Saturday, July 10, 2010

Facts and Fallacies in Malaysian Politics

What people perceive in politics is sometimes far more important than the reality. In the world where information too often implodes into meaningless symbols, facts are perceived as fallacies, while fallacies are perceived as facts. The ability of political spinners to create perception that matters is thus central to maintaining one’s political prowess.

Creating perception has therefore been an important art of politics. This rule of thumb was acknowledged by none other than Machiavelli. A virtuous prince, according to this political guru, must create lasting perception of his grandeur, spirit, gravity and fortitude so that the people will perceive him as a strong leader. He must endeavour to obtain fame for being great and excellence. He must foster a psychology of success to win people’s hearts and minds. His end is to make people love him and loyal to him.

If that does not work in commanding people’s love and loyalty, a virtuous prince must create a perception of his strength and supremacy. Even though the people will not love him for the show of brute force at his disposal, at least they will be less tempted to challenge his authority. By doing this the prince will retain his power and perpetuate his rule. He will be a virtuous prince as long as he is able to play this perception game tactfully.

But in politics, creating perception is not the sole prerogative of those in power. Those who are eyeing for power are also very much at it. Furthermore, the advancement in information and communication technology facilitates the creation and dissemination of perceptions by those in power, as well those who are not.

There is no harm in creating perception that wins or erodes people’s confidence in a politician or a political party. That is the rule of political game. Politicians know this very well, and they are willing to brave the challenge.

However, there is a danger in creating perceptions that go overboard. Reality-defying perceptions that are repeatedly said or depicted over time will create long lasting fallacies that will cloud and contaminate people’s mind.

In that sorrow state of mind, people will not be able to distinguish perception from reality. While democracy is about making choice, living under the spell of fallacies will make it hard for the people to make the right choice. Democracy is meaningless when the people fail to make the right choice.

There are too many fallacies in Malaysian politics, but I will only focus on one, i.e. Malaysia is an authoritarian state where the scope for political competition is very limited and the government often resorted to undemocratic means to retain power.

Too often we come across these perceptions. Our election is perceived as not free and fair; our media is muted; and people’s rights and freedoms are unjustly curtailed. These are just some of the mind-boggling perceptions in the marketplace of Malaysian politics.

The existence of Internal Security Act, University and University Colleges Act, Sedition Act, etc. which restrict the enjoyment of certain rights and freedoms exacerbated these perceptions. The repeal of these laws, as some people argue, will pave the way for Malaysia’s transition into full democracy.

It is true that these laws must be enforced sparingly and legitimately. Its excessive enforcement for illegitimate purposes will of course lead to transgression of people’s rights and freedoms. No amount of force will be effective in containing people’s anger and hatred toward the government once their rights and freedoms are excessively encroached upon. The government itself runs the risk of losing its legitimacy altogether if this happens.

But the fact remains that these laws are useful and effective in maintaining law and order under exceptional circumstances.

Just take the recent discovery of al-Qaeda operatives in Malaysian universities as an example. Had it not because of the existence of the Internal Security Act, our police force will face difficulties to act swiftly in containing al-Qaeda’s activities on Malaysian soil.

We know very well that our democracy will be at stake if we allow these militant activities to gain ground in our own backyard. We cannot imagine living under the rule of extremist militants who regard democracy as just another devil.

The role of democratic government is not only to allow people to exercise their democratic rights, but also to protect these rights from erosion.

Merely saying that the existence of preventive detention laws impede democracy is thus a fallacy. The fact is, under certain circumstances, their existence is essential to defend democracy itself. In a nutshell, or rather ironically, the use of ISA under such circumstances promotes rather than erodes democracy.

What is even more, Malaysia is already a democratic country even with these laws in place. Not only that we have periodic elections at least once in every five years, our electoral politics is also highly competitive.

Both the ruling party and the opposition have to fight tooth and nail to win elections. Unlike in other authoritarian states, election in Malaysia is not a sure thing. The ruling party is not always assured of its victory. The people are free to make their own choices, and they will not be persecuted for making those choices.

