Regime change - the next democratic step
Writer: Yin Shao Loong
Published: Fri, 08 Mar 2013
I MISSED the first March 8. You know, that March 8 five years ago. I was held up in the US. trying to get my PhD proposal cleared so I could get back to Malaysia and conduct my dissertation research.
Even far away I felt the elation from the change, that tsunami.
Friends – penniless human rights activists – were now state assemblypersons or Parliament members.
The three states that I had at some point called home – Kedah, Penang and Selangor – were won by the soon-to-be-formed Pakatan Rakyat.
Some months later, I was back on these shores, tanahairku, trying to reconcile what I knew of Malaysia before the flood and where it had washed up to after the 12th general election.
It was even more pressing for me to understand because I was trying to earn my PhD in political science.
All the truisms in the scholarly books on Malaysia that I had slogged through in my studies seemed dated.
For so long, it was believed that Malaysia was fundamentally politically divided on race and that this division allowed the Barisan Nasional to rule based on its ability to guarantee racial accommodation and prevent conflict.
Bundled with soft authoritarianism and relatively steady growth, this formula allowed to BN to persist in power.
Now, Pakatan Rakyat, a coalition that stood against racial politics, had engineered a major shift in political power.
Even though they had not won federal power they gained the majority of the popular vote in the peninsula and took away BN’s two-thirds majority in Parliament. The economic powerhouses of Selangor, Penang, and Perak were now under Pakatan control.
Like a boxer who had taken one too many to the jaw, BN was stumbling around in a daze as if it had been defeated.
It took months to recover its morale, following which, it practised a good cop/bad cop strategy of reformist liberalism and racial essentialism that synthesised the Abdullah and Mahathir years.
People struggled to get used to the idea that the regime could change.
The BN had enjoyed such a comfortable hegemony for so long that they were immediately associated with “government” and their opponents as the “opposition”.
Now, however, the “opposition” was the “government” in Selangor and four other states.
This linguistic and conceptual trouble underlines one of the major challenges Malaysia faces as we near the ever receding 13th general election.
For me, it is insufficient that a country should be defined as a “democracy” by merely holding regular elections.
On that basis, Cuba, North Korea, and Singapore surely qualify as democracies as much as BN-ruled Malaysia does.
Elections can be rigged, the playing field slanted to the point of being vertical, and voters coerced or bribed to ensure the ruling government gets “elected” back into power.
As we have learned in Selangor – where I have worked as a policy adviser for four and half years – one key rite of passage for any democracy worthy of the name is the ability to hold elections – fairly and cleanly – and also allow the results of those elections – changes in government at any level – to proceed peacefully, and in an orderly manner.
In other words, an incumbent government that gets voted out at the ballot box has to accept defeat gracefully, peacefully, and professionally.
It has to resign itself to slogging hard in opposition to win back the voters’ support so that it gets another chance at being in government.
On the flip side, a federal government that wants democratic credentials has to be professional and accept that states can have governments with different parties and ideologies to its own.
The constitutional coup in Perak is the clearest example of how this democratic tenet was not honoured by the Barisan Nasional.
More quiet has been the economic sabotage in the form of federal funds to states that have dried up or been diverted into parallel authorities.
Despite being caught between two masters, many in civil service thankfully chose professionalism despite ideological differences.
More blatant forms of undemocratic bias have been the slanted coverage by the BN-dominated media, and the growing mountain of electoral irregularities.
The latest irregularity to surface is that the identities of over a quarter of new voters in Selangor cannot be verified, and the Election Commission is (at the time of writing) refusing to do so.
The BN cannot stave off political change forever because its efforts to distort the electoral contest have not been matched with efforts to reform itself to meet the demand for cleaner, fairer, and accountable government.
Regular, professional, and predictable changes in government via elections will strengthen accountability.
Parties will know that they can and will lose elections at some point, but they will also know that they can win again if they prove worthy.
I dearly want change to deepen in Malaysia. I want us to move beyond racial antagonism, beyond regional divides, beyond entrenched inequality.
I would like us to move towards a policy-driven government that plans rationally for the future, that consults widely, that is more beholden to the people than to cronies.
I really hope that when the 13th general election finally comes, Malaysia will earn that next democratic stripe and begin setting a track record of peaceful and professional regime change.
After 50 years, it is time to graduate to a deeper and more profound democracy.
*Yin Shao Loong is a research director of Institut Rakyat www.institutrakyat.org