on expanding political literacy, not just among those planning and running them, but also among the people.
This is because a stronger grasp of the frameworks and actualities of politics is important for a democracy to function better.
Democracy should not be just about making promises, although ostentatiously so nowadays, but also the people knowing what promises can be made and delivered, and why they should be.