We must make reform popular — Wan Saiful Wan Jan

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Source: The Star Online

BY WAN SAIFUL WAN JAN

It’s all about changing the climate of opinion to fit your vision because politicians and political parties win or lose based on how popular their ideas are.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan - The Star Online file pic

Wan Saiful Wan Jan – The Star Online file pic

JOSEPH Schumpeter, in his book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, defines democracy as “that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote”.

This definition implies that in a democracy there must be competition for votes. This says a lot about the nature of democracy. To win, you must make what you are selling popular. Not necessarily right. But popular.

To see the story of democracy in our country, we need to look back. Since before independence, our society has been divided along communal lines. This was reflected when our political parties were formed. Almost all were communal.

The first president of Umno, Datuk Onn Jaafar, tried to change this. He wanted Umno to open its membership to non-Malays. He embodied the spirit of 1Malaysia before the term was coined.

But he failed and he eventually left Umno. He formed the Independence of Malaya Party and later Parti Negara to pursue his vision for inclusive politics. But, again, he failed.

Onn’s vision was ahead of its time. The public wanted something else, not the good vision that he offered. That is the reality of demo­cracy. Good visions can and do lose the democratic battle if you are un­­able to change the climate of opi­nion to support your vision.

When Tunku Abdul Rahman took over from Onn, he tried to address the communalism by creating the Alliance which eventually became the Barisan Nasional coalition that we have today. Together, they are inclusive but most of the members are still individually communal.

Here we see the Tunku as a sharp politician. He knew that in order to win the democratic contest he must offer voters what they want. They wanted to protect and sustain their ethnic identities through ethnic-based political parties. That was what he gave them.

In this context I would not blame anyone for suggesting that even the Tunku was unable to shift public opinion towards one that upholds equality and one that moves away from narrow ethnic-based communalism. Communal parties continue to grow in our society. Voters seem to want it, and continuously voted for it.

Some parties did try to change the situation. Gerakan and DAP did not set up their parties to be communal.

Nevertheless, when deciding electoral strategies, they too have to think along communal lines. They cannot ignore ethnic distributions when deciding whom to field where.

Let me come back to the Tunku. He was rather too liberal in the eyes of his party members. And his liberal attitude was opposed by another group within Umno who disliked his embrace of individual liberty.

In a speech delivered at Ideas Annual Dinner on Feb 20 this year, Tun Musa Hitam said, “In those early days of our history, politics was more ideological than material.

There were two camps in Umno: the Tunku camp and the Razak camp. The Tunku camp was clearly and unapologetically right wing, pro-west and pro-business. The Razak camp was allegedly socialist-communist inclined”.

This was a telling statement by a self-proclaimed Razak boy. Musa suggested that the liberal administration of the Tunku was eventually replaced by a socialist-communist inclined administration of Tun Razak Hussein. Indeed, Razak did start our relationship with communist China, introduced huge government grip into Malaysia’s socioeconomic system when he introduced the New Economic Policy, and made the Government much bigger than before.

Musa did not mean to denigrate Razak by using the term socialist-communist.

This is just to signify that Razak introduced Big Government to our country, and the philosophy of Big Government is usually called socialist or communist in the field of political philosophy.

The legacy of the Razak administration is Big Government. This was continued by Tun Hussein Onn, strengthened with a vengeance by Tun Mahathir Mohamad, and built upon by Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

The slight anomaly is perhaps Tun Abdullah Badawi. He did well to reduce the Government’s grip and opened the democratic spaces.

But by strengthening the civic space, he weakened his own position and he lost the democratic contest within his own party because that was not the popular thing to do.

With that background, my analysis of the evolution of democracy in Malaysia is this.

Our democracy, similar to many other countries, is not necessarily about what is good. It is simply about what is popular. Politicians and political parties win or lose based on how popular their ideas are, not how good their ideas are.

This is the irony of democracy. It can give you a good government. And it can also give you a government that takes the country in the wrong direction. It depends on what has been made popular in the eyes of society.

Thus if we want to take the country towards a particular direction, we need to make those ideas popular in the eyes of the voters.

It is not enough to just focus on the politicians. Malaysia being a democracy, voters’ judgement on what is popular matters.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my).