The general election is just around the corner. At every corner you turn and in every conversation you hear, the election is being talked about passionately.
Regardless of whichever side of the political divide one stands on, the future of the nation is at stake, our fates as well as those of our children and their children hang in the balance.
The Malaysian experiment in democracy had at its core the guiding principles of progress through ‘check and balance’, and mechanisms such as the ‘separation of powers’ and two tiered parliamentary representation built in to ensure a progressive union of the rakyat.
However instead of progress, the experiment has pushed our country further away from its goals.
Three generations have passed; 12 general elections have come and gone; six prime ministers have helmed the bridge of the beautifully built but badly sailed ship of Malaysia; yet, there has only been one government, one ruling party, one business plan and one corrupt hole that those at the top keep digging at the expense of the rakyat.
All this has been garnished by lies after deceptions, time and time again.
I was recently lucky enough to spend two weeks in America, during the last frantic few weeks of campaigning for the recent US presidential election. Though I am no stranger to foreign politics – having been involved in British politics with the Liberal Democrats – being in New York two weeks before the acid test of Obama’s new politics of Hope and Change, was nothing short of an eye opener.
Fortunate enough to be present for three out of the four most important debates in the US legislative term; namely the vice presidential debate, the presidential town hall debate, and the presidential foreign policy debate, I never knew where my threshold for overdosing on politicking was, until now.
Polls in the US
On TV, analysts and spokespersons from both sides of the divide were interviewed on split screens around the clock and across time zones, whilst live debates and polls assessed every nuance, slip, or hidden meaning behind the speaker’s words.
Competition raged amongst the countless TV channels to deliver the most impressive visual presentations of the latest polling figures, not to mention opinion pieces on candidate’s choice of words, narrative style, perceptive strategy, body language, and last and sometimes seemingly least, their stand on the various pressing issues and topics they stood for.
Granted, the buzz surrounding the debate does tend to verge on the side of overkill. More often than not, both parties employ huge resources and go startling lengths to tear apart their opponent with minute details.
But this façade (although it must be navigated with care) does not take away from the ultimate purpose: to inform and to get people talking about each candidate and what policies they stand for.
My daily 15-minute queue for my Sumatran Macchiato in Starbucks saw students of all hues and accents discussing politics; teenagers whining about how uncool one candidate was compared to the other; and a group of high-powered well-dressed business women biting at one of the talking points.
It was a big deal! Whether it was the substance that they cared about, or simply the presentation, they were certainly participating in the discussion.
All that, can be said for every elections, in every democratic nation in the modern world.
It’s definitely applicable to our political reality in Malaysia. But one could be quite surprised to find that the above paragraph is a statement made by an American citizen of Mexican descent in his 20’s named Miguel working as a barman in New York. And it’s not Malaysia he’s talking about.
Ultimately, through extensive debates and the public dismantling of policy; each and every member of the public has the opportunity if he or she wishes to become part of the debate.
Level playing field
Regardless of the winner in the race, after the election, the electorate knows exactly what deal he or she signed up for, and will hold the president to account.
Now, don’t be mistaken for one minute that I’m saying Malaysia should have this ESPN’isation of politics; nor am I suggesting we have a presidential system as opposed to our own parliamentary system, and NO, neither am I building some elaborate ploy to bring about republicanism.
What I am saying is that the USA is one evolutionary step closer to promises of democratic ideals as we know it.
Not only do they have Congress, keeping a check on the Senate and vice versa; and the judiciary doing its part for justice; not only does the president have his executive powers; now the people have – through information technology and media – evolved into another significant branch of power; one more organically evolved mechanism of check and balance in the grand scheme of nation building.
Americans are not living in a representative femocracy, but a truly participative democracy.
Unlike here in Malaysia, both sides of the political divide have equal air time, equal opportunities, and an equally large platform to publicly air their own policies and debate their opponent’s stand: something that our political elites palm off as ‘not Malaysian culture’.
Cutting a long story short, it is not up to the political elites to decide what is, or what is not, Malaysian culture, especially when it comes to the much anticipated prime ministerial debate.
We know Umno/BN assume that their proposals need not be debated as their decisions are final: just look at the 2013 parliamentary budget debate.
This attitude has evolved out of a process of enduring hegemony that has lulled the rakyat into complacency and assumption that they have no right to challenge the ruling party.
This is not democracy. It is also not democracy when the government change rules that don’t favour them by employing violence over and above debate: look back at the 2009 Perak constitutional crisis.
Time to call for change
In view of the above, I pose the following question: If the rakyat do not have the ability to debate, question, challenge or change the government’s policies, do we live in an authoritative totalitarian state?
I believe we do.
I may have joined the chants of ‘Four More Years’ of the Democratic crowd when watching the US presidential foreign policy debate, you certainly won’t hear me saying that here back home.
Will we see the day, that prime ministerial candidates can go tooth and nails against each other on national TV, and slug it out for the people to see?
Will we see the day that the people’s views, concerns and questions, are aired live without censor? Forcing those in power and those who seek power to listen to the people when forming their policies?
Will we see the day when policy is informed to the people and for the people’s needs?
Will we see the day that we bravely and freely, take significant and visible steps together as a people, to close the gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of our time?
Will we see a successful ‘formula’ for the nation building experiment that is Malaysia?
As the twenty-something politically aware New York barman Miguel said, ‘the future of the nation is at stake, our fates as well as those of our children and their children hang in the balance’.
Though he may not have been talking about Malaysia, his words could not have been more applicable. And, unlike in Malaysia, Miguel knows that he can influence the decision making process: every four years.
We in Malaysia are definitely feeling the ‘fierce urgency of now’. In light of the impending general election it is time to call for change.
How? you may ask. I believe you know the answer.-Howard Lee is Perak DAPSY secretary and election strategy director.