How to treat powerlessness in Malaysia’s politics — Dr Khor Swee Kheng

MARCH 13 — For several weeks now, Malaysians have felt powerless. First, we collectively felt powerless over a Covid-19 virus we can’t see, can’t understand, can’t control and can’t treat. Then, the power of our votes from May 2018 was taken away by the backroom deals of irresponsible politicians. The second blow will be more lasting.

Feelings of powerlessness, impotence and loss of control is leading Malaysia and Malaysians into a national emotional and psychological crisis. Words like betrayal, anger and treachery accurately depict the current national psyche. What can we do about it?

As a physician, I’m trained to diagnose problems and then prescribe treatments. Therefore, I’ll diagnose the problems of powerlessness in Malaysia’s body politic, and then prescribe treatments to save our country.

Diagnosis

Our body politic is sick, but the main diagnosis is powerlessness. The other feelings of betrayal, anger, frustration and disgust are very real, but they come from the root feeling of powerlessness. We feel powerless because our votes don’t seem to matter when backroom deals take away our sense of control and agency.

That powerlessness also comes because we’re psychologically reliant on politicians to solve all our problems. While it’s true that they hold meaningful decision-making power, we’ve bought into their fiction that they alone can save the day. This is a false sense of comfort, because we become lazy and therefore dependent on them.

Even popular culture tells us to worship individuals. Hollywood sells us cowboys in the 1970s and Marvel superheroes in the 2010s as simplistic and tempting solutions. Why work hard to fight bad people (or nation-building) when we can outsource to a small group of superheroes (or politicians) to do it?

We’ve delegated our power to politicians. If one group of politicians can’t do it, we’ll simply swap them for another group. This is wrong; we must rely on systems, institutions, rule of law and checks and balances, instead of individual politicians.

We also feel powerless because we’re addicted to politics and politicians. We’ve become political junkies, living off the smallest news from Putrajaya and five-star hotels. Politicians cast a spell on us, and we worship them as celebrities, heroes and saviours. They could be an extension of our feudal culture; just look at how many honorifics and titles they carry.

Malaysia’s ailing electoral system takes structural power away from us. Race-based politics, gerrymandering and malapportionment are well-described. Although Malaysia is parliamentary in name, we’re essentially seeing a Prime Minister with presidential powers. This makes it an extremely appealing ambition (and therefore a zero-sum game) to many people.

Powerlessness is dangerous. It can lead to despair, which leads to apathy. It’s our feelings of surrender when nothing we do seems enough to protect our rights, defeat corrupt politicians or preserve our democratic choices. Powerlessness, despair, apathy, surrender; these are powerful forces that encourage us to give up. Giving up is more dangerous than powerlessness.

Those are the reasons why Malaysia is going through a psychological crisis, as much as we are going through a legal, constitutional or democratic crisis.

Treatment

As there are many causes to this powerlessness, we must have many treatments. These treatments rely on us depoliticizing our lives and Malaysia’s democracy. They also require that we manage our emotions more constructively, and to channel our passion and faith in ways that are smarter, more sustainable and more long-term. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr, the arc of Malaysia’s moral journey is long, but it bends towards justice.  

Firstly, we must stop letting politicians be the centre of our world. They are important, but they should not be disproportionately important. Live your life as usual. Fulfil your duty as a citizen. Read your children bedtime stories. Stop the addiction to the latest news; it’s okay if you find out two hours later than everyone else. Life goes on, Twitter can wait, and politicians shouldn’t be at the centre of our existence.

Secondly, we must all rebuild our Malaysia. Be the best teacher, nurse, doctor, engineer, factory worker, farmer or software designer you can be. Learn civics, be courteous and constructive in your comments on social media, complain less, and have teh tarik with a new friend from a different ethnicity once a week. Politicians can’t save us, and we have to stop believing their fiction that they will. We must save our own Malaysia ourselves, through active duty, not passive pontificating.

Thirdly, we must all demand structural changes for our electoral and governance system. This will take years, but it will be worth it. This means new ways to reward healthy multi-party competition, to select the best leaders (not the best politicians), and to issue new laws against gerrymandering, malapportionment and party-hopping. All these aims to depoliticise our democracy, so that we can find the best government instead of daily politicking.

Fourthly, join civil societies and make them vibrant. You don’t have to demonstrate on the streets; you just have to show that you care about Malaysia. Pick any cause you like, and then contribute to it in a long-term and sustainable way. Your nation needs you to reach out and help a fellow Malaysian. We cannot retreat into our own shells, hoping that someone else will save Malaysia for us.

Prognosis

Our emotions of anger, bitterness or hopelessness come from powerlessness. That powerlessness has legal, democratic, electoral and psychological roots. The treatments are not easy, requiring a lot of faith, stubbornness and courage. However, they can be effective, especially if we build systems and institutions based on principles that last longer than individuals and politicians.

Politicians and useless politicking should be the side-show. The main show should be nation-building. To save our own Malaysia, we must depoliticise our lives and Malaysia’s democracy. That will give us back the power that we deserve as citizens and voters.

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

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