Seeing into 2023

The political climate will not improve. In fact, it might get worse with coups and the toppling of incumbent federal and state governments actually happening. Already, there is talk that Perikatan Nasional (PN) has initiated a London move to topple the Agong-formed Pakatan Harapan (PH)-led unity government and that, in Sabah, a change of government is impending.

While these nascent efforts are yet to materialize, they indicate political instability that will cast a long pall of gloom over development policies, the economy and governance.

The government will continue to put out fires but long-term macro policies to address structural and underlying problems like climate change, deforestation, water cuts, flood management, economic revival, political stability, corruption and abuse of power will remain wanting. Incumbent MPs will be engrossed with staying in power while the opposition coalitions and parties will be scheming to overthrow them.

Both sides will resort to means that may not be constitutional but politically expedient. So, PH will continue to strengthen its ties with the court-cluster-led Umno. How that would affect the corruption cases in the courts is yet to be seen.

The unity government will also welcome associations with the Agong and Sultans to bolster their standing in government. Whether that would extend the influence of royals to the government will depend on how the prime minister stands up to them according to the tenets of parliamentary democracy.

As a rule, prime ministers and MPs should not be seen hobnobbing with royalty unless in their clearly-defined official capacities. Outside of these official duties, the two should not be seen together as it implies the possibility of influence-peddling at the expense of the people. Royals are above politics and should not be making suggestions and advising leaders on how to run the government. In fact, they should be taking suggestions on the advice of the prime minister.

Since we follow the Westminister model of parliamentary democracy, it is good to see how the UK MPs conduct themselves. Are they given “an audience” by the king or sultan? Do the latter endorse political candidates, coalitions and parties?

Such undemocratic indiscretions as described above will continue.

Placing unelected officials as ministers and an unelected former MP as the Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat is another undemocratic practice that has taken place and such appointments may continue. No doubt previous Speakers were not MPs. PH’s first Speaker, Muhamad Ariff Yusof, performed well but he wasn’t a parliamentarian and in the crisis that followed the Sheraton moves was unable to recognize the powers he could wield under the constitution to diffuse the situation by agreeing to a confidence vote.

Non-parliamentarian Speakers will not have the perspective of a parliamentarian to grasp the powers he/she wields to provide the final check and balance to ensure the legitimacy of a government and the independence of the Dewan Rakyat. The previous Speaker, Azhar Harun, who wasn’t an MP, was proof of decisions that favoured the government rather than the House.

The current Speaker, former MP Johari Abdul, was not elected to the 15th Parliament but was elected to the post. Not an MP, he will have excess powers because he has no constituents to provide the check and balances if he acted in any way that displeased his voters. As a rule, no unelected official should become a Speaker or a cabinet minister.

Such democratic conventions are not practised by Malaysian politicians and until they do, lapses in good government can be expected.

Opposition coalitions and parties too are no better at playing politics according to the rules and conventions. Afterall, PN parties were the first coup plotters who became the government and who are now the opposition in the Dewan Rakyat. They will continue to justify their behind-the-scenes games to topple sitting governments in the name of political expediency on the basis that they won the majority of the Malay seats.

Any democratic government would understand that without a comfortable majority, the people have the right to change their government mid-term. It’s that threat that keeps governments on their toes. The opposition will use this to justify backroom deals to destabilize the government.

Governments, however, can not fall when a coalition/party publicly announces a withdrawal of support for it. An announcement can be made but it must be proven through a no-confidence vote in the Dewan Rakyat or state assembly.

If the laws make no reference to a no-confidence or confidence vote, the Speaker and MPs must make some allowance to call for one until laws and provisions are made to make a no-confidence or confidence vote compulsory to prove the majority of the government and/or the claims of its challengers.

A memorandum of understanding (MoU) should not substitute for a no-confidence or confidence vote. The MoU signed by the partners in the unity government to support Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim will be ineffective if party members choose to go against the MoU. The worst that would happen to them under the Anti-hopping Bill is that their parties will expel them, in which case they may join another party. There are many parties to choose from now!

As a result, Parliament will become a shadow of its former self. There will not be much meaningful debate because both sides have and will do the same things that have been done and debates will end up with the pot calling the kettle black!

However, the political climate will change if two new developments emerge. Firstly, parliamentary constituencies need to be redelineated to equitably represent the Malays as they form the majority community in the country. Based on statistics, it needs to be ascertained if the majority of Malays are now in the urban areas. If they are, then there should be more urban Malay-majority seats rather than the current majority of Malay seats in the rural and semi-rural regions.

Once this structural imbalance is corrected, and an election is held, a truer picture will emerge as to which Malay-based party has the majority support of Malays. Parties that have traditionally won the support of the rural Malay seats like Umno and now PAS and PN will have fewer seats and will be unable to claim a majority as they are able now and consequently the possibility of a hung government will be greatly reduced.

Whether Anwar has the political will to make this happen is yet to be seen as his current firm partner in government, Umno, may oppose it since it would mean fewer seats in Umno’s traditional stronghold. If, however, Malay parties begin wooing the urban Malay voters, Umno has a good chance as its opponents to win more seats.

It is this inequitable distribution of Malay seats between the rural and urban areas that is the underlying cause of discontent with Malay representation in government. Once the structural imbalance is corrected, the issue of Malay majority representation in government will be resolved.

Secondly, leaders need to emerge who will fight to uphold parliamentary democracy and follow democratic conventions and the rule of law. They should not follow in the footsteps of their predecessors who trump the constitution for the sake of political expediency. We need leaders who will buck the trend and assert and practise parliamentary democracy and establish the conventions for future leaders to follow.

When these two developments happen, there will be political stability as a political culture would evolve to keep political stability intact even in the face of a crisis.

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