Are we happy about the state of politics in Malaysia?
Are we convinced that the current line-up of elected representatives, ministers and institutions are truly serving the people?
We can answer these questions with the ancient Greek maxim “nosce te ipsum” (know yourself).
The American cultural critic and satirist HL Mencken once said, “The average man does not want to be free. He simply wants to be safe.”
Today, many people, from the rural interior to the sprawling big cities, increasing feel they are not safe owing to the erosion of their right to be free from corruption and their right to a fairer share of the nation’s wealth.
Thomas Jefferson warned: “And to preserve (our) independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt.”
This warning is becoming a frightening reality in our land today as we increasingly witness how we “have no time to think, no means of calling the mismanagers to account”, as the nation groans under mounting debt.
Instead, we now have to be “be glad to obtain subsistence by hiring ourselves to rivet their chains on the necks of our fellow-sufferers”.
As we tot up the cost of corruption over these past few decades, it could well exceed over a trillion ringgit. Think of the corruption convictions, the allegations and unresolved suspicions, the dereliction of duty, the wilful omissions and commissions, and the colossal wastage of funds.
John Adams noted that the passions of greed, pride and ambition are the same in all humankind “under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty”.
For decades, many people stayed clear of politics.
At work, many considered it taboo to talk about politics. Many businesses frowned on any political discussions at the workplace.
University students and school children were told in no uncertain terms that their job was to study, not debate politics and political thought.
Religious congregations mastered the art of skirting anything that had traces of politics, almost making it seem sinful and ungodly to talk about politics in places of worship.
Many NGOs, trade unions, and professional guilds pretended that politics did not exist in their calling or service to society and their professions.
This was the way we went about our studying, working and living our ordinary lives. Many subscribed to the conventional thinking that “when the rich rob the poor, it’s called business; when the poor fight back it’s called violence”.
We have reached a stage where many institutions are subservient to political biddings. Many universities remain slaves to political dictates.
Civil servants unquestioningly adore their mottos – “Saya yang menurut perintah” (I follow orders) and the latest “Saya yang menjalankan amanah” (I carry out what I am entrusted to do) or “Berkhidmat untuk negara” (In the service of the nation). They may fear losing their pensions or promotions.
It is time we heed Plato’s warning: “If you do not take an interest in the affairs of your government, then you are doomed to live under the rule of fools.”
The country is besieged by economic and social pains. We could easily fall for the argument that the Covid pandemic and the recent floods are the source of our misery.
Or we could take comfort in hyped-up religious sermons calling for us to surrender to God and accept all our fate as just a test from heaven.
Or we could be deluded by the mega skyscrapers and manicured city walkways while we trumpet ‘modern Malaysia’ to the world.
But the truth is the root cause of our various pains today has a political dimension. Political decisions in Malaysia determine much in our lives.
Our inability to turn the positive change in the 2018 general election into far-reaching reforms has come back to haunt us. We stood by helplessly as we saw the seeds of change slip through our fingers.
Thomas Jefferson warned that established governments, under the pretence of governing, have divided their nations into two classes, wolves and sheep. “If once the people become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves”.
By our silence, by our indifference, by our naivety, our ignorance, our gullibility, we have deserted the very principles that earned us our independence.
In business, in education, in healthcare, in public service, our actions have made our institutions of good governance more vulnerable. We have wasted an economy blessed with natural riches. We have frayed our multiracial social fabric.
We have failed to recognise that when politics is corrupted, all else fails in the country. Indeed, the malady of Malaysian politics is threatening the future of this nation.
Shamed before the world
The #TangkapAzamBaki protest in the heart of Kuala Lumpur on 22 January has shamed the prime minister and his government.
The protesters wanted the government machinery to arrest the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission chief, who is embroiled in a controversy over his corporate shareholdings.
To me, it was a people’s revolt against worsening corruption in the country.
As MP Hanipa Maidin noted, this protest was “aimed at honouring the rule of law”.
Unfortunately, the heavy deployment of a thousand police personnel, along with riot police trucks and weapons, robbed the people of their fundamental right to peacefully assemble without hindrance – a right enshrined in the Federal Constitution. This right “ought to be jealously protected come what may,” Hanipa said.
The cordoning off of so many roads and the disruption of train services to and through Kuala Lumpur added to the shame.
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and his security team may believe that such heavy-handed action was taken in the best interest of national security.
But the world knows from past protests that Malaysians are a peaceful lot: they do not hurl Molotov cocktails and burn buildings when they rally in their thousands to get their message across to the powers that be.
The government may even argue they acted to curb the spread of the Omicron variant. But people know that every day tens, thousands of people crowd train stations and bus terminals to get to and from work and spend weekends in malls and markets.
History will note that here was an unelected leader and a government that failed miserably in fighting corruption.
The impression sold to the world is that the government is unjustly protecting one individual against the wishes of many ordinary people. All they want is action to show the government is serious in its fight against corruption.
Once again, the PM has failed to grab the opportunity to win the hearts of the people. If the public now harbours even more doubts about this government, then it is the doing of Ismail Sabri and his cabinet members. Period.