On the occasion of the 200th birth anniversary of the celebrated English writer, Charles Dickens, one senses that many well-heeled, well-educated Malaysians harbour some “Great Expectations” about the future of the nation once the Barisan Nasional (BN) is ousted from power in the 13th General Election. There are various dimensions to these Great Expectations.
There are Malaysians who are convinced that a Pakatan Rakyat (PR) government in Putrajaya will usher in a magnificent era of honest, competent governance. They forget that when a government is overthrown in a democracy there is no guarantee that its successor will be able to ensure the triumph of good, clean governance partly because the scope for radical, holistic change in a competitive party system with deep, vested interests is limited. The Janata Party in India, in spite of its popular crusade against corruption within the ruling Indian National Congress, failed to curb the scourge and was in power for only three years from 1977 to 1980. Similarly, the opposition coalition that replaced the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 1993 hardly made a dent upon the institutionalised elite corruption that has plagued Japanese politics for a long while.
The PR, it is true, has, at the state level, initiated a couple of measures that reflect good governance such as the declaration of the assets of Executive Council members and a ‘Freedom of Information Act.’ Mentri Besar Azizan Abdul Razak in Kedah and Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng in Penang are perceived by a segment of the public in the two states as men of integrity. Nonetheless, questions have arisen in these and other PR states about flood mismanagement, under-priced land sale, shady sand deals and nepotism. Besides, there are high profile leaders in the PR who were deeply involved in money politics and vote-buying not so long ago.
This is why in the struggle against corruption one should not expect a miracle to happen with the advent of a new government. The exercise of power invariably opens the door to temptation. Abraham Lincoln was right when he observed that the “true test of a person’s character is not when he is in adversity but when he has power.” This also explains why institutions outside the arena of power politics such as the Courts, enforcement agencies and people’s movements have been more effective in curbing corruption in democratic societies. It is these institutions that Malaysian citizens should help to strengthen.
There is another dimension to Great Expectations that many Chinese and Indian Malaysians in particular subscribe to. The PR leadership, they fervently hope, will bring to an end, policies that favour Malays and Bumiputras in certain specific areas. This will not happen because the Special Position of the Malays and the Bumiputras of Sabah and Sarawak is an entrenched Article in the Malaysian Constitution under the direct protection of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the Conference of Rulers. Neither the ballot box nor Parliament can change this. Even the Democratic Action Party (DAP) --- seen as the vehicle for some of these expectations--- has at its recent party congress reiterated its support for the Special Position Article in the Constitution.
The most that one can hope for is that the PR will implement policies emanating from Special Position in a fair and equitable manner. The BN--- many objective analysts will argue--- has also attempted to implement Special Position policies with an appreciable degree of justice. There have been occasions, however, over the last 54 years when BN leaders have faltered and failed. This has created anger and unhappiness among a lot of non-Malays and some Malays. Since the inability to place the public good over private gain is often the reason for deviation, one can expect this human failing to occur even when the PR or some other group is in power. Hence, the importance of eternal vigilance on the part of the citizenry.
A third and final dimension of Great Expectations is confined largely to the Muslims in PR and their backers. They are praying that with PR in power, the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) will be able to move steadily towards its ultimate goal of an Islamic State. Those issues that affect non-Muslims directly may be put on the back-burner for a while but other aspects of Fiqh (jurisprudence) pertaining to women, male-female interaction, culture and entertainment, and hudud, it is quite conceivable, will be implemented one way or another. PAS’s constituency which will be much more massive once it is on the saddle of power, its ideological orientation, and the influence of the ulama within and without the party, will ensure that it remains faithful to its agenda. It is very unlikely that Muslims from other parties in Parliament will openly oppose PAS’s Islamic agenda given the uncritical acceptance of ulama authority among Malaysian Muslims.
That PAS is determined to fulfil its ideological mission is borne out by its conduct after its best parliamentary performance ever in the 1999 General Election. Though it promised to uphold the common manifesto it shared with its other three partners in what was then collectively known as the Barisan Alternatif, --- a manifesto that made no mention of an Islamic State or hudud or fiqh--- PAS, which had captured Trengganu from the BN, proclaimed almost immediately that it would be enforcing the kharaj, an antiquated tax meant specifically for non-Muslims, in that state. The proposal was subsequently aborted partly because of protests from its partners. Nonetheless, PAS Trengganu later went ahead with its hudud legislation to prove its fidelity to its vision of Islam.
What this shows is that if Pakatan Rakyat comes to power in Putrajaya, PAS may be in a better position to achieve some of its Great Expectations compared to the DAP. Political and constitutional realities will constrain the latter. As for other Great Expectations about governance and integrity, Malaysians would do well to adopt a critical but balanced approach towards politicians of all stripes.
Our best hope lies in continuing to speak truth to power on both sides of the divide.
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Yayasan 1Malaysia and Professor of Global Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia.
12 February 2012.