Many Malaysians who voted for the Pakatan Harapan in the 2018 general election are now quite frustrated.
The change they had hoped for did not materialise; the government they elected against all odds imploded in February 2020.
Many are feeling despondent. It is a human tendency to blame others – in this case, ascribing blame mainly to the individuals who switched camp.
Perhaps it is time for us to be a little more objective. Could we, the reform movement too, have been a cause of the PH implosion – in that we underestimated the task of charting a new course for the nation and so did not take the effort to fathom the expectations and underlying anxieties of other social groups that voted with us in the historic May 2018 election.
Our movement failed to fashion the policies and programmes that would have kept them with us as we deepened and consolidated the reform process.
It is important that those who wish to see better governance of this country start preparing themselves for another attempt to attain federal power.
That opportunity might come sooner than we might expect because the objective conditions – the deep-rooted culture of kleptocracy in the Barisan Nasional ruling elite, the urbanisation of and class differentiation within Malay society that has created a growing Malay underclass which is critical of the Malay political and economic elite – predispose us to another ‘rebellion’ against the BN ruling elite.
Let’s outline some characteristics we need in our elected leaders to consolidate such a political change and build a better Malaysia.
Common decency and good intentions are important requirements but are not in themselves enough to navigate the difficult terrain created by 60 years of ethnicised politicking, deep-rooted inequalities in society, an international economic order that favours the largest corporations, and runaway global warming.
What qualities should our MPs and state legislative assembly members have to handle this complex set of problems? This is an important issue we have to discuss so we can start recruiting and training the people we need.
Not only do we have to bring about political change, we also have to elect MPs and state assembly members who have the capacity to consolidate power and launch Malaysia on a path of true reform.
Let me start that discussion by sketching out eight key characteristics that our future political candidates should have.
Concern for ordinary citizens
We need to select candidates who are concerned about social injustice and are committed to fight marginalisation of certain sectors in our society. Building a better Malaysia for all must be their most important priority and not personal material advancement. At present, too many aspirants are entering politics because it represents a shortcut to material advancement.
Clear understanding of the root causes of poverty in our society
Corruption is a major scourge that the nation has to tackle.
But our political candidates must have a holistic understanding of our economic plight. There are other important factors that lead to injustice and poverty apart from corrupt elites.
One major factor is the current international economic system that continually sucks surpluses out of developing countries like Malaysia through the suppression of commodity prices and wages.
The exploitation of Asia, Africa and Latin America that began 500 years ago did not end when the former colonies attained independence. The form of surplus extraction merely changed form.
Huge amounts of wealth continue to be drained annually from the former colonies by large multinational companies.
Our elected candidates should be clear regarding the short-term as well as long-term solutions to this problem.
Malaysia is deeply embedded in the global capitalist structure and cannot disengage abruptly from it. That would cause extreme economic hardships for the people.
The short-term and medium-term programmes would be to increase the share of national wealth going to the working classes, create a sturdier social welfare net, promote local community and workplace democracy, and implement serious measures to stop global warming.
These programmes should build the capacity and confidence of the Peoples’ Movement within the country.
We also need to create an international coalition of nations to limit and finally stop the continuing plundering of the wealth of Asia, Africa and Latin America by the richest corporations of the ‘North’.
This will require some substantial re-writing of the free trade agreements and World Trade Organization (WTO) laws and the laws governing intellectual property rights, and it will take decades to realise.
Rejection of ethnic politicking
The British encouraged the development of ethnic-based parties in their effort to destroy the progressive anti-colonial movement represented by the Pusat Tenaga Ra’ayat and All-Malaya Council for Joint Action (Putera-AMCJA) coalition of 1945-48.
The post-independence Malayan government continued the suppression of the left secular opposition (Party Rakyat and the Labour Party) using the Internal Security Act and restrictive trade union laws. It succeeded, and as a result, Malaysians have been exposed to ethnic politicking for the past 50 years.
We need candidates who can bridge the ethnic divide. The candidates we need have to understand:
- the anxieties and grievances of people of different ethnicities so that the candidates can empathise with them and communicate with them and represent them effectively
- understand that both the “Malaysian Malaysia” and the “ketuanan Melayu” formulations stray (in opposite directions) from the balance that was achieved in the Federal Constitution of 1957. The handling of ethnic issues in the Federal Constitution is quite even-handed and can continue to serve as a guide on how to move forward
- actively speak out in defence of people of other ethnicities
- avoid using ethnic arguments and issues as a shortcut to mobilise political support
Mindful of the diversity within Malaysian society
Our movement needs to work on building a more humane and progressive consensus among the different groups in our society regarding the many contentious issues that exist – child marriage, religious conversions, LGBT issues, the death penalty and Sharia criminal law.
These are the fault lines that will be used by Western powers to destabilise us if and when we manage to move the nation in a more progressive direction.
Serious about climate change
We need candidates who are concerned about the environment and have clear ideas on how to deal with global warming.
Committed to empowering the people
The candidates we need should be committed to develop the capacity of ordinary people to participate in their own governance.
There is a strong tendency in Malaysia for political leaders to be overbearing and egotistic – in that way Malaysian society is still ‘feudal’.
The politician of the future should be different – an equal, a friend, educator and enabler of the people. He or she should be constantly trying to empower people and build their capacity to take over local government, run cooperative businesses, participate in the management of their workplace, and serve as part of a mechanism of checks and balances on the government.
Our candidates should recognise the importance of submitting to the discipline of the party regarding financial matters.
The corporate class is constantly trying to buy over political leaders. The higher one rises in the political system, the greater the inducements from the business classes. One does not need to ask for bribes. They will be offered quite freely in various forms to the politician or his family members.
Elected representatives who are comfortable with a simple lifestyle would be the most resilient to these sorts of temptations.
Elected members are on a slippery slope and need the help of the party to avoid sliding down that slope.
There needs to be specific protocols to curb the continual attempts by the corporate class to ‘buy’ our elected leaders, eg asset declarations at regular intervals to a select committee within the party and reporting of and proper auditing of all political donations received. Politicians who are living beyond their means should be asked to account for the sources of their wealth.
We need political candidates who appreciate the need for this sort of checks and balances and who will submit to the discipline of their party.
We should not underestimate the complexities of the tasks facing us as we try to build a better, more inclusive and harmonious nation. We need candidates with an in-depth understanding of our nation’s socioeconomic situation and the nature of its articulation into the global economy as well as the personal characteristics outlined above.
Otherwise, the reform movement will flounder. Those of us passionate about bringing about political change in Malaysia should strive to ensure that while we work seriously on the policy options available to us, we should also start building a cadre of potential candidates who will be able to properly represent us in Parliament and the state assemblies.
Change is possible. But we have to work smart!