Chin Huat chat #4: The times they should be a-changin’ – but they aren’t

With too long a time under the same leaders, experience really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Last month, Malaysians were treated to the sight of one-time foes Dr Mahathir Mohamad, 95, and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, 83, holding a press conference at Parliament and calling for a change ahead of a vote on Budget 2021.

If it was a familiar yet incongruous sight, let’s bear in mind that the pair served together in the cabinet as far back as the first Tun Hussein Onn administration in 1976.

Along with Lim Kit Siang, Anwar Ibrahim, Abdul Hadi Awang, Rais Yatim, Najib Abdul Razak and current prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, they represent a prominent old guard of political heavyweights who has been public figures for at least 35 years. Indeed, Lim and Mahathir were first elected to Parliament in the 1960s.

At the same time, the youthful former minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman has broken free of the hegemony and registered his multiracial youth movement Malaysia United Democratic Alliance (Muda) as a political party with predictable obstacles, such as trying to get recognition by the Registrar of Societies, thrown in its way.

“Many Malaysians lament that we don’t have leadership renewal, but few probably realise the institutional cause of such stagnation. The problem? Party leaders control their MPs and state assembly representatives instead of the other way around.

“So, to change, a party leader needs a civil war in the party unless the old leader willingly passes on his or her baton. To change leaders more often is to give more elected representatives more autonomy from their party leaders.

“The most important change is to allow bottom-up candidate selection. Next would be to guarantee some room for dissent by MPs or state representatives,” said political scientist Wong Chin Huat in the last of a series of chats with Malaysiakini.

Interestingly, Wong opines that the anti-hopping law which normally disqualifies expelled lawmakers is the last thing we need.

He believes that term limits for prime ministers, chief ministers and the recognition of a shadow cabinet will create room for future leaders to emerge.

“If we don’t talk about these reforms, perhaps in the year-end of 2050, another editor will have to ask another political scientist the same question,” Wong wryly added.

The frustration of younger segments of society with the dominance of an entrenched old guard that has led the country into a political stalemate is evinced by the formation of Muda.

“The youth clearly want a bigger voice in national politics and rightly so. But there is little room for a third force based on an age-cohort simply because voters cannot freely vote for the party they want under the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system.

“If Muda runs in whatever constituencies it likes, it will clash with Perikatan Nasional (PN)-BN and Pakatan Harapan. In this situation, Muda candidates are likely to lose their deposits,” he said.

Wong called on Muda to engage in Harapan leadership.

“Its best chance is to negotiate with Harapan to replace Bersatu in those urban seats allocated to the latter in 2018. But Muda is then faced with another challenge: how to hang around with Harapan and still keep its appeal as almost an outsider party for frustrated youth?”

Muda is far from the only party whose impact is limited due to the current political system. A small party like Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) does grassroots works, but its numbers at the polls have been underwhelming.

Parti Sosialis Malaysia

“The biggest obstacle to PSM, like in the case of Muda and other groups wanting to be a third force, is an unfriendly electoral system. Supporters for such a party are not conveniently concentrated in a few constituencies to elect their representatives to Parliament and state legislatures.

“Worse, the fear of wasting their votes for choosing unwinnable candidates may lead good politicians like (former Sungai Siput MP) Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj to be sacrificed in strategic voting,” Wong said.

Another roadblock would be the difficulties faced by elected representatives in making actual change for their constituencies if they are not given a position in federal or state government.

“The second obstacle is the inefficacy of lawmakers to change policy or implementation (of a policy) if they are not ministers or state excos. This makes many voters judge MPs by their constituency work and their connection with government agencies.

“This makes PSM less attractive to some voters than parties that are more likely to be in government.

“For PSM to gain representation in legislatures, a little more pragmatism may help but three institutional reforms are what it needs the most,” he added.

First, a mixed-member electoral system, with some party-list seats to allow voters to vote for their party of choice directly, will be needed.

Second, legislative reforms to give non-executive lawmakers real roles in shaping policies and laws.

Third, local elections, which would allow voters to choose better control government agencies at the local level and experiment with parties like PSM.

Political reform blocked by those who benefit

As a political scientist, Wong is often found making interesting theoretical suggestions about Malaysia emulating Singapore’s non-constituency MPs or New Zealand’s mixed-member proportional system but such reforms depend on the same people who have led the country into the current quagmire.

Is it then not more likely that the problems of our democratic system will persist and even escalate?

“Politics and history are shaped by both structure (objective settings) and agency (subjective choices). A lot of people are frustrated by politics fundamentally because they think politicians have a great deal of agency, yet they don’t make the right choices.

“Because I have the privilege of studying, observing and interacting with them, I have a more realistic assessment of what they are capable of and what they are not,” Wong said.

On one hand, he said most politicians are constrained by structures, and those who defy structure on every occasion are likely destroyed by it in no time.

On the other hand, most politicians have only preference instead of conviction – “I would choose this all things equal” instead of “I would choose this at all odds”.

“In theory, FPTP makes life easy for politicians. As long as they can secure a majority or even plurality in a constituency, they can get a seat and keep it with the right positioning or cultivate a personal following.

