It appears beyond question that one of the more, if not the most, important factors shaping voter sentiment is corruption and perceived abuses of power. I think many believe that even if a change of federal government would allow us to deal with only these matters then such a change would be justified. To them it seems that almost everything wrong with the way this country is being administered has its roots in the misuse of power and funds.
Central to their thinking are the twin questions of, firstly, where did all the money go and, secondly, how would things be if that money had been channeled as it was meant to be. As if to highlight the increasing intolerance for the perceived abuse, conversations about transitional justice have started; conversations in which the focus is not just the punishing of those who have wronged the nation but also recovering the staggering proceeds of this wrongdoing.
Quite apart from realpolitik dictating that the opposition should exploit this subject to further its political agenda, it is a subject that cuts deep. Malaysians are confronted with a spiraling cost of living – such that the federal government felt it necessary to provide financial aid of RM500 per family whose joint income was RM3,000, the tip of the proverbial iceberg – and a public services that just does not seem to be functioning the way it is meant to That the federal government has spent the years since the last General Election focused on transformation programmes goes far to vindicate this view. In their hearts, Malaysians know that the principal reason for the dilemma that they are in is gross mismanagement.
Political interests have come to dominate. I have said before that the federal government seems less concerned with due governance than with the politics of governance. The sad truth is that the federal government has come to views its continued political dominance as its raison d’etre. The burring of the line between governance and politics has had its toll. For one, it continues to drive a continued reliance by the Barisan Nasional on the politics of race and religion. It appears that other than handouts and vague promises of better things to come, there is little else that the coalition can offer to justify it being left to run the country.
With a seemingly high number of Malaysians demanding accountability at the present, it is tempting to brush aside race and religious politics as being redundant, or secondary. To do so would however be unwise. While fighting against the abuse of power may be a cause universally subscribed to, this in itself does not address the realities on the ground.
To start, the abuse of power has been condoned by a sizeable part of the electorate in the belief that, however illegal it may have been, it has promoted the cause of good. For some, mainly those in corporate Malaysia, this abuse is a necessary incident of a strong, centralized government that gets things done. More relevant to the discussion at hand, others believe that this is the price that has to be paid to ensure that special interests are not ignored. While the former can be addressed directly through the establishment of an accountable, meritocratic system, the concerns of the latter group may not so easily be dealt with. Conversely, the notion of meritocracy if not handled with care and sensitivity may further entrench prevalent attitudes within this group. This is a cause for concern for all of us regardless of political allegiances.
Though for those who peddle in race and religion, continued reliance on racial and religious politics may allow for immediate goals to be achieved, it will exacerbate an already critical state of affairs. Much has been said in recent times about the crucial need to rebuild Malaysian society into one that is more competitive and less dependent on the State for its wellbeing. Malaysia’s continued survival as an economically viable, and thus sustainable, nation is the price we may have to pay should we fail to do so.
It is in this context that I believe not enough is being done by all parties concerned to address the wider Malay community’s fear of being marginalised in the face of meritocratic practices. There are several layers to this. We cannot run away from the fact that a sizeable number of Malays are still living in hardship. The fact that there are other marginalised communities does not change this, neither does the fact that marginalised Malays have incongruously fallen victim to the policies that were intended to aid them at the hands of a self-interested political elite. This has not only resulted in the perpetuation of the poverty cycle amongst some members of this community, it has on the back of poorly conceived policies resulted in a large number of Malays who cannot compete in the private sector. A fear of political backlash has led to the federal government absorbing a sizeable number of them into the public services for fear of a political backlash.
It is this constituency that now views its special status as being essential to its survival. Its fears must be addressed. While there is an ongoing dialogue on what can be done, I do not think that the discourse as is intensive or comprehensive as it should be, primarily due to the politicisation of the issues arising. Equally, not enough is being said to explain away their fear of being left behind. Fear, as irrational as it often is, must be dealt with independently. It and the stigma that has come to attach itself to this community as a consequence cannot be simply wished away.
I have previously written of the need to depoliticise the process of affirmative action including the implementation of Article 153 of the Federal Constitution. I am firm in my belief. The National Human Rights Society (HAKAM) and Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (SABM) have drafted a bill, the Social Inclusiveness Bill, under which a Social Inclusiveness Commission answerable to Parliament would be established. This commission would be mandated to have oversight over all matters of poverty reduction, affirmative action and social inclusiveness by reference to, amongst other considerations, Article 153. It is the a concrete suggestion of how we can move forward as a nation while ensuring the interests of key stakeholders are looked after. A comprehensive discussion of the idea is however beyond the scope of this comment.
For immediate purposes however it is essential to stress that steps must be taken to address the stigmatization if we are to progress. The unasked questions must be answered, including what it is that will happen to communities that believe they will not be able to compete if meritocratic measures were to be implemented. Though meritocracy is a noble aim in itself, its appeal may not be universally self-evident.
As difficult a political context as these questions, and their answers, may create, political actors cannot be allowed to duck them. Both sides of the divide must be forced to confront them if we are to progress. The way forward is obvious; the only issue is whether we care enough.
(A version of this comment first appeared in The Edge on 21.07.2012)