Bersih: Towards a better system in Malaysia? Part 2

FEBRUARY 13 — That Malaysia needs a root and branch reform is not disputed. The question is how to do it in a democratic, equitable and peaceful manner.  

Ever since Reformasi in 1998, Malaysians have gone to the polls (1999, 2004, 2008 and 2013) with the aspiration of electing legislators and political parties that can deliver better governance.  

The demand for better governance is also borne out through surveys conducted by local independent pollster Merdeka Center where findings indicate that the majority of Malaysians believe the country is heading in the wrong direction. 

The most recent publicly available survey — polled in October 2015  — found that 4 out of 5 Malaysians were unhappy with the current administration. 

Different groups are responding in different ways. 

Individuals and organisations whose fortunes lie with providing Islamic services (e.g. the Islamic bureaucracy, the Islamic economy, etc.) are using the current political situation to further their powers. 

Crony capitalists continue their shenanigans under cover of the various issues obfuscating Malaysia. Meanwhile Malaysians, disenchanted and disempowered, are finding ways to articulate their grouses, some in manners that may fundamentally change the nature of Malaysia (such as talks of secession but also those that want Malaysia to become more "Islamic"). 

Political parties are naturally responding in ways that they are most accustomed too. In the peninsula, PAS is pushing more strongly for the creation of an "Islamic state" through the expansion of the role of shariah in state and society formally. 

Umno is also pushing for a greater role for Islam in Malaysia.  Other peninsular Barisan Nasional (BN) component parties simply follow Umno’s lead as they no longer have the support of Malaysians. 

DAP remains firm within the ambit of a liberal and secular social democracy, while PKR remains uncertain as different factions pull it in different directions. Parti Sosialis Malaysia continues its hard work with marginalised communities. The two new parties (Amanah and Pribumi) appear to portray a moderate position on religion and race, but remain firmly within the logic of race and religion.  

In the states of Sabah and Sarawak, ensuring autonomy from the peninsula (and the Federal government), while ensuring greater federal allocation remains the primary focus. 

While it is perfectly acceptable to appeal to different ideological, racial, religious or regional preferences within a framework of democratic competition (while circumscribed by the rule of law), the current electoral system amplifies the importance of a particular ideology built on a particular race and a particular interpretation of a particular religion, and particular regions within Malaysia  — providing a perverse incentive to politicians and political parties to chase after these votes; in the process undermining not only the legitimate interests of those not aligned to these aspirations, but also the national interest. 

It provides an unfair advantage to proponents of these views, while disadvantaging vast segments of Malaysians, politicians and political parties that appeal to other more universal ideas and values (such as ideas and values centred on the common good, equality, solidarity, rule of law, good governance, multiculturalism and civic citizenships, among others).  

How then do we arbitrate among these competing interests? 

For many Malaysians, the eight demands of Bersih — to ensure free and fair elections — are considered the best way forward to enable Malaysians to determine which legislators and which political party or coalition is trusted by the electorate; but also to determine the interests that most Malaysians subscribe too; and then make the necessary reforms in Malaysia that Malaysians are clamouring for.  

* This is the opinion of the columnist.

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