Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Why the Opposition Should Form the Next Government

Written by johnleemk on 9:37:14 pm Mar 6, 2008.

Malaysians are headed to the polls in a matter of hours. It is almost certain that in this election, the Barisan Nasional coalition will be returned to power. In the past, and even today, most opposition rhetoric has centred on the need to deny the government the 2/3rds Parliamentary majority required to amend the Constitution. Even most opposition supporters remain skeptical about the merits of voting for the opposition parties as a basis for a new government — the talk of the day is more about "checks and balances", giving BN less power to punish them for their poor administration. My contention is that the opposition is not only good for opposing, but actually good for governing — that the opposition parties we have can and should form a new government.

In a rough, rather cynical sense, "checking and balancing the government" is one valid way to describe a two-party system. But as pragmatic as I am, I do not think the opposition parties have been given enough credit when it comes to actual governance and administration. We are highly accustomed to thinking of them as noisemaking checks on the ruling party, simply because that is how they have always behaved — the last time we voted them into power as a state government (the PAS case in Kelantan excepted) was 1969, and Gerakan promptly joined BN within a couple of years.

There are two things we must demand of any public official: character and competence. Our government must sincerely want to work for the benefit of the people, regardless of whether the people voted for it. A government that is vindictive towards those who do not support it, a government that works only for those who support it, is a government we cannot accept. The government does not have unlimited power to treat the country as its own little fiefdom — the government is the steward of the country, and is ultimately subordinate to the people, which is why we have this little exercise in democracy every five years or so. The other issue is competence — we naturally want a government which has a vision for the country, but also a concrete and practical plan for making this vision a reality.

Let's look at competence today. You might think BN has at least this down pat. I would beg to differ. What vision does BN have for our country's future? Oh, yes, there's that Wawasan 2020. Props to BN for its goal of making us a developed country by 2020. I do have to wonder, though, what their vision is of a developed country. Does anyone remember Mohd Khir Toyo's declaration of Selangor as a developed state a couple of years ago? If that is BN's idea of a developed country, I must say that's hardly a useful vision. I don't know about you, but potholed roads, a poor education system, corrupt local officials, a multibillion ringgit development scandal (the Port Klang Free Zone, anyone?), and staggering crime rates are not my idea of a developed state.

Perusing the BN manifesto, I cannot find one single useful idea. That is not to say it is bereft of things to say and promises to make; it is chock-full of them. But spewing platitudes about national unity, economic growth, fighting corruption and keeping the peace aren't the same as actually having a useful method of putting these ideas in place. Of course BN is putting forth this utopic vision — it knows that this is what we want to hear. But how does it plan to achieve any of this?

There's the additional problem of conflicting visions. It is extremely hard to square away this rhetoric about national unity with the sort of talk that each party makes when election fever subsides. As the leader of one multiracial BN party has observed: "Every 12 months, the parties go back to one race championing their own causes and, at the end of the day, when the general election comes, we talk about 'Bangsa Malaysia'." As a Malaysian, whether I am Malay, Chinese, Indian, Dayak, or what have you, it is particularly discomforting to hear the various component parties speak of what they are doing for the benefit of their own race, especially when they utilise a warped value system that clearly believes our country is like a pie to be carved up, with each race having its own stake. I for one cannot reconcile this vision with the supposedly non-racial, national-based vision put out come election season.

As for putting their ideas in action, if there's one thing BN has done, it's avoided implementing any of these promises on a sincere basis. In the past election, we gave them a stunning mandate on the basis of a stout promise to fight graft. After a couple of high-profile scapegoats, subsequent times have given way to scandal after scandal. Nothing was ever done about the AP scandal. Nothing was ever done about the Port Klang Free Zone scandal, where despite strong advance warnings of cost increases, the government ignored the problem until billions of ringgit had been lost. For as long as I can remember, The Sun has been publishing news of scandals in local governments virtually everyday — absolutely nothing done! As far as fulfilling election promises go, BN has been a wash.

National unity? Please — it was not that long ago that a survey found 89% of Malaysians have not even had a meal with someone from another race in the last three months. Over a third have never had a meal with someone from another race in their entire lives. As far as these metrics go, the government has done a staggeringly poor job of encouraging unity of purpose and sense of belonging to one identity amongst Malaysians. It's hardly a credit to them that we're not killing each other — that's not success, that's avoiding failure (and just barely at that, considering how little we actually mix).

