Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Change From Within? Not Likely

Written by johnleemk on 1:42:20 pm Aug 27, 2008.

As frequently maligned as Barisan Nasional is, it is not as bad as it often seems to be. There are a surprising number of competent and thoughtful leaders in Barisan, and they do deserve our support when they push for "change from within". Like most others, I wish them the very best in their struggle; unfortunately, I cannot say I dare dream that they will succeed. For all the good these men and women might intend, the deck is completely stacked against them.

Barisan has a surprising crop of intelligent and capable leaders. Khairy Jamaluddin and Hishammuddin Hussein did not get their Oxford and London School of Economics degrees by acting like complete buffoons; neither are Zaid Ibrahim nor Shahrir Abdul Samad men to be scoffed at. Read Rais Yatim's PhD thesis, published as Freedom Under Executive Power in Malaysia — it is breathtaking and will completely change the way you look at the state of the law in this country. These people come off as intelligent and well-meaning men, especially if you approach them in person.

It is not surprising then that talk of "change from within" has proven very seductive. Many of my friends believe it is still the most effective way to reform the country and repair its structural faults. After the recent Malaysian Student Leaders Summit, a friend approached me, saying he had been forced to rethink his whole political worldview after personally engaging with government leaders like Khairy and Hishammuddin. So why do I remain skeptical of change from within?

Well, that same friend went on to say that barely two weeks after the summit, he was reading newspapers splashed with headlines blaring the government's defence of racism and unaccountability. His positive impression of Barisan was shattered. Now, obviously people who do such abrupt about-turns in their political thinking are not that common — most of my pro-change-from-within pals are sticking with that stance — but it highlights a clear disconnect between the two personalities many of Barisan's good leaders seem to possess.

On the one hand, a lot of them can articulate deep and meaningful thoughts about the state of the nation; on the other, these same men can also menacingly brandish kerises and hint at the threat of bloodshed if their ridiculous demands are not met. How do we explain this multiple personality disorder?

I think it is instructive to look at some cases from the Pakatan side: people like Anwar Ibrahim, K.S. Nallakaruppan, and Ezam Mohd Noor. These men proved capable of singing one very horrid tune while in the ranks of Barisan, and later made some amazing and spirited denunciations of corruption and racial politics. Then the latter two quit Pakatan and went back to Barisan — and in doing so, to their old ways. Now, this might reflect badly on Anwar, but I think the whole situation actually just speaks to a fundamental reality of politics: people will say what they need to say to get power.

After all, if you are in Barisan, you will appease the people who can push you up the Barisan hierarchy; if you are in Pakatan, you will do the same for potential supporters in Pakatan. The problem Barisan faces is that on the one hand, its leaders are politicians and have to climb the ladder in Barisan. In a party founded on emphasising racial differences and the paternalist belief that a select elite knows best, without the need for any checks or balances, it's hardly surprising that most politicians play to this set of "ideals" (if they deserve that moniker). But on the other hand, Barisan is also in the government — and in the government you soon find out that unrealistic ideals do not run a country. This gives the reformers and the intelligentsia some room to manoeuvre, at least within the government.

The problem which duly arises is that your political support within Barisan falls if you govern too well; Barisan is built on poor and outdated paradigms of governance which have not been applicable for decades, if they have ever been workable at all. So the Barisan leaders are forced to compromise, and the institutional structure of Barisan itself forces them to give up on reform. Even the Prime Minister is stymied by the simple fact that if he destroys the corrupt system of patronage and money politics which is wrecking the country, he destroys any chance he has of winning in the internal Umno elections; Zaid Ibrahim's brave proposals for institutional reform have been torn to tatters in a Cabinet dominated by politicians more concerned about their fate within Umno than the ultimate fate of the nation.

Pakatan, on the other hand, is founded on a more solid footing; they are very far away from ironing out all the kinks, but they know that they stand for equal treatment regardless of race, and a transparent and accountable government. That is Pakatan in a nutshell (and they really disagree on almost everything else), but that little nutshell is far more concrete grounding for a government than the Barisan ideal of elite leaders meeting unaccountably in private to solve the nation's problems at their own whims and fancies without reference to anyone or anything else.

If you want to win an internal Pakatan election, you have no choice but to state you demand equal treatment for all races and a government which is accountable for its actions. Now, politicians can still play this game, regardless of whether they mean it or not — again, witness the case of Ezam and Nalla. But it just so happens that these political catchphrases are pretty good bases for a decent government as well.

As a result, reformers will inevitably have an easier time working in a Pakatan government. Imagine being in Barisan and saying "Hey, let's open up UiTM a bit to the non-bumis," or "Why not at least publicise how much the taxpayers lose every time we contract a job out via closed instead of open tender?" You would be shot down because these statements do not fit into the Barisan notion of the top elite deciding everything unaccountably. Saying the same things in a Pakatan government would still meet with resistance from the racists and power mongers, but in this case, you can say "I'm just upholding our party's position," which is a lot more than you can do in Barisan. Even if you do not get exactly what you desire as a reformer, the compromise will more often than not favour your stand, because your stand is the official party stand; your stand is the one which will give the politicking power mongers the support they crave.

Note that it does not matter at all whether those in government actually believe in what they are proposing. The only thing that matters is what will give them political mileage. Anwar and Pakatan have lashed themselves so tightly to justice for all and accountable government that there is no way they can completely run away from these ideals without losing power.

I still wish the Barisan reformers well; I just do not think they have any chance of fixing the country as long as they are tethered to a political system which systematically rewards poor governance. The political incentives in Barisan favour an opaque, unaccountable and racially-divided government; the political incentives in Pakatan favour a nationally-united government which is accountable for its actions. A career politician in Barisan by default favours poor governance; a career politician in Pakatan by default favours good governance. The choice, at least for me, is clear: it's time for a change from without.

First published in The Malaysian Insider.

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