The pandemic – a lost opportunity?

by K Jeyaraj

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The general election losers are now ruling the country

Unexpected crises often lead to questions and eventual change.

One watershed event, World War Two, was the catalyst of the last major change in world affairs. Among its many effects, it triggered the independence of many colonised countries, including our beloved Malaysia.

We don’t need nor want a world war to trigger the next change. Unfortunately, human beings often settle into complacency, their comfort zone and an accustomed routine. We follow and accept ‘what is’ without query, out of fear of upsetting the norm or face the risk of being labelled a lunatic.

Radical change is therefore not to be expected without it being triggered by some event. Is the current norm ideal? Is there a need for change? Is the current pandemic a trigger for change?  

The ‘what is’ in Malaysia is far from ideal. An ideal society would have been able to cope, handle and subdue any challenge to the norm, including an unexpected pandemic. Covid found us grossly lacking and vulnerable.

Granted, nobody has the requisite experience in handling an epidemic of such magnitude. However, it has become apparent that we suffer a total inadequacy of will, empathy, knowledge, expertise, direction, vision and adequate resources which ought to exist and be available in an ideal administrative infrastructure environment, irrespective of the pandemic.

From its inception, we knew that the virus spreads through droplets and can be contained by the use of masks and physical distancing. Lockdowns in its many forms and modifications became inevitable.

In its implementation of containment measures, the leadership, however, caused much suffering in society by offering inadequate reprieves and aid.  Current steps taken have failed to earn the confidence of the people and to provide for their sustenance.   

An admission of failure – or at least an acknowledgement of inadequacy – could perhaps be followed with offers of better solutions. Our leaders claim to be the experts, only to find Malaysia in bottom spot among 53 countries in its handling of the pandemic.

Wrong model?

Now, an ideal, well-oiled, efficient and effective administrative mechanism would be able to overcome such a challenge, irrespective of its leaders? Sadly, we are far from having such an ideal administration.

Have we chosen the model of development considering that even after 58 years since the formation of Malaysia, we are still far from an ideal position?

First, on the political platform, we adopted (or were imposed with) a foreign Westminster-style democracy. Second, we parroted the Western capitalist economic platform. We were led to believe both were ideals worth adopting.

Any murmur of socialist or autonomous self-determination would have triggered an expulsion from the independence negotiations. It was not only fashionable and attractive but Western democracy with capitalism was perceived to be the only ‘ideal’ path while the dreaded communists and left movement were demonised in the post-war years.

The pandemic has revealed that perhaps we took the wrong path. We could not ascertain effectively who required aid. Such is the trait of a capitalist economy: every individual is left to fend for himself or herself and their families.

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Under this model, businesses are expected to create employment and churn profits. The role of government is to facilitate the flourishing of capitalism. Such is the norm which we had happily subscribed to.

Also under this model, the government is not supposed to bail out private failures. The government is not expected to pry into how individuals live their lives as the individual’s unfettered personal rights are sacrosanct – so say our Western tutors. It is a risk-return game for everyone.

But let us not kid ourselves that the current governing system is capable of the best solutions.   

A caring, responsible government cannot and should not stand by idly when there are families fighting for survival. It must respond when the population demands a lifeline to sustain themselves.

Race-based, corporate-led capitalist model

In so doing, are we not, in fact, abandoning the capitalist model? Are we not in fact craving for socialist ideals? Are we not saying that government should stop merely facilitating business but must also be the custodian of the wellbeing of the people?

We were taught to adopt the capitalist-corporate model since independence. This path ensured that our colonial masters continued to own and control much of the economy while granting purported independence to us.

Had we desired to nationalise all colonial-owned businesses, peaceful independence would have been a distant dream. Consequently, our attention and policies targeted corporate ownership of business.  

After independence, locals competed to take over slices of the economic cake controlled by foreign interests. This spurred race politics as different groups fought for control of the businesses. Six decades on, we are still grappling with this contest for corporate dominance and its attendant race-related politics.

But corporate ownership is not an accurate reflection of the ownership of a nation’s wealth. International financial assessment tools presently used by the capitalist Western order, including gross domestic product (GDP), the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and per capita incomes, do not reflect real prosperity.

Their measurements brand us as poor. Their economic models do not reflect nor take into account the ideals of Eastern cultures. Our civilisations and values were never dependent on consumerism, which is an essential ingredient of capitalism.     

With the dominant narrative that corporate ownership is the key measure of a successful economy, the Umno-dominated leadership steered the government machinery into creating a bumiputera corporate class at breakneck speed.

Unfortunately, genuine expertise, efficiency, ability, productivity and business efficacy took a step back. Most government policies revolved around ‘race’.

The bumiputera class urgently sought to achieve the expected prosperity, based on the statistical measures of the West. The government could no longer continue with the pure capitalist model, which required meritocracy, competitiveness and efficiency.

Our government took on a dual role of not only facilitating enterprise but also to tackling inequality in corporate ownership, specifically between bumiputeras and non-bumiputeras.

In a constitution-sanctioned racial preference system, Umno politics went beyond facilitating bumiputera private enterprise. They created a political-economic kleptocracy, dependent on government contracts and handouts.

