Getting to the ‘what’ of our parties

Hee Yit Foong, courtesy of The Malaysian Insider
Hee Yit Foong, courtesy of The Malaysian Insider

This was first seen at The Malaysian Insider, June 25 2009. I’m putting up my old copies up. Some of the information, ideas and thoughts may be dated in retrospect.

JUNE 25 — There is a growing frustration among Malaysians. And in economically difficult times, political shenanigans grate people a little deeper, because they compound the growing uncertainty over their proverbial rice bowls.

They become edgy about all political parties, and this makes the present vote more knee-jerk and less habitual. In the long run, however, the Malaysian vote will be decided by what political parties — and by extension what their leaders — stand for.

So what do the parties in Malaysia stand for now?

Take the controversies and scandals away for a moment — they matter, of course, but our common opposition would render them less relevant to the long-term progress of the country, in time they will be opposed by all parties.

Barisan Nasional may lose the mandate to govern in three years’ time — or maybe it won’t — in the already vaunted and speculated GE 13.

However, the process of cleansing, renewing and rebranding of politicians and parties in the lead-up to this next general election, juxtaposed against the massive international and local media scrutiny, will result in all players becoming disinclined to brazen acts of financial improprieties — in plainer terms, putting their hands in the kitty less and less because the chances of being caught are increasing exponentially day by day.

So by the side of the Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ), Pempena, Maika and a whole list of allegations, damning findings and hearsay stand that separate but more basic question, what do these parties stand for?

Their ideology, their raison d’être still remain largely uninspected, more importantly by themselves.

Are they for fiscal discipline, the downsizing of government? Are they interested in a bigger state, and the reliance on the state to provide more public good?

Those are the generic extremities of the right-left divide, with parties positioning themselves along the lengthy spectrum and seeking a mandate from voters for their ideas.

In micro-terms since political entities are unable to form personal relations with the electorate, they hope to be identified by the electorate through their ideology.

Voters can then demand principles or consistency of politicians — even if they don’t vote for them.

It ties politicians to principles which they cannot abandon for expediency, and forces them to explain their decisions in lieu of their party’s stand.

A whole lot was made of assemblyman Hee Yit Fong’s rejection of DAP and therefore Pakatan Rakyat’s government of Perak, resulting in her being called names you don’t use in polite company.

The point of review — with my personal distaste for the state of affairs in the silver state noted — is what enamoured Hee to DAP in the first place?

I spend time with DAP guys in my work, and there are a number of them with great ability, drive and personality, but I don’t know what connects them. How do they walk about and say these are the things that make them hold the same line of reasoning for most things?

Therefore when we return to the case of Hee, what ideological belief had she let go to become an estranged member of the Perak Legislative Assembly supporting the BN?

In the past when politicians cross ideological divides — like Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell in the US (Democrat to Republican in 1995) or the long-standing segregationist Strom Thurmond who went the same way of Campbell because his party became too egalitarian — they did so because their party ceased to represent their values and their politics.

Can we say the same of Hee? Historically all the DAP politicians who have abandoned the party usually head for MCA like Datuk Yap Pian Hon. He said that they did so because “MCA represented Chinese interest better.”

Is DAP’s main goal the highlighting of the interest of one ethnicity or it is for social democracy as espoused in its website?

It is not important what key leaders of the party say, because the true reflection of the ideological spine of a party lies with the political beliefs of its branch-level leaders.

I’ll quickly pass the same verdict for PKR, PAS and Umno, and I won’t even go through the rest of the cast that make up Malaysian politics — save probably Parti Sosialis Malaysia.

You may like, dislike or even strongly dislike the party with one MP and one assemblyman for still wanting traditional socialism, but at least they don’t change their story with every news cycle.

For the rest of the parties? Their average member would struggle to really express the holding principles of the party. Ten years ago the cynic would have referred to PKR as a single-issue party — to free Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim from jail. Today its senior leaders will be more collected in responding to what the party defends and promotes, but can the branch leaders?

Even now you have labour activists like Tian Chua, environmentalist Eli Wong, sitting in with industrialist Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim and former true-blue Umno man Azmin Ali — on the face of it, strange bedfellows. That is changing.

There has been effort to reconcile this void as seen by the party’s special congress a fortnight ago, and the party is working on an identity built on principles. As they become more defined, they will lose members, as will they gain members. But at least those who stay then will stay for reasons of their own.

Umno, however, is a party bent on not examining its core ideology, other than stating that it is centrist. It co-opts all ideas, concepts and beliefs if it does not hurt its basic right-wing orientations.

This explains too why Umno-PAS tie-ups will continuously be intimated.

Umno had seen at points in its history a need to build a Malay block to stay in power, which is when they look for PAS.

They successfully tempted PAS into the Barisan Nasional in 1972 because the in-roads made by the largely non-Malay populated left-sided parties in 1969 were enough reason for the pro-Malay leadership of PAS then.

When the ulamaks slowly gained the ascendancy after the break from BN just before the 1978 election, PAS kept moving the goal posts as both a party seeking the egalitarianism of an Islamic state and sustaining Malay unity above all, without considering the conflict in that position.

Now, there is a spirit of rejecting all things Umno in Malaysia which may drop in intensity as time passes. Or perhaps not. That, as stated earlier, is the short-term game.

The main contention in the long run, on which party will build a period of power in Malaysia, will be determined by whether the party spends the next 10 years building an ideological spine for itself.

The country will quite naturally in the future then, when the population index shows higher levels of education, commerce and individuality, demand consistency from political parties in exchange for votes. Only parties driven by ideology rather than personality will triumph then.

Even the most charismatic or flamboyant leader would require a party with clear principles as a launching pad in a modern democracy, and that is what Malaysia will be, even if it has to drag many present leaders shouting and screaming from their position… looking through their myopic glass wall.

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