The Perak experience: Innovating Malaysian politics from opposition benches — Howard Lee Chuan How

JUNE 19 — The originally intended Malayan political structure enshrined by the federal constitution, one that was very much so a ‘cut-and-paste’ inheritance of the Westminster system, though well intended have never functioned as it was meant to. Since independence, with the Alliance party and subsequently Barisan Nasional’s (BN) race-based structure at the helm, driving the adoption and evolution (or lack thereof), it is not unusual that we see the weaknesses of our political eco-system today. It wouldn’t invite much challenge if one was to describe it as a ‘first world vehicle, third world driven’.

Many have written about the ethno-communal ‘service’ and representation model that politician from all sides pander to; not many have written about the need to break away from it; even less have suggested how. To maintain support and/or relevance, politicians have resorted to outdoing their opponent in the ‘public service industry’, moreover perpetuating the ethno-communal exclusivity factor ie. Chinese serving the Chinese, Malay serving the Malay, Indian serving the Indian. Simply speaking, it’s BN’s blue ocean strategy of maintaining demand so for them to maintain their profitable supply.

Elected Representatives’ dichotomous roles

The ethno communal element aside, this not only deprives legislators from focusing on their constitutionally prescribed duties of policy making, but with the same stroke stunts the growth and advancement of public institutions and civil service. The outcome being a rut whereby; legislators are glorified civil servants without the necessary influence unless in government, and the civil service stagnates by virtue of a lack in innovation from supposed policy makers because they’re too busy doing the work of civil servants.

There’s little doubt that there has been a monopoly of policy-making, driven by hegemony of BN rule. Legislators outside of the executive branch, both in government and opposition over the years have been systematically ‘managed out’ of policy crafting processes. Needless to say, those occupying benches of ‘His Majesty’s loyal opposition’ are more often than not silenced outside of the legislature through draconian laws, and inside the legislature through myriads of constraints imposed by authority of legislative Speakers obedient to the Executive branch.

The legislature that we inherited from the British was designed to be a ‘bottom-up’ electorate driven system, but have over the years been beaten into the ‘top down’ government driven centralised system that we have today. The electorate knows no other alternative and have been brainwashed into the mentality of ‘government knows best’; legislators have had no alternative but to adopt the reactive and opposive culture to remain relevant. All this spells a trajectory that is further and further away from Democracy as we know it.

A mock democracy not ‘fit for purpose’

Whilst on paper, we are a fully-fledged constitutional monarchical-parliamentary democracy, we are in practice and reality an authoritarian ruled electoral autocracy. Those in power will often rebut this citing the increasing opposition representation in parliament and the several states helmed by the federal opposition. The truth is, this is but the maturity of the electorate outstretching the foul-playing capabilities of BN, forging a new horizon in our political landscape.

With this new horizon, we are faced with a dilemma that is a blessing in disguise. In Perak, where Pakatan Rakyat (PR) garnered a whopping 54.7 per cent popular vote in the general elections, though unable to form state government, the electorate’s pre-election expectation of PR policies did not falter post-election. The age old and entirely legitimate reasoning of the Opposition having neither resources nor remit to deliver policies, didn’t seem sufficient on all fronts. For the first time, DAP and PR assembly-persons had to fulfil the seemingly impossible expectations of delivering policies from opposition benches.

With the BN “Minority Government” expected to serve the same old wine, in the same old bottle, the “Majority Opposition” PR not only had to think, strategise and act outside the box, but were compelled to throw the box away altogether. It seemed that PR Perak had to continue working the ‘public service industry’, as well as develop a strategy of affecting policy changes, somehow.

Exploiting BN’s weakness to show PR strengths

It was decided that new, previously unexplored areas of policies must be brought to the fore. Matters uncontested in the state assembly in the past such as public transport reforms, sustainable urban planning, decentralisation of governance, progressive agriculture and aquaculture, growth versus distribution policies are amongst the policy areas that the Majority Opposition raised within as well as outside the State Assembly. To no particular surprise, the Minority Government was not able to answer neither could they contest with PR ideas. A new political phenomena emerged as a result; the Opposition had a monopoly in a vast array of policy areas.

The PR Opposition line up in the Perak State Assembly took this in its stride. Whilst raising the bar significantly in the limited debates in the state Assembly, it means very little if there were not to be matching awareness-building campaigns targeting the general public. The best way to achieve this was through reactive connections of real life experiences of the electorate with these new, often complex policies.

Taking one area of policy as an example, in the assembly, assemblypersons will talk about the failures of public transport providers and question the very fundament of the operating and regulatory framework in which the provision stands on. Rather than solely blaming it on crony capitalism, legislators also critiques the 100 per cent privatised nature of the service providers as well as the overly centralised policy and/or decision making on all matters of public transport. PR Perak even boldly offered a complete rethought and restructured view of the regulative framework for the provision of public transport in Perak.

As the state cabinet as well as the BN backbenchers were not intellectually as well-endowed as the PR line-up; the BN Menteri Besar took a pre-emptive strike of containing the embarrassment of having credible solutions to long standing problems coming from opposition benches. He did so by setting up the first ever state level bi-partisan policy committee on public transport, chaired by an Executive Council member, with three committee members each from both sides of the house. In short, the opposition managed to pressure the government into accepting PR legislators in a non-statutory policy crafting body; which is unprecedented in the history of State level politics across the Federation.

Politicking for the people’s interest

Since then, the committee has been functioning, albeit slow and lacking in the bite that PR wishes for. It has also evolved into a platform for the BN state government through the PR committee members to voice out dissatisfactions towards their federal counterparts on all public transport matters. The committee, if the minutes were to be made public, would demonstrate that PR committee members are the main drivers of the discussions.

Though not all, a great deal of the suggestions made within the committee by PR members have been carried out; all are towards a bigger picture and long term goal set by PR committee members and state leadership. This will be elaborated but not at this juncture. This is one perceptive ‘win’ for BN Perak and many practical and policy ‘wins’ for PR Perak as well as the people of Perak.

Perak was seen as the most hotly contested state and one most likely to be recaptured by PR pre GE13. It was also where PR was born, out of the balance of seats resulted in the GE12 necessitating full commitment from all assemblypersons from DAP, PAS and PKR to form government. It was also the origin of many policy and administrative innovations. Though Perak was not recaptured post GE13, Perak has once again proven, despite all that is said, speculated, and critiqued; it is capable of pushing the frontiers of Malaysian politics, even from opposition benches.

This also calls to attention, that the role of Opposition state assemblyperson, is no longer just one of contribution to the ‘public service industry’; and not only just proposing innovative ideas and solutions, but also one that seeks innovative ways of delivering those policies.

Yes, even from opposition benches.

* Howard Lee Chuan How is the Director of Policy for DAP Perak and runs a Perak based thinktank named PROSPECT focussing on state level governance policies with a heavy emphasis on public engagement. He is also the executive secretary to DAP Malaysia’s Bureau of International Affairs. His dream is to mainstream political nerdiness and turn it cool.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malay Mail Online.