MAY 9 — Two years ago to this date, 12,299,514 Malaysians had braved the humid climate,extended waiting times, and weekday voting to perform their democratic civic duty in Malaysia 14th General Elections (GE14).
Consisting of a historic 82.32 per cent of all eligible voters, this had set in motion events that are now all too familiar — culminating at the break of dawn of 10 May with the Election Commission confirming that Pakatan Harapan (PH) had achieved a simple majority in the Dewan Rakyat.
Since then, the events that had ultimately led to the collapse of the PH administration, and the subsequent appointment of YAB Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin as the country’s 8th Prime Minister on 29 February has, is, and will continue to be fiercely debated.
With supporters of PH bemoaning that the coalition’s mandate has been “stolen”, and Perikatan Nasional’s (PN) supporters rejoicing in their newfound position – it seems clear that most ordinary Malaysians are increasingly disenfranchised by incessant politicking.
That said, it would be remiss if the seeds of a more mature democracy planted two years ago does not continue to be nourished, regardless of partisanship. This article elaborates some ideas on what is needed for these seeds to flourish and blossom in ‘Malaysia Terbaru’.
First, it is hoped that the two changes in government in the equal span of years has firmly embedded into the nation’s psyche that a change in government is part and parcel of a working democracy.
This would, hopefully, exorcise, untangle and ultimately heal the collective trauma of the 13 May racial riots that was largely resulting from the 1969 General Elections. Perhaps today, the threat of violence from upsetting the nation’s delicate political balance would only find a diminished audience in the farthest fringes of society.
Second, and taking together the Covid-19-related events of the past months, the need to put a stop to and move past incessant politicking is necessary. In its place, one could hope for a healthier frame of politics to be introduced.
As eloquently put forward by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their book titled How Democracies Die (2018), this must include the political norms of mutual toleration of political opponents and institutional forbearance.
The former relates to how those at the opposite end of the political aisle ought not to be viewed as enemies, but rather as partisan rivals. Failing to respect the political legitimacy of the rival risks feeding into the narrative of the “enemy”, should they win, would result in an existential threat to the nation.
This is unhealthy as it deepens partisanship, and raises the stakes of politics to untenably high levels. A loss in elections then would not just result in shed tears, but also a catastrophe.
This is made all the more concerning when considering the nature of Malaysian politics. Owing to the fact that political lines are often drawn along racial and religious divides, what is essentially political can quickly spiral out of hand — leaving a fractured society in its wake.
The latter, institutional forbearance, refers to refraining from actions that — while technically could be aligned with the letter of the law — would alter its spirit in such a way that the political playing field becomes unequal.
In practice, this would mean any government having to exercise restraint in its actions that could privilege one group at the expense of another. Without institutional forbearance –and to an extension the rule of law, of which the norm is founded upon– the rules of democracy can be rigged and the process hijacked.
Importantly, the authors impress how these two political norms are mutually reinforcing, with one being hard to sustain without the presence of the other.
Third, the political norms elaborated above must be complemented with other measures such as free media. As the Fourth Estate in a democracy, the media are oftentimes the most vocal on alleged misdoings of the government, with its independence crucial in keeping the powers that be accountable, and in the process ensuring an informed electorate which gives further quality to the vote.
Political developments in Malaysia since GE14 contained more plot twists than what one would reasonably expect. That being the case, what is evident is that the mandate for an “experiment” with a new administration had been shorter lived than anticipated.
Having said that, and regardless of how one might feel about the current administration and how it got into power, the current situation presents an opportunity to upgrade the level of political maturity in Malaysia to ensure that hard gained progress is improved upon and does not backslide.
This article was first appeared on the Malay Mail on 9 May 2020