Of 'frogs', Sabah and changing Malaysian politics

Silver lining?: A fractured parliament could be just what we need.

THE ink was not even dry from my last column when our politicians again proved me right. There seems to be no honour among politicians. Sabah sure proves that in spades.

Today I am going to delve not into any partisan political commentary but observations of the events that have unfolded in Sabah, the character of this political development and how that seamlessly works into my proposition that we need to start a culture of electing upright persons instead of electing political party representatives.

Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal founded Parti Warisan Sabah (Warisan) as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious party when, as an ex-Umno vice president and an ex-minister from that party, the easy route for him was to join PPBM, another Malay nationalist party.

This by itself is remarkable for a Malaysian leader. To eschew the “safe” way and chart a new path for your state, if not the country – by unilaterally abandoning the age-old, time-tested, race-and-religion champion and divide- and-rule strategy – is leadership.

One thing I’ve noticed about the use of political power in Malaysia in the last few decades is that if you fall out with the leadership and is seen as a threat, the first action they seem to take against you is to scandalise you with either a sex tape or an MACC investigation. Shafie never wavered even then, after such persecution when he left Umno.

So here we are today. In the fourth month after the start of the political quagmire we are in, out of the blue, “frogs” came jumping onto the lap of former Chief Minister Tan Sri Musa Aman to take-over the reins of the Sabah Government. How convenient.

That is the choice facing Sabah voters, between the representatives who support a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, progressive Sabah-character of politics and those who jumped to support a Malay-first, Peninsula-imported character of politics. I hope a progressive Sabah will prevail and I hope Sabahans will pave the way for a new Malaysia by a landslide.

In fact, would it not be wonderful if Sabahans punish these “frogs” with a decisive victory against the import of Malay nationalist politics of Umno into their state and send the supporters of such politics scurrying back to where they came from.

I am no admirer of politicians per se but I have to salute Shafie for his decisive leadership in returning the mandate to the people of Sabah. Let us hope the election goes as it is supposed to and the people will decide.

I have refrained from commenting on state politics or representations in my previous column precisely because I believed the hegemony of selfish party politics could and would be broken first in Parliament. And the Parliament is where national policies and legislation are made. It was also where the Federal Government, which directly impacts most of our lives, was formed. This should be our focus first. So the above is the extent of my comment with respect to the situation in Sabah for the time being.

The state of Malaysian Parliament

What then is the state of our Malaysian Parliament? Fractured would be an understatement but I see good in this. For three reasons:

1. No single party or even combination of parties currently holds a majority to form a strong Government. It will require compromise. Compromises, however, can be a double-edged sword. One can compromise towards a terrible outcome to gain or remain in power, or one can compromise towards a positive and progressive outcome for the same and further sustain one’s position moving forward. I am hopeful for the latter because of the next point.

2. A fractured Parliament allows a bloc of right-thinking independent Parliamentarians to emerge as both swing-votes for progressive policies and legislation, and kingmakers to ensure the right kind of Government comes to formation. We do not need many as a start. Think about it, the majority held between the Perikatan Nasional and Pakatan Harapan blocs today (assuming Barisan Nasional and PAS still vote with the others in Perikatan) is only two or three seats. Imagine 10 to 15 Independent MPs making up a non-partisan bloc that only cares for what is right. A compromise towards what is good for the nation is inevitable.

3. Therefore, in the second instance, it will show to the electorate, just like the change of government in GE14 did, that an Independent candidacy and representation can work, like it already has in Europe. It’s time we join the ranks of developed parliamentary democracies. With that, such independent candidatures will grow and become a real force in our electoral system.

We can make this a reality.

Yes, the political parties will hate this simply because they will be a bloc of MPs that is going to be a bulwark against party hegemony in Parliament.

Worse for the political parties is that now none of them will be able to tell Malaysian electorates that we need them to make our aspirations work. Now the political party leaders will lose influence and power over the electorates. They will be just be like any other MPs – you either work for the people and not your party, or we will throw you out as well come the next round, and the next round, and so forth.

