“YOU know how he was for scheming and things. He was involved in most of the plots against himself, that was how he ran things. He enjoyed it.” – Supreme Grand Master Lupine Wonse on Lord Havelock Vetinari, in Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad has repeated a lot of things since becoming Malaysia’s seventh Prime Minister.
But surely he must be the only man in history who has not once, but twice, resigned his post as head of government on one day, only to take it up again (or retract it, as in 2002) on that very same day.
One message floating around on WhatsApp says: “There was a coup attempt in the name of Tun M against the government of Tun M that was prevented by Tun M through the resignation of Tun M as PM followed by the appointment of Tun M to be interim PM. Meanwhile everybody else lost their ministerial positions except Tun M.”
Meanwhile, my friend Pang Khee Teik wrote on Facebook:
“Azmin says Mahathir is with them. Anwar says Mahathir is with them. All want Mahathir on their sides, like he is god. And like god, he is silent, smiling, as we pray to him to reveal his will. When the dust settles, the victor will claim him. He will let them. Deus ex Mahathir.”
“Anwar” refers to PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, the premier-in-waiting, and his party’s former deputy president Datuk Seri Azmin Ali, who has just been fired from PKR.
As far as facts go, all I know is that last week, many were clamouring for Dr Mahathir to step down. This week, almost everyone in Parliament suddenly wants – or “needs”, rather – him to stay on as prime minister.
What a playa.
Much as I’d love to write a popular piece on all this gossip, I don’t know who really played whom. It’s too early to tell.
Whatever the case, I should keep to my original focus: how the systemic problems with our dysfunctional democracy is the true root of this insane mess.
So, the first point: everything done by everybody these last two days is perfectly legal.
They did not break any laws, they did not do anything that is technically disallowed by the Westminster system, which we practise here in Malaysia.
Under our system, the prime minister, and thus the entire government, can be changed almost the very moment there is a realignment of political loyalties within Parliament – any day of the week, any week of the month, and any month of the year.
Once this happens, the PM’s position is essentially compromised with immediate effect.
I earlier compared this to some other systems, such as the American one. There is a clear process through which the US president can be removed. Flawed as I’m sure it is, it has a clear set of procedures, right from beginning to end.
There is also a clear line of succession, should anything happen to the US president. All these are necessary because – surprise, surprise, the presidency is a really important job, and all legal bases about who is the president at any given point should be covered carefully.
What we seem to have here in comparison is utter chaos.
The minute the crisis sparked, lawyers began to argue over matters such as: how support from a majority of MPs in Parliament be proven, whether the Yang di-Pertuan Agong has to power to unilaterally dissolve Parliament, what the true role of the deputy prime minister is, what the legal requirements are for appointing an “interim” or caretaker prime minister (the former term not being present in the Federal Constitution), what the powers of an “interim” PM are, and so on.
That such key issues are legally uncertain and ambiguous is nothing short of disastrous. That disaster caused a crisis in Perak in 2009, and it caused a crisis in Selangor in 2014; but we still haven’t sorted things out.
Of course, the core disaster is that MPs are completely allowed to switch allegiances and try to change the government literally anytime they wish.
There is nothing stopping MPs from making such endeavours a full time job and spending all of their energy and resources on trying to change the government.
The very worst thing we as citizens can do to them in fact, only goes so far as trying to “shame” them, and vote them out – sometimes only five years later.
In this regard, this means that the following scenario is possible:
Let’s hypothetically say a party that wants to ban music that can produce involuntary bodily gyrations throughout Malaysia gets 1% of the popular vote, and wins only one seat in Parliament.
Let’s say through brilliant political manoeuvring and bribery, this party manages to gain the support of 51% of the MPs in Parliament, and elect the one MP from that party to become PM and form the government.
Voila, Malaysia will then be governed by a party that only won 1% of the popular vote, and all musical gyrations have now been banished throughout the land.
Nothing in the scenario above is prohibited in any way by law. Of course, the new government would lack moral legitimacy, but what real effect does moral legitimacy have?
And yes, you can vote that government and those treasonous MPs out next time. But you’re still stuck for five years without musical gyrations; and we can’t guarantee that you’ll have the same democratic rights you have today five years from now.
So really, what on earth is this stupid system supposed to be good for? In what way can it conceivably add any value whatsoever to our democracy?
The Westminster mockery of democracy doesn’t even work for our former colonial masters in Westminster, so why on earth would it work for us?
The second major issue involves representation and money politics.
Malaysia has 222 parliamentarians. At last count, we had a population of about 32 million, and just under 15 million registered voters.
That means one MP for an average of about 144,144 people, or 67,567 voters.
How well can one MP truly represent the aggregate democratic aspirations of that many people? What about the people who didn’t vote for that particular MP? How will their democratic aspirations be heard?
Ultimate political power in Malaysia is concentrated massively in the person of the Prime Minister.
And power to determine who becomes Prime Minister is given entirely to 222 individual MPs.
These MPs have full and complete personal discretion to decide who they will support as PM. They have no need whatsoever to consult with anyone, or be accountable to anyone whatsoever – until the next elections at least, which again could be as long as five years away.
Each MP has no need to openly declare their reasons for supporting one party or candidate for PM whatsoever. There is more transparency involved in applying for a driver’s licence than there is in electing a prime minister.
So, what does this completely unfettered discretion on the part of MPs give rise to?
Money politics, of course.
While the rest of Malaysia is sitting around wrangling our hands in anger and frustration at having been betrayed and stabbed in the back, what do you think these 222 MPs are doing?
Many of them are obviously trying to see what’s the best possible “deal” they can get.
This is far too much power to be concentrated in 222 individuals that cannot be removed for five years – just as too much power is invested in political parties that do not add any actual value to the nation, or represent our true democratic aspirations in any way.
In my time, the Backstreet Boys were one of the most popular boy bands. Today, it seems we have the Backdoor Boys. Whatever little shame they feel at such epithets is obviously erased by the amount of money that being in power gives you.
I am as upset with The Betrayal of the Backdoor Boys as much as the next guy, and I think they fully deserve all the flak they should continue to get.
But we also need to realise that the thing that has been screwing us for decades is the system that gave birth to these treacherous politicians, and the system that allows them to treat Parliament like some brothel.
NATHANIEL TAN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views here are the writer’s own.
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