Since the elections of March 2008, hardly a day has gone by in Malaysia without some ruckus or scandal erupting in the corridors of power. Sooner or later, these politicians have to learn, or be taught, that they were voted not to cut ribbons or make fiery speeches, but to govern properly, writes Farish A Noor. That means less talk and drama, and more reading of parliamentary files and reports. It means less gala dinners and balls and more late nights understanding reports on economic performance and alternatives for development. In short, it means doing that dull but necessary thing called governance.
For two weeks now, this political scientist has been sidetracked from his work on transnational religio-political movements by the controversy that has erupted in Malaysia as a result of the accusations of sodomy levelled against former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. This is not the first time I have been way-laid in the line of duty; for scandals, controversies and conspiracy theories have the rather nasty habit of popping up when you least expect it in the Asian region.
Now this comes as an unwelcome change for me as I have spent half my life in Europe and the last seven years in Germany. Allow me to make a very simple (and admittedly general) comparison here: Politics in Germany, like much of Western Europe, tends to be dull, dull, dull. Politicians have less colourful lives than their Asian counterparts and it would be the event of the century if a senior German politician was caught with his pants down or accused of sodomy of all things.
Indeed, one of the outstanding features of German politics – particularly on the level of local governance – is how dreadfully boring it is. It also happens to be painfully serious, and as someone who has seen local government at work in Germany I can tell you that it can put even the most imaginative among us to sleep in nary a second.
But this is what politics and governance ought to be like. Politics is serious business, and it ought to be taken seriously. Much of daily governance however is laborious and time consuming, but necessarily so. I have sat through local council discussions on road-widening projects, environmental campaigns, kindergarten fund allocations and such things, and I was struck how every single one of these issues was treated with utmost seriousness as if the budget of Germany was being discussed.
Furthermore, German politicians I met and know tend to be a rather grey lot. Unlike the President of France whose wife has added considerable sparkle to French politics, Germany’s politicians are as grey as the suits they wear. They also tend to be a dour, humourless bunch who plod along as they read their files and write their speeches; and they tend to take every single word they read and write seriously. There were times during my seven-year stay in Germany that I felt that they were over-doing the ‘serious public servant’ role a bit, but in retrospect I feel that such a dose of seriousness is precisely what Asia needs at the moment.
Looking at the political culture of South and Southeast Asia, we see that politics has been overtaken by political culture instead; and what a crass and crude culture it is too. Never mind the occasional bout of sodomy-frenzy in Malaysia: from Pakistan to India, Bangladesh to Sri Lanka, Malaysia to Indonesia, Thailand to Philippines, the political culture of many South and Southeast Asian politics is determined by the behaviour and antics of politicians who often behave as if they were movie stars or who were themselves former movie-stars. Politics is seen as a demonstration of power and largess, and power has to be demonstrated and performed in the public domain in the most spectacular manner.
Hence the tendency for Asians to leap on to the bandwagon of cult leaders and hero-worship, to glorify their heroes and vilify their enemies. Our politicians walk the earth like demigods of the age of Dewarajas, our parliaments and local councils resemble the colonial durbars of old with their hollow pomp and expensive pageantry. In every single Asian country I have visited or worked on, politicians never shy from the camera or would even pay to have it pointed in their direction; red carpets are the earth upon which they tread; flower petals make up the carpets that cushion their feet. They cut ribbons, pander to the gallery, raise the political temper at will whenever it suits them.
Since the elections of March 2008, hardly a day has gone by in Malaysia without some ruckus or scandal erupting in the corridors of power. This reminds us of the shambolic mess that was Indonesian politics between 1998 to 2005 when a succession of populist leaders were heaved upon the political throne of the nation, only to be brought low again – President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) even left his office in his boxer-shorts, ostensibly to make a point though the effect was to heap even more ridicule upon an office that was losing credibility fast. The President of the Philippines caused a scandal when she appeared on the cover of a popular magazine in the guise of a movie-star; and Philippine politics inched one step closer to Bollywood in its emulation of froth and glitter with no substance.
Europe of course did not get to where it is today without plentiful reforms and even violent revolutions. But Europe’s success lies in its capacity to transform the revolutionary potential of these social upheavals into concrete institutional change, which today has sedimented and become routine. Governance was not always a serious thing for we know that up to the 18th century, European politicians were little more than robber-barons bandits too. But as the revolutionary impact of these reforms was institutionalised, opening the way for the emergence of an independent middle-class and the industrial revolution, genuine and lasting social change took place.
Asian societies today cannot afford to stagger behind in this race for societal development. There is no point for the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, India or Pakistan to weave elaborate fictions or dream of development as long as our collective understanding and praxis of governance remains mired in the stagnant swamp of neo-feudal mentality, the cult of heroes and villains, the drama of farcical politics and the culture of conspiracies and rumours. Sooner or later, these politicians have to learn, or be taught, that they were voted not to cut ribbons or make fiery speeches, but to govern properly: That means getting the drains to work, building schools, alleviating poverty and illiteracy, etc. That means less talk and drama, and more reading of parliamentary files and reports. It means less gala dinners and balls and more late nights understanding reports on economic performance and alternatives for development. In short, it means doing that dull but necessary thing called governance.
Dr Farish A Noor is a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.