Commentary Politics

Malaysia’s long and slow road to political maturity

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Written by Aziz Hassan

April 12, 2018.

Recollections & Reflections – A commentary

AS Malaysians look forward to vote in the 14th general elections on May 9 in what is anticipated to be another close contest, the number of now non-active politicians and retired senior civil servants who have found the courage to speak out against what they refer to as all manner of wrongdoings seems to be on the rise.

Those familiar with civil service regulations and how the system works will tell you why some find the guts only after retirement but politicians operate in a different environment which is usually more open at the top and more willing to listen to dissenting opinions so long as these are offered within the four walls of a conference room but despite this many too are the politicians who chose to be brave and holier-than-thou only post-retirement and in most case, years after being no longer active.

This is being written just after reading a comment put forward very precisely at Facebook by former colleague Jailani Harun on former minister Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz’s recent tirade against something decided by the ministry of defence at least 10 years ago.

Rafidah appears lately to have gone to a new level, by being hyper active in saying her piece of the mind at Facebook and when asked to comment on criticisms coming from her former Cabinet and Umno colleagues.

In recent months a couple of friends kept on sending via WhatsApp equally strong views against the government and the ruling coalition by former ambassador Datuk Dennis Ignatius, who used to be based in Buenos Aires in the late 80s.

Others, like former Election Commission chairman Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman, have taken a different route and that’s to join the opposition, which came as a surprise to many.

Many too are stories about how these retired officers became dissenters as a result of frustrations at being left out and not made board members of government-linked companies, for example.

The spat between Rafidah and her former colleagues, especially Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, was thought by many to be at a few levels lower than that expected of people of their status.

What politicians do and say in public are a good reflection of the state of Malaysian politics and despite being independent since 1957, there appears to be a lack of maturity still despite having experienced 61 years of democracy.

The accusations and counter-accusations of the type linked to the Penang proposed undersea tunnel that we have been reading since some weeks ago between the MCA and Gerakan on one side and the DAP’s Lim Guan Eng on the other, the name calling in Parliament, the switch from one party to the other and at times back to where they started, the issues talked about that seem to ignore the findings of surveys which found the reasons why millennials are not keen on either side of the political divide and crucially, the issues seized upon in the run-up to a general elections.

That’s those in a leadership position. We now go to the followers – the people who may or may not vote on March 9.

They too appear to be not fundamentally different from those they will choose to remain in or take over leadership positions.

In their anger to see change, many willingly ignore previous misdeeds, poor governance and lack of transparency, believing in every word as long as it’s against the ruling government. Opinions on the ills existing in Malaysia as reported by the foreign press and the opposition-leaning domestic press are absorbed without scrutiny – the downside of the first-past-the-post electoral system, how a party with less popular votes could end up being in power, how delineation is so unfair and should not happen, just about everything.

As a democracy that is 61 years old, it goes without saying that when Malay gained independence it had to borrow systems already entrenched in the Commonwealth jurisdictions especially and almost all of these countries are still operating under the same systems in place since more than 100 years ago.

Britain introduced the first-past-the-post system in 1888 and still uses it today while the United States has been using the electoral college for over 200 years now but when the opposition Pakatan Rakyat had more of the popular votes in 2013 and yet lost the elections, the condemnation came from all sides, both locally and foreign as if Malaysia was such a rogue state with an electoral system that was just as objectionable. It was as if something like this could happen only in a country with manipulative politicians like in Malaysia.

Whenever the Election Commission decides on delineation again the voices of dissent are heard loud and clear, especially to claim that what this process does is only to favour the ruling party when past election results do not support the claim. Many more established democracies of the West require delineation to be done every four or five years. Similarly the perception that the Malays in the rural constituencies will throw their support for Umno although the Islamist PAS with also an almost entirely Malay line-up of candidates has beaten Umno enough times in the predominantly Malay states of Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu.

But at the end of the day people choose what they want to believe in and this happens more often in politics than in other facets of life. Maybe this is what some people mean when they say that Malaysians are sometimes too hard on themselves despite the West they look up to having many negative peculiarities of their own.

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About the author

Aziz Hassan

A journalist since July 1976 with both the English and Malaya press and was with two newspaper groups before The Mole. Does corporate report-writing and translation in his free time. Currently also a contributing weekly rugby columnist for the New Straits Times.