We have a vibrant civil society too. Just browse through our newspapers. We will find leaders of non-governmental organizations, politicians, intellectuals and individuals making comments about national policies and issues of public interests. Some of the views are in line with government policies, while the rest are opposed to it. This is in the so-called mainstream newspapers.

What about those comments in the opposition-inclined newspapers and online news portals. You can hardly find views which are supportive of the government. And yet, these views are tolerated as long as they do not transgress the law or contain fabricated lies. No one has been detained for expressing their views, unless those views border on sedition or national security.

Opposition newspapers are granted publication permits. They are normally left to their own devices except when they transgress the permissible limit of law and ethics. Reporting lies – such as Felda going bankrupt – is just an example of transgressing the parameter law and ethics.

And most of the time, the government responded to the public views expressed through the media. Nowadays, it is not strange to find government changes its policy after receiving feedback from the people.

In drawing up certain policies, the government even consulted various interest groups that form our vibrant civil society. Of course, it is impossible for the government to accept all those views, but the propensity to provide avenues for expression of such views and to listen to them alone constitute an important characteristic of a democratic government.

In this era of information revolution, or rather implosion, people tend to perceive political blogs and online news portals, especially if they are critical of the government, as independent, unbiased and trustworthy.

This is another fallacy. Just look at a number of popular local online news portals. They too have their own political masters. In most cases, they are aligned to the opposition which explains why their reporting is often biased and sometimes even rogue. And the fact is, this kind of news portals are mushrooming in Malaysia, despite the existence of the allegedly draconian laws.

Describing Malaysian political system – whether democratic or otherwise – is thus not a straight forward task. One has to look at the nuances to arrive at a fair conclusion. Looking at the nuances means the ability to rise above perceptions and discover the realities. It also means less emotion, and more objectivity.

This reminds me of my professor, Harold Crouch, a renowned political scientist who authored Government and Society in Malaysia about two decades ago. Unlike other Westerners who often had jaundiced view about Malaysian politics, he is a man of objectivity who never allows emotion to taint his analysis of Malaysian politics.

Given that no democratic political system is perfect, Professor Harold describes the degree of democratic practices in a political system by using repressive-responsive model. Putting a country in a repressive-responsive political continuum, he observed that a country often moves back and forth the two ends of political continuum like a pendulum swing.

When the country moves closer to the repressive end of the political continuum, by using repressive apparatuses to limit political competition for instance, it becomes less democratic and more authoritarian. Likewise, when it moves closer to the responsive end of the political continuum, by responding to the demands and aspirations of the people for example, it becomes more democratic and less authoritarian.

Analysing Malaysian politics in the 1980s through the 1990s, Professor Harold described Malaysian political system as neither authoritarian nor democratic. The country’s political dynamics dictated that its political system moved back and forth the two ends of the political continuum without following a particular pattern.

Using the same model of analysis, I would argue that Malaysia is now moving closer and closer to the responsive end of the political continuum. Malaysian government has responded very well to the wishes and aspirations of Malaysians irrespective of race, creed or colour through its Government Transformation Programme, People First Performance Now policy and 1Malaysia concept.

It is no exaggeration to say that these policies and programmes are drawn up based on people’s views about things that top their priority list, things that really matter to them.

Today, the voices of ordinary Malaysians find its expression into public policies through opinion polls and letters to the editor. This is not to mention the many memoranda and petitions submitted to ministers and government officials. As far as policy making is concerned, participatory democracy is now at work beyond the confine of the ballot boxes. There are so many channels through which people can express their concerns, air their views and convey their messages to the government. Ballot boxes are the last resort.

Political parties and interest groups too are pressing hard to get their voices heard by the government. And the government cannot simply ignore these voices given that the political landscape has changed significantly. It has grown more competitive and any slightest mistake the government makes will put it in a very bad light. No government wants to take the risk of losing electoral support for publicity blunder.

Considering all these facts, I will not be apologetic in saying that Malaysian politics is now far more competitive and far more democratic – both in form and substance - than many people may perceive.

This is fact, not fallacy.