The problem of cronyism when in pursuit of political change

On 18th August, Malaysian community organisation Engage organised a forum in Johor entitled ‘Can Singapore do a Malaysia?’ The forum centered around the historical shake-up in Malaysia’s recent 14th General Election which saw the 61-year ruling government ousted from office by the fresh new coalition of opposition parties called Pakatan Harapan. This peaceful change of government in Malaysia begs the question of whether or not Singapore, which is now ruled by the longest serving political party in the world, can pull off the same change.

The forum featured panelists who are both witnesses and actors to the history of both countries: YB Hassan Karim, MP of Pasir Gudang Johor, veteran activist and human rights lawyer; Hishamuddin Rais, veteran activist, film director and writer; Tan Wah Piow, lawyer and former Singapore student leader who was exiled in 1976; and PJ Thum, historian and research fellow at Oxford University.

A question was posed on the problem of cronyism, specifically on how it was a factor in the past ruling elite of Malaysia and if Singapore faces the same issues.

Veteran activist Hishamuddin Rais drew a connection between cronyism and electoral politics, saying that you cannot have one without the other because electoral politics is expensive by nature. He says that when a politician has someone backing them financially, they are then expected to pay back their donor – it’s a practicality. Rais did say that though it’s upsetting, he doesn’t know what the alternative might be. One the other hand, Thomas Fann, the chairman of Engage noted that not every politician has the backing of big donors. For example, when Hassan Karim was running for his seat in Pasir Gudang in the recent Malaysian election, his friends got together and held a fundraising for him. Those funds raised and with the help of hundreds of volunteer polling and counting agents is what it took to create change.

Of course, there is the challenge is protecting this new democratic space and preventing a backslide and that can be done through institutional reforms. He notes that the next two years if crucial for the new Malaysian government to enact those promised institutional reforms and restore the separation of powers as promised in the Pakatan Harapan manifesto. Here is where civil societies and NGOs come in, pushing the government to fulfill their promises no matter who becomes the Prime Minister. If he is corrupt, he will be charged. That, he says, is the most important thing that needs to happen to ensure that Malaysia does not become a failed state.

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