For many years now, MANY in Malaysia have had an uneasy feeling that democracy, as generally understood, sits uneasily among the people of this country. Malaysia has large and sometimes articulate political parties and it has had leaders totally committed to the concept of democracy, which is also true. There was Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, Tun Dr Ismail, Tun Hussein Onn, John Aloysius Thivy, Tun Tan Cheng Lock, Stephen Kalong Ningkan, Tun Fuad Donald Stephens, Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu, Peter Mojuntin, Tun Mustapha, O K K Sedomon, Ahmad Boestaman, and others who believed in the concept of democracy as the only one that would keep Malaysia together and take it forward.
Like true democrats they believed that dissent was an essential part of democracy, and that the country would only be enriched by debate and discussion, even by agitation if that became necessary. Their belief was complemented by their direct contact with the people; the trust that people had in them made it possible for them to persuade them to accept, enthusiastically, the beliefs and ideas they gave them.
But when such leaders and people are not there any more, what happens to the parties and institutions they have built and nurtured? One facile answer is that political argument gets stronger and power shifts from one group to another when elections are held. In other words, the people decide who will have the responsibility to manage the state, removing those whom they consider incapable and bringing in those they think can do the job. This is very convenient and comforting. It is also totally fictitious.
It is true that political argument does get stronger, more so because of the increasingly watchful media both print and electronic, of which most political groups have become wary, even fearful, and not without reason. The fiction lies in the belief that the “people” remove those who do not perform and bring in those who they think can perform.
First, the concept of “people” is simplistic; the vast numbers of individuals in the state are an infinitely complex entity consisting of a vast number of groups and sub-groups. This enormous mass of individuals does not come together and decide anything; that is not what happens, not at all. What happens is that a strategy aimed at finding acceptance with groups of individuals, in some cases possibly fortuitously, works or works better than the strategy of another group.
In the 2008 general elections, the strategy of what was called the Third Front did not work; most individuals did not trust it. In a muddle of strategies, five states fell to the opposition Pakatan Rakyat but not because it had planned to do so. It had, of course, tried to win the Federal Government, but its plans were wide off the mark. When it won 5 states and 82 parliamentary seats it must have been as surprised as anyone else.
On the other hand, Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman had a strategy that he had worked on for years since 2003 – to give people the kind of development and security they had been yearning for – and his many victories till 2013 May 5th was no surprise, except perhaps to his opponents, and their surprise was more at the magnitude of his success than at the victory itself. It made their strategies and plans look comic in comparison. Musa Aman is an exception, and a phenomenon confined to Sabah.
At the national level, and in most other States, the structure of democracy is being subjected to forces that may well change it completely over time. To understand that one has, perhaps, to take a step back and look at what the process is about today. It is not about representing the “people’s” will. It is about control and power.
Our so-called democracy is defined not by the existence of dissent and opposition activity but by the nature of the power wielded. It is monarchical and meant to secure the interests, political and economic, of the ruling group, whichever it is. And this is done by ensuring that power remains with an elite group – preferably the family, but also those who are close to it and share the same backgrounds.
One can see it today in what many refer to as the First Family in the Umno Baru; Dr Mahathir Mohamad is clearly grooming his son, Mukhriz, to be the next Prime Minister. But they are not by any means the only family. Look at the number of sons and daughters and son-in-law now who are inducted into the corridors of power: Najib Tun Razak, Hishammuddin Tun Hussein Onn, Khairy Jamaluddin, even Mukhriz Mahathir in Kedah who is what he is because he is Dr Mahathir’s son, and a whole host of others whom media naively call the Young Turks. The original Young Turks were not just young; they had come to prominence because of their abilities, not because of who their father or mother or father-in-law was. A number of sons and daughters whom the media naively call Young Turks have been inducted into the corridors of power.
Inevitably, the elements of power are being chivied towards specific families, which will then determine who will stand for elections for their parties, and thus consolidate their own position, securing it for their generation and the generations to follow. Increasingly, their contact with the people has become more and more distant; the people get to be called the “rakyat” who have to be maneuvered by race, religion, money and promises. But this is not a phenomenon confined to the Umno party; it is as much in evidence in the opposition Pakatan Rakyat parties such as the DAP, PKR and PAS. Look at Lim Guan Eng, Nurul Izzah, Karpal’s sons, Ustaz Din Tok Guru the son-in-law of PAS President Ustaz Abdul Hadi Awang, so many more.
And where the factor of unease comes in is in what appears to be an inevitable slide towards oligarchy, where an elite takes over power – political and economic. It is economic, too, of course. All the big corporate giants are busy grooming their sons and daughters to take their place among the power elite; Syed Mokhtar al-Bukhary is only one instance of this. Even the much-revered Al Bukhary group is reportedly looking for a Syed to head it once Syed Mokhtar al-Bukhary leaves; Vincent Tan has already inducted his son into his Berjaya empire, so has Kuok Brothers, so has Ananda Krishnan.
One can only hope that this is not what we have in store for us, that we do produce some leaders from outside the elite families who, like Musa Aman in Sabah, will lead with clear concepts of development.