for The Straits Times, 15 March 2013
It is a pity that the enhanced conditions for serious competition in policy thinking and policy making that the newly evolved two-party system in Malaysia brings about are so badly infected by non-stop populist campaigning.
Instead of things being done because they are good for the country’s well-being, they are being done so obviously for the winning of votes. Both sides are guilty of this of course, but given the resources and opportunities available to the ruling Barisan Nasional in comparison to the Pakatan Rakyat, which only controls four states, the former has to bear most of the guilt.
Whatever the case, too much attention has been paid to what the other side does and how initiatives from one’s opponents can be nullified. What is missing is an inclusive and positive vision for where the country can go. Dr Mahathir’s most positive legacy — of Bangsa Malaysia and Vision 2020 — has been overshadowed by the negative aspects of his time in power.
As long as the country remains in campaign mode, no real compromise is possible – no real statesmanship can arise.
It has not helped that Prime Minister Najib Razak’s administration has been keeping the country guessing about the date for the general elections for almost two years. In November 2011, a budget was announced that certainly looked like it was constructed for electoral effect. But no election was called.
The following year, with the announcement brought forward from November to October 2012, the 2013 budget was again very much aimed at winning votes. The goodies promised then were delivered at the start of 2013.
The minimum wage legislation that came into force in January is also seen as half-hearted and more manipulative than inspired. As was the recently announced sudden decision to increase the salaries of the police and the armed forces.
This flurry of economic windfalls whipped up by the government is not expected to be very successful as vote-winners. Malaysians have become too cynical a breed for such tactics to be effective. In the final analysis, what this modus operandi assumes is the insult that voters are easily baited and converted by simple and immediate personal economic enticements.
The problem is therefore a politico-cultural one, both among the leaders and the population.
In short, the battle that has been fought in Malaysia over the last 15 years or so, that is in the late-Mahathir and post-Mahathir period, is this one: reversing the philosophical, institutional and professional degradation suffered by the country under Mahathir’s model of development. In many ways, that chancy model favoured short-term and short-sighted means in justification of the end, no matter what the long-term effects were feared to be. And the end was always dubious to start with.
The challenges facing Malaysia’s leaders today, exactly a decade after Mahathir retired, are thus very serious ones. To put it bluntly, professionalism — or at least the striving for professionalism — needs to be brought back into the system. That is best done through the force of example; through reforms in the civil service itself, and through changing the mindset of the establishment. A proficient and incorruptible civil service, including the police, will completely reset the tone for the better for how things are to be done in the country. Just conciliatory pay rises will not be enough.
Long-term thinking to build the country needs to take over from short-term manipulation of voters. Doing what’s right for the country no matter the immediate impact on popularity ratings is what differentiates a political leader from a statesman.
Now, there is no doubt that politicking in Malaysia has changed over the last five years, and that each coalition has been trying to outshine the other every chance it has had.
All this is good. But the polarisation has become not only too strong, it has been allowed to last too long. It is creating an alternative culture that prefers sniping and sneering to discussing and debating.
So when something like the Lahad Datu crisis in Sabah takes place, and the game suddenly becomes larger than a simple domestic squabble that so easily lends itself to inter-coalitional attacks, a sense of paralysis pervades the political arena.
That is a wake-up call that the country should heed. Hopefully, once the elections are over, the campaigning will end, and a more creative atmosphere will pervade the country.