Politicking out, the rakyat in

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  • Sunday, 16 Feb 2020

People power: Just voting is not enough, it’s up to the rakyat to lead the change we want to see. – Filepic

Only the rakyat can fix the ‘51:49’ problem in our zero-sum, winner-takes-all political system.

I HAVE great respect for Lim Kit Siang. His contributions to the nation are innumerable, and his commitment to a better Malaysia is both inspiring and admirable.

In a recent commentary, though, Lim wrote:

“It is because of such irresponsible and unhealthy levels of politicking by a dishonest, destructive and disloyal opposition... that Malaysia has become a very polarised and divided nation.”

With all due respect and begging pardon for my French, I really couldn’t help but think that this is very much akin to saying:

“The f**king problem with the f**king country is that my opponents are f**king swearing all the f**king time!”

The very definition of politicking is seeing everything through a political lens, and unceasingly trying to score points at the expense of your political opponents.

Lim made the statement above because he knew that Malaysians are frustrated by excessive politicking, and he sought to channel that frustration against the Opposition.

In fact, he was responding to a similar statement from the day before by Umno deputy president Mohamad Hassan, who was also bemoaning excessive politicking

If all the politicians are saying it, you know the rakyat is feeling it.

At this point, the popular option is to give politicians a dressing down for perpetuating this problem, scold them for not doing what is best for the country, and so on.

It’s easy – even fun sometimes – to do so, because that way, we feel like we can sit on a moral high horse, wag our fingers, and feel good about ourselves while expecting people in power to tuck their tail between their legs in shame and heed our righteous instructions.

I, however, don’t think it’s worth wasting anyone’s time trying to scold a fish for swimming. We don’t scold an engineer for engineering or a nurse for nursing; why would we scold a politician for politicking?

I think one of the most detrimental myths that has misguided us all for so long is the idea that politics is the way it is because our politicians aren’t good enough. We hold on to the fallacy that all we need to do is vote out those “bad” politicians and vote in different, “good” ones, and this will give us the better Malaysia we want.

I think it’s time to wake up and smell the kopi-o: It just doesn’t work that way.

Politicians are 99% a product of existing systems and incentive structures. If they behave badly, 99% of the time it’s because the system incentivises bad behaviour.

As long as the current system exists, it’s silly to expect politicians to stop politicking or for them to want to change the system – it isn’t really in their interests. If they won’t do it, then it’s up to the rest of us as the rakyat to lead that change.

Let’s do a quick overview of how this aspect of our political system works.

Our electoral system is essentially a zero sum game where the winner takes all. If a party or coalition wins 51% or more of the seats in Parliament, they control 100% of the government, while the rest (which in some cases amount to 49%) are relegated to being the Opposition – with absolutely zero say whatso- ever in how the country is governed or how resources are allocated.

This system is basically replicated at various levels of our (dysfunctional) democracy. If you get 51% of the votes to be party president, you gain 100% of the power afforded to the president of that party – and in some cases, the right to become Prime Minister. Whoever got 49% of the vote gets absolutely no say in anything important.

Let’s call this the 51:49 system.

The 51:49 winner-takes-all system means that a politician who wants to be successful should invest 100% of his or her effort in one goal and one goal alone: crossing the 51% mark. This is also why all of Malaysia’s current political energy is invested not in making a better Malaysia but in what fellow columnist Philip Golingai calls the Rubik’s cube of changing political alignments in Parliament.

Under this system, there is zero incentive whatsoever to cooperate, collaborate or build consensus across partisan lines.

Up to 49% of a nation’s potential contributors are thus not only cast aside but actively discouraged and attacked – because if people view those 49% in any kind of good light, they may threaten the 51% in the next elections.

Thus we are left with a system where both sides invest absolutely all their time and energy into attacking one another incessantly. To paraphrase a popular saying, everyone is incentivised to worry only about the next election, and no one is incentivised to worry about the next generation.

Ultimately, perhaps the first really important question is: Do we keep to this 51:49 winner-takes-all system because it is the best system for us; or because it is the only system we have ever known, and one which politicians have never been incentivised to change?

The second important question is: Are there alternatives? To this, I believe the short answer is yes.

While we will always need systems and institutions designed to provide checks and balances as well as to ensure healthy competition and a lack of complacency in any government, I think there is a massive amount of space for innovating and engineering our systems to produce a more collaborative dynamic.

Such a new system should find ways to incentivise working together as well as building on consensus and common ground for the shared betterment of all the nation. A leader should be chosen based on demonstrated ability to consistently do exactly that, not how well they can manipulate votes in a single election.

If we remove or reduce the zero sum game element in our democracy, we will give leaders the right incentives to invest in working together with as many equally patriotic, well-meaning Malaysians as possible to build the nation up, rather than investing everything in tearing one another down.

Designing such a system requires a great deal of thought and bold innovation. Even so, I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of people trying to say that it can’t be done. I, for one, can think of fewer projects that are more worthwhile.

After all, what is the use of all the development or technology in the world if we can’t even find the most basic way to pool our efforts constructively and work together to finally make Malaysia be all she can be?

I’m sure many will say I’m a dreamer, but I suppose I’ll leave it to you to determine whether or not I’m the only one. It’s uphill for sure but as long as we keep faith with one another, I truly believe we can do better.

In the mean time, some friends of mine are working on a fundraiser to help the families of victims of death in custody. It will take place at 7pm on Feb 29 at the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall. Contact Khalid Ismath at 014-360 7536 for tickets and details.

Nathaniel Tan can be reached at nat@engage.my. The views expressed here are solely his own.

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