Lock politicians down until they compromise and agree

MALAYSIA is going farther and farther out into unchartered waters.

Some major milestones on this journey out into the wild: our first change of government in 2018, the Sheraton Move in 2020, Covid-19, and now, the apparent decision by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to reject the advice of the Prime Minister regarding the declaration of a state of emergency.

I believe we are witnessing the final stages of breakdown in a political system that has long been sliding into dysfunction.

It is clear that unless there is some drastic change, there is no combination of the 222 Members of Parliament (MPs) that can currently result in a stable government.

If there was, we would have achieved that equilibrium by now, especially given that the country is facing one of its most severe, life-threatening national crises ever in the Covid-19 pandemic.

The typical Westminster response to the type of political crisis we are facing is the dissolution of Parliament in favour of fresh elections.

Nobody wants this.

First, because it would be a health disaster on a truly crippling scale that will literally cost Malaysia hundreds or thousands of lives.

Second, in our outdated, colonial Westminster system, fresh elections do not guarantee political stability. It allows for a Parliament post fresh elections that in theory, has up to 100% the same political composition as the Parliament pre fresh elections – putting people back in square one, in every sense of the word.

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented solutions.

As a nation, Malaysia should seize this opportunity to innovate our democracy, and not only think outside the box, but to reconsider why we needed a box or any other container in the first place – and, if we agree we still need a container, what shape should it be?

After all is said and done, the key problem is that truly at the root of all this mess is: 222 MPs cannot agree on who should lead the country.

In this regard, there are a few interesting examples from recent history that come to mind.

Germany held federal elections on Sept 24,2017. Following these elections, a government was not formed until March 14,2018 – almost half a year.

Cambodia held general elections on July 27,2003. A government was not formed until July 15,2004 – a period of one year.

Belgium held general elections on June 13,2010. A government was not formed until the Dec 6,2011 – a staggering year and a half.

Partially as an aside, another historical example worth considering is Italy in 2011. When Silvio Berlusconi resigned in shame after long bouts of political failures, the president of Italy invited Mario Monti (an academic and non-politician) to form a government with a Cabinet full of technocrats (without a single elected politician) that ran the country until Monti resigned (as promised) before the next general elections in 2013. This should be an option for Malaysia to consider as well.

In any case, the lesson of the examples above is that it is not uncommon for a country to continue running itself, while squabbling politicians sort their nonsense out.

I do not believe in cookie cutter solutions, so every country will need to find its own way to navigate this mess.

One key element that I imagine is common in these cases where it is hard to form a political government, is leadership by civil servants during the transitional period.

We are lucky in this regard that the Malaysian civil service – while perhaps not perfect – generally has a decent reputation nowadays.

So, there are a few options that come to mind – all involving suspending not Parliament but instead, suspending a political government and instituting a caretaker administration while taking the political process offline.

As a caveat, legally speaking, for the following options to work, it is likely the Prime Minister and Cabinet would need to voluntarily devolve powers to other bodies during this suspension. This is a big ask, but it may still be worth asking.

If our priority is to return to a political government as quickly as possible, perhaps all 222 MPs can almost literally be locked up in one location, and not be let out until they can agree among themselves (in a legally binding manner that cannot be changed) on the makeup and policies of a government that will last until the next general election.

In this scenario, the civil service can run the government as a caretaker administration based on standing orders until the MPs emerge from their own little lockdown.

This sounds a bit extreme, but I don’t think it is impossibly impractical, especially if you want a very quick return to a type of government that looks the most like previous governments we have seen.

Much as I dislike most politicians, I still respect their position as elected representatives who are given a mandate. I do believe, however, that current incentive structures allow them to bicker endlessly.

We should change the incentive structure by disallowing them from returning to power until they can agree to some form of government, in a manner that is legally binding until a set date for the next general election, in order to guarantee stability.

If we do not want to lock down our MPs, and do not see returning to the type of governments we have had as an urgent priority, then there is another option.

In this second option, we can give MPs essentially all the time and “comfort” they want to sort their differences out, with no time limit.

In this scenario, governance completely by civil service alone may be less tenable, given the length of time potentially involved. There would need to be a body that is more representative of society involved at the highest level of decision making to afford a little more accountability in the governance process.

This of course is the role that is originally filled by elected politicians and the Cabinet. Given their abject failure to fulfil this role however, perhaps it is time we added more seats at this table.

These seats should be filled – at least temporarily in the short term – by leaders from civil society that legitimately represent various segments of Malaysia.

They can come from the civil service, civil society organisations or NGOs, professional organisations, religious organisations, and various types of other associations and communities of intent.

Political parties and politicians need not necessarily be 100% excluded from this process, as they can be given seats at the table too. The only difference is that they should no longer be the ones dominating the decision making process – at least, until they can sort their own problems out.

This coalition of representatives can be the primary policy makers for the nation on a caretaker basis, until such a time the elected politicians are able to sort out their differences, or until a time when a general election can be held safely again.

This body can also serve as a check and balance on civil servants who will be doing the primary day-to-day running of the government.

This would not be the first time Malaysia has gone down such a road in a time of national crisis.

In the aftermath of the 1969 race riots that followed the general election that year, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein convened the National Consultative Council (NCC), made out of representatives just like the ones proposed above.

Some argue that the NCC was largely responsible for guiding Malaysia out of one its darkest moments in history, by taking divisive politicking offline, and gathering a diverse group of Malaysians who represented wide swathes of society, in order to find positive steps forward for the nation as a whole.

Perhaps history can offer us valuable lessons here.

What we can say for sure is that the old systems and old political culture are leading Malaysia farther and farther down the road to dysfunctional chaos – right at a time when we need strong, principled leadership the most.

If we want to turn things around before we pass the point of no return, we will need bold steps towards innovative solutions. If we fail to do so urgently and soon, there will be nothing but shambles left to our children.

NATHANIEL TAN works with Projek Wawasan Rakyat (POWR). He can be reached at nat@engage.my.

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