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Friday, December 21, 2007

Lost In Transition?

My posting "Race And The Poverty Gap" caused some agitation. I tried to clarify and explain my position in my replies to comments made by some of you. I hope that all of you who have not read those comments and replies will take the time and trouble to do so. They are interesting and important for a more nuanced understanding of the issues.

Those of us who want a better Malaysia want change in some form or other. The inadequacies of government, the mismanagement, the corruption are matters that are driven by factors that transcend the racial and religious boundaries.

We all suffer from their impact.

The value of the Ringgit declines as the cost of living increases even as the quality of those state services (for which we pay taxes) that have not been privatised (read: handout to those who benefit from the concessions. Our taxes were invested for the development of the state enterprise that was then sold for a song to the concessionaire. Our taxes were also used to buy back the failing enterprise from the concessionaire. Or will be). If we have a choice, we do not send our children to government schools, we do not get treatment from government hospitals. We try to avoid anything to do with the government service as much as possible. Not only for the guaranteed inefficiency but because many have serious doubts as to the quality of these services.

This was not the case before. Something changed along the way. It may have been less discriminating standards being applied in the enthusiasm of affirmative action. It may have been less concern for safeguards, increasing levels of corruption and the increasingly politicized landscape. Whatever the reason or reasons, things changed. And the BN government allowed for it to happen, perhaps even drove that change for reasons that are not readily apparent.

Things are at a point where Malaysians want an improvement. Some say that the system is so riddled with deeply entrenched problems that only a total change of government will allow for the changes necessary to put us back on track.

At first blush, this is an attractive proposition. It envisages a rebirth, a clean start. And if we were debating for the sake of debating, I could think of many ways to defend the proposition. We are however dealing with a reality that requires a consideration of practicalities. This is not to say that the ideal should not be abandoned; I myself wish for a rebirth. The road to that end must however be laid in such a manner so as to allow us to avoid pitfalls and obstacles.

What are these pitfalls and obstacles. A seeming lack of political will on the part of the Government for reform and the machinery to quell any attempts to mobilise (read:ISA and other anti-democratic laws) is obviously one of the greater difficulties. Leaving that aside for another discussion, I would like you to consider the number of voters that actually embrace the prospect of change as fervently as others might.

For these persons, and I believe the number is significant, change signifies instability. There is a great fear of the uncertainties of a regime change. For them, these uncertainties do matter. And the idea of simply giving the untested a "chance" on the premise that "things could not get any worse" is not attractive simply because things are not that bad in their minds and a revolution would mean chaos.

It is not sufficient to dismiss these views are being self-serving and aimed at perpetuating the benefits these individuals, and those like them, derive from the system. To conclude such one would have to assume that all these individuals are benefiting in this way. I do not think this is the case. Think about the civil servants, professionals and wage earners, many of whom share this view. These groups are made up of persons of diverse racial and religious backgrounds.

For any change, those that share this view must be given basis to feel comfortable with the idea of change. Without the support of these groups, the necessary changes cannot be brought about.

There are two ways of approaching this challenge. One way is to guarantee them that nothing is going to affect their ability to provide for their families, that their security will not be undermined. I will refer to this as the Guarantee Factor.

The other way is to feel that even if there is a period of instability, the gains that will be made, through the improvements or changes that are being promised, will be such that the risk of changes is worth taking. I will call this the Calculated Risk Factor.

The Guarantee Factor requires a belief that the new 'regime' is in a position to do what the old one could not. This is where exposure to those who make up the new, not just through campaign rhetoric, but through coherent planning and, if possible, action. As I have said elsewhere, while we hear a lot from those who make up the Opposition about what is bad with the Government and how it fails us, we hear very little about how the Opposition intends to deal with the issues of governing the pluralist, uneasy compact that Malaysia is. In these circumstances, how is it that those who need assurance are expected to feel that their future would be in good hands.

Running a country is a difficult thing to do. I referred to the solidarity movement in Poland to make the point that despite the idealism of the movement and its incredible influence, when it came to do to running the country, the inexperience of the solidarity government in matters of governance led the nation into significant difficulties from which Poland only of late began to evolve out of in a manner far removed from the socialist utopia that those in the movement dreamed of.

The Calculated Risk Factor requires a similar projection of a future in which the Opposition will play a more significant role. But as I have said already, what material is there on which Malaysians are to form a view.

The lack of seemingly credible alternatives paralyzes, makes people seek refuge in the familiar.

My aim has never been to suggest that the Opposition could not govern, but rather to question the premise of the Opposition's assertion that not only could it, but it could do better. The doubts are compounded not only by the distinct ideologies of the opposition parties (for example, compare and contrast the Islamist ideology of PAS with the the secularist positioning of DAP) and by the fact that the the three primary opposition seem unable to work together. It is not unreasonable for some to conclude that the Opposition is in a state of disarray. Each primary party appeals to its own constituency and suffers the existence of the other. Each is marked with its own distinctive, and some might say doubt causing, features.

This being the scenario, my view is that the Opposition must start taking steps towards addressing these very valid concerns. The value the Opposition holds for Malaysians is its ability, if significantly represented in Parliament, to provide a counter-balance to the exercise of power. An insignificantly represented Opposition has negligible value and allows for power to concentrate absolutely. And, as we all know, absolute power corrupts.

The Opposition must therefore convince voters who do not already support its cause) that it does not intend to destabilize the nation, either directly or indirectly. My sense is that while there is little doubt as to bona fides of the intention of the Opposition (though, having said that, the Islamist and Malay rights positioning of PAS is worrying for many), there is serious concern as to whether the Opposition is paying enough attention to the question of what happens after. One way in which this could be done is to focus on increasing support through the promise of enhanced accountability a stronger Opposition will allow for. This is an approach that does not alienate nor threaten and may allow the necessary transition to rebirth.

Happy holidays to all.