Economic growth? Let's see — our anemic growth rate of 5.6% per annum cannot even catch the Philippines, which despite every official apparently raiding the treasury and persistent failure of leadership, has an economy growing at 7% per annum. Nobody can hide the depressing truth that we are far behind South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Ireland, Estonia, and a host of other countries who have no right to be ahead of us.

You might say that even good management could not help us stave off the economic challenges we face, but you would be telling quite a tall tale. Seriously now — none of these countries have any serious natural resources to speak of. South Korea and Taiwan have lived under the threat of invasion and nuclear war for decades. Ireland was the sick man of Europe just twenty or thirty years ago; Estonia wasn't even a market economy until the early 1990s.

We, on the other hand, haven't had any of these challenges to speak of. We are blessed with petroleum, bountiful forests, a tradition of capitalism and the rule of law, and a relatively peaceful nation. By right we should be one of the top destinations for investment around the world, and we should certainly be holding our own in the economic arena. Instead, we are punching far, far below our weight. It's embarrassing that we can't even catch the Philippines in economic growth. BN is nothing but an abysmal failure here.

These three things are the cornerstone of BN competence, and they cannot even hold their own. What of the opposition? How competent are they? The most natural answer might be, "We don't know." After all, they have never governed the country; the only states they have governed are Kelantan and Terengganu, and it is difficult to discern whether it is their policies, a lack of aid from the federal government (which does fund most state budgets to a huge extent), or some other factors which are responsible for the condition these states are in.

Is this an excuse to not vote opposition? Wait just a second there. If track records are the only way to evaluate an opposition party, then a party that has never governed will never win power. Surely I'm not the only one who sees the logical problem here.

What many seem to ignore is that there are other track records to examine. Anwar Ibrahim, for instance, was in the government. Although it is hard to tell which policies can be directly attributed to him and which cannot, it surely is some sort of indicator that we were all ready to support him as eventual Prime Minister prior to his fall from grace. Anwar has a track record of supporting economic liberalisation (the main reason countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Ireland and Estonia are doing so well). His attitude towards national unity was questionable, but here's some food for thought: Anwar never waved a keris, never threatened to bathe in Chinese blood. His track record is infinitely more clean than people like Hishammuddin's or Najib's.

Vote Nik Nazmi for Seri Setia and MalaysiaFor those without track records, such as Lim Guan Eng, there is a risk to take. You can't escape that. For all we know, they could be horribly incompetent. But if that were the case, if we want to be so risk-averse, we might as well avoid living at all. Life is about taking risks — the question is how much risk do we want to take on. We lessen the uncertainty we face by examining proxies for these candidates' competence. Education is one of the best proxies, as is success in the field these candidates have chosen. Tony Pua, for instance, has an Oxford degree, and ultimately retired young because of his business prowess. Sivarasa Rasiah, the PKR candidate for the Subang Parliamentary seat, was a Rhodes Scholar — something making him the member of a very selective group. PKR is so awash in candidates with these kinds of records that it can afford to field Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, a promising young leader with a King's College London degree, in the Seri Setia state seat. On the basis of these records alone, you cannot say the opposition is led by incompetents.

Now look at their manifestos. Honestly, read them. People constantly complain that the opposition doesn't have a plan to manage the country. I used to be one of them. But comparing these manifestos to the useless one BN has put out, I know which party I believe would run the country more competently, and it sure as hell isn't the party that thinks it can somehow guarantee a steady supply of basic necessities at low prices by implementing price controls and rationing.

The DAP already last year put out an alternative budget that is extremely concrete in its proposals for running the country. PKR was slow on the uptake, but their manifesto is likewise very concrete in identifying how we should address the problems confronting our nation. BN makes vague promises of fighting corruption and lowering inflation; the opposition has concrete measures to reform the judiciary, promote whistleblowing, and create a business-friendly environment. Both the DAP and PKR have proposed measures that would promote sorely needed entrepreneurship and open up markets to competition. If you want lower prices, the monopolies BN has in place over everything from cars to telecommunications are a sure way to guarantee inflation and profiteering. Both leading opposition parties have identified the problem, and will dismantle these corrupt institutions. Look through their manifestos — if you are honest, you will admit that on their merits alone, the opposition deserves to triumph over Barisan Nasional.

