NOV 25 — A few months back around the end of August, something happened between the two major coalitions in Malaysia. It’s something that might be of little concern today and I’m quite sure that this issue is hardly on everybody’s lips.

With the GST, escalation in crime, rate assessment hike, Allah issue and Ibrahim Ali’s latest antics, this event is rendered minor, if not trivial.

But let me assure you, this issue is of extreme importance. In fact, it constituted the tipping point in the maturity of Malaysia’s political landscape. Sadly, it tipped towards the side of intolerance, intransigence and anti-intellectualism. This issue then became insignificant.

This “something” began, like most interesting things, with a proposal.

Too magnanimous to be true

Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s Opposition leader has endured innumerable trials and tribulations. From being physically beaten, imprisonment, the subject of various defamatory attacks and endless fabrications, this man has experienced it all.

The curious thing about Anwar is, he can accept any teaching position available overseas and escape the rot in Malaysia. He’s been invited to present scores of lectures at prestigious universities — to critical acclaim.

I experienced this myself when I went to a talk that he gave on Islam and multiculturalism at Westminster University. Unlike Dr Mahathir Mohamad whom I admit is a rather witty speaker, Anwar is light years apart. He knows his stuff and presents it in an eloquent, classy and intellectual fashion — something of a rarity among Malaysian politicians.

One thing that I like about his lectures is that he cites numerous authors — a testament that he himself consumed the material written by other writers.

Yet, Anwar chose to stay and face the grinder. I have no idea why. But no prizes for guessing, the answer should probably lie in his love for this country.

Hence, it was disturbing for me to hear the proposal by Anwar to have a “national dialogue” with Umno. Anwar tactfully framed his position by claiming that he was not calling for a unity government like what we can see in a few African states and the grand coalition which was formed in Germany.

I must admit that when I heard the news that he wanted to talk to the intransigent Umno, I was crestfallen.

“That duplicitous chameleon!” I sighed — the sigh of an oppressed creature.

After expending energy in protesting, remonstrating and combating the forces of kleptocracy, the solution was not to succumb to them by trying to engage them, but to further intensify the protests. Electoral integrity and reformation was the priority.

Only now, a few months after the proposal for a grand dialogue has simmered, do I realise how myopic I was.

A rare opportunity for bipartisanship

One need not have the power of oracles to predict what Umno’s response would be to Anwar’s gesture. Naturally, the intransigent party rejected it hands down.

For a party whose president proclaimed the need for national reconciliation after the elections, it was a classic case of “do as I say, not as I do”.

Unfortunately, the Malaysian Parliament has always been divisive. The Westminster model which dysfunctionally favours the majority party is not propitious to the Opposition as they’ll always remain numerically disadvantaged.

This is compounded by tribalistic politics exhibited in Malaysia. MPs vote heavily along party lines. Just look at the Bills that were recently passed, with the Prevention of Crime Act in particular. It’s not about what is right or even what is popular but what will please the upper echelons of the party.

The fountain of bipartisanship is dry. This is unlike in more mature democracies like in the UK. Party lines matter, of course. Just ask the Tory Chief Whip Francis Urquhart in the House of Cards. But voting based on one’s conscience and moral compass plays a significant part over there.

One can say many things about the broken political system in the States that is beholden to an extremist minority. But bipartisanship is not a rare species. It happens in the innumerable committees in Congress and in the President’s Cabinet.

I am not claiming that a national dialogue would instantly lead to bipartisanship. But I am suggesting that dialogues are able to assist in the process of maturity — first by utilising avenues where cooperation is possible.

Bipartisanship is essential because it demonstrates that politicians are above personal interests and are willing to bridge their ideologies, interests and beliefs to come to a compromise — for a better Malaysia.

The foundation of bipartisanship is respect of the Other, to the opponent. But the antics and behaviour of our Parliamentarians are found to be disappointing. This comes down to ignorance and arrogance.

Bipartisanship towards a better Malaysia

Malaysia today is paralysed by many problems. The more crippling issues are issues that require tough solutions and difficult choices. These are issues that will lead to political suicide if the right medicine is administered.

Take for example the over-saturated civil service. The government seems to think that it can absorb people to reduce unemployment figures. But the wage bill is hefty and leads to wastage. The government is cognisant that the civil service needs to be trimmed. But layoffs and job insecurity are unpopular policies. Hence, much needed reforms are stalled.

The fear of losing out to the Opposition is what makes the government hesitant of reforming itself. Issues such as this are time sensitive and must be solved now, not five years down the road. The drainage of resources does not afford the luxury to dither.

Only by talking and trying to resolve these issues can the government make the necessary decisions. If these talks lead to the Opposition agreeing in principle that the civil service needs to be trimmed, only then is reform possible.

The same goes for the GST, subsidy reduction and the IPCMC. These are necessary solutions but they are extremely unpopular with certain quarters of society.

I’m not saying that the Opposition should co-operate on everything. They themselves have their own strategic interests. What I’m saying that there are certain issues that a pragmatic Opposition would co-operate in the collective interest of Malaysians.

The government bulldozing these proposals through without properly consulting the Opposition merely shows their authoritarian streak which belittles our intelligence.

Dialogue is a first step to empathy. If the refusal of BN to have a dialogue with PR is due of arrogance, what then are the probabilities of them having a meaningful discourse with the rakyat?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.