We have been doing the same thing for over 60 years – electing MPs based on political parties – and all we have gotten from them is the same thing. More divide and rule along racial and religious fault-lines instead of a uniting message. More cronyism, nepotism and corruption to the point we are today the most famous kleptocratic nation on earth.

The cliché of the quote that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” cannot be less apt when it comes to Malaysia.

I say we change it. Have the courage to see it through. Let us find a way to do this.

I am proposing that we create a delivery system that will allow candidates – private candidates – be vetted by the public for their character and capability.

Candidates with the capability and values that will be essential for him or her to perform their duties as Members of Parliament.

Frankly, we all know the criteria we need for candidates that will make them effective public servants for all Malaysians when they get to Parliament. It is not rocket science. And it does not even need to be long:

1. They have a track record of integrity and honesty both in speech and in action. Values are important – we need people known for their track-record of trustworthiness and has principles that will fight and uphold civil liberties, universal human rights and the rule of law.
2. We do not want people whose first allegiance is to their race or religion, as if their race is special on this earth or that they have the definitive proof that their religion is the only one everyone must follow. We need Members of Parliament who has the humility to keep their religion at home and conduct themselves with universal decency, and who will respect and accept all Malaysians as equal human beings and Malaysians first.

3. They have long enough real work and life experiences as what we would demand of any hard-working and capable Malaysian citizens that will provide them not just with empathy for us but also the critical thinking required to carry out the duties needed of a legislator in Parliament.

Just the above, will ensure that they don’t talk nonsense or propose idiotic policies like many of those that we have today. People may ask, what will stop them from being party-hoppers or tempted to jump around at the behest of the highest bidder?

Well, considering that Freedom of Association is enshrined in our Constitution and that at present there is no anti-hopping laws, we have no guarantees. As it is, there is no guarantee too with MPs from political parties. But by electing MPs based on an independent criteria as above, we the rakyat can maximise the probability of electing MPs who are principled rather than those who obtain their nomination by being loyal party apparatchiks to their warlords. It is a no-brainer of a comparison.

Here is another favourite question I have been asked with respect to electing Independent MPs: "How can we expect Independent MPs to work together to effect change as a bloc?"

Let me put it this way. You know the old adage, birds of a feather flock together? It is true for ages for a reason. It is how human beings behave.

These individuals of the same values and of worthy capability will find each other and will find a way to work together to achieve their goals and aspirations in the service of the public. We have not tried it here, that's all. But it has been tried and proven, especially in Europe where democratic traditions have been the longest and gone through many experiments.

Imagine further if such candidates came together even before the elections and say let's do this Independent candidature and bypass the political party systems and find a way direct to the voting public. By God, the seismic change that will take place is unimaginable.

With the dysfunctional and fractured political party environment we have today – primarily because of their own greed for position, power and money – a bloc of capable and principled independent MPs will be the difference.

The political parties who have more sense will have no choice but to work with them and deliver goals for them to remain relevant in Parliament.

I would end by repeating what a friend and I would agree as our aspirations, as a start, that I want to see delivered by such a Parliament:

1. Restoration of civil liberties to the rakyat as guaranteed by our original Constitution. Repeal OSA, SOSMA, the Sedition Act and others of this nature.

2. Restoration of fundamental democratic institutional check-and-balance back to the rakyat by having appointments and reporting of the institutions of the Judiciary, Election Commission, Attorney General, the long-awaited IPCMC (Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission) to Parliament instead of the Executive.

3. Honour the agreement made between the Federation of Malaya and Sabah and Sarawak in 1963 for the formation of Malaysia.

4. Stop the intrusion of religion in public life and education system. Have religion be a choice that parents make for their children's education outside of the formal school system.

5. A ban on MPs holding any other public or private positions either in statutory bodies or government-link-companies (GLCs). They have no business other than being legislators in Parliament.

If we can start with just the above in the first term after GE15, we would be making great strides as a nation for all Malaysians. We need the first catalyst for real change to manifest in this country. We need a GERAK for Independents.

Activist lawyer Siti Kasim is the founder of the Malaysian Action for Justice and Unity Foundation (Maju). The views expressed here are solely her own.

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Siti Kasim


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