COMMENT The state of our politics today is not healthy - it’s divisive, sordid and unbefitting a country with fast MRTs and skyscrapers.
We spend a lot of time hurling abuses at one another, and on a daily basis we hear of propaganda, personal attacks, allegations of wrongdoing and the endless lodging of police reports.
In fact, in our so-called democracy, there is no place for civilised discourse or for constructive ideas that can be useful for the country.
All we hear from this bungling and incompetent dictatorship is talk about enemies coming from everywhere to attack us, thus justifying our new emergency laws. Our prime minister has entrenched a framework, through which he and his successor will be able to do as they please.
The National Security Council Act 2016 ensures that if the prime minister decides to rule by fiat, he will prevail under any circumstances.
Institutional checks and balances exist only on paper - literally in the printed copies of our Federal Constitution - but are not practised. The police, civil service, Election Commission and Parliament have all become the rubber stamps of governing politicians. It was only last week that the inspector-general of police himself admitted that the police could only investigate matters relating to 1MDB as directed by the cabinet!
Elections will be held to show the world that we are a democracy, but these elections will be neither free nor fair. Constituencies will be “managed” to ensure victory for the ruling party, either by the use of large amounts of cash, gerrymandering or some other improper means of transferring voters from one voting station to another.
Some look to the Ruling Houses for a solution, but, in Malaysia today, the Council of Rulers seems unwilling to intervene in the affairs of the state, no matter how sordid or flagrant the violations of the prime minister and the cabinet are.
The oft-repeated statement that the Rulers should not interfere in politics now seem pointless because things have gone so far beyond the pale that the normal rules of political engagement no longer apply.
‘Islamic’ forces have gained stronger foothold
So-called 'Islamic' forces have also gained a stronger foothold in all parts of the administration, and the separation of religion from affairs of state is a thing of the past. When Parliament approves Act 355, as mooted by PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang, which will effectively do away with the limitation of the Syariah Court’s sentencing powers, the conversion of Malaysia to a religious state will be complete.
Civil liberties, especially for Muslims, will be non-existent. This is why parliamentarians, especially from Sabah and Sarawak, must reject this bill.
The sooner that Sabah and Sarawak understand the perils facing Malaysia, the better chance they will have to guard against the present malaise. Both states can still preserve democracy, the rule of law and the multicultural foundations of Malaysian life if they do not allow Umno too much leeway in determining their future.
On the economic front, we have a growing disparity between the haves and have-nots. Equal opportunities and access to economic benefits are difficult for the underclass. Those supporting the government will in turn be supported economically, but those who oppose the government will be punished.
In such an environment, the economic well-being of the poor will continue to be neglected. The underclass will mushroom from the present group of Indians to include Malays, Chinese and others. A political party that can successfully champion the cause of workers and the underclass may be the force of the future.
Our young might not have the competitive edge, knowledge or capital to compete in the global environment, much less against foreign workers and global companies in Malaysia. If this happens, they will be marginalised quickly. Government hand-outs will not be enough to quell the resulting ill-feeling and, as in many other places, this can easily explode into violence.
How have we come to this? The main reason is that the Malay leadership has failed us. This is in contrast to the success of the Chinese leadership in Singapore. As a proud Malay, I am saddened by this. We could have brought this country forward and made it a symbol of real Malay power, to the envy of our neighbours.
Instead, we have allowed corruption to get out of control. We have abandoned meritocracy to such an extent that we have allowed feeble leaders at all levels to rise while the capable ones retire or leave the services. We have reduced noble religious principles to instruments of control.
Religious bureaucrats have too much power and authority, and we have allowed this to happen without ensuring that they are men (and they are all men) of conscience and ability. If they were truly righteous in their conduct and unafraid to defend what is right from the excesses of those in power, we would not be where we are now.
New type of government
We do not encourage transparency in government affairs because we want to protect the corrupt and the interests of the few. Singapore may not be tolerant of dissent or appear very democratic, but at least they have a no-nonsense attitude to corruption and good governance. Their leaders have built an economy far superior than ours by being efficient and by employing those with ability and the right kind of knowledge.
It is therefore necessary for Malaysia to have a new type of government, as well as a new set of political leaders who will not allow race-based policies to degenerate into racist ones. We need leaders who will allow for the complete reform of our politics; the administration of our government, commerce, industry and religious affairs; as well as the thinking of Malaysians about the world.
We do not need groups with coloured shirts or those whose skills are apparently limited to the lodging of police reports. We need more people who can contribute to the development of the country.
How can such a change be possible? I wish I knew the answer. But I have a dream I would like to share.
One scenario is for Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak to suddenly wake up and become a new person altogether. Gone would be his Jekyll and Hyde personality and in its place we would have a true and dedicated reformer. He would be willing to abandon the stupid idea of making DAP the enemy of Malays and Islam, and fight the real enemy, which is ignorance.
When Najib did not get support from the Chinese and urban voters in the 13th general election (GE13) in 2013, his not-so-clever advisers probably told him to end his earlier commitment to reforms. They must have told him there was “no need for reforms” because the Chinese would not vote for him anyway.
