The only way to have leaders who are accountable for their actions, to have a fair and just system and good governance is to have a strong alternative choice, writes Zaid Ibrahim.
A two-party system is one in which two major parties or two major groupings of political parties dominate the voting in an election at all levels. The obvious examples are Labour vs Conservatives in Britain; the moderate Justice Party with Islamic roots vs. the secular westernised grouping in Turkey; and the Republicans vs the Democrats in America. The two-party system is the outcome of an evolutionary process in which the main political players gravitate towards a common political philosophy. Ultimately, we discern in most countries the creation of two separate groups that are philosophically distinguishable. So one can say that Labour is more oriented to the centre-left with strong union and workers’ affiliation whereas the Conservatives are more right wing and more averse to Big Government. Most importantly, both parties represent the interest of all segments of society.
Malaysia has never been short of having an Opposition. But some parties in the Opposition got offers that were too good to refuse and joined the Barisan Nasional at one point or the other in our short history. These are political parties from Sabah and Sarawak. We have also an Islamic opposition party in the shape of Pas and a secular opposition party in the shape of the DAP but only Malays would support Pas, and mainly non-Malays would support the DAP. So opposition parties thus far continue to be segmented, are not broad-based and have narrow communal appeal. This helps to justify the authoritarianism of Umno, in the name of ensuring that an acceptable coalition to all communities remains in power. That’s why the BN has ruled for 52 years.
But it is time for a change.
It is time for us to have two-party system/coalition ala Malaysia in which both sides are equally appealing to all communities in Malaysia. On one side, the Barisan Nasional, and on the other side the Pakatan Rakyat. And both have to be as strong and as representative as each other. But a Pakatan coalition is different from the BN and in a most significant way. The BN is nothing more than an Umno hegemony supported by the wealthy Chinese and the Indian upper class. Pakatan, on the other hand, is a people’s pact in which its component parties – the PKR, Pas and the DAP – stand together as equals. Umno can dictate what peace means in the MCA and who becomes its Deputy President but the parties in Pakatan have no direct influence over one another, other than through discourse and discussions. Consensus is the way for Pakatan; directives and orders are the way of the BN.
Of course, in our country the process of a two-party grouping is in its infancy. Before the 2008 general election, the presence of opposition parties in Parliament was minimal. Now the Opposition has 82 seats out of 222; it’s a big step forward but it is still a long way from reaching the magic figure for them to govern.
Confusion and bickering
We all know that the opposition pact today is fragile, and some people have described them as a one-term wonder. This is mainly due to the constant bickering in public among the parties and internal disagreements over policies and political ideology. Some bloggers have questioned the leadership and quality of leaders in the Opposition. The recent spat between Pas spiritual leader Nik Aziz and its party president is not helpful, but having said that, some changes need to be made to strengthen the coalition and if it means having a public spat is the way to do it, then so be it, we will accept that.
Whatever the weakness of the opposition parties or our expectations of them, I would like to appeal to the public to continue to support the Opposition. A weakened Opposition will ensure continued authoritarian and corrupt rule, and we must not let that happen. On the other hand, the problems facing the opposition parties are surmountable. “We can work it out!” as the Beatles would say. I am optimistic because I am close enough to them to know that some of the problems simply stem from a lack of engagement with each other. Other reasons being that our political parties do not devote that much time and energy on policy deliberations, whether amongst their members or with their partners. But I’m sure that many of these problems can be solved in due course, if we are able to spend more time talking to each other.
Confusion will reign when previously separate parties come to power as a coalition. Hassan Ali probably thinks not selling beer in some areas in Selangor is actually a good social policy. So he thinks it is a Pas policy that he seeks to implement, and therefore he was prepared to ride roughshod over the Menteri Besar who is not from his party. If Pas has a clear social policy to discourage alcoholism and dependency amongst youth on alcohol and drugs, for example, and such policy is discussed within the framework of a coalition, then a more enlightened and less threatening policy can be implemented.
Pas has a commitment to the Federal Constitution; the issue is merely how to tailor its social and moral policy accordingly. Engagement and public discourse is the way politics work in a democratic system and that must be respected. I don’t think we want or need a strong theocratic movement to contend with within the Opposition, always at odds with its partners. For that, my friends, will be the end of the Pakatan Rakyat.
Public discourse and engagement will instead get the people’s support and, at the same time, showcase to the public that the Pakatan is a group of thinking politicians who can formulate good policies and who care about the community. Not a group of reforming zealots who use religion as an excuse to deny others their lifestyle and freedom.
