Friday, 21 March 2008

Time to Act as Statesmen

Brave New World (The Star)
20 March 2008

"It's a whole new type of politics out there and the new state governments and the country too need time to adjust to this change.


After the excitement of the election results (yes, I’m still writing about the election, apologies to those of you with insatiable appetites for the new and the “now”), certain unease seems to be creeping into the collective consciousness.

Headlines scream about cracks in the loose coalition of the Opposition, constitutional crises hang over the horizon of at least two states. Are things going to go tumbling down?

Well, a week is a long time in politics as they say, and by the time this article comes out five days would have passed since I wrote it, so I could end up with egg on my face.

However, I just want to say; cool it, chill out, relax, it's early days and the poor little politicians have no idea what hit them.

Some of them have never been out of power and some of them have never tasted it.

They are still stuck in their old mindsets. We, the people seem to have leaped forward but they are still trying to wrap their heads around this new world; poor dears.

For example, the Opposition leader in Selangor; after days of petulant silence he comes out with this grand plan to watch the new state government with beady eagle eyes.

They are going to register the old folks and the young ones and make sure they all get what the ex-Opposition promised them (healthcare and child care respectively). Well, good on you Khir!

I always said a strong opposition is what we need.

But, a word of advice to the handsome ex-Mentri Besar.

Accusing the new state government of being likely to be racially insensitive is rather rich coming from you.

If I am not mistaken, and I am not, some of the most publicised temple destruction that caused such anger and uproar in the Hindu community, and which was one of the impetuses to the heavy setback suffered by the Barisan, happened in Selangor; when you were in charge.

Besides, Khalid and co have not even managed to settle in their new offices. It’s going to take some time to clean up all those shredded documents.

Give them a while to settle in before you threaten to “take action.”

Meanwhile in Penang, Lim Guan Eng had barely sat down when he had to jump up again and put out a fire that is the NEP.

I watched the interview he gave on the NEP and he said that he wanted to weed out the corrupt, inefficient and wasteful aspects of the policy.

Nothing was said about marginalising the poor, of whatever race. Surely this is a good thing. Surely the NEP was meant to help the poor and not meant to be corrupt, inefficient and wasteful.

The NEP’s time is over. For the Malay professional classes, they should be able to stand on their own feet, and if they can’t, then they should not be in that position in the first place.

For the Malay poor, and there are many of them, making up as they do the vast majority of low income families, it would appear that a new approach is needed.

If a policy has been implemented for nearly 40 years and the main group it is aiming to help is still in the same position, it is high time to look at new policies.

The trouble with the NEP and the way it has been enforced is that it promotes Malay interest over national interest. Let’s take a look at public institutions for example; Malay people staff them overwhelmingly.

This is because non-Malays feel they don’t have a fair shot at promotions in the civil service. A worry that is quite valid.

We are too small a nation to shut out talent based on race. The country has to be run by the best people or we will all suffer and the Malay supremacists will then be the supreme masters of rubble.

Obviously not all Malays feel like me. Some were so angry at Guan Eng’s misquoted statement that they have taken to the streets of Penang and Shah Alam. I think this is super.

A democracy needs dissent as long as it is peaceful. The sight of Umno members thronging around Komtar warmed the cockles of my heart.

Umno members have shown the Barisan government that protesting really is part of our culture.

They made a mistake condemning the Bersih and Hindraf rallies. Malaysians do take to the streets when they want to express their feelings.

The country is on the cusp of a new type of politics. It is perhaps no accident that amongst the Opposition in Parliament, the one with the largest number of seats is a multi-racial party that calls for a non-racial method of affirmative action.

And the other two Opposition parties, although more mono racial in their make up are also making similar overtures.

It is odd therefore that the response to the election results by the Barisan component parties has been to reinforce the racial based policies and politics that a very large proportion of the citizens appear to have rejected.

It is also odd to see the old warhorses of the Opposition act like they are still in the Opposition. People, you are in charge of five states now. This is the time to act like statesmen and not like rabble-rousers.