He should have engaged DAP in national development and political reforms; instead, he chose PAS, the party for which the main concern is, and always will, be the tightness of women’s dresses and longer prison sentences for khalwat offenders.
I think Najib allowed the disappointment of GE13 (especially since he had spent a lot of money) to cloud his judgment. He is too deferential to his party’s right wing. He must expect that his own party would need time to understand the value of reforms. He must expect the electorate who are opposed to Umno to need time to digest the effects of such new policies.
Apologise to the nation for 1MDB
As president of Umno, Najib should tell the ultras in the party to shut up. If he does so and proceeds with genuine reforms, maybe the country can still be saved. He must, of course, apologise to the nation for 1MDB and be sincere about it, and proceed with much-needed reforms, which would include telling us honestly how we can recover the monies parked in Hong Kong, the United States, the Cayman Islands and elsewhere.
I am saying this not because I condone what he did with 1MDB. I just think that, despite 1MDB, Najib will continue to stay in power for many years to come because the Opposition will not be strong enough to unseat him in the short term.
So, why not try to make the best of his term in office? If he is willing to undertake fundamental reforms, maybe the people will accept him - albeit reluctantly, at least in the beginning. If these changes are good for the country the people might one day judge him differently. So, will Najib ever wake up and be a different person altogether? Miracles do happen.
The second scenario is preferred but equally implausible. The political grouping initiated by Anwar Ibrahim under Pakatan Rakyat, now known as Pakatan Harapan, suddenly becomes a single, cohesive force. For this to happen PAS needs to rejoin the Opposition pact and become a reformist party. If PAS decides to be part of a reformist and united Opposition, it must ditch Hadi and pick Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man as its leader.
But will PAS members change their leader? This has as much chance of happening as Najib turning over a new leaf. Then PKR will need to wake up and decide on Anwar’s successor, whether it’s one of his family members or Azmin Ali. For now, it looks like there will be no end to the party’s internal bickering, and therefore, no coherence and unity in its policies.
The new party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), also has to decide if it wants to be a Johor and Kedah-based party to save the fates of Muhyiddin Yassin and Mukhriz Mahathir. They must also decide if they are willing to be part of the national Opposition, in which case they need to tie up with other groups.
It’s possible for Bersatu to want to team up with PAS, although I doubt if the PAS prefers Muhyiddin to Najib, for obvious reasons. Pakatan Harapan has already made it clear that it’s not Muhyiddin they want as opposition leader. DAP, of course, remains a strong political party, and Parti Amanah has tremendous potential, but they will not have enough to form the government in the next election.
Students the light end of tunnel
The light at the end of the tunnel is the courage shown by our students, who dare to take to the streets and demand the arrest of the infamous Malaysian Official Number 1. These young Malaysians can make all the difference if they have the numbers. But I don’t think the majority of our young are like Anis Syafiqah Md Yusof (photo).
Many are scared and some don’t even care what’s happening to the country. Apathy and indifference to political developments are common traits among the young, although that might change in the future.
To sum things up: I am not convinced that our country will be put on the right path anytime soon. There are too many unresolved issues among the Opposition grouping and the ruling Barisan Nasional. This maelstrom of confusion is engulfing us and we have to sort it out.
The people want a solution. I don’t have the answers. All I know is that we need to be a developed country, a peaceful and united country, with an economy that is vibrant and sustainable. For that we need change. We need to be one Bangsa Malaysia, and not Bangsa Johor, Sarawak or Sabah. We can, of course, continue to enjoy Laksa Johor, Laksa Kelantan or Laksa Sarawak.
I do not see anyone in Umno today who even believes in democracy and good governance as the best and most legitimate system of government and political engagement. Najib can change that thinking if he wants to. He can be a “benevolent” dictator if he wants to. But I doubt he will. Some Umno politicians complain about the “lack of democracy” or “abuse of power” only after they have been kicked out of the party and have joined the Opposition.
We desperately need a new leadership that wants the right path for the country. Reformists outside the BN must be willing to take the long road to success. They must not worry too much about the election outcome in the short term. They first must do what’s right.
Reformists within the BN, if there are any, must be willing to persuade Najib to change his ways. They must be genuine reformists and believe in the ideas of a modern state where institution and laws are supreme. They must want to share the wealth fairly.
But enough about my dream. I am pessimistic about the country’s future. Being pessimistic does not mean that I don’t want to do anything to reverse the process. It’s a reminder that while we must fight corruption, religious orthodoxy and the undemocratic forces ruling our country today, we must also be realistic about the difficulties and the dangers that are inherent in that task.
Malaysians who want change must be prepared to make sacrifices. Nowhere in the world have freedom, peace and the rule of law come easily. Maybe when we have more poor people and the size of the underclass gets bigger, there will be impetus for change.
People living in relative comfort dare not make the sacrifices needed for real change to happen. It’s not going to be a walk in the park. Street protests here and there are not enough. Malaysians must not be afraid to defend what they believe in. That is the price we must pay to make things better.
ZAID IBRAHIM is a former minister, in charge of law. This piece is from speech given to students from the UK and Ireland on Aug 28, 2016.