Analysing Politics in Malaysia: Why the Void?
This is part of a series analysing the political situation on the ground in Malaysia. For an overview of the series, and a list of all its parts, please refer to the introduction. To comment on this series, a discussion thread on the forum has been opened.
In this, the first part of our series on political analyses here, I will be investigating the reasons why there is such a dearth of analysis in the first place. After all, I do not think it is right or natural that I, a teenager (some prefer the term "youth"; others prefer the term "budak dalam diapers") should be among (if not) the first to seriously tackle the issue of looking at the political situation on the ground in Malaysia.
First, it might be worthwhile to note that much of the "analysis" one is likely to find in news publications, especially local ones, are not real political analysis. At best, they might be considered rudimentary forms of analysis, because they never go further than jumping to the most obvious conclusions (e.g. "The DAP lost heavily in the 1999 elections because of its association with PAS"). Furthermore, these conclusions are rarely based on hard data (then again, this is a criticism that could and should be leveled against this series as well). Mainstream newspapers often remark on a party's new policy, and what its implications might be, but they never delve into what the voters think beyond some usual simplifications (e.g. "The DAP lost the Malay vote because it is perceived as Chinese", or "PAS was rejected outside the Malay belt because it is perceived as too fanatical"). In short, the common man gets the short end of the stick in most political analyses.
Now, why this short shafting? I believe (as a reminder, this is logical conjecture not grounded in any real data, such as interviews of journalists or commentators) that the reason for this is that the common man really has no role to play in Malaysian politics. Oh, yes, without him Malaysian politics could not function; politicians' authority is derived from the ballot box. But the fact is, after the votes have been cast, collected, and tallied, the voter is essentially useless until the next election. Our elected representatives (as well as our unelected leaders - the rulers of the various states) have free rein - virtual carte blanche in Malaysian politics.
After all, tell me, what can the man on the street do? He cannot write or speak about politics - he is afraid of the government's draconian legislation clamping down on our freedom of speech. If he is a student, he cannot even be associated with any political activities under the Universities and University Colleges Act. He could correspond with his elected representative, such as his member of Parliament or his state assemblyman, but this is rarely (if ever) about politics - it is usually about some mundane issue such as loan sharks, a destitute family whose home was burned/flooded/destroyed by some other act of God, etc. In Malaysia, voters are not expected to know about, let alone have anything to do with the drafting of legislation. New laws emerge on the statute books without the common man knowing of their existence; the Constitution itself is amended so regularly (literally on a yearly, if not monthly basis) that only the most dedicated constitutional scholars can keep up with the changes.
Let us return to the example of an issue such as loan sharks. When the voter complains to his elected representative or - just as likely - his unelected representative in Michael Chong of the MCA (whose ability to help the public never ceases to amaze our erstwhile newspapers), the focus is not on the big picture - not on the picture of politics. The focus is on dealing with that micro-level issue - how can we help this man stop the loan sharks from splashing paint on the walls of his house? How can we help this woman with overcoming her gambling addiction? How can we help this old lady recover her precious possessions stolen by con artists? The focus is absolutely never on dealing with these problems at the macro-level - at the level of legislation. We never talk about legislation designed to crack down on loan sharks. We never talk about legislation designed to discourage casinos from preying on the reckless. We never talk about legislation specifically aimed at con artists.
In a developed political society, the focus is not just on the micro-level of the problem, but also on the bigger picture - of how the political system can prevent this problem from arising for other people in the future. The common man is not the focus of our political system - he is purely peripheral to it. He serves two functions: the first is to cast his vote, and the second is to give his elected representatives the facade of helping the public, when all they are doing is helping a few fortunate individuals, while ignoring the larger problem. In Parliament, in the state legislative assemblies, what are our representatives concerned with? Even I, an above averagely informed Malaysian when it comes to politics, can't say.
At any rate, it seems clear that when the man on the street is not the focus of attention in a political system, he will naturally not be the focus of attention in a political analysis of that system. Instead, an analysis will tend to focus on whatever is the real centre of attention - and it seems quite clear that the legislators are the focus of attention in Malaysia's political system. It is the legislators who have been quietly effecting the passage of constitutional amendments like clockwork, year in and year out, since 1957. It is the legislators who make our political system tick - who travel to their respective constituencies every now and then to attend to their constituents' needs (on the micro-level, of course). It is the opinion of our legislators, not our voters, that matters. As such, in any analysis, we seek to understand the government rather than the voters, who are a bit of a nuisance, sitting on the periphery.
This can be quite clearly seen in the political analyses our newspapers churn out every now and then, in reaction to a new law by the currently PAS-controlled state of Kelantan, or in reaction to the latest controversy in Parliament. Even in blogs, the focus is on what the legislators have been doing, not on what the voters have been thinking. Even in respected political analyses, such as those by Gordon P. Means (I highly recommend his treatise entitled Malaysian Politics: The Second Generation, and I wish I also had his original Malaysian Politics), the focus is hardly ever on the voters, whose views are represented mainly by a few charts summarising the outcome of the elections.
It takes something significant to jolt commentators enough to pay attention to what the common man thinks, politically. For instance, the latest hubbub about the racist and seditious remarks of those at the UMNO assembly - the view of the common man was significant, because an issue close to almost every Malaysian's heart - that old bugaboo we call "race" - was being broadcast live into his living room. He was being involved in the political process. And he did not like what he saw. (It is reputed that a German statesman of the 19th century once said that there are two things you should never see being made: sausages and legislation.)
There are a few additional issues that merit mention as possible factors in the lack of coverage concerning voter opinion. One of these is the draconian regulations on self-expression, designed to curtail political dissent. People are afraid to express their views because they (rightly or wrongly) fear they will suffer for them. As a result, it would be impossible for a pollster to conduct a political survey here - far too many people would hang up or give prank answers for a statistically reliable result. Likewise, more rudimentary methods of assessing public opinion are also unavailable. In other developing countries, for example, support for a particular party or opinion is measured in terms of the number of people attending a rally or speech. Such a method would be impossible to carry out here because political rallies have been banned for decades. Even if they could be held, the Police have the right to ban speakers from commenting on particular issues when they issue the permit to speak, so speeches cannot be relied on as evidence of public views.
In short, the average voter has been given the short end of the stick. Ali, Chong and Muthu have been sidelined in the political process of Malaysia. That is why their views hold little to no weight in any political analysis. The only meaningful thing they can do (without going significantly out of their way, e.g. to Kamunting) to effect change is to vote. But nevertheless, this vote is a powerful one - for it is the source of our elected representatives' power. Exercised properly, the vote really can change things. It is all a matter of organisation and determinisation. In the next part of this series, we'll look at some basic data such as the demographics of the electorate, and how and why your vote counts. In the mean time, please send me your thoughts, suggestions, and most importantly, criticisms, about this article by filling out the form below. I will respond to your comments either through email or in the next part of the series.