Yes, there is a degree of uncertainty in our country after the elections, but at the end of the day we are going to need to give it some time before we press the panic button; time to see how the new state governments work; time to see how the Barisan reacts; and time most of all to let the old dinosaurs rant and rave using the language of race until they come to the realisation that for the future to be bright, outdated and outmoded politics must be discarded.

The country needs time to settle, let’s just hope the politicians do not take too long in doing so.

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.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Why I Will Vote Opposition

Malaysia Today (unpublished Brave New World)
05 March 2008

"Who to vote for then? Well for one thing, it won’t be for the politician who promises to clean up the drains of Petaling Jaya. That’s not what my MP or my State Exco Member is supposed to do. That is the job of the Local Authorities.


y eight year old boy and his nine year old cousin were in deep conversation last weekend. Very serious stuff because they chased me out of the room and demanded privacy. It turns out that they wanted to establish a political party and they were writing their manifesto. After a bit of poking around, I found out that the manifesto is pretty much limited to one point: my nephew wants to be Prime Minister. My son on the other hand does not seem to have any idea what is going on.

Normally, this would be the time when I make a, oh so witty, comparison between the 12th Malaysian General Elections and the exploits of two primary school boys. Unfortunately, I can’t think of anything and I just put this little anecdote in because, well, I think it’s cute and funny and I know the rest of this article won’t be.

So, elections are here again and on Saturday, I shall be going to the polling station with that merry tune running in my head. You know the one; mari lah mari, pergi mengundi, jangan lupa kewajipan, pada negara.

Who to vote for then? Well for one thing, it won’t be for the politician who promises to clean up the drains of Petaling Jaya. That’s not what my MP or my State Exco Member is supposed to do. That is the job of the Local Authorities, in my case the Petaling Jaya City Council and I have nothing to do with those guys. I should of course. I should have the right to vote for the men and women who deal with such important matters like my huge contributions to the MBPJ football team via all those parking fines I’ve paid. But I don’t.

Now the candidate who promises me that he will try to reintroduce Local Authority elections, he will have my attention. But really, wild dogs roaming the streets and poor street lighting should not be what an MP is primarily concerned about. They are elected so that they can be part of the law-making machine we know as Parliament and they have bigger issues to fry, like corruption, the state of the judiciary, governance, racist supremacy ideology, fundamental freedoms, etc.

Ideally, I would look at the individual candidates and try to figure out where he stands. But this is not very practicable because these candidates are not really individuals; they are the human faces of their political parties. So, what about the parties then? Perhaps I can find one that matches how I think. Frankly, I don’t think there are any that truly reflect my values and aspirations.

Besides, aren’t the constituencies arranged in such a way that one party is more likely to win anyway? When one looks at the way our electoral system is managed, when you can win almost forty percent of the votes and yet only get ten percent of the seats, it is easy to get cynical. Does this mean that voting is a waste of my time? Indeed not.

Elections are a cog in the machinery that is democracy. They are an important cog, but just a cog nonetheless. Of course it is nice if the candidate you choose wins, but even if he or she does not, there is still reason to vote. Because Malaysia uses the first past the post system and because each constituency is not equal (some constituencies are tiny and so each vote counts more), there is a tendency to view everything in terms of seats won.

Of course this is important, because a party without a two-thirds majority has much less freedom to do what it wants to. A major factor here is the ability to change the constitution. Without a two thirds majority a ruling party does not have the freedom to change our main source of citizens’ protection according to their whims. Of course the number of seats won is important.

However, personally I think the percentage of votes is the true indicator of what the people think and want and it is just as important as the number of seats won. This is because the battle for democracy does not happen only once every four or five years. It takes place every single day. And knowing that a large group of the population feel that issues like good governance, honesty, integrity equality and civil liberties are important gives momentum and strength to that day to day battle.

It is with that thought in mind that I will go humming and skipping to the polls, come Saturday. And no matter what the results are on Sunday, I know one thing for sure, if democracy and human rights are important to me, then the quest to ensure my country respects both will continue on Monday, as it will for as long as I draw breath. The only thing that elections determine is who makes up government. Whether we are free or not, is up to us the people to fight for.


(Azmi's previous take on the General Election can be found here:
Azmi Sharom on the 12th General Election)