You may dismiss these as empty promises, of course. But if you read these manifestos with an open mind, it is BN who has far more vague promises to make. They say they will improve the efficiency of the civil service — how? There is no response. The opposition correctly points out that we need to reward our civil servants for good work by paying them more, and punishing the errant with strict discipline. You may say that's a vague promise, but if that's the case, it's far hell of a better vague promise than what BN has to offer.

If you want to say that the opposition is too incompetent to govern, I expect a good explanation of the reasons why. This isn't your grandfather's opposition, or even your father's — these are men and women who are increasingly well-educated, with increasingly sensible ideas about how to run the country. This isn't a one-man Anwar show, or a two-man Kit Siang and Karpal show. There is an increasingly broad base of well-qualified leaders in the opposition, from Tony Pua to Sivarasa Rasiah, who can administer the country far better than men like Nazri Aziz or Samy Vellu. It is already a given that our country is run by an incompetent government — we deserve better, and the opposition frankly really is a better alternative.

What about character? I have heard worries — even from opposition supporters — that the opposition will become corrupt once in power. That certainly could be the case. I cannot see into the future; for all I know, the principled people I know leading the opposition will become thugs as the men and women of BN have. It is easy to talk the talk, but not quite as easy to walk it. I appreciate these concerns.

Ultimately, however, they seem misplaced. As I said earlier, of course we're taking a risk. The question is, is that risk worth taking? I say it is. We know our government is corrupt, despotic, and treats the country like its personal fiefdom. The casual way they brush off corruption scandals only indicates they care more for padding their own pockets than managing the country well. There is no evidence that they will change, nor any evidence that their character has changed. Even if they mean well, they clearly aren't well-intentioned enough to stop the rot that pervades our civil service and elected officials. "Money politics" and petty bribery are everywhere. The invisible tax that corruption exacts has already deterred countless foreign investors, far more than any peaceful "illegal demonstration" ever could.

That BN thinks it can push us around only makes things worse. As long as we let them raid our natural resources and our taxes for their own benefit, we are letting ourselves be robbed in broad daylight. Our timber, our petroleum, the salaries we earn by the sweat of our own brows — these all belong to us. Allowing the government to take these things away, so they can award uncompetitive and unnecessarily extravagant contracts and "development projects" to their cronies amounts to nothing more than theft. The government's character is beyond tarnished; it is more black than the pot and the kettle put together.

You can argue that power will go to the head of the opposition as it has with BN. But why haven't we seen this scale of corruption in other democracies? India and the Philippines are exceptions, not the rule — again, countries like Ireland, Estonia, South Korea and Taiwan have booted incompetent and corrupt governments successfully, and democratically installed upright and capable administrations. Why the pessimism? With BN, we guarantee corruption and theft. By taking a chance on the opposition to form a new government, we take the chance that they will be less corrupt than BN. If they are more corrupt than BN, we give them the boot, and if they are less corrupt than BN, it will have been a risk well worth taking.

Some people say Anwar was corrupt, a valid point. But if we are willing to give BN a chance, why do we deny that same chance to Anwar? Does not he deserve even more of a chance since, unlike BN leaders, he acknowledges the need to change how things are run? Now you might say he is just doing this for political gain. But how can you read his mind? More importantly, we know BN will be corrupt — but we cannot say we know Anwar will be corrupt. He claims to have turned over a new leaf. BN denies there is any leaf that needs to be turned over. There is no chance BN will fix things. There is, however, a very real chance that Anwar will be different — did he go to jail for eight years to emerge the same man?

Some take things one step further and accuse the whole opposition of being insincere. Say these men and women are unprincipled, talking up equal opportunities for all Malaysians and reform purely for the sake of political gain. Why would Anwar go to jail when he could easily have said, "Okay, I won't fight you, I'll be your dog and return to the UMNO fold"? Why would Lim Guan Eng go to jail for defending the rights of a Malay girl when he could have said "Okay, I won't fight you, I'll be your dog and join the MCA"? Do you really think BN would have rejected them? BN would have made them centrepieces, proof of their incredulous claims that they are the only party that can govern our country. What other explanation can there be but that these people believe in what they are fighting for?

