Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

The Fundamental Failure of the Political Opposition

Written by johnleemk on 5:12:13 am Feb 3, 2007.

A friend of mine who openly supports the political opposition here has made a vigorous defence of the DAP with regard to my criticisms of its lacking policy depth. However, I think the problem here is really more of miscommunication rather than disagreement, as I almost totally concur with his conclusions. Since my criticisms concerning policy depth have never been given a full treatment in an article of their own, it seems like the perfect time to address the problem head-on.

My consistent description of the problem I have with the opposition is that it lacks a coherent and concrete policy stand. Since these are just words which could mean anything, and, as the famous jurist Lord Denning said, "the English language is not an instrument of mathematical precision", I will attempt to define what I mean here. By "coherent", I mean a manifesto of policies that fit together well, like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, and a manifesto of policies which adequately indicate the reasoning behind them. Politics may be driven by images, emotions and perception, but this is little excuse to offer a bunch of disjointed and ill-conceived policies without a clear explanation of the thought that went into them to the electorate.

Usually, a party is driven by an idea, or a set of ideas. These core ideas, which can be anything from "economic development" to "the advancement of Islam", are what should be driving specific policies. The opposition is often very good at stating its core ideas, but not as well at stating specific policies for implementing its ideas. Without concrete policies, voters must rely on their imaginations to see how abstract ideas will become a reality - which brings me to my next point.

When I say "concrete", I mean policies whose effect is obvious and apparent to the man on the street. This effect ideally should not be an effect on the nation or society as a collective, but rather an effect on the man himself. For example, if you want to give people a tax cut, are you going to tell them that "All Malaysians will see a reduction in their income tax by 5%", or "You will see a reduction in your income tax by 5%"? You must help people to see how their life will be like under your policies by making their impact concrete, not abstract. You cannot leave it to them to imagine how they will live if "all Malaysians" lives are improved. You must show them how their life will change by talking about "your" life, not the "lives of Malaysians". Likewise, grand development projects are meaningless if you cannot show people how they will concretely change their lives for the better. What sounds more appealing, a new highway linking two towns, or a halving of the time it takes to travel between those two towns? Both phrases convey the same meaning, but one makes the final impact clear, while the other leaves this to the imagination.

This is what I basically mean by bread and butter issues. The opposition is very good at thinking and talking about the abstract issues which often either have little effect on the typical person's daily life, or which have an impact that is not clear or obvious unless you think it through. The problem with people is, as Bertrand Russell noted, that we tend to dislike thinking. We prefer to have others think for us. The result of this is that although greater accountability and transparency is the result of, say, making the Senate directly elected or holding local government elections, this is not immediately obvious to people without a little of thinking. At first glance, these seem to be "nice to have" policies for promoting democracy, but little else. And, of course, we are not done with thinking if we stop at accountability and transparency, because it has to be clear to the typical voter how accountability and transparency will positively effect their daily life.

For the same reason, macroeconomic policies which lie beyond the ken of the typical voter should generally be put to one side. I would say that the most important economic policies (at least in politics) are those in the micro area, because it is easier to imagine what the result will be if we lower fuel prices than if we raise interest rates. (And anyhow, interest rates are under the purview of the central bank, not the elected government. An elected government which meddles with the workings of its central bank is, in one word, insane.)

The government obviously has something of an edge in government policy because it is privy to our country's finances while the opposition is not, but it is not impossible to state how the opposition's planned reforms for the economy will benefit the man on the street. I highly recommend Bakri Musa's book, The Malay Dilemma Revisited for micropolicy wonks. Bakri does a brilliant job of not only criticising existing government policy, but noting how it could be reformed and restructured to maximise the bang for our buck. He has written a book on our education policy, which I also highly recommend for the same reasons.

If a doctor living in California can write such clear, coherent and concrete policy proposals, why on earth can't any of our opposition leaders here do the same? If Lim Kit Siang or Anwar Ibrahim want my vote, they first have to outdo that humble Californian doctor, because he has succeeded where they have failed. It says a lot about the state of our opposition when you have people thinking that a Malay living across the Pacific Ocean would make a better Prime Minister than any of our politicians here. Certainly, if Dr. Bakri ever wants to enter politics here, he will definitely have my vote.

The key in constructing policies - at least for winning elections - is to make their effect on the man on the street clear. There is little point in saying you will abolish the Internal Security Act or make the Senate democratically elected if the typical man cannot see how he will directly benefit from these things. If you cannot present these issues in such a way as to make their positive effect obvious, it is probably a better idea to keep them on your "to do" list, while focusing on other issues in the campaign. Until there is a radical realignment in Malaysian politics, it will be very difficult to successfully challenge the government in an election on issues like freedom of speech. Our society here is simply not at a level where it will fight for freedom of speech.

You see, it all really goes back to the psychologist Maslow's "hierarchy of needs". Man first wants his basic needs, such as shelter, food and water, satisfied before he can go on to what Maslow calls "self-actualisation". People here are not starving, that is for sure, but they are generally not secure when it comes to their basic needs either. We do not have a large class of financially independent people who will stir things up. Even in the United States, that supposed bastion of freedom, it was not really the common man who lay behind the American Revolution. It was the landed class, who could afford to think about ideals such as the principle that all men are created equal, that led the fight. And even then, the main impetus for the lower classes to support the uprising was not such lofty ideals but bread and butter issues such as the stamp tax. If in such a society and culture, it took bread and butter issues for the people to fight for freedom, how on earth can we expect abstract issues such as freedom of speech and a directly elected Senate to win an election here?

As noted by my friend, there is a major problem with voters using our politicians as a complaints department instead of using them to address macro problems. It is true that tackling these issues at the immediate level is a responsibility that lies with local councillors. However, tackling these issues in the long run can only be done by the federal legislature. The local governments can implement ad hoc responses to problems such as loan sharking, but it is difficult to really address them without comprehensive legislation. This is where the government has failed, because its policies are always little more than ad hoc responses to problems that crop up. Barisan Nasional's policies have generally been to wait for problems to crop up, implement some half-assed solution that in turn causes more problems, and then claim victory.

The issue, however, is that the opposition has also always taken the ad hoc approach. As one chap noted in reply to my friend's dissection of my arguments, the DAP has basically permitted the government to define public discourse by simply being the "mirror image" of BN, and simply opposing for the sake of opposing. Instead of coming up with new initiatives and alternatives, they have always been content with criticising existing policies and occasionally concocting something new that is simply the diametric opposite of whatever BN came up with.

I have a book on my desk by Lim Kit Siang dating from the 1970s, titled Time Bombs in Malaysia. It's an interesting collection of essays and speeches, but it is absolutely terrible in terms of convincing people to support the DAP. Even though that is to be expected, since its main purpose was rather to dissect the government's policies than to directly convince people to vote for the DAP, did Bakri Musa intend to convince me that he would be a better Prime Minister than any of our current politicians when he penned The Malay Dilemma Revisited?

If the opposition wants to become the government, it has to do a far better job than it has thus far. It is not enough, and will never be enough, to simply hentam BN for its weaknesses, no matter how numerous. If the opposition wants to win votes, it has to show that it is capable of governing the country, and that it is capable of positively changing the daily lives of the people on the street. If all they exist to do is to bring attention to particular issues, they should be honest about this, so those of us seeking a government that can breathe life into our dying country can look elsewhere.

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