The case of Zulkifli Noordin putting forward suggestions to ban condom sales and to include the syariah as part of the Federal Constitution is another example where his party (and mine too!) spends little time making clear its political stance on many so-called sensitive issues. This fuzziness and lack of commitment to a clearly defined policy in PKR allows characters like Zulkifli to champion his cause, whatever that might be. He, like Hassan Ali, knows he is not going to be disciplined because he suspects his own party has not made a categorical stance on the nature of the Federal Constitution. In the absence of such a position, it’s open to Zukifli to want to promote his version of an Islamic state where the syariah rules supreme. He is not alone. Dr Mahathir Mohamad too has declared Malaysia to be an Islamic State, although his own understanding of that concept I suspect is different from Zulkifli Noordin’s.
Sacrifice for common policies
So it appears to me that the three parties in the Opposition have to spend time together to deliberate on a Common Policy Framework. They must first agree on these matters with their own party members and then move forward together as a coalition. They must be clear of the key policy areas they wish to adopt and what they want to do when in power. They must abandon their suspicion of one another and not only be interested in maximising their party’s seat allocation in the next election. They must put their best people forward if they harbour any hope of changing the government.
I am fortunate to have been given the role of facilitating policy discussions amongst the three parties. I will continue to offer suggestions that hopefully they will accept to bring strength and depth to the Opposition. The Opposition has to speak on major issues with one voice, and with promptness and decisiveness. The public will not accept in the future knee-jerk and populist posturing from Pakatan leaders. They want to know where we stand. And they must rein in and discipline without fear or favour those within their parties who choose to disrespect the Pakatan’s Common Policy Framework.(CPF)
The CPF will undoubtedly require sacrifice on all sides. They must be willing to depart from their present position, or the presentation of those positions, to gain support. Pas and PKR must recognise and respect the sanctity of religious freedom. They must recognise in the constitutional sense the limited role of Islam as the country’s official religion. Limited, in the sense that Islam is a matter of state laws and the states can only legislate on matters relating to the precepts of Islam. Limited, in the sense that these laws must not violate the Federal Constitution. What is the limit imposed by the Constitution must be deliberated and discussed and finally accepted. It’s this acceptance that will distinguish those who want to live in a democracy under a written Constitution from those who want a religious theocracy.
Pas should not strive to enforce compliance but instead seek acceptance of its policies by consent and genuine support. Its religious platform should be modelled on social and moral premises that are acceptable to many religious faiths. A dynamic social and moral policy will be more acceptable; in fact, it is very much needed in the present times of drug dependency and a fragile social fabric. Pas’ moral policy must take cognisance of common values amongst people of different faiths, must articulate about family values and about a stable social order. That is the only way Pas can further its religious agenda without harming its support amongst all Malaysians.
Pas must accept that the laws and policies of the country are all interconnected. Any law even if its applicability is confined to Muslims has grave implications and consequence to non-Muslims. We live in a multi-religious country. We live in an interconnected world. To live in harmony, laws and policies must emanate from the consent of the governed. Laws must be discussed and deliberated before they are enacted. The citizens, who belong to all faiths, will then accept just laws irrespective of their source.
This is the meaning of the expression “to abide by the Federal Constitution”. This is the meaning of accepting the Constitution as the highest law of the land, which Pas has done so in its manifesto.
Penang is a DAP fortress, so I have to be careful of what I say about the DAP. The DAP too must recognise the importance of affirmative action as a tool to help reduce the economic gaps between communities. The DAP too must accept that the economic gaps between the Chinese and other bumiputras and natives are wide. There is therefore a need to provide special assistance to these bumiputras, even to the Indians and the Orang Asli. The DAP must work harder to shed its image as a Chinese party in that it must be more visible as a champion of other communities’ interests too. The powerful Chinese business community must reach out to help build the businesses of the other communities as well. There are many programmes that can be undertaken to show solidarity of the Pakatan.
Registering Pakatan as a coalition
We need to show that Pakatan is about the well being of the people, not about big business, not about promoting conglomerates and monopolies, but about giving the opportunity to all Malaysians to be successful in business and making a head start in life. Business skill and experience can be shared. A richer and more equitable economic system will benefit all communities. There is enough in the country for the people to share if only we can stop the massive corruption and wastage perpetuated by the present government. I am saying all these as a friend and such changes will be better for the DAP in the long run.
If we in the Opposition remain disunited, ideologically at odds with each other, and unable to parade capable and scandal-free leaders, to inclusively represent all communities in Malaysia in a complementary way, then the abuse of power, endemic corruption and nationalist extremism we are experiencing today will remain because the BN will continue to rule.
As such, we in the Pakatan have initiated a process of change. The registration of Pakatan Rakyat as a single party/coalition has been agreed to in principle. I am now sorting out the details. The Common Policy Framework has also been circulated to the three parties. It is my hope and that of many that we will overcome all obstacles and have a successful Convention in December.
BN and the high price we pay
I have been brutally honest about the Pakatan’s problems. Allow me the indulgence of being just as honest about the BN and why if you keep voting the BN as it is today, yesterday and tomorrow, Malaysians will lose out.
