Saturday, 15 March 2008

A Resounding Vote for Change

Brave New World (The Star)
14 March 2008

"Democracy is an ongoing process, and if we value it we must continue to take part in that process.


When I was approached by this newspaper to write a regular column, I was asked to choose a name for it. I elected for Brave New World as a tribute to Aldous Huxley’s novel of the same name.

It is a story of the future, where the world is seemingly perfect because everything in society is controlled, even human emotion.

And yet this utopian state is one that evokes unease in the reader, because in it the price of perfection is humanity. For me at least, this is a price too high, and it must never be paid.

The title reminds me of that belief.

But it was brought to my attention by a reader of this column (yes, they exist) that the term “brave new world” could also be found in Shakespeare’s Tempest.

In the final Act, the heroine Miranda, who had lived all her life with her father on an island separated from the world, sees other people for the first time and she says, “Oh Wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here. How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that hath such people in’t!”

After last weekend, my feelings are a combination of the resolve brought forth by reading Huxley’s dystopian vision and Miranda’s amazement at seeing people she never thought existed before.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, I saw how people had seized their right to choose, and in so doing asserted the simple fact that we Malaysians value our inherent human right to be masters of our own destiny.

I saw how millions of my fellow citizens had behaved in a way that was so unprecedented that it was like looking at another country.

So now we have a government with only a simple majority in Parliament and five state governments in the hands of Opposition parties. Legally, this has many implications.

Where the Federal Government is concerned, the main effect of the election is that the major portions of the Constitution cannot be changed at will any longer.

Without their a two-thirds majority, the Barisan MPs lose their free hand to amend the Constitution. Therefore, for at least four years, our Constitution should be protected.

I wish to point out here that the Opposition in Parliament is in no way able to make true some of their election promises – for example, to reduce petrol prices.

This is because those decisions are made by the Executive, and as big as the Opposition presence is in Parliament, it is not enough for them to form the executive.

Petrol prices are still very much within the control of the Barisan Government. Let there be no confusion between what the Opposition chooses not to do and what they are simply unable to do.

That being the case, apart from blocking Constitutional amendments, what then can the Opposition achieve?

My hope is that they will provide much more scrutiny of the Executive. With so many of them around, their presence will be harder to ignore during Ministers’ question time.

Furthermore, there are many new faces in Parliament that belong to intelligent, capable people, so the level of debate should be higher.

Thus, there should be an injection of intellectual content in legislative deliberations, rather than the usual slinging matches that our parliament is so shamefully infamous for.

The Barisan MPs, too, would have to raise their game. If you answer relevant questions with too many irrelevant and stupid replies, then you will be shown up for what you are.

It is in their own interest to make sure that this does not happen. No more bocor comments, thank you very much.

At the state level, a lot more can be done by the Opposition. Since they have total control of the five state legislatures, they have enough assemblymen (and women) to make up the powerful state Executive.

Land issues are what come to mind first. The DAP, PKR and PAS now can put their money where their mouths are and make sure that development in their states is conducted transparently, honestly and in a sustainable manner. Anything less will be a serious dent in their credibility.

Local government should be looked at as well, since they fall under state government jurisdiction. A proper study on the feasibility and the legal options available to the state governments to initiate the reinstatement of local government elections should be carried out.

It is time that some real progress was made in making the lowest yet most relevant (in day-to-day life) branch of government accountable directly to the people.

However, that will take a long time and its outcome is uncertain due to the legal issues involved.

In the meantime, however, much can still be done – for example, by making the present system of local government more efficient and transparent through new policy directions.

It would be good also to see local authorities ordered to deal with interfaith issues with a lot more sensitivity. High-handed destruction of temples must end, and a more pluralistic approach in the granting of planning permission for non-Muslim houses of worship would do wonders for inter-communal harmony.

But above all, the new state governments must be impeccably honest. I would not be surprised that even as I type, wealthy tycoons are taking out their chequebooks in anticipation of new politicians to be bought.

Any slip by the new state governments into this direction will be pounced on by the people, and rightly so.

These are some of the practical aspirations that I have for the now far more powerful Opposition. However, the election has also brought along with it a more intangible type of hope.

First and foremost is the fact that it showed that our vote counts; that the electorate can create change. This is an important and vital message that the citizens of this country should take heed of, especially the many first-time voters.

The 12th general election has shown an important component of democracy in effective action and it helps to dismiss the apathetic cynicism that society so often faces when it comes to elections.

It is this sense of empowerment and authority over our governance that will create long-term prosperity and peace.

Greater accountability means less wastefulness, corruption and mismanagement; a sense that the democratic process is meaningful means the people are far less likely to vent their frustrations in violent ways. It all means hope that the democratic process can work.

It must be remembered, though, that things do not end with the counting of the ballot papers. Democracy is an ongoing process, and if we value it we must continue to take part in that process.

All governments, state and Federal, should be under the constant scrutiny of the people. We are still a long way off from having a truly civil society, and many things, ranging from socio-economic equity to civil liberties, still need to be striven for.

We have placed much responsibility in the hands of many different types of politicians, as opposed to the monolithic party we are used to; we have to make sure they – all of them – are reminded of that responsibility.

There is so much to digest after the last general election, so many possibilities that have made a tentative appearance that there is not enough space to discuss them all here.

Could we possibly be looking at the dawn of non-communal politics? After all, the huge losses made by the BN cannot be simplified into a matter of non-Malay dissatisfaction.

That would not explain Kedah or other states with high Malay populations like Selangor. Neither would it explain individual constituencies like Balik Pulau.

Could this also be the dawn of two-party politics, with the Barisan Nasional on one side and the Barisan Rakyat on the other?

It’s all too early to tell. But for once, in a long time, there is hope that a non-ethnocentric form of politics and a truer democracy is appearing in our country.

One thing is certain, though – last weekend has reminded us of one great truth that both sides have to pay attention to.

It is this – we the people hold the power.

If the mighty Barisan can be given such a huge setback, the people can do it to anyone.

We are, indeed, stepping into a brave new world.