Running, standing and growing in democracy
Writer: Wong Chin Huat
Published: Fri, 12 Apr 2013
THE coming elections are indeed heavily dominated by personalities.
Not just about Prime Minister Najib Razak’s self-styled presidential campaigns and the two prime ministers-in-waiting, Anwar Ibrahim and Muhyiddin Yassin.
The polls are increasingly about personal conquests by the Titans if not personal battles between them.
Even until a few days ago, Anwar – once Asia’s best Finance Minister - was contemplating whether to leave his home turf Permatang Pauh to take on his affable distant successor Ahmad Husni, caretaker Second Finance Minister, in Tambun.
If it indeed takes place, the most exciting duel now seems to be the battle of Gelang Patah between DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang and BN’s fourth-term Johor Menteri Besar Abdul Ghani Othman.
It would be extremely silly to dismiss such battles of Titans with some cheap moralistic statements.
For example, as Lim told FZ.com, if he was a political fugitive as accused by his enemies, then he must be “a peculiar type of political fugitive… with a death wish”.
Political fugitives would have run from dangerous fields to friendlier grounds. That is the exact opposite for Lim: Ipoh Timor is a super stronghold he won in 2008 with a landslide margin near 22,000 while Gelang Patah which MCA defended with a margin of nearly 9,000 is considerably risky.
Lim’s clear goal was to trigger another political tsunami from the south by taking on Johor, UMNO’s birthplace and BN’s top fortress in the peninsula.
He comes with a small army to conquer.
Joining him are DAP thinker Liew Chin Tong and PAS vice-president Salahuddin Ayob who leave behind their own safe seats in Penang and Johor. The latter is widely considered as Pakatan Rakyat’s Menteri Besar designate should the opposition take the state.
Neither is Abdul Ghani nor his party behaving irrationally for contemplating his candidacy in Gelang Patah. Personal showdowns in the past had not been crossing the ethno-religious divide. Also, they involved largely only DAP and MCA politicians, such as MCA president Lee San Choon and DAP national chairman Dr Chen Man Hin in Seremban in 1982.
An analysis by the Malaysian Insider suggested that Ghani might have been forced by circumstances to consider running in Gelang Patah.
The caretaker Menteri Besar is apparently not in the good books of both the palace and Johor Malays, many of whom experience hardship in daily life thanks to inflation brought by rapid development in Iskandar Malaysia.
Hence, while beating Lim may revive his political fortune, losing to the Chinese opposition leader in a Chinese-majority seat may also be blamed on ethnic voting, hence less embarrassing than if he loses to a Malay opponent in a Malay-majority constituency.
The Gelang Patah case shows that showdowns may be the most rational strategy for at least one if not both the antagonists.
However, is it the most rational strategy for the entire political system? Would this help to produce better politicians in the long run?
At one level, this is akin to asking in a sport game if it is good to have all seeded players slated to play against each other in the preliminary rounds.
In sports, seeded players are identified to protect them from premature defeat by their peers, allowing some weaker but luckier players to win top prizes by chance.
Of course, parliamentary politics are different from individualistic sport games. Politics is eventually a team game and the premature exit of politicians – even the better ones – may merely pave the way for faster intergenerational renewal.
For example, if Kluang voters decide to choose young intellectual Liew over the middle-aged Dr Hou Kok Chong (the outgoing Deputy Higher Education Minister), Liew’s victory may contribute to the installation of a Pakatan Rakyat government, which may assign Liew with the same portfolio.
Hence, the possible battle between Hu Pang Chao (national chairman of PAS Supporters Congress) and Dr Wee Ka Siong (the outgoing Deputy Education Minister) in Ayer Hitam may be seen as a voters’ verdict on which politician can do a better job in promoting diversity and integration.
Similarly, the contestation of the outgoing Human Resource Minister S. Subramaniam (MIC deputy president) and former Health Minister Chua Jui Ming (PKR Johor state chief) may serve as an assessment exercise on the administrative ability of both contenders.
The price of such interesting battlefields – which allows the voters a clear choice – is however huge. A change of candidacy in one constituency may result in correspondent changes in a few others.
Hence, unless and until the big guns fix their battlefields, the lesser prospective candidates can wait in agony forever.
Working hard in a constituency may be the silly thing to do as a nationally more established candidate may step in to take over the constituency and you may have to start your ground work somewhere again.
One such example is Hulu Selangor councillor Chua Yee Ling who had worked - soon after 2008 - on the Tanjung Malim parliamentary constituency, just across the Perak-Selangor boundary.
Despite support by the local party branches, the parliamentary seat is given to former parliamentarian of Klang, Tan Yee Kew, who is thought to have a bigger chance in winning over the support of her former MCA colleagues.
And Chua has to be parachuted to contest in Kuala Sepatang, a state seat in northern Perak, disrupting the original candidacy arrangement there.
The peril of such winnability-first selection is that it takes away the incentives for local talents to develop their local base.
After all, if winning means just running rather than standing, why should you grow your roots deep into the local ground?
Can democracy be healthy without effective control of politicians by the locals?
As the country is at the cross root in choosing whether to have a new government, quality of particular candidates really becomes a much lesser question. Voters will accept the parachute candidates from their preferred political parties even if they are not from the class of Lim Kit Siang.
Democracy remains hollow as long as candidacy selection cannot be bottom-up. While it might not be so obvious in the past, fully bottom-up candidacy selection is actually not possible in the Malaysian context, confined by both coalition politics and the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system.
Hopefully, after regime change, there will be enough public interests to examine the logic and consequences of our political system.