Collaborative vs oppositional politics: The UK, Indonesia and Norway

I READ the following quote about innovation in political debates in Norway back in September. I’ve thought a lot about it since then, and I’m quite confident I’ll be reflecting on it for a good time to come:

“As politicians in the United States, Britain and many other countries adopt increasingly confrontational poses and appear to shun compromise, Norway is trialing new ways to debate political issues ahead of its local elections on Sept 9.

“After nearly 10 years of presenting political debates, I realised the format was tired, the politicians were tired and I was tired, of all the quarrelling, ” said Ingunn Solheim, who had the idea for a new show called Einig? (Agree?).

In the show – with no moderator to direct the debate – politicians or campaigners have to respect the ground rules as they discuss statements like “there should be as few abortions as possible” or “many immigrants do not want to integrate”.

The result? A pro- and anti- abortion campaigner having a thoughtful discussion about the dilemma of interrupting a pregnancy. People on opposite sides of the asylum debate close to tears as they understand they have more in common than expected.

“It is a little bit like marriage therapy, ” Solheim told Reuters.

“We are trying to make them actively listen to one another and make them explore different points of view, rather than attacking one another.

“And if you feel your partner has heard and understood you, it is easier to do the same thing back.”

This struck me as nothing short of revolutionary.

In its essence, this initiative speaks to the very heart of what “politics” means, and how we understand it.

The political systems and structures we are stuck with today were shaped hundreds of years ago, and they take an essentially confrontational approach to government.

The way Parliament and our elections work, politicians are incentivised to argue and make each other look bad. One politician’s loss is basically another politician’s gain, in a terrible zero-sum race to the bottom.

The project above in Norway represents one attempt to reverse this trend. The organisers of the “debate” (which really was more of a “discussion” than a “debate”), took the time to ask a simple question: What if we tried working together, instead of working against each other?

The answer was painfully obvious: we get better results.

Surely such an approach to politics and governance will have us each moving the boat in some compromise direction, rather than each person on board trying to paddle in different directions, causing complete stagnation and breakdown.

Naiveté of course has no place in politics. It would be ridiculous and an oversimplification to suggest that we can all just put our differences aside, join hands, and start moving in the same direction.

No, there will always be disagreements, and this is a normal – indeed, even healthy – part of life and democracy. Indeed, the most successful aspect of oppositional politics is the check and balance that it affords, and any improvement or better future must include provisions to ensure such checks and balances always exist.

The trick though, is how we can stop incentivising exacerbating disagreements, and instead incentivise collaboration and cooperation.

Answering the “how” of this will require much more space than this article can take, but I do believe that attempts to dismiss such attempts as overly idealistic betray excessive cynicism.

For now, I thought to examine a few ways in which we are seeing these dynamics play out in the world today.

Malaysia follows the Westminster system, and today, it is no exaggeration to say that Westminster – the birthplace of this system and its namesake – is in utter chaos.

Watching the debates in the British House of Commons, it’s no surprise that the British government has been paralysed for so long with regards to Brexit.

The confrontational and oppositional nature of the political system there – a system that we inherited – has made handling a difficult and complicated situation even more difficult and complicated.

The latest in this saga is the upcoming dissolution of Parliament and elections to be held on Dec 12 (the second since the Brexit referendum).

I’m no expert on Brexit or British politics, but from what I can tell, there are absolutely no guarantees that these elections will pave the way towards greater clarity or a smooth solution to the problem of Brexit.

Between a “first past the post” system and how power is brokered in Westminster, there seems to be every chance that these new elections will simply put the United Kingdom right back where it started, or stall them in an even greater crisis than the one they are currently in.

Structural change and institutional engineering is difficult, there is no doubt about it. Changing is difficult, but that doesn’t mean we should shy from trying.

Closer to home, Indonesian President Joko Widodo made some interesting and controversial decisions that could be seen as vaguely a step in the direction of more cooperative politics.

The big move was of course to invite his opponent in the elections, Prabowo Subianto, into his Cabinet as Defence Minister.

On one hand, this could be seen as a positive step – taking a leaf perhaps, from the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which examined the way in which Abraham Lincoln worked with people who had worked against him.

(I recently watched the 2012 movie Lincoln, which was based loosely on the book, and recommend it).

On the other hand, Prabowo’s bloody and deeply controversial human rights record does raise many questions and eyebrows – and with very good reason.

In Indonesia’s present case, the co-opting of Prabowo and his political supporters has also left Indonesia effectively without an opposition. Thus, they may find themselves without those all important checks and balances.

It will certainly be interesting to keep an eye on how things play out with our neighbours, as many factors and variables will continuously be in play.

Thomas Fann, chairman of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Bersih 2.0), recently wrote an interesting piece combining my two biggest interests in Malaysian affairs – identity politics, and structural reform (in Fann’s case, electoral reform, specifically).

His piece discusses how electoral reform and institutional engineering in Malaysia may be a key factor in countering excessive hatemongering and identity politics – an approach and mode of thinking I think we could all benefit from reflecting on (politicians especially).

Instead, of course, in Malaysia, everything appears to be at a standstill, as Members of Parliament are likely now completely obsessed with the question of who the next prime minister will be.

Given the horse trading and “asking prices” that are probably in play, it’s probably a good time to be an MP.

It’s not such a good time to be a Malaysian though. Coming back to the Westminster system, the game is such that the current horse trading we are seeing is all that really matters now, in the quest for that magic number: 112, out of 222 seats in the Dewan Rakyat, in order to form a government.

In that obsessive, tunnel vision pursuit of 112, so much else about the country has been neglected and left by the wayside.

From the looks of it, more and more Malaysians are really starting to feel it.

NATHANIEL TAN is a strategic communications consultant who specialises in identifying the right goals, and the right tools for achieving that job. He can be reached at, and would like to express his condolences to Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin on the passing of Tabby. The writer’s views are his own.

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