Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Virtue of Defection

Former Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) Deputy President, Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, described attempt by Pakatan Rakyat de facto leader, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, to become Prime Minister through “back door” by instigating massive cross-over as both unethical and undemocratic.

Following are excerpts from The Star news report dated 9 August 2008:

“A Cabinet established through such an avenue will lack moral credibility. Parliament itself will be tarnished. Both the Executive and the Legislature, the two vital arms of governance, will be perceived by the people as institutions that are bereft of integrity,” he (Chandra) said.

In a nutshell, acquiring power through the back door would “demean and denigrate” politics, he said, adding that Anwar also had no mandate to oust the democratically elected government of the day.

Anwar, he claimed, was consumed by a single-minded obsession to become the country’s prime minister in the shortest possible time.

In response to Chandra’s comment, PKR Supreme Council Member, Khalid Jaafar called Chandra a “defector” himself for leaving PKR a few years ago and had since spoken in favor of BN. He wrote in The Malaysian Insider:

“Unless he (Chandra Muzaffar) was bribed, Chandra must sincerely believe that his defection was virtuous. Let's grant him the benefit of the doubt. But what makes him think that he is the only person capable of virtuous defection? Why deny the same adjective to 30, or even more, BN members of Parliament who wish to defect to the Pakatan Rakyat camp and thereby form a new government?”

Khalid tried to give moral (normative) justification to the much talked about defection. He argued,

We need to engineer an economic resurgence otherwise we all will suffer. The economy will contract and there will be more layoffs. Those who are working will see the value of their take-home ringgit shrinking.

The economy must be resurrected from the current stagnation. But first we need to restore confidence and hope. New confidence and hope can only come with new leadership. We need a Malaysian FDR.

So the defectors will not be pengkhianat after all. They are the penyelamat, the band of political white knights saving the country from the stagnation and slump. Those who still want to stay back will be on the wrong side of history.

Well, in Khalid’s mind - and perhaps in the minds of many average men in the street - the defection is virtuous for it will bring about leadership change to the country and, hopefully, a way out to the current political lethargy and economic quagmire.

But my question is how do we define virtue? Do we look at it from normative point of view like what Plato or Aristotle did? Or do we see it from Machiavelli’s realist point of view? While the classical scholars see virtue as the highest good, Machiavelli sees it as one’s ability to gain and maintain power.

The single most articulated value in the work of Machiavelli is virtú (Latin virtus), which is related to our word, "virtue." Machiavelli means it more in its Latin sense of "manly," but individuals with virtú are primarily marked by their ability to enforce their will on volatile social situations. They do this through a combination of strong will, strength, and brilliant and strategic calculation. (See World Civilizations by Richard Hooker at )

It seems to be quite difficult to justify “defection” - or for that matter any other political maneuvers - on normative grounds. It is an elusive justification. Khalid might be right, but Chandra might not be totally wrong. If we allow defection to be justified on normative grounds, don’t be surprised if one day we come across an article, or a book, entitled “The Morality of Corruption” or “The Morality of Conspiracy” or the "Morality of Electoral Rigging".

Alternatively, why don’t we pretend to be a “realist” for a while, and try to justify defection as a realist? Let us consider this:

1. Politics, as Harold Lasswell defines it, is about “who gets what when and how”. Let us consider “what” as referring to “power/becoming Prime Minister”, defection to “how” and September 16 to “when”.

2. Now, let us look at virtue as Machiavelli sees it - one’s ability to gain and maintain power. It doesn’t matter through what means one achieves power (whether through defection, ballot boxes or bloody coup d’ĕtat) because after all politics is “amoral”. Ends, i.e. power, justifies the means, i.e. political maneuvers. A virtuous politician is the one who knows "how" and "when" to gain - and mantain - power.

Combining 1 and 2 above, we can safely say that Anwar is a virtuous politician as and when he becomes Prime Minister. Wooing BN MPs to defect to Pakatan Rakyat is just a means. After all, this is not the first time Anwar did it. Back in 1994, he successfully engineered a massive defection of PBS assemblymen to the BN to help the ruling coalition form government in Sabah.

This time round, the Sabah politicians are back in the lime light. But to make the march to Putrajaya a success, Anwar also needs to woo Peninsular MPs, especially the Malay MPs, to defect. As defection is not a norm in the Peninsular, except for a few, Anwar needs to be extremely “virtuous”. Those MPs who plan to defect, if any, will also be virtuous politicians if they reap greater political or material benefits by doing so.
And let us not forget. Anwar also needs to be extremely virtuous not only to keep the opposition party elites cohesive, but also to make sure that they continue to put him in the exalted position as the de facto leader of Pakatan Rakyat. Remember that Anwar is not yet a prime minister and therefore he lacks "coercive" as well as "persuasive" apparatuses to discipline the party elites. UMNO-PAS muzakarah is an example of lack of discipline.
But as an astute politician, Anwar will seize whatever opportunities to continue his march to Putrajaya. Defection - as well as maintaing opposition party elites' cohesion - is a test of Anwar's political virtue.

Yes, I agree with Khalid. There is virtue in defection. But unlike what Khalid had in mind, I am more inclined to say that the virtue is “realist” rather than “normative” in nature.


  1. Dr. Marzuki,

    I am agreeable with your conclusion. But I still believe the government formed through defection still lacks of integrity. But bearing in mind that the purported defection is nothing more than just a mere propaganda and psychological warfare, it will be good-for-nothing to evaluate the virtue of the purported defection unless for academic purposes. Further, with Anwar’s ‘morality’ is now under verdict, the purported ‘defectors’ might now think twice to jump ship. Anyhow, nothing is impossible in politics.

  2. Hello Dr.

    I think the whole issue has been overstated. A layman like me as oppose to a political analyst or an academician, would not be concern with whether it is virtuous act or not to jump the ship. I would be more concern to know whether the act is wise or not.

    For me, whether the purported defection can be looked at as a virtuous act or not depends on the individual defector’s real intention. Every decision entails risk that the decision maker had to foresee. It is easy to criticize other people’s move. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, the burden of accountability would rest on the shoulder of the decision maker.

    If I am one of the MPs and I decided to cross-over because I genuinely belief that in so doing, I am giving this country an opportunity to change, would my act be regarded as immoral? Even if it turn out that I have actually do a disservice to the country by crossing over, would my good faith decision be considered as immoral? At most, it can be branded as ‘an imprudent’ move but definitely not ‘immoral’ or ‘unethical’ move!

    I am quite upset to discover a person like Dr Chandra can make such a foolish and narrow-minded comment. After all nobody know the ‘real’ reason behind a decision except for the person making it (and God of course).