Who To Vote For In the Next Election
M. Bakri Musa
Elections A System for Checks and Balances
[First of Four Parts]
When he dissolved Parliament on April 3, 2013, to make way for a general election, Prime Minister Najib advised us to “think and ponder appropriately” before casting our votes.
We can practice two mental exercises to help us “think and ponder appropriately.” One, imagine the best and worse possible consequences of our vote, that is, perform a “downstream analysis” of our decision. Two, reflect on the greater role of election as an effective bulwark against abuse of power by those in authority.
I will discuss the broader role of elections first. Subsequent essays will be a downstream analysis of the only three possible outcomes to this election: Barisan Nasional returning to power; Pakatan Rakyat to prevail; and a “hung” parliament.
The most effective check on those in power is the knowledge that they could be replaced in an election. The more this is a reality and not just in theory, the more effective is this critical role. Elections serve as periodic useful reminders.
Even where elections are fair and free, but if the same leaders and party were to be re-elected over and over, they would sooner or later succumb to sclerosis and abuse of power, regardless how competent and well meaning they were initially. It is the rare leader who could escape this all-too-human tendency. We must have actual periodic change in government through elections, and not just the promise.
With rigged and fraudulent elections, or where the process is merely illusory, as with having only one candidate per slot (Russian elections of yore and the election of UMNO President), the less effective they would be in keeping those in power accountable. Saddam Hussein bragged that those who did not like him could always vote him out, but Iraqi elections under him were a sham. Had he kept those elections honest, he would have discovered his people’s true sentiment much earlier, and the price to both him and his country would have been considerably less.
The British decided through elections that their popular and effective wartime leader Churchill would not be the best person to lead them during peacetime. They wisely concluded that he would quickly turn the Cold War into a “hot” one, as reflected by his hawkish and haughty Iron Curtain speech.
Yes, the British were grateful to him for leading and inspiring them during the war, but that gratitude could be expressed in many other ways. Elections are for selecting the best future leaders, not for expressing gratitude for or rewarding past performance, no matter how exemplary.
Foremost and at the practical level, election is a way to pass judgment on the incumbent. It is not, as some have suggested, a contest between the incumbent and challenger. It is for the incumbent to prove that he deserves another term independent of the merit or capability of the challenger. The incumbent’s performance is a matter of record, and can be readily scrutinized.
If the incumbent has proven to be less than capable, then he should be voted out even if the challenger is thought of as potentially not up to the task of taking over. The argument would be that the incumbent has proven himself incapable while the challenger is only regarded (meaning, only potentially) as such. There is the possibility that our initial assessment could be wrong and that the challenger would prove otherwise. There are many ready examples of previously underrated candidates later shining in office; Harry Truman being one.
The first and only question voters must ask before casting their votes in this next election is whether the current Barisan government is deserving of another term. All other matters, as whether other parties are capable of taking over, are irrelevant and besides, conjectural.
Consider three critical areas: economy, education, and level of corruption. Barisan’s economic leadership is passable. It is exemplary only when compared to that of Zimbabwe. Granted, by the figures Malaysia outperforms America and Western Europe (and even Singapore), but remember those countries are already cruising at high altitude. We are still ascending. We need faster growth. We should compare ourselves to China and Panama. Even Ghana and Laos surpassed us last year.
More pertinent especially to those under the sway of Perkasa and Ketuanan Melayu, is the aggregate economic performance of Malays. After nearly six decades of UMNO rule, we still could not achieve our modest 30 percent goal.
Then there is education. No one, not even the Minister of Education himself, is satisfied with our schools. Those who can afford it have long ago abandoned the national stream. Again looking from the Perkasa and Ketuanan Melayu angle, only poor Malays are stuck with that rapidly declining system. Consequently, while a generation ago I could still find many Malays at the leading universities of the world; today Malays there are as rare as honesty among UMNO politicians.
The much-heralded growth of the private sector in education is not a sign of health rather the contrary. It reflects a deteriorating public system. Alberta and Singapore do not have robust private-sector education because their public systems are so much superior.
Talking about corruption, well, there is no point dwelling on it anymore. We are past the tipping point; we are now where Nigeria was in the 1980s. The only way to stop corruption is to deprive UMNO of power. The recent Court of Appeal decision granting one Eskay Abdullah, an UMNO strongman and a member of the slimy “Datuk T’s” trio, his RM20 million “commission” on the aborted crooked bridge in Johor reflects the rot in UMNO. We cannot blame non-Malays for seeing that as the characteristic of contemporary Malay politics and ethics.
Elections are like multiple choice tests, to pick the best candidate from the list offered The incumbent always argue that his past performance had been superior or at any rate better than what his opponents could ever hope to achieve; the challenger offers the promise of a brighter future. Voters have to balance the risk of changing horse midstream versus being stuck with a lame one to face an incoming flood.
Malaysians already know how lame our current horse is. Worse, it has a voracious appetite that is severely taxing us, literally and figuratively. This next election is an opportunity for Malaysians to send this lame one to the glue factory and hitch our ride on a new vigorous steed.
There is only one effective way to teach those who have long been in power and grown arrogant into believing that they are destined to rule forever, and that is to vote them out of office. Then even if their successor were to prove less than satisfactory, it would still have served a salutary lesson on both.
Mexico’s PRI of today is a much superior political party and led by a much younger, more capable and decidedly less corrupt leader than it was a decade ago when it was booted out after having been in power continuously for the preceding 71 years.
Those who believe that UMNO is “rotten to the core,” no amount of calls for transformation and reform from within or without would be as effective as throwing the party out.
Malaysia has another equally important reason to see regular changes in government. Stated briefly, it is to teach our sultans specifically and the permanent establishment generally the important lesson of being politically neutral. They cannot bank on or be overly cozy with the ruling party. That our sultans and civil servants have yet to learn this crucial lesson of democracy was demonstrated by the ugly political mess in Perak, and to a lesser extent in Selangor and Trengganu following the last election.
It is also for this reason that I am optimistic of a smooth transition at the federal level with the coming general elections should Barisan be booted out. We are fortunate to have Kedah’s Sultan Halim as Agong, not because he had that role earlier, rather his recent experience with the smooth transition from UMNO to PAS in his home state following the 2008 election. His performance then shamed his brother rulers in Perak (especially), Selangor, and Trengganu.
Our sultans and members of the permanent establishment too need frequent reminding on the need to be politically neutral and to be professional about it.
Next: Second of Four Parts: Downstream Analysis – A Barisan Win is No Victory for Malaysia