A few people have asked me what I meant when, at a press conference announcing the electoral collaboration between the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) and Muda on 15 July, I said the two parties would try to introduce a new political culture in Malaysia.
With the state elections just around the corner and the rising political temperature, this is a good time to delineate the key features of this new political culture that PSM is promoting.
The first aspect is a commitment to not manipulate the voters by preying on their fears and anxieties in order to win votes. Sadly, this is currently being done by both the major coalitions.
The federal opposition bloc Perikatan Nasional’s main argument is that Pakatan Harapan-DAP is trying to undermine the position of the ethnic Malays and of Islam in Malaysia. PN propagandists argue it is of paramount importance that Malays vote PN to safeguard their race and religion.
On the flip side, Pakatan Harapan is hyping up the “green tide”, which, according to PH propagandists, is threatening to “Talibanise” Malaysia. So, according to them, it is crucially important to ensure that people vote PH and its ally, Barisan Nasional.
Both coalitions – PN and PH-BN – demonise the other, creating fear and misconceptions, driving their followers further and further apart, leaving wounds in our national psyche – wounds that will not quietly disappear after electoral politicking ends on 12 August.
The main narratives promoted by both PN and PH are creating a toxic political culture which is intensifying inter-ethnic tensions. There is a significant risk that this strategy can spiral out of control and lead to civil strife.
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PSM requires all its candidates to take an oath to abstain from using ethnic-flavoured arguments in their campaigns. As politicians, we have the responsibility to enhance inter-ethnic communication and harmony. We must be sensitive to the problems faced by the different communities in society and to formulate policies and programmes to overcome them. We need to reach out and care for ‘the other’.
Inter-ethnic cooperation can be promoted by focusing on programmes that are beneficial to ordinary people from all ethnic backgrounds – for example, a social protection net for all, rehabilitating the environment, strengthening our healthcare system and assuring employment for all those who wish to work.
Working together on these issues will provide opportunities to understand each other better and promote a dialogue on these, and other issues facing the nation.
The second major aspect of this new political culture is linked to the first. We need to develop a full and correct understanding of the nature of the problems facing the country.
We are a relatively small country in a globalised capitalist economy dominated by big companies that bully smaller companies and even governments. This has led to massive wage suppression in Malaysia and the rest of the third world.
Increases in worker productivity over the past fifty years have led to massive profits for the companies at the apex of the global supply chains.
Meanwhile, many small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) in the middle rungs of the supply chain struggle to keep solvent.
Also, the real incomes (ie after adjusting for inflation) of workers and small farmers have remained dismally low. People are submerged in debt and many are resentful that the system isn’t working for them.
Governments struggle to collect revenue, as the biggest owners of capital have the option of moving their financial resources to more “business-friendly” countries.
The Malaysian government’s revenue has decreased progressively from about 30% of gross domestic product (GDP) in the 1980s to its current 15%. One reason is that the government has progressively reduced corporate taxes in its bid to retain capital within the country.
The resulting fiscal constraints make it difficult for the Malaysian government to commit to expanding social protection or to take bolder steps to switch to green energy and mitigate climate change.
These realities have to be acknowledged, and realistic strategies for working within them in the short run and overcoming them in the longer run have to be formulated.
It is definitely not enough to assume that everything will be resolved if we reduce corruption – though that is an important and necessary goal. It is similarly erroneous to assume that everything will be resolved if our political leaders are more pious.
Yes, we do need honest and incorruptible politicians, but they must have a proper understanding of the complex world we live in and have a set of comprehensive and internally consistent policies even before they assume office.
PSM is building a coherent set of policies to address the major economic problems that Malaysia is facing. We are doing this in consultation with civil society organisations, activists, academicians and others.
We believe the problems Malaysia faces, while significant and complex, are definitely not insurmountable. But they need well thought-out and realistic strategies to be tackled. We intend to contribute to the building of a political movement that is well versed in these strategies.
The third aspect of this new political culture is a commitment to ensure that democracy is not subverted by the rich and powerful.
This has already taken place in many of the ‘democracies’ all over the world. Large corporations have too much influence over democratically elected leaders.
Our political movement has to accept the reality that for the intermediate term (10 to 30 years), the best that can be hoped for in many countries around the world is to have a government of committed socialists managing a nation that is integrated into the global capitalist economy.
One of our major concerns of our movement should be to ensure that there isn’t ‘corporate capture’ of our political leaders.
Some of the measures we need to put in place:
- Public funding of political parties and caps on the funds that can be given by corporations or rich individuals
- Annual asset declarations by politicians who hold office
- Laws that provide for the investigation and prosecution of politicians who amass more wealth than can be explained by their official income
- The creation of more mechanisms for checks and balances within the administration. For example, the power to alienate (to sell or dispose) state land is currently concentrated in the person of the chief minister. There should be legislation that sets up an independent committee to oversee land alienation. This committee should have the power to pause any decision to alienate, until it is discussed and voted upon in the legislative assembly
- Term limits of 10 years for chief ministers and prime ministers
- A requirement that aspiring candidates for parliamentary office agree to submit to monitoring by an oversight committee within the party regarding their accumulation of wealth
We need to move away from the current semi-feudal political culture where the leader is the boss who distributes the ‘goodies’ – favours, contracts and handouts – and who cannot be questioned by subordinates or constituents.
We should move towards a culture where the political leader is a friend, teacher and, most importantly, enabler who builds the capacity of ordinary people to understand their situation and empowers them to play an active role in improving their lives.
We are in the process of gathering and building leaders who do not see politics as a stepping stone to personal wealth, but as an opportunity to serve the people and the nation.