By guest writer “Labour Front”
This recent week saw a phenomenal demonstration of the Malaysian political system’s claim that it is a true democracy.
One of the fundamental characteristics of a democracy is that it allows political change. What happened this week is actually not totally new to Malaysia. In 1969 the country saw similar outcomes at the elections.
Over the decades we have seen whole Malaysian states, not mere seats alone, changing hands between political parties. An election ago, Malaysia saw the ruling PM gaining one of the strongest mandates seen thus far at the ballot box, and at the subsequent election, the one just past, we can see how his fortunes have changed.
At the next Malaysian election, the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) may very well repeat their past two-thirds majority, if they can prove to the electorate their worthiness to rule. All these trends and possibilities point to an obvious answer of “boleh” (“can”) to the question of whether change is possible in the Malaysian political system.
Unfortunately it is unclear or even “tak boleh” (“cannot”) in the Singapore context. Why?
Malaysia vs Singapore
Firstly, political parties need to be able to organise themselves easily without fear or obstruction. In Malaysia we have seen former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim forming a party and building it up slowly over the last decade. The Malaysian political system has allowed Anwar to do this even though he is the biggest political enemy of the ruling coalition. Despite coming under heavy fire from the ruling coalition, PAS too has never been obstructed to the extent of hindering their ability to organise themselves.
Secondly, politicians themselves need to be able to participate in politics without fear or obstruction. In this aspect too the Malaysian political system has shown its maturity. Two Hindraf leaders who are in detention under the Internal Security Act were allowed to participate in the elections and are even able to win seats. Such a scenario would be unimaginable in Singapore.
Thirdly, the ability of citizens to register to run for elections either as independents or collectively as a party is not hindered by exorbitant election fees. Neither are Malaysian electoral boundaries drawn into groups like group representation constituencies (GRCs). Candidates who would otherwise not be able to win a seat on their own may, under this system, be able to ride on the popularity of their fellow team mates. This pooling results in reduced risks for the team that has more politically-experienced candidates and increased risks for a “greenhorn” team.
Fifthly, during the campaigning period in Malaysia, the key time period within which voters decide on who to vote for, you do not see campaigns being limited by onerous regulations and laws. Rallies are held all across the country with no restrictions to crowd size and place. Disruptions to the public peace do occur sometimes but the Malaysian police are more than able to manage it.
Lastly, the flow of information in Malaysia remains far less controlled than in Singapore. There are alternative and independent presses such as Harakah which may be small in size but able to establish a readership.
Political maturation and economic development
Given such an environment, it is no surprise that the electorate has been able to achieve a remarkable success in transforming its political landscape at the ballot box. After the results, one also does not see the Malaysian PM making threats or actually rolling out tanks to have the army seize control. This success definitely puts Malaysia five decades ahead of Singapore in political development—we were only able to last achieve something like this in 1959. We remain somewhat in the ranks of Myanmar if we are to rank all the ASEAN countries according to political development.
Cynics may claim that political maturation of this kind will affect economic growth and development. This may be true in cases where the opposition is bent on opposing the ruling party for opposition’s sake, regardless of whether the latter’s policies are sound.
Looking at Singapore’s opposition, though, it is clear that the majority of the opposition have their feet firmly fixed on the ground—they not only point out the problems and propose solutions, but also acknowledge the merits of implemented policies. Seeing this, then, it is clear that political development in Singapore is unlikely to harm economic growth and development.
On the contrary, holding back positive political development (i.e. development of a credible opposition as a watchdog) can possibly hurt economic sustainability. We need only look to Indonesia to see this.
For instance, though Indonesia has had political change since the fall of Suharto, economic growth and development has been volatile. This is because while on the surface the Indonesian political system has developed from one political stage during Suharto’s time (dictatorship) to a better one (democracy) currently, nothing has changed in reality. The current government is still faced with allegations of corruption and other scandals.
Indonesia has failed to move on to the next political stage—having alternative parties in Parliament to check the ruling government— which can remedy the current woes. Should that happen, Indonesia can enjoy economic growth and development.
Political development is also needed to ensure social harmony, enable environmental protection and uphold labour standards. Malaysia’s success at the polls is only the initial stage in a process that is yet to unfold.
In the coming future, the opposition presence in Parliament may prove to be a success—the ruling BN pulls up its socks, resolves the grievances of the electorate and wins back the support of the people again at the next election, and the opposition keeps their election promises and deliver enough to remain in power.
On the flip side, the new government, both BN and opposition, fails to achieve sufficient results for the electorate. Should this happen, the wider political ground gained in the recent election will be for naught. However, I am confident Malaysia will succeed, simply because Malaysia boleh.
Can Singapore boleh?