Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Why This Opposition Infighting is Good

Written by johnleemk on 7:55:02 am Mar 13, 2008.
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I have not even had the chance to pen my thoughts about the recent general elections, but already there is more than enough food for thought. The hot topic of the day is opposition infighting. Amidst high hopes, we already see the leaders of "Barisan Rakyat" fighting over petty (or not so petty?) issues at the state level. People are starting to doubt the opposition; I hear a growing chorus of "I give up". But what we fail to appreciate is a fundamental reality of politics: it is ugly, and it is dirty.

If you thought winning election was the hard part, you have been way too optimistic. It was hard to get this informal agreement, no doubt, but it will be even harder to formalise it and start forming state governments. Kedah, Penang and Kelantan were easy to settle because one party dominates the state assembly. Perak and Selangor present harder challenges because any coalition government has no choice but to incorporate all three parties — Parti Keadilan Rakyat, PAS, and the Democratic Action Party.

Now we despair because it turns out that when power is on the line, the opposition state leaders are more than willing to cut each other's throats over the issue. Well, what did you expect them to do? Makkal Sakti or Reformasi or whatnot, these people are still politicians. Their bread and butter is power.

Oh, they were supposed to be principled. But who's to say they aren't? They are probably honestly sincere in all this squabbling — odds are, each politician sincerely believes he and his ideas (or her, as the case may be) are the best for the rakyat. Competition is not by default unhealthy; if we all went along with whoever was the first to say "Okay, I get to be Menteri Besar/you must implement my ideas," things would probably be just as bad as they were under BN. Some degree of competition is healthy because it lets us winnow the wheat from the chaff and pick out the better people, the better ideas.

Honestly, put yourself in the shoes of one of these competing politicians. If you think you have a better plan for developing the state, if you believe you have the right mettle and ability to lead, if you believe your leadership would inspire more confidence among the rakyat, why wouldn't you put yourself forward? Now, take this one politician and multiply him or her four or five times. Do you see why this problem arises?

Now we can account for the political parties. In this case, the problem arises because of symbols and perhaps ideology (or rather, what ideology certain symbols represent). But in reality, it all boils down to confidence. In Perak, there are burning questions of how confident the people will be in a government led by a PAS Menteri Besar, regardless of the fact that PAS needs the support of the far larger DAP and PKR to pass any legislation. Because of this question of confidence, the DAP and PKR have been saying, "Eh brother, you can be so sure people will trust this 'PAS gomen' ah? (Or, as the case may be, this 'Chinese gomen' because of the huge DAP representation in the exco?) Where can like that? Ubah-ubah the positions a bit lah, give us some more!"

There are real reasons for why all this infighting is going on. To expect everyone to sit down and sing "Kumbaya" while holding hands after the amount of power these parties hold has just quadrupled or even quintupled is preposterous. With this much power to fight over — this much power to change our country and our future — who would be sitting down and saying "live and let live"? If we were in their shoes, we would do no less.

The important thing now is to not let this competition make us take our eyes off the prize. We are used to a picture of "unity" because BN has dominated every level of our country's politics for over 50 years. The fact is, politics is dirty. Despite all attempts to centralise power and subjugate everyone below the top BN leadership, BN still suffers from highly-publicised missteps. We shouldn't let this infighting distract us.

The time to despair is not now. In case anyone forgot, as more than one friend of mine has said, there is now a real chance that Malaysia will be a democracy within our lifetimes. That's something to be proud of, and something to aspire to. Will anybody remember this squabbling by the time the next election rolls around? Not unless the opposition leaders are still fighting each other then. All these petty power struggles, as big and important as they look, are utterly meaningless in the long run as long as they do not represent a trend. And we have reason to hope and believe that the trend is not towards more infighting.

The reason is that some struggling will always occur after a realignment in power, which is exactly what has taken place because of our courageous efforts to put democracy into practice. As I said, we should be more surprised — and worried — if any infighting was kept to a minimum immediately post-election, because that would indicate some hidden hand is out there quashing dissent and quelling the competition of ideas and people. Once the dust has settled — and at this time there is no reason to believe it won't, since nobody can stare down the other fella forever — the state governments will get down to business — the people's business. We have already seen this happen in states where there was less potential for fighting, like Penang and Kedah, and mark my words, if the present trend continues, we will very soon see the formation of better governments in Perak and Selangor.

So, as we like to say, chill out lah brother. Would it be better if PKR, PAS and DAP weren't fighting for power? Perhaps. But odds are, they wouldn't be, because the only situation in which they wouldn't be fighting each other is a situation in which some dictator is clamping down on dissenting voices. Democracy does not take place merely at the ballot box; it takes place in the halls of our state assemblies and the palaces of our Sultans. Democracy is not merely about voting; it is about making compromises and determining what is best for the people who voted. What we are witnessing is little more than the process of democracy in action. If one or two months from now, all this scandal continues, we have cause to worry. But for now, the reasonable thing to do — as maddening as it sounds — is to sit back and wait.


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