Originally published in theMalaysiaInsider
MARCH 16 — In the 2010 Umno general assembly, its president, Prime Minister Najib Razak sounded the battle-cry to defend Putrajaya at all cost, “even if our bodies are crushed and our lives lost”.
At the state level, however, Barisan Nasional is taking a more humble approach in their campaign. This is especially so in the states where Pakatan Rakyat forms the state government. In these states, Barisan Nasional borrowed a leaf off the opposition’s campaign strategy, calling the people to vote Barisan Nasional for a strong state opposition in order to check on the Pakatan Rakyat state government.
This sounds reasonable, almost democratic. But is it really so?
Why a strong opposition?
Firstly, we must understand that a strong opposition whether in the federal or state government is not an end in itself. The whole idea is hinged on the principle of good governance, to enable an effective check on the government of the day.
A government with unfettered power is dangerous to the people. The Malaysian government at the federal level is a notorious example of a government with almost unlimited authority: There is almost no accountability in public spending resulting in the loss of billions of ringgit, government machinery and resources are utilised to enrich cronies and to further partisan political interests, and critics are silenced, often by means of unjust arrest under draconian laws.
Only in the recent years, after the unprecedented gains of the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat in the 2008 general election, do we begin to witness one after another exposé of the wrongdoings of the federal government. This is the merit of a strong opposition.
Secondly, in the tradition of liberal democracy, the opposition is essentially a government-in-waiting. As such, the opposition should be empowered to partake in decision-making process, even if only as watchdog to the government. This can only happen if the government gives due recognition to the opposition.
The appointment of the opposition leader in the legislature is one way of acknowledging the importance of the function of the opposition bench. Because of its position of relative disadvantage, the opposition can only be as strong as the government’s willingness to concede the opposition’s role.
Take, for example, the task of scrutinising the government’s budget and proposing an alternative budget; opposition lawmakers in countries such as the US and, more recently, Australia, are given access to the research services of an independent congressional or parliamentary budget office. As such, they have as much machinery support as the government when dealing with fiscal issues. This is not the case in Malaysia where the oppositions are even denied control of their annual constituency development funds.
Safe space to criticise
Yet merely having a strong opposition does not result in accountability and transparency, much less efficiency in governance. The opposition party must be given safeguards against persecution when discharging their role as political ombudsman.
Thus, in Malaysia, we must not only abolish draconian laws such as the Internal Security Act, the Official Secrets Act and the Printing Press Act, the government must legislate the democratic right to expression to ensure freedom to critic, protest and scrutinise public institutions.
The example was conspicuously set in Pakatan Rakyat states such as Selangor and Penang, which have adopted or are in the process of adopting Freedom of Information laws, among others. Moreover, in Penang, the state government established not only one but two speakers’ corners to encourage free speech.
Credible opposition: Quality vs. quantity
When as a state opposition party in Penang, Barisan Nasional leaders called for a strong opposition, the question remains: Which party should be voted in as a strong opposition? Which party can be relied on to play the role of an effective and responsible political ombudsman to the state government of the day? Barisan Nasional seemed to take it for granted that they are able to play such role.
What the people need, both in Penang or any other states and in Malaysia at the federal level, is not merely more opposition lawmakers, but more credible lawmakers on both sides of the House. We definitely do not need an opposition that incites violence, makes false accusation, promotes fascist and racist ideas, and supports the cultures of corruption and cronyism.
Strong trunk, weak branches
In countries such as Singapore, where the opposition is relatively weak, the government is efficient because there is a high regard for the rule of law. But in the case of Malaysia, not only is the power of federal government unfettered due to the ruling party’s strong political hegemony, the government is notorious for disavowing justice where its political interest is at stake.
On the other hand, at the state level, state governments are never strong enough because power is concentrated at the federal level. Almost all key portfolios, from utilities management to solid waste, from sewage to security, from transportation to trade and taxation, all these fall under the purview of the federal government. Although Penang, Perak and Selangor opted out of the federalisation of solid waste management last year, the other areas mentioned above are still beyond the control of these states.
The disproportionate power diffusion is most clearly observed in the budget of the federal government versus state budgets. In 2012, the Penang government’s budget is about RM900 million while the federal government’s budget is RM 230 billion. In other words, the federal budget is a whopping 25, 000 per cent more than the budget of the Penang state government.
Thus, while we have a strong trunk, the branches are very weak; some almost too weak to bear any fruits. In such a radically asymmetric distribution of power, the state governments in Malaysia are often at the mercy of the federal government. Consequently, empowering Barisan Nasional at the state level is equivalent to making the school bully the school prefect.
Housing the government in a glass house
If Umno-Barisan Nasional cannot be relied upon to play the role of a credible and responsible opposition, how do we ensure accountability and transparency on the part of the Pakatan Rakyat state governments?
We must understand that our democracy goes hrough a transition, progressing from the hegemony of a single ruling party for half a century into a two- or even multi-party system. We must continue to encourage the healthy competition of ideas and ideologies, but the more important task at hand is to break the political hegemony of Barisan Nasional. Within such hegemony, no competing thoughts can flourish and no democracy can take place.
In the past, oppressive regimes operated through spreading of lies and withholding the truth. The government usually has a monopoly of mass media (which is still the case in Malaysia, to an extent) and other factors of communications. Yet, in this age of WikiLeaks, the ground is leverage as far as information is concerned.
The control of information is close to impossible with the revolution in technology where information can now be accessed and shared almost without cost, at a very fast speed and in a radically large scale. Today, governments have to realised they are operating in a glass house, exposed to all to see. Transparency is no longer an option, but an obligation. Therefore, the civil society must capitalise on such advantage to keep their governments in account.
Yet in Malaysia, the federal ruling party is resisting to move into the glass house. But they cannot resist for long because political dynamics in our country have changed. At the state level, after being chased out of the house, and while the present house is being renovated to change its walls into transparent glass, Barisan Nasional attempts to enter by the backdoor with an argument based on a flawed analogy — that they too want a strong opposition in Pakatan Rakyat states.
We must ask if Barisan Nasional is the kind of opposition party we really need. One thing is certain, if they return to the house, they will halt any changes and return the state to business as usual.
Finally, this is the time for civil society to play a bigger role in politics. We should remove the unnecessary dichotomy between the political and non-political. The people must not leave it to the experts, the politicians.
Democracy itself presupposes that no one is an expert in the matters of administrating society, but everyone should be involved, one way or the other. The era of citizen passivity is over. The people must realise the powerful potential in their hand to scrutinise, to reprimand and even to punish their governments.
* Steven Sim is a councillor of the Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Perai (MPSP) and the Penang state treasure of DAPSY. He was recently named one of the Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.