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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Lessons From the American Elections

The American election campaign is now in full swing although citizens will not cast their votes until November. In fact this presidential campaign cycle started right after the last general elections over three years ago. America seems to be in a perpetual campaign mode. One wonders when these elected public officials would have the time to perform the duties for which they were being elected.

I much prefer the Malaysian election cycle, modeled after the British, where the ruling party could call an election any time before its five-year mandate is over. Yes, it gives an unfair advantage to the ruling party, but it spares the country from degenerating into perpetual campaigning.

Malaysia has an election cycle comparable to the Americans in the elections of party – specifically UMNO – leaders. Since they would become the nation’s leaders, the benefits of the British system of national elections are somewhat diluted. While the country may not be in a perpetual campaign election mode, UMNO and its leaders are. Therein lies the problem. UMNO leaders are less interested in leading the country and attending to its myriad problems but more in ensuring their survival in the party’s leadership hierarchy.

During the last cycle of UMNO party elections, a number of ministers were chastened to learn that their positions as party leaders were threatened, and with that their chance of being appointed to plump governmental, including cabinet, positions. Hence the disgusting sights of ministers like Hishammuddin slavishly pandering to party members instead of paying attention to our deteriorating schools.

Decoupling Party From Governmental Positions

In my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I suggest one way of overcoming this blight by decoupling party from governmental positions. Apart from widening the talent pool, such a system would also diffuse power and create some semblance of a system of checks and balances. Both are severely lacking at present.

Currently, a Menteri Besar is not only the state’s chief executive but he also heads the party within the state, manages the state’s development corporations, as well as chairs the municipal council of the state capital.

A fast rising star in UMNO confided to me that she is giving up her elected and party positions to concentrate on her private business. She just could not do justice to her official duties while having to attend the numerous weddings and funerals of her constituents, as well as constantly humor petty party officials and members.

This is where the American system is superior. Cabinet secretaries (ministers) and other senior political appointees could concentrate fully on their official duties and not have to worry whether some political punk back in his home town would be scheming to usurp his party position.

An American president has a wide and deep talent pool to tap; he is not restricted to members of his own party. Contrast that to a Malaysian Prime Minister who is restricted not only to his party members but only those in top leadership positions. Consequently young party members are diverted not to developing fully their individual talent that could benefit their party and country but to clawing their way up the party system. The skills they learn and habits they acquire along the way are mainly the unsavory ones like brandishing their kerises and racial taunting. When they do reach the top levels in their party, they are reduced to being political animals of the worst type.

Consequently while America counts effective executives, accomplished professionals, and seasoned scholars as cabinet secretaries, Malaysian ministers are for the most part scheming and opportunistic politicians.

With decoupling and the resulting diffusion of power and greater accountability, ministers and other elected officials would now have to answer not only to the Prime Minister but also to other party leaders. This would effectively reduce the power and influence of the Prime Minister. If nothing else, this would minimize the current dangerous tendency of making the Prime Minister the country’s eleventh sultan.

The most important reason for decoupling is that the skills needed to win elections are not necessarily those needed to run an agency or department. In fact they are the very opposite.

Unfair Criticism of the Malaysian Model

An oft stated unfair criticism of the Malaysian electoral system is that it “disenfranchises” urban dwellers in favor of rural ones. The “one man one vote” mantra should be viewed as a statement of an ideal and not be read literally. With greater urbanization, an urban constituency of 100,000 would cover only a few square miles and be readily served by one Member of Parliament, while a similar sized rural constituency would cover hundreds of square miles, taxing the physical ability of its lone political representative

In America, the bastion of democracy, this “one-man-one-vote” rule applies at best only to the House of Representatives. California with the largest population has the largest contingent of Congressmen and women. With the Senate, while California has a population 70 times larger than Wyoming, the two have the same number of senators: two. Similarly, Alaska with a land mass 700 times that of Rhode Island and where you would need days if not weeks to go from one end to the other on a plane, yet the two states have the same number of senators. Meanwhile the District of Columbia with a population larger than Wyoming does not even have any Senate representation.

The Malaysian Senate, while not an elected body, is far more representative of Malaysian society than the United States Senate is of American. While a literal interpretation of the ideal of “one-man-one-vote” would make the Malaysian Senate non “democratic,” in reality and in perception, it is more representative of Malaysians.

Having a representative elected political body is not enough. We must also ensure that the election process be fair and accessible. Unfortunately America has little to offer Malaysia in this regard. Public debacles such as Florida’s “hanging chads,” obstacles to voter registrations, the stranglehold of the two-party system and its staggered primaries, and the endless campaigns run by professionals, have turned the public off politics. The decline in voter participation reflects this.

The Malaysian Elections Commission is determined to best its American counterpart by not being voter friendly. The worst part is that Malaysia prides itself in doing this.

Fortunately in America, once in a while there comes a candidate who is so inspiring, who makes ordinary citizens believe again in themselves and who appeals to their better side such that voters are galvanized once again to take part in the electoral process. We had that in the 1960s with Jack Kennedy, in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan, and today with Barack Obama.

I long for the day when the Malaysian political system would produce its own John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, or Barack Obama.


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