Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Political Squabbling? Irrelevant!

Written by johnleemk on 11:04:49 am May 22, 2008.

Mahathir Mohamad's decision to leave UMNO has struck a chord with the media, mainstream and alternative a like. Even if you could escape talk about toppling the Barisan Nasional government or the power politics of UMNO before, there is no running from it now. But the more I hear about this, the less inclined I am to think it has anything to do with the real problems facing our country. At this momentous point in our history, politics is actually less relevant than ever to the issues we actually ought to grapple with. Regardless of who takes power, he or she will still have to face some very fundamental problems with our country, making it more crucial than ever that we look beyond our present political turmoil to the vision we have for our future — a vision that the government, regardless of whoever forms it, will have to implement.

Politics is undeniably important. I can and will be the first to tell you that. Malaysians have an unforgivable tendency to err on the side of apathy than activity in politics. But at the same time, looking at the questions we are all obsessed with in the media today, it is easy to see why a Malaysian who really thinks about things would be skeptical of politics as a worthwhile way to spend their time.

This might not make sense initially. After all, there's the issue of Pakatan Rakyat forming the next government, or a dark horse candidate for UMNO leadership stealing the PM's post by forming the next government. If either of these scenarios comes true, there will be incredible repercussions for our country and its future for decades to come. If the government avoids being toppled, it will likely have to do so by clamping down on freedom of thought and expression, also a momentous and somewhat unprecedented event. How can we say politics is boring and pointless when so many possibilities lie ahead?

The problem as I see it is that this is really pointless navelgazing. Political gossip is fun, and talking about who will grab power next is always enjoyable. But it's already pretty clear that, barring an unlikely government crackdown which we will be next to powerless to stop, there will be some peaceful transition of power regardless of what we say or do. The only question is when. Will it be from Abdullah to Razaleigh to a Pakatan Rakyat Prime Minister? Will it be from Abdullah to Najib to Pakatan Rakyat? Or will Abdullah's government fall straight away?

In the short run, this is interesting, but in the long run, it's irrelevant. The government is going to fall. It is hard to believe we can so confidently predict this now, but barring a massive imposition of government authority on our freedoms, turning us into a Burmaesque tinpot dictatorship, it is hard to see any way for Barisan Nasional to survive as the government of Malaysia. In the long run, the question we want to deal with is not whether we will see some change in power, but how that change in power will affect us, the people of Malaysia.

That is a question not many are trying to deal with. The people of Malaysia have conveniently been forgotten now that the elections have come and gone. What's more relevant to the politicians we've elected now is not our interests, but the political interests vested in those politicians and their respective parties. This is not necessarily a bad thing we ought to stop; it is a simple fact of life in a profession predicated on power. It does however bring us to the question of how we can remind these politicians that their interests are inextricably linked with ours.

After all, the problem is that our politicians are more concerned with either changing the government or keeping it in power. Except for a few state governments actively pushing forward new policies (most notably Penang), the majority of our politicians are not concerned about actively captaining our ship of state. There is not much talk of where we want the country to go in the future; there is simply a lot of talk about where we want UMNO, Abdullah, Najib, Anwar, Pakatan Rakyat, or Mahathir to go.

A sad fact of life in a "democracy" where the only mechanism for holding leaders accountable is elections is that except for election time, politicians don't really have a reminder of which side their roti canai is buttered on. There's no incentive to do what the people want, as long as you don't make any horrible mistakes people will still remember in a year or two. There's therefore no surprise that our Members of Parliament spend as much time calling each other names like "big foot" or "Projek Khinzir Raksasa" as they do actually debating issues of national interest.

Truth be told, regardless of the moral or ethical issues at hand, the most effective way to play politics is to speak to the needs of the people. It might be just me, but if you can show me how Barisan Nasional will actually address the issues it never did for the over fifty years it's governed, or if Pakatan Rakyat can show how they can effectively lead the country and fix the problems Barisan Nasional has created, I won't care whether it's ethical to ban or support something as relatively minor and petty as party-hopping.

To me, it is completely irrelevant to talk about toppling Abdullah Badawi if it means same shit under a different Prime Minister. It is completely irrelevant to talk about toppling Barisan Nasional if it means same shit under a different government. Why should I care about any of this if nobody is going to make a real change with the power they obtain?

