Wednesday, April 18, 2012

It’s not about BN or PR — it’s about changing the system

It’s not about BN or PR — it’s about changing the system

by Pak Sako
Monday, 16 April 2012

“If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves.” – Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

“[T]o dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics, is the first task of the statesmanship of the day… This country belongs to the people. Its resources, its business, its laws, its institutions, should be utilized, maintained, or altered in whatever manner will best promote the general interest… “The people” are absolutely to control in any way they see fit, the “business” of the country.” – Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States of America, An Autobiography.

The million-dollar question for the voting public is not about choosing between a Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat government based on who is more generous, holier or less corrupt.

It should be what to do to shake up the system.

That should be the prime concern of the voting public.

That should be the focus of political analysis and commentating.

The system is where the problems that bedevil the people originate, and it there where the seeds of real change lie.

If there is no intention to review and alter the system, all talk of ‘reformasi’ or ‘transformation programmes’ is meaningless.

What is ‘the system’ and why bother about it?

The system is the set of political and economic arrangements, relationships and mindsets under which government and society operate and with which they interact.

A democracy like Malaysia is defined by government under the control of the public, using everything at its disposal to unerringly serve the public interest.

The basic understanding is that the people are the owners and controllers of their political and economic destinies.

In a democracy, therefore, the system can have only one legitimate purpose: it is to give its all in the service of the people’s interest.

Politicians, business interests and religious leaders, as elements of the system, are bound by this higher purpose. The state is not to be misused for their enrichment, for lavish ceremonial purchases, for religious mind-control or for promoting free markets everywhere.

A constitutional monarchy is likewise also bound by this purpose. The claim that Malaysian society is “semi-feudalistic” (see Zairil Khir Johari, ‘Of songkoks, uniforms and managing expectations’, The Malaysian Insider, 1 July 2011)— which implies service also to rulers and lords— is false and dangerous.

Suppose the public purpose of the system is undermined.

Suppose special interests have hijacked the system, that they are able to manipulate it for their gain at the expense of the public, behind whatever guise (‘public projects’, ‘the national interest’, ‘for the glory of God’).

Suppose also the government of the day stands idly by or even takes part in the abuse.

Switching between new but passive leaders or governments will not help.

The public must instead be able to investigate and alter every single institution and political and economic arrangement to restore rule by the people and fulfill the ‘public-interest-only’ criterion.

That is the condition for real change. Any compromise short of the people taking charge of the system is defeat.

How is the system like in Malaysia?

The Malaysian political-economic system is not geared towards maximally serving public purposes and needs. Certain ‘leakages’ and mindsets block it.

The situation is rooted in events related to the nation’s foundation.

The system assembled after Independence saw influential political and business interests secure advantageous positions and establish mutually-benefiting interrelationships (see Tricia Yeoh, ‘Malaysia after regime change’, The Malaysian Insider, 24 March 2012).

This lopsided starting condition and dilution of public priority became entrenched over time under regime constancy. Lax internal oversight is to be expected.

A feudal mindset— of leaders lording it over the people and the people hand-kissing their “superiors”— contributes. Transparency and asking questions become taboo.

Government decision-making in matters such as economic ownership and wealth distribution filter through consideration for the elite as a matter of routine, without protest. Free-market economics becomes the excuse for privatising public assets (oil refineries, power generation, ports) to corporate ‘captains’.

The culture of ‘the cut’ is emulated in the bureaucratic layers of government and government-founded companies. In Petronas, a company established by law ostensibly to protect and serve the national interest, some top managers set themselves six-figure monthly salaries and bonuses from revenue streams—30 times the average national income.

Other examples abound. The foregoing is sufficient to make the case for intervening in the system.

Regime change as a tool to change the system

A way forward is to raise the prospect of regime change and tying it to an ultimatum to initiate a reshaping of the system.

This threat should force an unresponsive government to act.

This ultimatum must also be brought to bear on the opposition, who should be made to declare commitment to it.

If the ruling government shows scant commitment in delivering meaningful systemic change, the apple cart should be upset by an overthrow via elections.

The successor government is then to be held ransom to the same demand.

Failure to perform should trigger another change of government, and so on until the goal is achieved.

Regime change is desirable for the following reasons. It gives the people the needed window of opportunity, however small, to mount an attempt to regain the freedom to intervene to change the system.

It creates a momentary vacuum in which old connections become temporarily uncoupled. The vista opens for reconsidering old rules, norms and contracts. A chance is had to dramatically alter old institutions and relationships and drawing up new rules.

If nothing else, regime change rattles up the system such that some activities of some parasitic elements are disrupted.

