An early general election?

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For deep-rooted change to take place, a society’s value system has to be transformed to make them more sensitive to the importance of protecting the environment and empowering marginalised communities, says Anil Netto.

Speculation is intensifying that an early general election could be called soon.

Hishamuddin Hussein has called on BN component parties to be prepared for a general election while Nazri has announced a sudden extra allocation of RM500,000 for each BN MP because the government now has “extra money” (even though the country has a worrying fiscal deficit and opposition reps are denied such allocations).

What can we expect from the next general election, which a few believe may coincide with the Sarawak state election?  The last general election was widely described as a watershed general election, but real change is still some way off, although we are now closer to a viable two-coalition system.

Much has been said about the next election being make-or-break for Pakatan, especially if the Election Commission manages to push through a constituency redelineation exercise (which many believe would favour the BN, if experience is anything to go by).

After the demoralising by-election defeats it suffered in Bagan Pinang and Hulu Selangor, the Pakatan clinched a morale-boosting victory in the Sibu by-election. This result set off alarm bells in Sarawak BN as Pakatan signalled it could make strong inroads especially in urban seats in Sarawak. That could spell trouble for the BN as Sarawak and Sabah are seen as ‘safe deposits’ for the Barisan.

Taib: A liability to the BN?

The mass of information now pouring out about the assets of the Taib Mahmud family and the ‘leakages’ in the state could steadily erode support for Sarawak BN especially if the information reaches rural areas. Needless to say, Taib is gradually being seen as a liability to the BN.

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The conclusion of a dissertation by researcher David Brown on ‘Why governments fail to capture economic rent: The unofficial appropriation of rainforest rent by rulers in insular Southeast Asia between 1970 and 1999’, reads:

”Cutting down rain forests is a double tragedy. Not only are tremendous ecological and social values destroyed forever, but when governments lack the autonomy to capture timber rent from these forests, this can negatively impact the ability of states to prosper. If there is a lesson to impart it is that as little timber rent as possible should be diverted toward patronage ends or enriching rulers. If the rain forest is to be saved, or at least not disappear without anything to show for it, developing nations must create and faithfully implement incentives for the timber industry that encourage greater efficiency and sustainability, including the optimal capture of timber rent (Brown 1999: 72-80). However, this will not occur unless nations restrain their own political elites. Such restraints will not be erected by rulers, or even bureaucrats, who generally lack the autonomy to make such reforms. Rather strong institutional restraints on elites are unlikely to arise unless civil society demands it.”

In his parting shot, Brown recognises that civil society has to demand real institutional change to plug such leakages, which has deprived marginalised communities of the financial resources to empower and uplift themselves. Indeed, civil society has to consistently demand that such loss of revenue be plugged and the political-business collaboration severed.

Certainly democracy must see greater citizen participation at all levels, not just in the run-up to elections but at all times. The legendary American historian and activist Howard Zinn, who passed away recently, once wrote in ‘A Power Governments Cannot Suppress’, “People, when organized, have enormous power, more than any government.

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”There is a basic weakness in governments, however massive their armies, however vast their wealth, however they control images and information, because their power depends on the obedience of citizens, of soldiers, of civil servants, of journalists and writers and teachers and artists. When the citizens begin to suspect they have been deceived and withdraw their support, government loses its legitimacy and its power. We have seen this happen in recent decades all around the globe. … Remember Somoza in Nicaragua scurrying to his private plane, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos hurriedly assembling their jewels  and clothes, the Shah of Iran desperately searching for a country that would take him in as he fled the crowds in Tehran, Duvalier in Haiti barely managing to put on his pants to escape the wrath of the Haitian people.”

We cannot rely on politicians and the electoral process alone, though important, to bring about far-reaching changes and plug the leakages. For deep-rooted change to take place, a society’s value system has to be transformed to make them more sensitive to the importance of preserving natural resources, protecting the environment and empowering marginalised communities. A first step would be to raise public awareness of the issues that matter in Sarawak and beyond so that conscientised ordinary people can demand reforms at the political, institutional and societal levels to achieve real, meaningful change.

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