The PM we deserve

JANUARY 31 — Names aside, what do Malaysians want from their next prime minister?

The problem with names is it precludes a discussion about the actual job of a prime minister — if there was a precise definition to begin with.

At least, a focus on skills, avoids the hackneyed debates over timelines and Mahathir Mohamad’s willingness to yield. 

Admittedly, there is a downside, if the PM characteristics are listed — a contemporary philosopher king perhaps — can one who fits the bill get elected?

A valid question for another day.

What is the fault with the present system?

Our political parties don’t develop an ideological framework for members or organisation, even if they are excruciatingly obsessed with accruing power. 

Akin to sports houses in schools, for each student is assigned to one for instance. They compete because they have a house to defend and a championship to win. “Red is better, because I am red. Blue is not good because I am red.”

The why, the existential core is absent, and is largely seen as unnecessary. Thus, the obsession with wins rather than purpose. “Power is not a means; it is an end,” as Orwell suggested in 1984. To accrue power and exercise it in order to accrue further power. Repeat cycle.

Authoritarianism is seen as a rational outcome rather than a threat to democracy. Our parties lack democratic zeal but possess remarkable desire for naked power.

From these labyrinths, Malaysia seeks a champion for all. A better PM.

Race trap

The first requirement is self-evident, to commit to the Federation of Malaysia. The federation stands by its citizens, and its leaders by and through the citizens. Citizens are paramount, and without qualification, the PM’s priority. All citizens, equally.

There is a lesson from the aftermath of Cameron Highlands by-election. One side accuses the other of race politics, which reveals an underlying truth inside Malaysian politics; not that there is an overemphasis on race, which there is and it is bad, but rather unveils the universal racism. All the parties participate in identity politics to a perverse level, it is about degrees of application.

So one race-thrilled side pointed the finger at the other for exceeding the appropriate level of race-baiting. If it actually did not pass a damning statement about the state of political maturity in the country, it would be hilarious.

One side overdid it, and the other is pissed.

A PM to meet the aspirations of Malaysians, has to be Malaysian first, no?

Because, in a sea of identity politics, the PM is in a binary spot, of either in or out. Are his people the victims or oppressors, and how does that weigh on his appraisal of the issue?

Historically, our prime ministers have never failed to fail this test. Six PMs and not one who has been adequately objective about race, what an achievement!

Two halves

Rarely spoken about is the distance — geography, culture and politics — between the two sides of Malaysia. A country with sizeable proportions separated by the largest sea in the world.

The half century solution for the predicament was to render the eastern half subservient to Putrajaya, and the approach has expired.

Neither Gabungan Parti Sarawak (the coalition of ex BN parties in the state) nor Warisan Sabah want to be pliant to an overbearing federal government across the pond.

The people of Sabah and Sarawak have come to terms there would be no PM from their side, even if they dwarf the Peninsula in wealth and size. 

Electoral math delegates them only as kingmakers. Yet, there is a moral debt to the long-suffering peoples there even if it is easy to be distracted by their obscenely rich elites.

The trust deficit has arrived at a critical point, and only the naïve would assume status quo can continue.

The next PM has to change with the times. More resources to the two states even if it would upset forces in the west.

Civil servants must serve

The abject lesson from a year almost in power for Pakatan Harapan is its incomprehension of the civil service, and worst, the inability to rein it in. 

There seems to be an unwillingness to confront the nonsense argument that staff and rank retention is critical to Malay interest.

There is a misconfiguration.

Politicians lose their jobs when they fail to meet their promises. The government servants are assigned to fulfil the political masters’ mandates unless they contravene the laws or jurisdictions. 

Reality is the other way around. It appears the ministers are auditioning to be liked by those meant to serve them. It’s topsy-turvy.

The prime minister must avoid Mahathir’s folly, which is from his own preference for concentration of power and direct control.

Ministers must be entrusted with greater autonomy to achieve their goals and fall on their own swords if they come short, rather than reined-in from the word go without the chance to shine.

True role

There is massive misconception about the omnipotence of prime ministers.

They can’t fly on carpets or produce cash from trees. They lead nations, and the word requires different things at different times. To manage constantly shifting priorities and to secure confidence in a country’s potentials.

There are simple ways to recognise pretenders and disruptors.

The former seeks to please all without consideration of the consequences, and the latter relies on support based on pointing at who to hate. Neither lead.

Our leader must be Malaysian first, not pigeonholed by race or region, and aspirational for our officials.

All that considered, now candidates can be considered. Have a name?

 * This is the personal opinion of the columnist.