Breaking clean

  • All the pieces matter
  • Sunday, 23 Aug 2020

Breaking Bad was a seminal piece of literature. One might say it even marked a small turning point in the history of storytelling.

We’ve had plenty of politicians here in Malaysia who have ‘broke bad’ – mimicking Walter White’s slow descent from protagonist to antagonist.

But these days, perhaps Malaysia is reaching our own turning point.

More and more Malaysians can see that we need drastic change – a clean break from the past, and the old ways of doing things.

Making a clean break from old politics to a new democracy is no easy feat however.

Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr famously wrote: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” - often translated as: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Today, I hope to offer some humble views of what key determinants we should look out for, in order to determine whether something that is being offered is indeed new wine, or old wine in new bottles.

I’ll discuss three main things – following the money, relationships with existing power structures, and finally demographic appeal and representation. I will conclude with some thoughts on assessing key performance indicators (KPIs).

Firstly, we take our first lessons from Jerry Maguire and policeman Lester Freamon from The Wire.

Jerry put it most simply: “Show me the money!”

Lester’s longer quote is: “You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the f*** it’s gonna take you.”

I would go so far to say that the biggest defining feature of old politics is how politicians spend all of their public time avoiding talking about money, and most of their private time talking about how they can control more money and power (where the true value of the latter is only to obtain more of the former).

Long story short, I think you can define the newness of a movement by how transparent they are about who is funding them.

If the answer to “Who is funding your movement” goes along the lines of “a few private supporters who wish to remain anonymous”, then that is likely the first step on a road that leads right back to where Malaysia is today.

As we are all judged by the company that we keep, so will a movement be judged by the motivations, demeanour, and character of its key funders.

Secondly, there should be at least some degree of clarity and transparency with regards to relationships with existing political parties.

I think of existing major political parties as self-driving vehicles.

Former general and US president Dwight Eisenhower coined the term “military industrial complex”.

He recognised that the convergence and scale of military and industrial vested interests were becoming a beast unto itself.

The amount of money at stake essentially creates a gravitational force of its own. Individuals do not shape this gravity, this gravity shapes individuals.

I feel existing Malaysian political parties are much the same. The degree of institutional gravitational inertia and path dependency makes it almost impossible to remain within those parties, and yet expect to make significant change.

My humble view is that the best paths forward for any new movement or institution must inculcate two key features.

The first is that key decision makers and decision making processes must be 100% independent of any existing political parties. Anyone still inside or possessing a vested interest in any of those existing parties cannot be at the forefront of anything genuinely new. There is no having your cake and eating it too.

The second is that any movement with thoughts of participating in elections should give some clear indications of early positions vis a vis existing political players.

For example, a new movement could state that their intention (present or future) is to contest 100% independently, with no reference whatsoever to existing parties.

Alternatively, it could state that it would be willing to negotiate with either the government bloc or the opposition bloc (but ideally not both at the same time).

As a quick aside, any movement that is not at least willing to engage in three corner fights in the seats they intend to contest should probably just forget about contesting at all.

This isn’t to say that they must three corner every seat, only to say that without that willingness to go it alone if push comes to shove will merely guarantee that you will be shoved around.

Thirdly, a movement needs to be self aware enough to know their target audience, and to be honest with themselves about who they do and do not represent, and who they do and do not appeal to.

The old Alliance/Barisan Nasional formula to tackling elections in Peninsular Malaysia was simplicity itself. There was one party each for each major ethnic group, and that party was tasked with securing votes from that ethinc group.

I strongly believe such racial divide and rule tactics have long become irrelevant and overly divisive.

That said, Malaysian society as a whole is diverse enough – not just in terms of race, but in terms of class, ideology, and geography - such that a one size fits all type of movement is challenging to create.

There are two broad ends of the spectrum in terms of options. On one end, you can work on appealing to and serving a very particular niche, and work as part of a larger network. On the other, you can try to be as ‘big tent’ as possible.

The key thing is not to mistake one approach for the other. Hubris and ego are universal stumbling blocks, and we here are not exempt.

Messages and strategies that may appeal to social media savvy, English speaking urbanites who care about things like policy may not appeal - indeed may even alienate - sections of the population that come from very different backgrounds.

Indeed, demographic wise, the example niche above is very much the minority. An extremely vocal minority, but a minority nonetheless.

Having good representation – across ethnic groups, social classes, between West and East Malaysia – and so on, is a good first step. But cosmetic representation will not be good enough.

While still a student, I heard about this experiment which involved how two types of groups approached solving the same problem.

The first group was more homogenous, with people from similar backgrounds. The second group was much more diverse, with people from very different backgrounds.

The finding was that the first group was always fastest at coming up with solutions. The second group always took longer, and went through a more difficult, painstaking process.

The twist was: the second group also always came up with better solutions.

We can always rush to the finish line, and be first to market, by engaging mostly with people who think just like us. But the final product from such a process is significantly less likely to stand the test of time.

My final criteria would be to look very closely at the sectors a new movement wants to work in, and what their key performance indicators (KPIs) are.

If their KPI is only the number of likes, shares, views, or retweets, and/or some sort of buzz that will ultimately translate into bargaining power or future votes (especially within existing parties), be a little wary.

If their KPI is only increased fame for those involved, be a little wary.

If their KPI is actually working hard to bring Malaysians from all walks of life together to get their hands dirty and do the real work in improving lives of Malaysians on the ground, and in the process make this country all it can truly be – then maybe that’s a start.NATHANIEL TAN works with Projek Wawasan Rakyat (POWR). He can be reached at The views expressed here are his own.

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