“This should give them the autonomy to fight for the best interests of the country, as to how the 18th-century British thinker-parliamentarian Edmund Burke envisaged.

“In reality, they have to please their constituents by not taking up unpopular positions – and most progressive ideas are initially unpopular,” Wong said.

Wong opined that in Malaysia, FPTP further constrains politicians in two ways.

First, because candidate selection is top-down rather than bottom-up, and even popular incumbents can be dropped by their own parties, MPs need to toe the party line even if they know it is wrong.

Second, because our Parliament and legislatures do not effectively make laws and shape policies, lawmakers are often judged not by their input in legislative debate or voting. They are judged by constituency service, constituency development fund and rapport-building activities, such as attending KBSM – kahwin, bersalin, sakit, mati (weddings, births, visiting the sick, funerals) – functions.

“Consequently, most lawmakers who are not ministers and excos often don’t develop policy expertise. And when they make news with their racist/sexist/partisan stunts or vulgar comments, we just slam the Parliament or state legislature as a ‘circus’ without asking why.

“To change this, we need to have some lawmakers who are elected on party mandate in statewide constituencies.

“In other words, we need to add party-list on to our FPTP system to make it a Mixed-Member-Majoritarian (MMM) system,” Wong said.

“This would immediately allow parties championing issues like class, gender and environment to gain some representation in the legislature and dilute issues like ethnicity, religion and royalty.

“As these party-list lawmakers have no particular constituencies to do constituency service, they would have to perform through the legislature and its select committees,” he added.

Changes possible, not just highfalutin theories

“In the long run, I would like to have half of our lawmakers elected from FPTP and half from party lists,” Wong said, adding that such changes are not so far-fetched if the political will is there.

“While it is not possible to introduce party-list seats alongside FPTP without amendment Articles 116 (for parliamentary elections) and 117 (for state elections), which in turn requires a two-third majority in Dewan Rakyat, states where the government has a two-thirds majority to amend its state constitution – like Penang and Selangor – can actually introduce party-list by counting the FPTP votes twice.

“The state just needs to create some seats for ‘nominated members’ but allocate them proportionally to parties that take part in the normal state elections based on their FPTP vote share in the state.

“These parties would have to nominate their party-list candidates before polling day so that voters can even factor into consideration,” he added.

Wong pointed out exciting developments in Penang, where the Top-up Women-Only Additional Seats (TWOAS) are expected to be introduced by the end of 2021.

“What it means is that parties get to nominate up to 18 women candidates and if the number of women state representatives under FPTP falls short of 30 percent (12 out of 40), TWOAS members would be appointed to top it up, and these seats would be allocated to parties proportionally.

“Assuming that the next state elections return the same result as in 2018 with only six women state assembly representatives elected, and Harapan, BN and PAS wins 67 percent, 22 percent and 10 percent of votes, then nine TWOAS representatives would be appointed.

“This would be seven from Harapan, two from BN and one from PAS, so that the state assembly would have 15 women (six normal representatives and nine TWOAS representatives) out of a new total of 49, exceeding 30 percent.”

Public divided over which reforms it wants

Aside from the push for reforms, many say that they want changes, but when it comes to it – death penalty, vernacular schools, bumiputera benefits – large groups object to any change at all. How can real reforms then be pushed through?

Wong said that while most reforms are driven by rejection of injustice, successful reforms happen mostly when self-interests of enough stakeholders are aligned.

“Asking people to sacrifice this or that is often a guarantee for procrastination, inertia or outright failure.

“Instead, we should ask how a particular reform might serve or align the best interest of those who oppose it,” he said.

“Take, for example, the death penalty in the US. It’s often associated with liberal values such that one might expect that a conservative needs to convert to liberalism first before opposing the death penalty.

“Now if you are a proud conservative, would you get yourself into an identity crisis because you suddenly feel sorry for some death inmates? No, you would suppress your sympathy and defend death penalty to keep your identity,” he added.

To get more people to support the abolition of the death penalty, he said it has to be not paraded as a signature value of liberals, but a common value for both liberals and conservatives. In other words, there must be arguments against death penalty grounded in conservativism.

And this is how the cause is winning grounds in Republican states like Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana and Wyoming.

Conservatives there oppose the death penalty not because they believe society is responsible for crimes (like most liberals do) but because keeping death penalty necessitates a big government fiscally (because execution is more costly than imprisonment in the US) and a belief that the government (of which courts are one of its branches) can do no wrong, both are against conservative values.

“Successful reform in this sense is coalition-building or reconfiguration for the cause, not a victory of good over evil guided by the so-called ‘political will’. Instead, it requires compromises and accommodation.

“Likewise, if we want to reform bumiputera rights or multistream education, we need to identify their exact flaws, find common grounds with their proponents and seek new structures or configurations which will advantage at least some of the proponents.”

Wong cautioned that wanting a total reform without winning over some beneficiaries of the status quo reflects the winner-takes-all mentality that is likely to fail in Malaysia.

“Reform in the deepest sense perhaps should start with the ditching of self-righteousness and moral arrogance,” he said.


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