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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Towards a political culture that suits a two-party system



Editorial in Penang Monthly, August 2013

Following the General Election in 2008, BN had the strange situation of being in the opposition in five states. Before March 8 that year, it only had that role in peripheral Kelantan.

Despite the fact that Perak fell back to BN through defections soon after, the new situation was that BN had to learn to play opposition in key states on the peninsula. This involved a self-image it could not easily accept.

Although it is taking a while to sink in for BN, Malaysia now has a two-party system. March 8, 2008 was no fluke, as May 5, 2013 has shown. While we often hear doubts being expressed about the ability of Pakatan to run the federal government should it gain power, we should just as enthusiastically discuss whether BN is capable of being an effective and responsible opposition coalition.

Now, the General Election this year showed beyond doubt that the two-party system is here to stay. The coalition that lost power actually lost the popular vote. What Malaysian voters should be demanding before the next General Election comes along is for politicians of both coalitions to develop their professionalism – as government and as opposition.

Where Pakatan is concerned, its member parties have no doubt had enormous experience sitting on opposition benches at federal and state levels. But even for them, their very success in recent years should pressure them to develop consciously a political culture that puts good governance at the centre.

Meanwhile, member parties in BN have no doubt been having trouble adjusting to the new role of being out of government; and with Pakatan managing to stay so strongly in power in Selangor, Penang and Kelantan for another term, BN will have to live with the strong probability of being in opposition for a long time.

A two-party system means that power can actually change hands, be that at state or federal level. This requires the parties involved to behave quite differently from the bad old days when BN could be arrogant because it could not be threatened, while the opposition could be uncompromising because no big prize was ever within reach in any case.

A two-party system requires political parties and politicians to develop behaviour that accepts the new normal where voters can effectively hold them to account for bad governance. Equally important is it for all parties to inculcate a new self-image – one that suits a mature democracy in which the rule of law is steadily enhanced, the mass media increasingly hold officials and politicians accountable, and politicians can never count on staying in power forever.

For example, if we take the state of Penang where Pakatan continues to enjoy strong voter support, the role of the opposition – mainly meaning Umno – should not be to snipe and jeer at the government but to contribute to good governance in the state by keeping the state government on the straight and narrow, and by accepting the new role of being a long-term opposition. The duty of both government and opposition is to contribute to the development of the state.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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