Malaysia's political conundrum: An interesting case of public choice theory?

Mohammad Abdul Hamid


LETTER | In a market, each player acts according to his/her own self-interests. Now, let’s change the word “market” to “government”, and the sentence emerges as an illustration of public choice theory. 

The theory describes decision-making in politics, where players may not always act for public interest. In other words, players in government and public sector behave quite similar to the market, as described in conventional economic theory. Introduced by economists John Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, the theory won Buchanan a Nobel Prize in economics in 1986.

The current political conundrum in our country illustrates an interesting case study of public choice theory. Barely two days after the Pakatan Harapan Presidential Council announced the decision on the succession plan for the country’s top post on Friday, actions by certain parties on Sunday offer a different story. All is not well. 

While the top-most body of the coalition offers a decision based on consensus, certain groups appear to have a different motive. The turns of events since Sunday offer the public a glimpse at how different political actors made potentially conflicting decisions, leading to the collapse of Harapan and resignation of the prime minister. One can conclude that there must be different interests by different groups, for instance within PKR.

In politics, there are various players and stakeholders, each with their own motives and self-interests. Primary motives of elected MPs can be a quest for position (power) and for survival. This is done ideally for public interest, but public choice theory suggested that in reality, it is also for personal or other benefits.

Action or decision made behind closed doors is not normally known by other players. Doing so intentionally is a strategic move. One can draw parallel of such situation to the economic term of information asymmetry, a type of externalities causing market failures. To fix market failures, the remedy is through government interventions, according to some scholars. In politics, such a situation may lead to government failure. But what happens if the government fails during market failures? This is obviously an academic question, but have real-life application and implications too.

While our political situation is still developing as this is written, the public choice theory provides concerned citizens with a tool to understand the behaviours of our politicians when they make certain moves. It also offers the opportunity for the rakyat to calibrate and adjust our expectations accordingly. 

This is not to suggest that we lower our expectations of our elected leaders. On the contrary, public choice theory gives a more realistic approach in how we deal with the antics of our politicians. Politicians are humans after all. 

But as citizens and voters, we have a tool to facilitate a more informed decision. Hopefully we will not have a short-term memory. 

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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