Change can also be a source of renewal.

It allows for a different experience and viewpoint, a chance for stock-taking and reflection, and a refreshment of the collective spirit upon breaking out of a stale old shell.

The people would feel liberated knowing that they can sack a government and assert greater control over it and thus the system.

Choosing between BN and PR

In Malaysia, significant power is concentrated at the federal level that could be used to massively impact the system in a way not possible at lower levels.

The federal route is the least-costly and quickest democratic route for rocking the boat.

A practical rule for deciding on regime change would thus be to remove a ruling government from federal power after a reasonable duration of time if it fails to effect sweeping change to the system with the aim of restoring eminence to public interest.

In applying this rule, governments that persistently collude with or maintain an unjust system are to be rejected. Governments that benefit from an unjust status quo might not have the incentive or motivation to change the way things are.

It would also be morally questionable to continue to reward with federal power a government that has against it allegations of serious past wrongdoings and abuses.

So do we keep or remove BN? Three points swing the case towards the removal of BN:
BN has had a formative role and remains a vested interest in the status quo; it would be difficult if not impossible for it to affect the needed changes on the system from within;
In spite of the current BN administration’s reformist proclamations, its economic and political transformation programmes contain no plans for inquiring into and reshaping the system; their implementation seems to show that they are intended to work within the confines allowed by the existing system, seeking some efficiency improvement perhaps, but not modifying the superstructure itself;
BN has against it a string of allegations of wrongdoing and abuses stretching back to at least the 1980s that await proper investigation and redress; to re-elect it under the circumstance would invoke a moral crisis.

If, after an appropriate evaluation of the opposition, regime change is chosen, what next?

The people must see to it that the successor government executes a radical plan for changing the system.

Such a plan would be extensive in scope and detail, and cannot be covered here. But among the least that a successor government should do is
to subdue, neutralise and remove negative elements and structures of the system (the crony capitalist structure, domineering religious institutions), and not just swap old components with new ones (e.g., replacing BN cronies with PR cronies);
to desist from introducing undemocratic elements and structures in the system (e.g., the shifting of power to religious (syura) councils or other anti-democratic committees);
to prevent public policymaking from being undermined by assertive ideologies (whether these be the supremacy of religion or the supremacy of free markets);
to consider changes that empower the people (e.g., the people having greater ownership of their economy and greater say in how the economy is to serve them; fostering in the individual a sense of intellectual independence and self-confidence).

Needless to say, a successor government should practice sportsmanship and obey the public’s will to replace it in the future.

There must be hope yet for a reformed BN.

There must be room too for a ‘third force’ beyond BN and PR, in the event that both are captured by a corrupt system.

Concluding remarks

Because an overhaul of the system and its institutions would involve actions such as aggressively going after the corrupt, reviewing land ownership and land-use patterns (timber, oil palm), investigating corporate ownerships and relationships, and generally dislodging the elite from the commanding heights of state control and policymaking, the elite are likely to fight back.

Resistance should be anticipated and planned for. It is vital for a new government not to get weak in the knees and make compromises.

Civil society movements have a role to play and should push for more transparent and participatory decision-making. They could also inspire self-sustaining, community-based action (a network of active residents’ associations, for instance). The rare example of Bersih as a broad grassroots movement seeking to bring systemic change in the area of elections should be encouraged elsewhere.

In the economic sphere, the neoliberal/free-market economic ideology promoted to the government and opposition by libertarian think-tanks such as IDEAS (Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs) needs urgent counterbalance.

Other organisations, such as CPI (Centre for Policy Initiatives), could contribute towards providing a variety of alternative ideas for policymaking.

The public should not be straight-jacketed into choosing only a free-market economic model or its neoliberal variant, the so-called German ‘social market economy’.

They must also be able to deliberate on other more egalitarian economic models and approaches such as those practiced by Australia and Norway, two countries at the top of the U.N. Human Development Index.

There could be other side benefits of regime change.

A BN that is free from an incumbent’s stress could refuse to play the game of escalating the ‘religious arms race’. It could capitalise on the secular position supported by the Federal Constitution and act as a compelling force for it. If this happens, it could counteract a possible slide towards greater theocratic influence in governance under PR.

Lastly, public personalities who propose the soft-softly approach that does not so much as scratch the surface of the system should prove they are not spineless or in cahoots with a crooked system.

Would Najib Razak and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah tell the elites to exit the control-room of the state and submit to the public’s will?

Can Anwar Ibrahim and other opposition leaders highlight their specific strategies for changing the system?

Would Mahathir Mohammad join the chorus?

Who dares say “change the system”?

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