Saturday, December 27, 2008

Malaysia’s Ambivalence toward Greater Public Debate must Change

A shorter version of this article is published as an opinion piece in malaysiakini: Change ambivalence over public debate

"We can succeed only by concert. It is not 'can any of us imagine better?' but, 'can we all do better?' The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise
with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."
~ Abraham Lincoln, December 1, 1862, Annual Message to Congress

The recent raucous debate on the aborted (or postponed?) sale of the IJN (National Heart Institute) underlines the ambivalence with which the government views our current health care system in particular, and the disdain that it generally regards its own citizens.

Importantly, it had seriously misread the public’s mood and views that it could once again simply announce its often-opaque decisions of granting sales of this and that, or even enacting new national schemes/plans at will. Some would even say, at its own whims and fancies.

In modern political parlance, it appears to regard such national goods, natural resources, property and stakes as if it owns them outright, and to dispose of these as its arrogated right—something which is increasingly frowned upon by more enlightened citizens worldwide.

But, while this appears to be the model of wasteful utilization of (many are calling this, pillaging) the nation’s resources among many failed states in Africa, parts of Asia and the Middle East, it is no longer acceptable behaviour for any respected nation in this modern day and era.

Instead, the government of the day is expected to be only holding these in trust for the nation, its people and its future. The ultimate goal of a ‘good’ state is to ensure the longer-term benefit for the citizens (although it must be acknowledged that most politicians possess a more shortsighted vision, one that is constantly persuaded by electoral considerations, vested interests and lobby groups.)

"Modern politics is characterized by a sharp focus on the acquisition and retention of political office rather than on appealing to people's higher moral values and inspiring people to undertake enduring change" ~Stephen Denning, in The Secret Language of Leadership, 2007, John Wiley & Sons, p68
Notwithstanding this, because Malaysia aims to become a developed state, it must choose to be modern, respected, and abide by the rules of international law and social justice. While a nation may pride itself of its inalienable sovereignty, it must not confuse this nationalistic right as an unquestionable license to sanction its own contrived self-aggrandising and parochial fiats.

Its previous top-down disclosures after behind-the-scenes “discussions and analyses” have been found to be greatly wanting of financial propriety, fiduciary soundness and worse, of dubious public benefit. Often, the government has shown that it has failed to understand the wider implications of its pronouncements, especially when these impact so drastically on the rakyat.

Although the government through its various ministries and divisions has from time to time, attempted to gather input from various stakeholders through dialogues, workshops, etc., these have often been carried out with too much haste, too little preparation or in-depth planning or feedback. Often these are undertaken at very short notices, which leave precious little time for these other bodies to gather sufficient information or views from their own members or even from the people involved or those others who would be affected.

Clearly any attempts at privatization or corporatization of public healthcare facilities fall under this category of national goods and services, which must be considered extensively, and only after full discussions with all its citizens. Obviously of course, this government had failed to do this, only now to call for greater scrutiny of its implications, when public hue and cry overwhelmed its usually deaf ears.

Such a paternalistic approach of assuming that the government knows best whatever it wishes to do, is no longer the acceptable form with which to address national issues of great repercussions on the citizens. We, the rakyat, are calling for and are demanding more say, more input into this ultimate decision making process: we wish to be consulted more, and we want to be heard.

The modern era has empowered citizens with entirely new and hitherto unavailable information and knowledge so that we are no longer minions who can be pushed around. As we mature as a democracy, we have also demanded greater space to voice our thoughts and opinions, which we believe correctly express our intentions and collective vision, and which would ultimately enrich the nation and our lives.

True, with too many views and opinions, these may appear unwieldy and may even result in gridlock or impasse, but then at least when the final compromise or consensus is reached, most sensible stakeholders would have to agree that their views have at least been considered, or that better ideas have been chosen—then, our demand for representation would have been assuaged, albeit grudgingly sometimes.

But there would still be those naysayers who would argue that these collective (consensus) final decisions are flawed because their views have been sidelined or diluted. This is not an uncommon reaction, but people must learn to accept that majority decisions have to be given priority, that accommodating other more acceptable views is a hallmark of any inclusive democracy.

