Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Respect for Our Institutions Sorely Lacking

Written by johnleemk on 1:05:58 pm Jul 14, 2008.
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In response to the latest developments in the country's political scene, a handful of prominent bloggers have been openly mooting the idea of boycotting the topic area of politics. Frustration and antipathy towards politics are rising in our country, fueled by a flurry of allegations and counter-allegations, innuendoes and counter-innuendoes, and the like. But democracy is not meant to be easy, safe, and forever stable. Democracy is a peaceful way of adapting and responding to changing times; by definition, it entails change and uncertainty. Embracing and harnessing the democratic process is the only way we, the Malaysian people, can ensure our country can change for the better without having to undergo a wrenching, purging process of bloodshed every time there is a regime change.

Politics is fundamentally about power. Left unmolested, all politicians would do is fight for power. Politicians will do whatever they can do to gain power, just for the sake of it — for the sake of being able to say they're on top. In a pure, unadulterated power struggle, policy and the interests of the people politicians fight to have power over would never enter the picture.

This is why in times past, when the world was not much more than a patchwork of autocratic states, rulers only cared for their people when they had nothing better to do, or if avoiding their duties would endanger their own power. Rulers had better things to do most of the time, like constructing monuments to their own greatness with the toil and bounty of their own people, or waging war for their own glory with the sweat and blood of their soldiers.

Modern democracy as we know it really dates back not to the direct democracy of Athens, but the institutional limitation of a ruler's arbitrary power known as the Magna Carta. Although hardly democratic in the sense we know it today — the Magna Carta was a constitution meant to protect the interests of feudal lords rather than the people per se — it remains important because it highlights the importance of institutions making the ruler's power conditional on keeping larger interests in mind.

Institutions are the heart of a functioning democracy: they are what tie the ruler's power to the interests of the people. Without institutions, politicians would not have to care one whit about the people they govern.

Malaysia's problem is simply that it lacks institutions. It lacks a strong tradition of open debate about issues of national importance. It lacks respect for the rule of law, for the importance of Parliamentary and judicial checks on arbitrary executive government power. So few Malaysians even care about the most important institution in the country, the Constitution, that members of the government cannot even be bothered to make sure what they say conforms to the highest law of the land — did you know it is seditious to question the citizenship of non-Malays, that non-Malay citizenship is fundamentally entrenched in the Constitution, or that the Constitution makes no reference to Malay supremacy?

If our highest leaders feel secure in openly contravening the most entrenched, most permanent facets of the Constitution, is it any wonder that nobody at all even cares about respecting Parliament, honouring the federalist nature of our states, or the fundamental right of Malaysians to say what they actually believe? Malaysia has done a bang-up job of creating a façade of institutions and good government; read any official government report and you would be impressed at the reams of data our statisticians gather and the attention our politicians pay to policymaking. We all know, however, that in reality our institutions, our trappings of good governance are easily brushed aside should they cause the slightest political inconvenience: oh, the Election Commission chair has to retire? Let's raise the retirement age!

The rough-and-tumble nature of Malaysian politics is simply reflective of our failure to develop the institutions necessary for democracy to flourish and flower. Our “democratic” elections are meaningless if our newly-elected leaders have no authority to govern, no reason to care about policies or people. It is not enough to be able to go to the voting booth every once in a while and pick which fellow gets to prepend “Yang Berhormat” to his or her name for the next five years: making a farce of democracy only means that politicking continues, outside the channels of our still nascent democratic institutions.

After all, when Parliament is powerless, our elected politicians will go where the power lies: it's in their blood. Parliament is supposedly the ultimate governing body of our country: the Prime Minister and Cabinet remain entirely accountable to it, and any laws they want to pass must meet with Parliament's approval. But because Parliament only has the appearance of power, no politician will care about the policies or laws laid before Parliament.

How did the warlords of yore gain and keep power? By appealing to man's basest instincts: racism, religionism, jingoism, greed; all very familiar elements of the Malaysian political scene. That is why money politics comes to the fore every time Umno has its elections; that is why race and religion take centre stage come party election season; that is why anti-Semitic and anti-homosexual sentiments are convenient tools for taking down political opponents. Without institutions to ensure that the issues politicians must tackle are the issues that matter to the people, politics devolves into a huge mudslinging match.

This is an unfortunate tendency that is all but impossible to eliminate, even in the best of democracies; it is, however, possible to ameliorate. We must remind our politicians that come the next election, if they do not restore the power of the institutions our founding fathers laid down — the Federal Constitution, Parliament, the judiciary — another bunch of new people may get to add “Yang Berhormat” to their names, at the expense of the current lot of politicians. And the only way to remind politicians of their once-in-a-while accountability is to talk to them, is to yell at them — the precise opposite of boycotting the subject of political debate.

When we cede the grounds of debate to the mudslingers, we are saying we don't care where the country goes; we'll let the politicians fight each other to the political death for the right to rule us. This is more than a tad irresponsible; it is treason. We owe it to our country to defend her institutions, to restore them to their rightful roles as facilitators of democracy and checks on political power.

If we want to make the political scene of this country actually a bit more about meaningful issues of import to the nation, our only choice is to keep the debate going: to exercise our democratic right to argue, harangue, and ultimately keep our leaders in line. Democracy may need institutions to flower, but neither democracy nor strong institutions can even germinate without a tradition of discussion and dialogue. Let's keep the fight for a democratic Malaysia going: let's keep the debate alive.

First published in The Malaysian Insider.


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