Naked, non-stop pursuit of power


  • All the pieces matter
  • Sunday, 09 Feb 2020

Drawing on ancient wisdom like Master Oogway, it’s time to see past the sound and fury of petty politics, and design better systems and incentive structures.

Why should we be stuck with a system that incentivises constant bickering and politicking?

ONE of my favourite Chinese New Year movies is Kung Fu Panda.

As the protagonist Po struggles in his training to become the famed Dragon Warrior, he becomes discouraged and complains to wise Master Oogway:

“Maybe I should just quit and go back to making noodles.”

Master Oogway pauses a while, and then replies: “Quit, don’t quit... Noodles, don’t noodles... You are too concerned with what was, and what will be...”

With the non-stop political drama unfolding in Malaysia today, I cannot help but think: Pakatan Harapan, don’t Pakatan Harapan... Pakatan Nasional, don’t Pakatan Nasional... what difference does it really make?

I am not one to heap too much blame or generate hatred towards people who are doing jobs that I myself may not be willing to do.

While it is true that politicians bear a lot of responsibility for the dangerous and harmful waywardness of our nation today, I think the underlying truth is that they are only the logical products of our political system and incentive structures.

Our Westminster system of government basically allows for a change of government to happen at practically any time via a vote of no confidence in Parliament.

Once a Prime Minister has been deemed to have lost the confidence of a majority in Parliament, he can be replaced by someone new who is able to command the confidence of said majority.

The value of our system enabling this seems rather lost on me. In America, the process of removing a chief executive mid term is quite different, as we saw in the foiled attempt by the Democrats to impeach President Donald Trump.

The American system is far, far from perfect. Partisanship still eventually carried the day for Trump, despite the mounting evidence against him.

At the very least however, the process had a clear beginning and an end. In a Westminster system, political uncertainty can drag on interminably.

We saw a version of this happen as the United Kingdom fumbled and bumbled its way through Brexit – the very referendum that caused Brexit having itself been a result of a political fumble and bumble on the part of David Cameron.

The British Westminster system proved almost completely incapable of handling a change as big as Brexit, with three and a half years of political deadlock, childish parliamentary squabbling, and not one but two general elections.

In the end, it appears the British public voted in droves for Boris Johnson, who built his campaign on the simple and straightforward phrase “Get Brexit done”, trouncing Jeremy Corbyn’s “neutral” and complicated stance on Brexit. In short, it appeared nobody wanted even more prolonged uncertainty and political squabbling.

Coming back to Malaysia, this fluid system of politics that allows for a change of Prime Minister at the drop of a hat is producing a political landscape that is as (if not more) inherently and deeply unstable as the US or the UK. This fact is exacerbated by just how much power is disproportionately concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister.

I think plenty of other people have said and written enough about the specifics of who is trying to engineer what new deal to seize power, and change which configuration to which using what new fangled formula. I don’t have anything useful to add to that gossip.

The whole thing seems to be a ridiculous spectacle - one with absolutely no bearing on the true core principles of democracy.

Virtually none of this power struggle within and between existing political coalitions in Malaysia has anything to do with strengthening the economy, improving lives, or building better bonds among Malaysians.

Indeed, it has the opposite effect – it is a wasteful, toxic distraction, and breeds communal division.

Perhaps even worse, it discourages us from being active participants in the democratic process of governance that affects us, and encourages us to gawk at these political antics from the sidelines, stuffing handful after handful of popcorn into our gaping mouths.

What difference does it make whether it is this feudal lord or that feudal lord that sits the throne, when it is the feudal system itself that continues to oppress the rest of us either way?

A central tenet of eastern wisdom is the concept of mindfulness – a piercing awareness, and an ability to see past sound and fury, through to what the real core problems are that need solving. This is what Master Oogway alluded to, in his exhortation to not let the wrong concerns distract us from what is truly important.

In this case, I think this drama over the endless power struggle amongst politicians is a diversion from the true problem – namely, a political system that has become completely dysfunctional, and which incentivises the rise of those who behave the most selfishly.

I think it’s time we stop being too concerned over petty feudal squabbling, and start thinking and innovating boldy over the question of how we can redesign the system, so that it incentivises the rise of Malaysia’s best, brightest, and kindest.

NATHANIEL TAN is a strategic communications consultant who studied Science and Mathematics (and everything else) in Malay. The results may have to speak for themselves. He can be reached at nat@engage.my

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