Many people still believe that only Umno, by way of the Barisan Nasional, can offer a workable power-sharing leadership to run this nation and to prevent infighting from factionalism and racial polarisation. But this is a dangerous delusion. In fact, it is these beliefs that are at the centre of Umno’s political hegemony. This self-indulgent sense of indispensability and self-importance is causing them to steer the nation to an authoritarian rule. . It is this that has helped justify in their minds their right to quell any one who threatens the status quo, whether it is a group of politicians or activists protesting against abuses in government or a group of Indians protesting against their treatment and lack of opportunities.
The PM, or as some of his admirers would say the Thinking PM, says his government is not a racist government. He might just as well add that his government is also not a fascist one. After all, the BN and Umno have a different understanding from the rakyat on the more important terms and precepts. Like corruption in Umno is not corruption but ‘money politics’, like gratification and bribery under the Election Offences are not applicable to Umno Ministers. And if bribery to the voters does not produce the desired result, then just bribe the people’s elected representatives.
Also in Malaysia separation of powers means state legislatures can be taken over by force, as was the case in Perak. In most democracies, an independent Election Commission is the final determinant of whether there is a vacancy in the State of Federal legislature but not in 1Malaysia. In this wonderland one can give any description or interpretation to fit one’s political agenda. Whatever the description one gives to our country, the fact remains that today the rudiments of democracy are dead and gone. We live in a country where the underlying philosophy is the glorification of the PM and the subordination of the individual to the authority of the government, and where the suppression of dissent is harsh. We live in a country where Umno is the law, or as King Louis IV says, “C’est a la moi.” I am the law.
What is the price that we ultimately pay as a nation, if this disease is not addressed? Clearly to start with, we would continue to be cursed with a non-transparent government without the capability of functioning in a way that respects the rule of law: a government that condones abuse of power; a government ruled by a group of oligarchs whose economic interests will supersede that of the rakyat; and a government whose economic policy favours the monopolists and big businesses.
If the public believes that the government is not beholden to a set of commonly revered values and principles and its actions are tainted by racial biases, there will continue to be physical and emotional segregation of communities, regardless of what is done to break such divisiveness. Our economy too will suffer.
The ultimate price that the country suffers from the present political culture of the BN is that Malays and non-Malays will continue to be denied a common sense of ownership of Malaysia’s nation-building journey. The Sabahans and Sarawakians will never feel they belong to Malaysia. And instead of becoming partners in this voyage to mature nationhood, they will continue to bicker and remain suspicious and distrustful of one another. And there will continue to be a brain drain of Malaysian talents who would have decided that they would rather make their home elsewhere. And there will be further exodus of capital and brainpower that this government will not be able to stop. This is a high price that the country can ill-afford to pay given the increasingly challenging global outlook.
Restoring faith and hope
Authoritarianism, patronage, and nationalist extremism from any quarter destroy the key ingredients necessary for the Malaysian community to really build on and retain that wealth and knowledge. True economic and scholastic success and competitiveness is a function of instilling in the hearts and minds of beneficiaries a set of new behaviours, around the capacity and desire to take personal accountability, to trust one another, to be achievement oriented, to develop a sense of curiosity, a sense a solidarity that goes beyond our own ethnic clans and groups; so that together we are able to build this country together. We must do away with unprincipled politics and with Machiavellian methods and instead seek to change with reforms that encourage the development of a viable democracy and a prosperous country for all.
So the people of this country must decide what kind of government they want – and the country that our grandchildren will inherit. I believe the majority want a country and a system that will restore faith and hope for a united country. Not the slogan and hype of 1Malaysia but that of abiding unity based on respect, trust and recognition that all Malaysians are equal irrespective of ethnicity, religion or region. We want a country that will ensure the best possible future for all Malaysians and a government that will practice good economics, uphold democracy and the Rule of Law. We want a government that promotes a Malaysian mindset change, premised on personal accountability, rational and independent thinking, hard work and a sense of fair play.
If we want all of the above, then the only option available to the well-meaning people of this country is to work hard towards a stronger, united and more cohesive Opposition that can, given the mandate, become an alternative Federal Government. A former PM has said that the Opposition would be the ruin of this country. I beg to differ. Only a united and credible Opposition can save this country. The growth of anything new comes not without pain and uncertainty. So will it be with the Pakatan Rakyat. The road to success is not without its trials and tribulations. And success comes not without hard work, not without courage and not without hope.
The only way to have leaders who are accountable for their actions, to have a fair and just system and good governance is to have a strong alternative choice that can compete toe-to-toe with the Barisan Nasional and that can act as an effective check and balance. It’s therefore imperative that we move towards a two-party system.
Let us not shy away from the hard work that is to come. Let us not lose hope. Pakatan will succeed.
Zaid Ibrahim, a former Cabinet Minister who resigned in protest over the use of the Internal Security Act, is now working on formalising Pakatan as a viable political coalition.