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The bumiputera entrepreneur class was not allowed to evolve naturally but had to be transformed into purported capitalists overnight. Their interlinking interdependence grew with billions of ringgit worth of contracts in the hands of the political-economic kleptocrats.

Under the veil of advancing the nation’s cause, those perpetrating corruption and a rentier economy don’t see it as a wrong, but as their right. They are oblivious to the fact that their conduct, in fact, ensures that their community will lag.

The continued survival of that kleptocratic class, without real productive business income, requires protectionist measures, often at the expense of the masses outside that class. The disparity between the haves and the have nots is inevitable and will surely grow.

They are not the capitalists in the Marxist sense, as they do not dominate production and capital. They use the administrative machinery to perpetuate their survival to the exclusion of others.

Together with the controllers of capital, their actions have a common result: the inevitable suppression of the rest of the population in a non-level playing field. They give those outside their class a false sense of ‘equality of opportunity’ and enslave them to continuous consumerism. 

We reap what we sow. Unless there is an admission that the current system does not bring about the desired ideal, we will not be seeking any alternative mode.

Unfortunately, despite the negatives of the pandemic, it appears we are returning to the pre-pandemic chaos. There is no search for a better ideal.

Westminster model?

We have now been exposed to many economic models and experiences over the last half a century. Extreme left communism not only broke up the Soviet Union but moved those economies to capitalism and a veiled democracy.

On the other hand, state-controlled socialism has engineered China into a modern high-income nation, admittedly with elements of capitalism infused within.

Why must Malaysia stick to an economic model which has proven to be far from the ideal? Are we unknowingly succumbing to the protectionism of the few?

Malaysia has experienced a tumultuous leadership crisis amid the pandemic. A third prime minister has emerged in over two years, with leadership changes in many states.

Again, instead of querying whether the Westminster parliamentary model is the cause or has served us well, we appear to be falling back to that same model. We expect it to yield better results in next general election. We refuse to learn.

Our tutor, the Westminster model, prevailed with two dominant parties in the UK. The UK, however, does not have a written constitution. It has a system which evolves into accepted practices. They respect the freedom of association, as we do in our Constitution.

However, an elected MP does not jump ship after being elected on a party platform. Party whips maintain parliamentary discipline. Parliamentarians may vote against their party whip, but they risk being reprimanded, marginalised or even expelled.

If expelled, they would sit in the independent bloc of the House, not with the opposite wing. There is an unwritten contract – or at least legitimate expectation by voters – that their winning candidate will not jump ship to the losing party. It is this certainty that gives credence to the continuity of Westminster practices.

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Six decades after the formation of Malaysia, amid our worst political crisis, where the elected leader is ousted, the new leader is himself ousted and the losing party in the election now holds the reins, are we still insisting that all aspects of the Westminster system must continue to apply?

Race was the key to coalition party politics in Malaysia. It was convenient at the time of independence as a speedy solution, instead of facing the risk of turmoil and a break-up akin to the Indian experience.

Whether the Westminster system is conducive to coalition politics was never questioned. Is the first-past-the-post model suitable for a plural coalition party system?

Searching questions

Coalition politics has flourished in Malaysia. Cross-party defections appear to be the norm, irrespective of which party won the general election.

Coalition politics produce many masters but no leaders.

Why did our system compel the highly regarded and impartial royal house to determine a matter which ought to have been resolved by our parliamentary system? Was the ceremonial privilege of the monarch intended to be an executive function by the framers of our Constitution?

Did the framers of the Constitution grant liberty to individual MPs to indicate their choice of the country’s leader, irrespective of their party? Are coalition parties free to discard the flag that won them their seats? Are voters to be educated that the flag and the party mean nothing?

Are we not able to see that the parliamentary system we practise is not working? Our polity has not evolved or reached maturity in line with acceptable practices.

Why are we then expecting that change will happen in the next general election? In a flawed system, irrespective of the victor, the ills will remain.

The easy way out is to stick with the status quo, to follow the ‘what is’ by saying we don’t have an alternative.

But we as a nation must find our own peace, not one that was imposed on us. A hybrid of democratic socialism with a centre-left economic model which permits private ownership and enterprise can be workable.

However, we need to diagnose before we prescribe. Before diagnosis, we need to admit an ailment exists.

We have not reached that stage. The current leaders of all sides are not willing to admit the flaws in the system.

Troubled waters would cause a storm. The pandemic does not appear troubling enough to be the catalyst for genuine change (nor do I desire a worse catastrophe either).

Whether the pandemic is a lost opportunity for transformative change will remain among the many queries in the recesses of our future history.

K Jeyaraj is a lawyer based in Kuala Lumpur

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Paul Lim
Paul Lim
20 Sep 2021 12.11am

Another good article. At certain moment in reading that i thought the writer was opting for the China model as an alternative but happily as I read on he wrote out the social democratic model to summarise but what is it in reality is another question as social democracy is also in crisis. I will want to add the ecological element to any alternative model for Malaysia which is badly needed in Malaysia.

As to the Westminster model even the settler colonial States of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the dominions as previously know have adjusted their démocracies to some form of proportional représentation. The Westminster model is only good to the two parties, in the case of Malaysia, two coalitions to keep power to themselves.