The 8th day of March 2008 is a milestone in Malaysian history; and the 9th, the following day, witnesses a new morning.
For half a century, Malaysians (for a variety of reasons both real and imagined) have got accustomed to living under a political monopoly, believing and fearing that any substantial change would be detrimental to their own interest. It was, in part, an indoctrinated fear.
That psychological shackle of fear has now been broken.
The Barisan Nasional (including its predecessor), having ruled the country since independence, is naturally wondering why its iron-fisted monopoly has been so suddenly and unexpectedly breached. For the sake of moving the nation forward, this enquiry, if it can be carried out with brutal and painful frankness, will be a meaningful one.
The reasons for this moment of truth are multiple and complex, almost too numerous to list. But I suggest that they include the following:
(a) There is no denial that the coalition formula was necessary for the attainment of independence. The spirit of working together, as equal partners, was both admirable and essential. Equal, that is, though not in terms of numbers, but in terms of rights and responsibilities. However, over the years, the gradual erosion of this spirit, brought about by the greed for power and wealth, has betrayed the essence of the coalition formula, and has turned it from a winning formula into an oppressive one.
(b) To maintain power and control, it became expedient to arrange politics according to race, in order to divide and rule, first along racial lines, and then along religious ones. The coalition becomes equal only in the payment of lip service. It gets increasingly difficult to convince the affected persons that this is a partnership of equals, while their representatives are compelled to continue insisting that it is.
(c) The preoccupation by the ruling elite in pursuing personal power and wealth, fuelled by an unbroken string of successes no matter how audacious their conduct has become, has entrenched a culture of ignoring the genuine needs and wishes of the people. The citizens’ voices of appeal may grow louder and louder, but are met with either deaf ears or insincere promises that are repeatedly broken. Those who dare to turn up the volume of their complaints are harshly dealt with. But the people cannot be fooled forever. Carrots delivered just before each election might have worked for a while, but cannot work indefinitely. And the people cannot be cowed forever.
(d) For decades Malaysians with genuine grouses or who wish to offer solutions for societal problems were told to work “within the system”. “If you want something (that ought to be yours in the first place), come and work within the system” is the fatherly decree issued throughout the years. That might be acceptable if the system in fact works. Alas, most experience of working within the system soon became “begging the system”, with small successes and huge frustrations. Is it surprising, then, that a time will come when the people will say that enough is enough?
(e) A system of the above nature allows sycophants and leaders with personal agenda to thrive, while those who wish to reveal the truth and improve the lot of the people are at best ignored and at worst persecuted. Such is the perfect recipe for an eventual downfall.
(f) The above expanding phenomena, and many others, have manufactured a host of fatal problems such as endemic corruption, depletion of national resources, inequity in the distribution of resources, abuse of power, and the like; in short, an unfair society. It is a matter of time before simmering discontent acquires an erupting force.
(g) Arrogance on the part of the ruling elite (again because of their unbroken record of successes and the fear tactics that they have no reservation in using) makes them blind to the repeated warnings that things are about to boil over. The use of threats, splashed on the front pages of newspapers in the days leading to the election, sickened many, and probably backfired. Some of those threats had clear racial undertones. It was Malaysians who, in casting their votes, had surprised the Barisan by rising above racial divide (such as in Penang and Klang). The Barisan has underestimated the growing maturity of the Malaysian electorate.
There are of course many more reasons and causes than those mentioned above. If the Barisan wishes to regain lost ground in the future, it needs to sincerely pay heed to frank advice, and remedy its serious shortcomings.
Now that the political monopoly has been broken in a number of States, and the future prospect of breaking the same at the federal level has become an attainable goal rather than a dream, the Opposition (which is now the ruling party at some State levels) has a mountain of work ahead. So much hope is pinned on their shoulders.
Among the most important things that the Opposition must do are the following.
(i) They must never forget, not even in their sleep, that their much-improved victory is not their victory, but the victory of the people. Thus they must serve the people with humility and dedication. They should be proud, not of their success, but of the people who have enabled them to succeed.
(ii) Having been in the opposition for so long, some of them need to quickly learn the ropes of governing. Teething problems are inevitable. Be transparent and frank to the people, and remedy any errors as soon as they are discovered. While the people expect perfect bona fide and honesty, they will be forgiving about imperfections in the execution of tasks, when things are done transparently.
(iii) Identify and divide tasks into various categories: those that require urgent attention, short-term goals, long-term policies, and so on. Set timelines for each task, though not cast in stones, and make every effort to keep to them. Engage or employ the right people for the right jobs. Outsource if need be.
(iv) Pay immediate attention to issues that are most burning to the people, such as the economy, poverty issues, equitable distribution of resources and opportunities, security, etc.
(v) Set up effective oversight mechanisms immediately, especially in relation to financial matters, the processing and granting of permits and contracts, and corruption in the public sector. This must include a strict monitoring of the members of the Opposition themselves, to ensure that no corruption or cronyism is practised.
(vi) Set up effective mechanism to receive and address complaints from members of the public.
(vii) Opposition leaders at all levels, and in particular the top leaders, must ensure that there is no in-fighting among themselves, for this will quickly destroy the faith that Malaysians have placed on them by giving them this opportunity that is hitherto unprecedented in Malaysian history.
The challenge for the Opposition in the coming months and years is a huge one. There will be many more ways to fail in this challenge than to succeed. They have to be always vigilant, honest and humble. Opposition members are not exempt from frequent visits by the demons of human weaknesses. The same people who have put them there can as easily reverse the decision if they should betray the faith placed in them.
Checks and balances are essential for any system of government. This new morning in Malaysia will in the long run benefit all Malaysians, whatever their political persuasions may be. Let us all get down to hard, honest work.
Yeoh Yang Poh, former President of the Malaysian Bar Council, is a member of CSI-Parliament.