Disgruntled or defeated groups must learn to bite their tongue, and fight another day with another argument, another approach, perhaps. That is the essence of modern liberal democracy—that the ‘best’ or most agreeable views hold sway for those particular moments in time and place. This is not to say that these are cast in stone, they are not. In fact in healthy democracies, modifications and amendments are usually the hallmark of fine-tuning collective decisions, which can then last the test of time and experience.

But somehow, the current government appears to have been locked in a time warp of its past glory days, when it held all the power and the sway of huge majoritarian might. It continues to thrive on its much discredited secretive and opaque decision making process, hiding behind the façade and cloak of the OSA (Official Secrets Act)—most decisions seem to have been mooted by the all-powerful EPU (economic planning unit).

Examples are aplenty: the privatization of the healthcare support services, the sale of the government pharmaceutical arm; Khazanah’s take-over (60% ownership) of Pantai Holdings Bhd.; FOMEMA (privatization of the medical screening for foreign workers); the delayed (aborted?) e-kesihatan scheme for public vehicles’ drivers; and of course now, the potential sale of our IJN to Sime Darby Berhad.

It cannot be denied that under the premiership of Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi, there has been greater allowance for public space for discourse and greater freedom to speak out. But this has been rudely set back of late with the inane use of the ISA to silence its greatest critics such as prominent blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin, Hindraf, opposition lawmaker MP Teresa Kok and a whistle-blowing Sin Chew Jit Poh journalist.

It is arguable whether PM Badawi could have maintained the strong-arm authoritarian style of ex-premier Mahathir, whose pugnacious 2-decade stranglehold on Malaysian politics have left in its wake devastated and emasculated institutions of the judiciary, the police and the UMNO-dominated power politics.

The hurried parliamentary passage of 2 much-vaunted bills concerning institutional reforms [(Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC)] has been seen by well-meaning pundits as too little, too late, and a whimpering finale to its earlier promise of change. That these should still be under the purview of the PM and the attorney general’s office has put a damper on the political reality of this incumbent government—it is still not ready to transform its political stakes toward greater openness or transparency as demanded by the more liberal citizens here in Malaysia.

Perhaps, the government is still smarting from its unaccustomed fall from grace, but it appears to continue under-estimating the power of the alternative media, i.e. the World Wide Web and increasingly the blogosphere of alternate news and opinions. The internet penetration welcomed as an earlier-favoured march toward modernisation and IT literacy had exploded in its face, so to speak. But this irreversible and relentless spread of interconnectedness has become too pervasive, too diffuse in its power to reach the masses.

The Internet medium has simply encompassed too many people, even in Malaysia—information asymmetry once under the closeted control of the mainstream media (MSM), has been decidedly eroded. In its place, information largesse and ubiquity in all its forms of freedom of expression, of thoughts, of criticisms, of exposes, of alternate viewpoints and plausible visions, have shown that it, the world wide web is impossible to constrain, or even to contain.

The good thing is that some MSM have learnt to adapt accordingly so as to maintain their “street cred” (street credibility)—they have become somewhat bolder in addressing real issues with a newfound temerity as against the sycophantic brown-nosing of yesteryears! The previously lamented self-censorship is now looked upon as nonsensical timidity, which undercuts the media’s purported stance to provide thoughtful discourse, checks and balances of this ‘fourth estate’ and credible information to the people.

So what must the government do to regain its stature, its political capital, its power to lead? It must change. Tom Daschle, US Senate democratic leader has said that "If you want to get elected, learn to speak. If you want to stay elected, learn to listen." Therefore, the government must get back on track to what is usually expected of good governance. It must listen to its detractors’ malaise, not so much to accept these wholesale, but to see the merits of why some of these maligned institutions, laws or plans, need tweaking or revamping or even outright rescission (such as the much-abused ISA and OSA).

