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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

BN, PR - Back Door Power - By Dr Chandra

BN, PR-AND BACK DOOR POWER

A lot of people are disillusioned with what is happening in the country at the moment. The Barisan Nasional and the Pakatan Rakyat are the primary sources of this disillusionment.

As party elections commence within UMNO, the mainstay of the BN, money politics, it is alleged, has reared its ugly head again. It is as if the party has learnt nothing from its debacle in the 12th general Election on 8 March 2008. Apart from taking swift and effective action against the corrupt within UMNO, the leadership should perhaps introduce a direct voting system within the party which would allow each individual member to elect those who would sit in the Supreme Council, including the President and Deputy President, without going through divisional delegates to the party assembly. This will eliminate the power of divisional delegates over the rank and file, on the one hand, and over potential Supreme Council candidates, on the other, and thus reduce the scope for vote buying and selling.

There are other more urgent changes related to the larger system that demand immediate implementation. While the Abdullah Badawi Administration should be lauded for setting up an Economic Council (which should have had representation from the Opposition), and for initiating certain measures to cushion the effects of the rising cost of living upon the poor, it could have done much more to curb profiteering at both wholesale and retail levels. A mediocre public transport system remains one of the people’s major woes. There is still no minimum living wage which has become crucial at a time like this when the monthly earnings of at least a third of urban families are barely enough to make ends meet. In this regard, shouldn’t the government give serious attention to an old proposal, the creation of a tripartite national wages council with equal representation for public sector employers, private sector employers and workers, which will give special emphasis to improving the wages of workers at the lower echelons in order to decrease income inequalities in the country that are among the worst in the Asia-Pacific region?

There are also reforms in the realm of democratic governance that Abdullah is attempting to undertake which appear to be stymied from within. Making judicial appointments more transparent is one of them. There is also a move to allow university students more freedom of association. But in seeking these and other reforms there is still a strong desire on the part of the Executive to retain as much control as possible. It is this desire for control that in the past had rendered vital institutions of governance such as the Judiciary dysfunctional.

Even in the sphere of ethnic relations, some positive measures are meeting with resistance. A more equitable ethnic allocation of Federal government scholarships for tertiary education for instance has drawn flak from certain quarters. Nonetheless, the government should press on guided by the principle of justice for all, regardless of ethnicity, embodied in Islam and the other religions. Since UMNO’s adversary, PAS, has become more vocal in articulating this principle in recent years, the BN government should be more confident about its receptivity within the Malay community. Indeed, the BN should go further and begin to integrate its component parties at the grass-roots in certain specific constituencies on an experimental basis with the long term aim of evolving a single multi-ethnic party.

Can one expect such reforms from an inter-ethnic coalition sustained by deeply entrenched vested interests? Is it possible for a ruling group which has exercised so much power for so long to transform its mindset and embrace the ethos of change? Or, is it more likely that when push comes to shove the BN will fall back upon the force of its power to perpetuate its power?

It is partly because a segment of the populace is doubtful that fundamental change will take place that there is some enthusiasm for the opposition Pakatan Rakyat. In some of the states that the PR is in power, bold steps have been taken to provide land titles to the disenfranchised, to strengthen the voice of the people through more broad-based local government representation, and to reduce wasteful expenditure. Compared to previous state administrations, there appears to be a degree of transparency in public decision-making in Penang, Perak and Selangor.

Nonetheless, on the critical question of ethnic relations, the stances of individual parties in the PR, and the PR itself, have heightened the apprehensions of different communities in different ways. By conveying the impression that they champion multilingual road signs or that they care little for the philosophy behind the New Economic Policy, some DAP officials have alienated a significant segment of the Malay community. They have reinforced the pre- 8 March image of the DAP as a party that has little empathy for the historical foundation on which the Malaysian nation is built. Similarly, PAS which for tactical reasons has subordinated its goal of a hudud oriented Islamic state to the pursuit of power, does on occasions ---- such as the recent controversy over UMNO-PAS talks—reveal its true ideological orientation. This has caused some alarm among many non-Muslims. PKR as a party has refrained from taking a stand on most religious or cultural issues that divide the Malay- Muslim community from the non-Malays and non-Muslims. Within its own multi-ethnic membership, consensus on tangible ethnic concerns is limited. In fact, as a grouping, it is only the Pakatan Rakyat’s opposition to the BN and its advocacy of certain amorphous principles related to justice and accountability that provide a tenuous link among the three parties.

The only person who can solidify that link is PKR adviser Anwar Ibrahim. And yet Anwar, it appears, has not given much time to this gigantic task which alone can guarantee PR’s emergence as a viable alternative to the BN. He is consumed by a single-minded obsession: to become Prime Minister of Malaysia in the shortest possible time. Hence his concerted endeavour to persuade BN law makers in the Federal Parliament--- at least 30 of them--- to cross over to the PKR immediately.

The size and scale of the cross-over he envisages is mind boggling. Has there ever been an instance anywhere in the world when a government which has 58 seats more than the combined opposition is under the constant threat of imminent collapse simply because an individual --- who is not even in Parliament---boasts continuously that a certain number of MPs are going to switch sides by a certain date? It is this incessant drive to topple the government through cross-overs that has created so much uncertainty in the country in the last few months. It has had an adverse impact upon the cabinet, the upper reaches of the civil and public services, and upon various institutions of governance. The business community, both local and foreign, has become wary about making long-term decisions pertaining to trade and investments. If the threat of cross-overs hangs like a Sword of Damocles over the nation’s head, it is partly because many Malaysians know that Anwar as a BN and federal government leader had played a pivotal role in the overthrow of the democratically elected PBS state government in Sabah in 1994.

This time, Anwar claims, his cross-overs do not involve money or positions or other allurements. Even if this were true, it would still be morally wrong to cross over since it would be a betrayal of the voters’ trust. In a democracy, a legislator elected on a particular platform should return his mandate to the people and resign his seat before he switches side. That is what respect for the dignity of the voter means. This is why cross-over politics is both unethical and undemocratic.

Besides, becoming Prime Minister through massive cross-overs is acquiring power through the back door. A cabinet established through such an avenue will lack moral credibility. Parliament itself will be tarnished. Both the Executive and the
Legislature –two vital arms of governance—will be perceived by the people as institutions that are bereft of integrity. In a nutshell, acquiring power through the back door will demean and denigrate politics.

It is a pity that such despicable politics has been condoned by so-called principled politicians and committed human rights activists around Anwar. They should have tried to convince him that it is more honourable to enter Putrajaya through the front door. This implies winning the 13th General Election at the Federal level and forming the government through legitimate, ethical means. Today, more than at any other time in the past, this is a real possibility.

In the mean time, if Anwar enters Parliament after the Permatang Pauh by- election he should try to bridge the gap that separates the PR parties and provide them with a unifying vision and programme of reform that goes beyond clich├ęs and platitudes. One hopes that he will also, as the Leader of the Opposition, establish a shadow Cabinet that cajoles and coaxes the BN government to introduce much needed changes.

This is what the people would want him to do. Anwar has no mandate to oust the democratically elected government of the day through the back door.

Dr. Chandra Muzaffar
Kuala Lumpur.
4 August 2008.

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