What I care about is knowing how we are going to address the biggest problem of all — defining our country in the very first place. How are we going to address the problem of Malaysians who feel they don't belong? It makes no difference to me whether it's UMNO or PAS, MCA or PKR, MIC or DAP, Anwar or Abdullah, Najib or Hishammuddin. There's not one whit of difference if Malay entrepreneurs get a raw deal at the hands of Chinese monopolies. If Chinese get told to pack up and leave if they want better schools. If Indians don't have any respect for their places of worship. If East Malaysians get completely sidelined by the political process. We may not like to face up to this, but each and every one of these communities — and many others — simply do not feel that they have a place in Malaysia. Otherwise there would be no talk of a threat to Malay rights, no talk of "you tak suka you keluar dari Malaysia", no talk of bathing in the blood of Malaysian citizens, no talk of destroying the religious symbols of other communities, no talk of seceding from the federation. I could simply not care less about who gets to be Prime Minister when we don't even know what he (dare I say she?) will be Prime Minister of.

At the same time, there are far more prosaic problems to take care of. While MPs waste time arguing about the procedure for swearing in one another or labeling each other as Zionist conspirators, nobody except a few backbenchers on both sides of the political divide seems too concerned with an economy far too reliant on government spending. The Edge recently suggested that as much as half of all government expenditure is devoted to fuel subsidies alone. Meanwhile, if you just tot up the sums, it's clear that almost half of all government revenue is derived from petroleum in some way — and that in spite of this, we are running a budget deficit. Our economy is dominated by government propped-up monopolies, supported by a mixture of pointless regulations in favour of a few elite firms and subsidies for said firms. For once the Pakatan Rakyat parties made the economy a key plank in their platform, but all their ideas touted in their manifestos pre-election have suddenly become second fiddle to politicking and grandstanding, especially at the federal level.

And if we're going to talk about the future, what about the education system that will produce the politicians and businessmen of tomorrow? You don't need a brilliant genius to point out that the education system is failing. We herd children into schools who graduate as adults unable to mix with anyone outside their own ethnic group, unable to get a job without government help, unable to get a higher education without government help, and simply not all that much brighter except for this ability to wade through piles of textbooks and revision books meant to help students memorise contextless minutiae. By their fruits ye shall know them; for all the money we spend on our schools, they have failed miserably — and yet no politician has yet to even suggest that we might need to overhaul our education system.

The list of issues to address could go on and on and on. Our draconian laws restricting our very freedom to say what we think could easily make it onto anyone's agenda. Our hamhanded ability to deal with the role of Islam in public life is also a stand-out. We talk about these things, our politicians raise them in Parliament, but nobody has yet to promise specific changes in this regard — and by specific I mean "this is how your daily life will improve after we take power", not "we will repeal this and implement that".

This is why I really don't give two hoots about Mahathir's pointless sandiwara, Anwar's empty or not so empty boasts, Abdullah's increasingly vain attempts to save his sinking ship, Najib's inability to decide whether he'll topple Abdullah or hew to the party line, or Ku Li's bid for the presidency that should have been his. None of these men have yet to present a coherent vision of the Malaysia they want to see. None of these men have yet to say, after the elections, how they want Malaysia to turn out. So far, it has largely been about "me, me, me, UMNO, UMNO, UMNO, PR, PR, PR".

That is not to say there is no promise of meaningful change. Abdullah has clearly been forced to undertake reforms, or at least create a semblance of reforms. Anwar has made tentative steps towards laying out his vision for a Malaysian identity through his notion of "ketuanan rakyat", and although some of his populist economic rhetoric leaves a lot to be desired, I am mildly optimistic that he has better ideas for economic management than the present administration. If we want to talk about ideas for the country, these two men are the only viable choices of leadership we have — and for what I would hope are obvious reasons, it seems Anwar is in pole position. These two men aside, everyone else is trapped in rhetoric about this race or that race, this party or that party.

Inevitably, the focus must return to governance at some point. The only question is when. Clearly, the sooner we can settle down to business the better. But I do not see how we can expedite this process of politicking; at the moment it is not clear how this will end, or who will come out on top. But regardless of who wins, let's keep our eye on the goal here: it is not to put Anwar or Pakatan Rakyat in power, nor is it to maintain Abdullah's or Barisan Nasional's positions. These politicians and these parties are means to an end: they are the conduit to our future, because they are the only real choices we have for leadership. When we look to the future, let's look beyond our leaders and their present squabbles; let's look to the future we want for our children and grandchildren. What kind of opportunities do we want them to have? What kind of identity would we like them to have? Regardless of who takes power, our answers to these questions should remain consistent, and our demands from our leaders should thus be the same. When the political dust settles, it will fall to our leaders, whoever they may be, to implement the vision that we have for our future.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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