Voting by manifesto
Writer: Lee Hwok Aun
Published: Fri, 22 Mar 2013
I REALLY want to compare two election manifestos, but as I write only one exists.
Pakatan Rakyat projected The People’s Manifesto on Feb 25. We are still waiting for Barisan Nasional’s.
A few weeks at most to the general elections, we are unable to evaluate the contending coalitions’ plans side by side.
In a way, there is nothing new here. This is democracy, BN style.
In 2004, it produced a manifesto 12 days before the rakyat went to the polls. Prior to 2004, the ruling regime hardly saw any need to outline its visions and priorities heading into general elections, at best slapping together a slew of platitudes.
But all will be explained after BN gets these elections out of the way and returns to power.
Technically, the practice is not entirely wrong. Elections do not commence until the dissolution of Parliament, so manifesto appearances before are in that sense premature.
In our system of unscheduled election dates, there is hardly time to prepare such documents.
Of course, the Election Commission is also technically free to decide whether campaigning will run for the minimum 10 days or the maximum 60 before voting day.
With a longer period, contenders could formulate credible manifestos.
The EC has traditionally chosen the minimum, and BN has said OK to that. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
But the last time was different.
In March 2008, Malaysian voters showed a wariness to the habits of fixing the election date at the incumbent’s perceived advantage, launching a two week self-praising blitz, then parading to receive the applause and retake the keys to Parliament and Putrajaya.
The brief campaign period did not lopsidedly favour BN as in the past.
This time, you would think, is even more different.
The rakyat has signalled that baiting votes by extracting gratitude or instilling fear does not work like it used to.
Timing wise, the window of tormenting uncertainty grows narrower by the day. General elections could be held as soon as three weeks, as late as… eight? High time for us to know what are BN’s plans if it wins, no?
Whatever the technical compliance and traditional practice, our elections still mournfully lack democratic spirit.
Prime Minister Najib Razak insists we still wait until the whole shebang of programmed transformation touches our lives. That’s why elections have not been called.
Besides the transformation of pockets through Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia (BR1M) or transformation of opinion through mainstream media bombardments, it’s hard to see much else happening within a month or so.
At this stage it’s better to simply and honestly tell us what has worked and what hasn’t, and what the future would hold under another BN government.
We can only extrapolate that BN will supply more of the same, or speculate on what might be different.
That’s just too bad, for everybody. But we do have one side’s manifesto, and that deserves recognition and comment.
Pakatan’s manifesto covers the bases and clearly targets specific issues and groups – corruption, democracy, healthcare, Orang Asli, Sabah and Sarawak, youth, taxi drivers – which have been marginalised, downtrodden or uninspired by BN.
It is refreshingly bold in committing to tackle difficult and entrenched problems, notably monopolies, environmental protection, public transportation, electricity tariffs, and car excise taxes.
However, while offering generous allocations and tax breaks, with measures to cut cost, the manifesto needs more attention to the revenue side and the overall balance.
From a professional standpoint, I heartily welcome the prospect of the UUCA’s abolition and guarantees of academic freedom.
These are necessary, though far from sufficient, conditions for rebirthing a culture of curiosity, critical thinking and fearless learning.
As a citizen, I also gladly receive the manifesto’s commitments to combatting corruption and conducting clean, fair and transparent elections.
The idea of a Heritage Fund for managing oil and gas revenues, and long term trust funds in general, could have been further developed.
I was quite impressed to see this new institution in the manifesto’s closing fictional letter written in 2023, but disappointed that it only appeared there and not in the main body.
Malaysia should certainly be managing natural resources more systematically and productively, incorporating both social spending and investment.
“The People’s Manifesto” provides a considerable platform for governing, although it does not satisfy on all fronts.
At least we have an idea of what to expect of one coalition, which has also given us time to read and criticise.
Of course, it remains a manifesto – a package of promises. It’s also important for electoral candidates and party leaders to be tested and scrutinised through debates, mandated asset declarations, funding rules and other good practices.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
Heading into our pivotal 13th general elections, the incumbents haven’t even told us if and how they are committed to maturing our democracy.