The whole world is undergoing tremendous financial turmoil and uncertain economic and market future. It is the head-in-the-sand absurdity to imagine that we would be exempt from these tribulations and perturbations. As the world’s 18th largest trading nation, Malaysia will be caught up in this maelstrom of economic upheaval. Sadly, there has been precious little planning and discussions as to how we can tackle or prepare for such an inevitable eventuality—instead, we continue to mire ourselves in humdrum political power plays and narrow-minded pettiness.

We must begin to look at the bigger picture sooner, rather than to allow the tsunami of economic downturn to overwhelm us suddenly, just because we have been caught napping, and only dreaming distractible delicacies of inconsequence!

Let us begin a national debate on how we can move forward to meet the impending crisis, in more concrete terms rather than knee-jerk diktats and self-interested venal pillaging of our diminishing natural resources.

Let’s have a greater national discourse on where our nation should be heading. It is of little use to keep shouting shibboleths of Wawasan (Vision) 2020, when we can’t even see beyond the next 2 years. We need a reinvigorated, more refreshed national vision, not more of the same!

So what should we be doing?

We need a renewed national vision, one that should be more inclusive than divisive, and not tainted with ethnic, racial or religious politics.

We must negotiate a new social contract, which will help unite us more meaningfully rather than to harp upon decades-old concepts, which have perhaps lost its contemporariness, its shine and power to persuade us as one people.

We need to make every Malaysian feel Malaysian without any sniggering backstabbing asides, which only perpetuates the skin-deep accommodating acquaintances, but which does not foster true bonds, true nationalism or the feeling of belonging.

We cannot have bigoted lawmakers who shout at others to ‘balik kampung’ or ‘get out of the country’ whenever they cannot win an argument without theatrics and rationale; and get off scot-free as if that’s their right to inflame and institutionalize racial bigotry.

We cannot have the Biro Tataan Negara, which separately indoctrinate our civil servants that Malaysia is only for the Malays and its Ketuanan Melayu supremacy policy, while subjugating other ethnic groups in insincere indoctrination to accept this premise which is now so maligned and unacceptable.

We need instead to identify our collective strengths and weaknesses so that we can reap from the best, and maybe suppress our baser instincts for divisiveness and narrow-mindedness.

We need to re-assess and value our national resources and wealth, which should be our long-lasting legacy for our children and our children’s children.

We must convene an all-inclusive task force to address the economic and banking debacle, and how we as a nation can overcome or mitigate against its worst outcome scenarios. This does not mean including the usual public sector technocrats and closeted civil servants who are often the least exposed to ground level realities.

We have to tap our finest brains and especially the citizens and consumers on the ground, include targetted NGOs, opposition representatives even, so that a collective voice can be made with greater meaning. This would also promote a spirit of inclusive citizenship so that unpopular repercussions may be better understood by all, when hard choices have to be implemented.

We have to get serious that nation building is not just one election after another. That once elected, our policy makers must heed calls for greater duties, responsibilities and sacrifices, and make the best laws, not convenient ones for vested pork-barrel interests—that the electing public has its duties to be the ever-vigilant watchdog for such political deviances and shenanigans.

We have to want to be better, not just for our selfish little moments, erstwhile comforts and immediate gratifications, but more importantly for our collective national good and future.

We must ensure that when we say Malaysia Boleh, we mean it with pride and not just jingoistic anthems, which simply arouse sniggering contempt at some who are just embellished as jaguh kampung (village champions).

We must want to be world-beaters and achievers of the best and the finest.

We must aspire to be champions on a global scale: respected, rather than self-congratulatory.

We must truly achieve significant success, rather than be frowned upon at our silliness of getting into the record books for things that really don’t matter and are of forgettable, meaningless inconsequence!

For 2009, there is that hope that Malaysia would have at last matured, and that we the citizens have played our roles to help bring this about. Let the momentous spirit of March 08, 2008 live and march on!

"Ruling parties and presidencies are almost never felled by issues alone. Rather, it is the more general perception of a creeping chaos—the sense that leaders no longer have a firm grasp on events or the credibility to unite disparate constituencies—that cause political powers to come undone." ~ Matt Bai, journalist, in The Way We Live Now.