Governance between idealism and realism

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The PR has to realise that its back is to the wall at the moment and to cling on to its idealism would also entail an enormous political cost, not least the very real prospect of losing support, patronage and power from those (particularly in the business community) who may decide to shift their loyalties elsewhere. Yet clinging on to its ideals and policy promises is not a case of misplaced juvenile idealism or romanticism gone off the tangent, notes Farish A Noor: without its ideals, the PR is nothing.

 

Malaysia-watchers would have noticed by now that cracks have begun to appear in the opposition People’s Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat) and that recent events have given some cause for worry. Notably, public spats and open rows among PR leaders in state assemblies have not given us any reason to be confident about the coalition’s future, and at the rate that the PR is going today, one is not surprised to hear much speculation about the impending fall of two more state assemblies.

There are, understandably, many reasons for these rows to have come into the public domain – though none of these reasons could justify such acrimonious and self-defeating displays by public politicians whom we expect to behave with more decorum and professionalism.

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One of the reasons, we are told, is the constant bickering and demands that are coming from the business community – predominantly in Selangor and Penang – who feel that their earlier support for the Pakatan should now be reciprocated by the handing out of lucrative development projects and other perks and bonuses that come with political sponsorship and patronage. This, however, is precisely the root of the malaise in Malaysian politics, and was one of the primary reasons why the vote swing in March 2008 was as strong and vocal as it was.

It is known to many in the business world and corporate sector that the mode of governance in Selangor has changed: calls for transparency and accountability have been met with a more stringent form of quality control and hands-on management. Contracts have to be tendered for openly, and the accounting has to be visibly cleaner and more transparent. Likewise the very nature of development contracts has changed as well, with environmentally-dangerous forms of development (such as hillside development) put on hold for the moment.

The business community, however – particularly the all-powerful developers’ lobby – seem impatient to see the money flow once again and are clamouring for a less hands-on approach to governance where developmental projects can be carried out with less fuss and scrutiny. The rumblings we see and hear seem to emanate from these quarters, from lobby groups linked to business interests that want to see a more relaxed mode of governance in Selangor (and Penang) that would allow contracts to be passed and projects undertaken, and profit made of course.

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Now the dilemma faced by the state governments of Selangor and Penang are not unique to the PR, for it is indeed the same dilemma faced by any government: how to straddle that uncomfortable thin line between idealism and realism.

Idealistic politics dictates that governance has to be based on set principles that are seldom compromised and that these ideals should guide governance, and not vice versa. Realism and realist politics on the other hand points to the opposite direction altogether and maintains that compromise and give-and-take are the rules of the political game, for the sake of survival. The idealistic politician is prepared to resign his/her seat on the basis of principle – but then again how many idealistic politicians have you met?

Now we ought to be clear on this matter: having made a public commitment to the principles of democracy, representative politics, anti-communitarianism, transparency and accountability, and having been elected to office on the basis of those promises, the PR governments in Penang, Selangor, and other states cannot backtrack for the sake of survival any more than they have done. In the case of hillside developments in Selangor, for instance, any compromise to the earlier policy would be seen as a hypocritical betrayal of a promise made before the electorate, for the sake of continued corporate patronage and support. Whatever the reasons and justifications that may be given for the move, it would be seen as a moral defeat and a blatant act of hypocrisy.

This in turn might lead to an increasingly jaded and tired electorate thinking to themselves “see, they are no different from the other side”.

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Now of all the damaging claims that can be made to stick, that would be by far the worst: for the PR was elected to office on the basis that they were different from the BN. Now with Pas and Umno engaged in unity talks that have blurred the distinction between the two (leading perhaps to the results of Manek Urai), the PR needs to emphasise its distinction from its opponents and competitors more than ever. To be labelled as being ‘no different’ from the BN whom they condemned so vociferously last year would be the final nail in the coffin of the PR and would bring us back to a politics of realism and pragmatism where ideals and ethics are just froth for sound-bites and headlines.

The PR, however, has to realise that its back is to the wall at the moment and to cling on to its idealism would also entail an enormous political cost, not least the very real prospect of losing support, patronage and power from those (particularly in the business community) who may decide to shift their loyalties elsewhere. Yet clinging on to its ideals and policy promises is not a case of misplaced juvenile idealism or romanticism gone off the tangent: without its ideals, the PR is nothing. In the long run we need to maintain this ideal of a just and equal Malaysia that is colour-blind and non-sectarian. It may not happen in our lifetime, but to abandon our ideals now for the sake of votes and donations will surely kill it even before such a new Malaysia is born.

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