Now you will say that the opposition are nothing more than a bunch of troublemakers. But I ask you, who is the troublemaker — your college classmate asking the government for clean elections, or the government that fires tear gas canisters at him? Who is the troublemaker — the Malaysian politician who asks the government to safeguard the rights of his constituents and goes to jail for it, or the Malaysian politician who raped the other politician's constituent? (I'm talking about the infamous case of Lim Guan Eng and his exposure of Rahim Thamby Chik's statutory rape of a girl in Kota Melaka, Lim's constituency at the time.) Who is the troublemaker — the Malaysian who wants to know why tolls have been raised without any explanation, or the government which declares that toll concessions are an official secret and anyone revealing anything about them should be punishable for endangering national security? I put it to you that the "troublemakers" in the opposition are infinitely more qualified to govern this country than the real troublemakers currently running it.

At this point, grasping for straws, you point out that no opposition party is running for enough seats to capture the federal government. You say that the opposition is divided, with PKR and DAP and PAS all pursuing their own individual agendas. These are all valid points. What you overlook now are equally valid points which demand consideration.

The first is that both PKR and the DAP have roughly congruent agendas. The differences in their manifestos and agendas are those that only a policy wonk could care about. There is no doubt in my mind that, despite their own individual differences, they would form an effective government if given the chance.

Let's account for PAS now. How would an effective coalition government work now? My guess is that PAS would play the role that some mosquito parties do in European governments — they would not always go along with the government (PKR and DAP have a markedly different agenda from PAS), but they would support it because PAS has some goals in common. PAS wants a "welfare state", which both PKR and the DAP can accommodate, and the protection of basic rights such as freedom of speech. If they choose to pursue more radical goals such as the amputation of thieves' hands, PKR and the DAP, whose principles are firmly rooted in more sensible ways of thinking, will block the proposal. (This doesn't make the coalition government impractical. Anyone who thinks the government must be composed of either wholly secular-minded or wholly fundamentalist-minded parties has clearly never heard of dissent within the government, which should happen in any coalition government, but is interestingly absent from our present government.)

And even then, there's evidence PAS has learned from its mistakes in trying to push an Islamic agenda, instead of pushing for the values Islam shares with the religions of all Malaysians, and the morals of all human beings. Bear in mind that PAS has a more moderate leadership these days — hence the dropping of an Islamic state from their agenda. As many Kelantanese have been keen to point out, PAS is actually more moderate in many ways than UMNO; pork is sold freely in Kelantan, and non-Muslim houses of worship are tolerated, rather than being torn down. Looking at the PAS leadership, there is reason to think they will gladly stamp out the unIslamic government embezzlement of Malaysian natural resources and tax money, even if it means giving up on an Islamic state. (It is not even PAS, mind you, but BN which has declared that Malaysia is an Islamic state.)

It's not just the federal government where you have a choice. In most states, enough candidates are running for you to have a choice in who will govern your state. Everywhere we go, we see state governments subservient to the federal government, with its destructive policies of closing markets off to competition so government cronies like Ananda Krishnan can have their cosy little monopolies, driving up prices and reducing our choices. State governments shut up and go along. If BN asks Khir Toyo to tear down a Hindu temple, he goes ahead and does it. We have a chance to make a break with this and elect state governments which will actually look after our interests, rather than those of corrupt public officials — and if you are still concerned about Islamism, in states like Penang and Selangor, the DAP and PKR almost certainly can form the state government without including PAS.

Let's recap. The government is incompetent and plainly uninterested in looking after Malaysians; that much we all know (and probably have more than sufficiently noted and bemoaned). The parallels between our government and corrupt, authoritarian regimes become increasingly clear. Meanwhile, criticisms of the opposition taking power hold less and less water each day. The two main opposition parties with a chance for broad appeal have an increasingly technocratic base of leaders, men and women capable enough to attend the top universities in the world, and then succeed in their chosen professions. They clearly have brains enough to produce clear outlines of what they will do once they are in power, and certainly have thought their policies out with greater care than BN has. Accusations of the potential for corruption are pointless when with BN, there is no potential — we already have rampant corruption.

I know what it is like to have all these concerns — about whether the opposition can truly govern, and whether they are more than one-hit wonders with people like Lim Kit Siang and Anwar Ibrahim. I fully appreciate these concerns. To a large degree, I think it is difficult to ameliorate them unless you actually get to know people working on both sides, in BN and in the opposition. All I can do is share with you what I have encountered in my experience talking to people of all political stripes and persuasions. My conclusion is simple: we are ready for a two-party system. We are ready to elect a new government.

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