Enough of the old politics of dominance

UMNO supreme council member Datuk Seri Johari Abdul Ghani was recently quoted in the press saying; "I am always of the opinion that the single largest party must either lead the government or the opposition. You cannot be somewhere in between. When you are somewhere in between, it will create lots of political instability."

This comes amidst reports that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has issued an ultimatum to Umno (https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/columnists/analysis/2021/02/22/muhyiddin-throws-ultimatum-at-umno) regarding whose side it will be on in the next elections.

Johari is clearly trying to reference what old men like him believe to be the "good old days" of Malaysian politics throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, where Umno was the titan on the scene and everyone else was practically mice.

Johari describes this era as one of "political stability".

Let’s not lose objectivity. There was no doubt some degree of "stability" throughout this time, in that there was a greater degree of predictability and clarity with regards as to who were the ones calling the shots.

This era is obviously closely related to the rule of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, whose strongman and authoritarian style set the tone for this entire stretch in Malaysian politics.

However, Johari’s nostalgia for this time may warrant some scrutiny and the posing of some key questions.

When old men tell us to go back to the good old days, one of the first obvious questions we should ask is: why did those good old days end?

Some people might say it was because none of Dr Mahathir’s successors were as good or strong a leader as he was.

History somewhat amusingly provided us with a rare opportunity to test this hypothesis when we found ourselves being led by that very same Prime Minister in 2018.

This time, however, Dr Mahathir’s government lasted only two years.

Of course, some could argue that this only proves Johari’s point, because this time, Dr Mahathir was the leader of a minority party and not a majority one.

We can look deeper into this question, however, by asking why was it that the balance of power changed so much, and what did the overconcentration of power in Umno bring about in the end?

In terms of balance of power, the 2018 elections went the way of a coalition which had an equal balance of power instead of a coalition where one race-based party was clearly dominant.

To say that a coalition with one dominant party will always prevail in elections is therefore obviously a flawed argument.

Regarding overcentralisation, the simplest and most relevant (if slightly cliched) quote is provided by John Dalberg-Acton that “power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

I return again and again to the analogy of gravity, and how more mass creates more gravity.

The more power Dr Mahathir amassed in the office of the Prime Minister, the more that power took on a life of its own, and drew ever more centralised power to it.

By the time Najib Razak became Prime Minister, it was all too easy to abuse the office for self-enrichment, because every institutional check and balance by then had become subservient to the executive.

Once we reached this low, the decadence, rot, and corruption that began to infect all the corridors of power that followed was inevitable.

I would argue that this was the natural outcome of having one political party being dominant - because dominance breeds centralisation, and centralisation is the death of checks and balances.

Without checks and balances, robbers and dictators run rampant. Stability is well and good, but it is not genuine, sustainable, or desirable when it comes at this high cost.

I would further argue that this state of affairs was exactly what caused the downfall of Barisan Nasional in 2018 - the final end of a process that began earlier in 2008.

This downfall was a direct consequence of said decadence and rot, which itself was a direct consequence of overcentralisation and dominance.

According to Google, Johari still technically counts as a boomer - albeit barely. What old men like him and Mahathir tend to forget is that strategies that may have worked in the 1980s may not work today.

Quite frankly, it is a different, new world. And using old strategies in a new world is a recipe for failure - something which Dr Mahathir’s latest tenure in power arguably proves.

This is even leaving aside the question of whether such a model can still be achieved now. If any political party in Malaysia was truly able to single handedly achieve dominance, it would have done so by now.

Unless any major political party was stupid enough to concede its seats, the likely scenario of any snap election would be the clear absence of a dominant party either going into or coming out of a general election.

Instead of the misguided nostalgia of the likes of Johari and Dr Mahathir, we should be looking long and hard at the system architecture that has brought us here.

Johari is right insofar as having a dominant political body provides the most stability within a Westminister-based political system.

While Johari dreams in vain of going backwards and flailing futilely for a return to that dominant model within a Westminster system, the rest of us should be thinking hard about moving forwards instead, and innovating political systems that are clearly no longer fit for purpose.

A pure Westminster system combined with the severe overcentralisation currently characterising Malaysia’s government will keep us trapped in a situation where politicians are continually incentivised to bicker and fight for dominance and their self-interest, plunging the whole country into the type of political chaos we have seen over the last year.

One year after the Sheraton Move, it’s obvious that no clear victor will emerge from within this system, and there is no indication of any tectonic shift that would change this scenario in the months or years ahead.

Snap elections may change this, or it may bring us right back to square one. In a Westminster system, there is neither a guarantee of breaking an impasse, nor is there any way to prevent election after election putting us right back where we started.

What we need instead is to completely rethink our approach, and see how we can replace politics as we know it with Democracy 2.0 - where the focus is not a competition between bickering politicians, but a healthy, inclusive competition between ideas led by the people.

We need to worry less about which decision makers we want to throw off the boat, and more about how we can better allow all voices onboard to be heard and to become part of the decision making process.

It is a difficult undertaking, and a big paradigm shift to try and sell to people; but the alternative is to remain trapped in this cycle, forever beholden to selfish politicians.

NATHANIEL TAN works with Projek Wawasan Rakyat (POWR). He tweets @NatAsasi, Clubhouses @Nathaniel_Tan, and can be reached at nat@engage.my.

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