Monday, August 10, 2009

Ku Li on the race equation in Malaysia

The power-sharing model that we started life with is an elite style of government justified by the virtue and competence of natural leaders of their communities. It needs special conditions. It does not work when political parties are led by the ignorant and the corrupt who have no standing in the communities they claim to represent.

It needs genuine agreement and cooperation between leaders who command support in their own communities and are universally respected. It will not work if the power-sharing coalition is overly dominated by one person and the others are there as token representatives. Our founding fathers negotiated, cooperated and shared responsibility as equals and as friends within a power-sharing framework. The communal interests they represented were articulated within the overarching vision of a united Malaysia. In the intervening years, as power came to be concentrated in the Executive, we preserved only the outward appearance of power-sharing. In reality we have had top-down rule and power has become increasingly unaccountable. Each of our political parties has also become more top-down, ruled by eternal incumbents who protect their position with elaborate restrictions on contests. Umno itself has become beholden to the Executive.

Our decades under highly-centralised government undermined our power-sharing formula, just as it undermined key institutions such as the judiciary, the police and the rule of law. Our major institutions have survived in appearance while their substance has eroded. Seen in this light, the election results of March 8, which saw the Barisan Nasional handed its worst defeat since 1969, was just the beginning of the collapse of a structure which has long been hollowed out.

The end of the old, but not quite the new

The racial power-sharing model now practiced by Barisan is broken. It takes more honesty than we are used to in public life to observe that this is not a temporary but a terminal crisis. An old order is ending. Our problem is that while this past winds down, smoothly or otherwise, the future is not yet here. We are caught in between. Despite our having become a more economically advanced society, with many opportunities for our citizens to express richly plural identities, our races have become increasingly polarised. Large numbers of our electorate still vote along ethnic and religious lines. Much of our political ground is still racially demarcated. Although we have made some progress towards truly multiracial politics, both the Government and the Opposition are largely mobilised along racial lines. It is not yet time to herald a new dawn. Instead, we are in a transition full of perils and possibilities.

The foregoing is an extract from Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah's speech in a function organised by the UMNO Club in Melbourne over the weekend.

The central thrust of the speech was on race relations in Malaysia.

The phrase that stood out to me, for some reason, was the reference to "special conditions" for the elite style of government during the first two Merdeka decades.

It hearkens to an era where there were fewer leaders who shared similar ideals and matters were sorted out in a civilised manner between friends.

This degree of personal rapport had pretty much disappeared by the 1980s. The Cabinet of friends was replaced with a less personal and more corporatised method of Cabinet meetings. There is ample anecdotal evidence to suggest that the degree of socialising between Cabinet colleagues outside of perfunctory party functions had reduced to the point of non-existence.

Thus, friendship was supplanted by a business-like relationship of convenience.

How has this subtle but significant change in relationship and personality of Barisan Nasional leaders affected the communal bargain that the Alliance Party that preceded it was so renown for?

How has this phenomenon affected the previous position where numerous checks and balances, numerous institutional audits were so obvious to all?

The disappearance of personal friendships in an enlarged Cabinet governing a nation that is constantly growing in population numbers, demographics and economic complexity, is not unexpected.

But, it does point to the pertinence and relevance of Tengku Razaleigh's thesis, that the model of elite bargaining and mediation that was so well-nuanced between friends in the Alliance Party and the first years of the Barisan Nasional no longer exists.

If, what is left is the corporate model of Cabinet governance, then, a serious and sincere review needs to be made within each of the Barisan Nasional component parties, within the greater Barisan Nasional coalition itself and, within the broader Malaysian community.

As the Tengku is constantly and consistently reminding us, this issue is no longer a matter of the political strategy of survival of UMNO, or that of component parties within Barisan Nasional, or that of Barisan Nasional itself.

Rather, this is an issue that affects the entire fabric of the Malaysian community.

As if to underline this, we are witnessing today the descent of the Malaysian socio-political dialogue from the level of inter-ethnic civility last seen during the era of Tun Abdul Razak to the present cacophonous polemicising and racial cat-calling and epithets.

This has to stop. Malaysia needs genuine leaders of integrity that commands the trust of all Malaysians. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

In a setting where personal friendships between elites is absent at the Cabinet level, there is an urgent need for every constitutional institution to be strengthened.

The Judiciary remains emasculated. Any recent reforms are mere facades. The quality of jurisprudence remains elusive at all levels of the Judiciary save for some judges of integrity that can be counted with only the fingers on one hand.

As for the Legislature, it has never truly found its footing even from Merdeka day in 1957. This emasculated character of Parliament may have been tolerable in a era where the Cabinet colleagues were tempered by friendship and shared ideals. In the present day, the Parliament has to rise to the occasion to take its place as the key auditor in the separation of powers between the Executive, Judiciary and Legislature.

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