Arresting the slide in our public institutions (Part 2)

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As the Malaysian public clamours for reforms in key institutions of state such as the police and the educational system, it is imperative that we – the Malaysian public – play our role as the real power-holders and stakeholders in the system by demanding that these institutions perform their basic task, which is to serve the Malaysian public in the first place. Anything less than that would be to concede to a neo-feudal political culture where the citizenry have no role to play (save voting once every few years) and where politicians and public servants behave like rulers immune to the law, observes Farish A Noor.

 

The scholar of comparative politics is often struck by how so many postcolonial nation-states have managed to degenerate into neo-feudal societies where power and politics have become so personalised that state power and the use of force/violence is monopolised in the hands of a few, who nonetheless claim mandate to govern over their respective populations. This was certainly the case in many of the communist postcolonial states (such as Vietnam) where the one-party system effectively put an end to any semblance of representative democracy and negated the presence of an active public domain where alternative political opinions or voices could be heard.

But more worrying is the fact that the same has come to pass in so many former colonial states that at the outset inherited the tools and instruments for representative democracy under the rule of law as well. One simply has to look at countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines (under the rule of Marcos) and Indonesia (during the leadership of Suharto) for examples of how even the most vibrant democracies with in-built constitutional guarantees managed to devolve to become oligarchal assemblies of entrenched elites who no longer felt accountable to the citizenry.

The reasons for this slide in our public institutions lies in part in the culture of politics and power in so many countries, including countries like Malaysia that claim to be developed nations. Yet despite the rhetoric of development Malaysia is a country that has more than 1,500 deaths in custody as part of its developmental record: proof, if any was needed, that building gigantic shopping malls and skyscrapers does not guarantee that one will live in a developed country where public institutions and officials respect the value of human life.

Yet it is our political culture that valorises ‘strong leadership’ and ‘powerful leaders’ that has to be held into account here and the tendency to think of power in terms of state violence (both legitimate and illegitimate) that has to be expressed in the public domain. We still live in societies where people believe that being a powerful leader equals being a good leader; and underlying this assumption is the related assumption that the acquisition of power is an end in itself, by whatever means.

The political elite of countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Phillipines, Thailand, Pakistan and Bangladesh (among others) behave as if considerations of fundamental human rights of their citizens are rhetorical flourishes that occasionally justifies the election process, but seldom gets anywhere beyond that. The foundational idea that in a democracy the fundamental rights of the citizen counts above all is still, sadly, an alien concept to so many of them. Hence the tendency that we see time and again in so many developing countries for political elites to rely on the tools of the state – such as the police, army, judiciary and other related governmental institutions – to serve their own party-political interests.

In the wake of the MACC scandal involving the tragic death of a young political assistant from the DAP party, it is imperative that Malaysian society re-asserts its presence in the public domain by demanding an enquiry into what really happened at the premises of the MACC office. But more than the details of the interrogation process itself, the protests over the death of the young PA at the MACC office has to start from the simple premise of who runs MACC and whose agenda was it serving?

Lest it be forgotten, MACC stands for the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. The very name itself spells its purpose and mandate and should remind all of us – MACC officers included – that they are public servants who are meant to serve the interests of the Malaysian public, of whatever political background or affiliation. It beggars belief that among those accused is a State Assembly member who is said to have given money to a health centre in her own constituency, while other more notable cases that includes a former senior politician who has built for himself a Bali-styled mansion fit for a king (or perhaps even surpassing the palaces of the kings) are not called in for questioning.

It is this blatant and shameless selectivity of the MACC investigation procedure that adds to the growing cynicism of the Malaysian public and raises questions about the objectivity and credibility of the institution. We have seen many other cases of selective persecution in so many other failed and failing states all over Asia and Africa, and in all of these cases the rot begins when the institutions of governance fail in their stated goal of serving the public and end up serving the interests of those in power. MACC’s reputation in the long run will depend on how the inquiry into the death on its premises will be carried out and whether the body can persuade the Malaysian public that its inquiries into the alleged wrongdoings of lawmakers in Selangor are not motivated by other political agendas that may serve other party-political interests as well.

In the meantime, as the Malaysian public clamours for reforms in key institutions of state such as the police and the educational system, it is imperative that we – the Malaysian public – play our role as the real power-holders and stakeholders in the system by demanding that these institutions perform their basic task, which is to serve the Malaysian public in the first place. Anything less than that would be to concede to a neo-feudal political culture where the citizenry have no role to play (save voting once every few years) and where politicians and public servants behave like rulers immune to the law. That is not development; the word for it is degeneration.

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