Tuesday, March 25, 2008

3Cs of New Politics: Competition, Co-operation & Convergence

I spoke at the 3rd instalment of The Star post-elections forum with the key theme being what Malaysians can expect in the light of the political tsunami that swept across Peninsula Malaysia in the recently concluded General Elections.

I must say, political analysts all over the world who are interested in Malaysia, have never had it so good, so much to discuss and debate about over the overhaul of politics in Malaysia.

The Star gave the forum extended coverage here (on what the panelist discussed) and here (on the sensitivity of amending the constitution). And credit where its due, the coverage was certainly fair. Only little quip was the fact that I reportedly quoted the example of BN amending the constitution to protect the rights of the Sultan here, which I didn't.
He pointed out that the Barisan Nasional Government had amended the Federal Constitution many times over the last 50 years but the changes were to protect the rights of the Sultan, uphold Islam and interests of the ruling coalition to consolidate its position.
Other than that (which I'm not fussed about), the overall paragraph reflected what I said in response to the former Health Minister, Datuk Chua Soi Lek's caution that amending the constitution "is a very sensitive question. Please don’t treat changing the constitution like a joke."

My very short 15 minutes "thesis" during the forum was what I termed the 3Cs of New Politics in Malaysia - Competition, Co-operation and Convergence. And to me, the most mentally intriguing and exciting aspects of the 3Cs is the multi-faceted and multi-layered levels in which the 3Cs apply.

You can also view the video of my take, courtesy of The Star here.

Without attempting to write a 5 page essay, I'll try to summarize what I said here.

Competition

You'll get two levels of competition. One between the loose coalition of PKR, DAP and PAS (which I'll term "Barisan Rakyat (BR)" although it's not a formal coalition for convenience) versus the BN government. You'll get an element of competition in the Dewan Rakyat where the opposition members forms more than a third of the parliament. But more importantly, there's a competition of governance between states run by BR versus the federal government by BN.

If DAP succeeds in making Penang a model state for governance and economy, then it'll certainly add pressure to the BN government to do the same at the federal level or they may just lose more seats in the next elections.

On the other hand, there'll also be healthy competition between the BR parties for they each have states in which the respective party leaders get to set the agenda - Penang (DAP), Selangor (PKR) and Kelantan/Kedah (PAS). Each will try to prove to the rakyat that they are competent in governing the states and will not want to lose out to the other in terms of promoting policies which will ultimately benefit the rakyat.

The clear winners of this competition will be the rakyat, for competition will shift from ADUNs from BN parties competing to outperform each other in terms of how much wealth they can accumulate whilst in power, to actually focusing on the interest of the people, as they now realise (some belatedly) that they can be unseated.

Co-operation

Questions will definitely be raised on how the newly formed BR coalition will co-operate with one another, particularly given some of their conflicting ideologies. Will we be able to focus strictly on common grounds such as justice and good governance and not get distracted by other issues? Even from an economic policy stand point, there are differences between DAP and PKR such as on the treatment of subsidies.

But more interestingly, is the question of co-operation between the BN federal governments and the BR controlled state governments. While in the past, BN could afford to marginalise the states of Kelantan and Terengganu (when it was in PAS hands) as they were contributing little to the overall Malaysian economy, BN doesn't have such options when dealing with the economically powerful states of Penang, Perak and Selangor. Attempting to "kill" these states, will just be acts of chopping off one's nose to spite one's face (i.e., self-defeating).

Instead, I see an era of forced co-operation, to ensure that both the states and the overall Malaysian economy continues to move forward. The strategy then for BN and BR is the "spin" to convince voters that the "growth" in the coming 4 to 5 years are attributed to their policies and not the opponents.

Convergence

It is widely acknowledged that the mainstream media (MSM) were overwhelming pro-establishment while the online and other alternative media tends to be anti-establishment. Some MSMs went clearly to the extent of painting surreal pictures of the state of the government and Malaysia, but at the same time, certain (not all) online sites also propagated information which were clearly misleading.

This elections has proven the influence of the Internet, not only directly on voters who have access to Internet in the urban centres, but also the fact that information on the Internet can be channelled even to the pakciks and makciks in the kampungs via secondary points of information e.g., children studying in cities or persons of influence in villages who'll pass on information at coffee shops.

As a result, we're likely to see not only competition (between print and online media), co-operation (e.g., Star setting up online news portal) but also convergence. Credibility becomes critical. As the print media (some anyway) realise that their papers are no longer in sync with the pulse of the nation, they will have little choice but to realign their editorial slant to be much more balanced between alternative views. Similarly, should some of current portals which enjoy a huge readership not strengthen their journalistic integrity, then it may just suffer the same fate as the print media today, in the next general elections.

And finally, there's the question of convergence in terms of recognition by the various ethnic groups in Malaysia as Malaysians, as opposed to the racially divisive politics of the past, as epitomised by race-based parties in BN. At the surface level, there appears to be a breakthrough when Malays began voting for DAP while Chinese voted for PAS. However, I would certainly put in a word of caution as voters in Malaysia appeared to be voting more against BN, then for BR parties. With a little permitted exaggeration, for some seats previously held by BN, even if you had placed a cow as a opposition candidate, the cow would still have won!

Hence it may be too early to conclude on racial convergence in the current elections. What is more, the winning parties in certain states are restricted via "royal advice" against appointing non-Muslim deputy menteri besars, with some even asked to form the state executive committees (excos) based on specific racial make-ups.

While setbacks are only to be expected, I certainly hope that over the next 4-5 years before the next general elections, the BR parties will play their part to ensure that racially divisive politics can be further reduced, and the rakyat will be asked to vote for a candidate based on merit, i.e., his or her ability to serve all Malaysians regardless of race and religion.
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