Malaysian society is complex. For over 60 years, we have experienced and shared the good and the bad that has befallen us.
Unfortunately, even with all that, we still have to tackle the glaring problem in our politics: we have become extremely polarised by what we think and how we act. Perhaps not everyone may agree with this statement, but nobody can deny it either.
So we must be more ‘philosophical’ in our perspective of politics, instead of taking things at face value.
The biggest problem in Malaysian politics is that, aside from its focus on racial and religious fault lines, we gravitate towards the politics of populism and personality cults. Najib Razak, Anwar Ibrahim, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Lim Guan Eng and Hadi Awang, at different times, dominate the political discourse.
It sometimes boils down to where we derive our morals, standards and political expectations, ie from party leaders instead of party ideology. And so smears and scandals have been the norm in politics. Although policies matter, and politicians use this rhetoric in their campaigns (eg the goods and services tax vs the sales and service tax debate), they also resort to character assassination, defamatory statements and name-calling.
Unfortunately, this is what voters want to hear all the time: it is a form of ‘entertainment’. Politicians like to ‘preach to the masses’, and voters want to believe they are always right. This feeds the tribalistic nature of modern politics: believing that the other side is evil and refusing to arrive at the middle ground, thus rarely generating public discourse.
Thus, the idea of ‘high politics’ focuses too much on winning power at any costs. The danger is that voters may opt for politicians and political parties without fully understanding their ideologies and without raising critical questions.
We, the people on the ground, can do better than this. We need to hold civil and respectful discussions about what we disagree. It is simply not enough to say “this person is corrupt” and be done with it. This does not mean we should dismiss or trivialise wrongdoings or avoid criticism of poor government policies.
We have failed to reflect deeply on what we believe in or even what the parties we support stand for. So, we have to constantly challenge ourselves: what do we believe in? How do we view the world? What is the role of the government? How do we define rights, and where do they come from? We must consistently know where we stand on everyday issues. Ultimately, our principles matter the most.
These things are not properly highlighted in mainstream discourse. We don’t talk much about the ideas of capitalism, communism and socialism in the public sphere. We think such discourse is reserved for those in academia and the universities. We hardly speak of these things in our kopitiams.
While such things are difficult to discuss, we should always be more aware of what we stand for, and what we advocate to make the world a better place.
This perhaps is where the political culture in Eastern and Western countries is vastly different. Malaysian politics appears racially and religiously motivated, and politics here hinges on the acts of politicians and political parties. In Western liberal democracies such as the US, people argue on the grounds of political philosophy and ideology, eg social justice collectivism versus the free individual who is responsible for his or her own decisions.
We need to talk more. Perhaps the older generations are not capable of engaging along these lines. But we can try to raise a generation who can engage through ideological and philosophical discourse.
Perhaps we can begin by teaching philosophy and political science in our secondary schools. There are a wide range of Eastern and Western philosophers whom we can try to understand – great philosophers and thinkers such as Sun Tzu, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and Karl Marx.
The Malaysian education system has been severely lacking in teaching young people how to analyse the world around them and to form their personal views of it. We need more free, critical thinkers in our midst, instead of blindly accepting things as they are. Everything in our society requires levels of questioning, and we must be able to justify our answers.
Hopefully, one day, Malaysians will reflect more on their own political convictions and what they need to do to achieve their vision. This would only be achievable if we have a properly educated civil society with a healthy exchange of ideas and viewpoints. We cannot simply allow irresponsible politicians to tell us what to think or how we should feel. We have our minds.
If we want to build a better society, then we ought to understand our political foundations and talk to each other about them instead of dismissing them and letting things happen. Sit down and talk. That is the way to go.
Enoch Lim Ee studies politics and government studies at a university in East Malaysia