Resetting political culture as the way forward

By Prof Dr Mansor Mohd Noor

History proves that the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 triggered a mass and urban-based reformasi movement that resulted in the downfall of Barisan Nasional (BN) 20 years later in 2018.

The political life of the country was strengthened as questions were being asked of the illiberal state, semi-democracy and authoritarian leadership of Mahathir Mohamad and his successors came under the radar of the civil society, masses and the opposition political parties.

Battle cries of the reformasi movement for good governance, transparency and accountability became the political agenda for a regime change to end corruption, bad governance and development failures.

Malaysians from all walks of life, irrespective of race and religions, are aware that they do embrace a common understanding of the basic facts of our political life. As a small, maritime and (super) diverse society that depends on trading and exporting industrial products to other countries to provide employment and make a living, they demand ceaseless endeavour and the pursuits of tolerance and excellence to do well, get ahead and forge a united Bangsa Malaysia.

This political life of a pragmatic culture clothed in the values of tolerance and excellence that ensure perpetual progress and socially cohesive society brought Malaysians together to support the reformasi movement towards strengthening the grassroots-based civil society in seeking an alternative political landscape for the nation.

The regime change achieved as Pakatan Harapan was voted in as the ruling government and the end of the domination of BN was celebrated as an auspicious historical moment. Tun Mahathir, the seventh Prime Minster, called for government and institutional reforms in which the Council of Eminent Persons was established.

The Council recommended the setting up of Institutional Reform Committee and Electoral Reform Committee. Formally, the Agenda Reform ERC no. 4 was successfully implemented to reduce the age of voting to 18 years old and the automatic registration of voters. However, its implementation and the other recommendations made are in limbo as the Federal Constitution would need to be amended.

With the change in government to Perikatan Nasional in 2020 and the simple majority nature of the coalition government, to pass the recommendations of the Institutional Reform Committee and Electoral Reform Committee is a near impossibility in today’s unstable political climate as a two-thirds majority are needed to change any law.

With the rising misunderstanding of the roles of parliamentary democracy, governing and development cultures of the nation, PH and PN governments have derailed themselves in their political actions from touching the mind and heart of the ordinary citizens. They fail to manage the needs and welfare as trusted upon them to govern. Instead, they often manipulated the political life of the nation for their own domination of power, availing themselves to be the prime minister, ministers, exco-members and other government appointed posts available.

Thus, the survival of the ordinary citizens and B40 segment of the society, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic depression, was being sacrificed in comparison to the political agenda of domination that they ‘see’ as the ultimate agenda of politics.

Under such political misalignments, Malaysians should start thinking that our nation needs resetting and restrengthening of our political culture to end the politics of ethnicity, religion and party-based. Instead, it should be replaced with over-arching agendas of progress that benefits the citizens and strengthen nationhood as Bangsa Malaysia. Our political elites of the urban, rich and corporate grouping have been capitalising development and nation-building projects for their own perverted ends by using our name as ‘the voices of the people’ to legitimise their actions.

With the political stalemate now, we should learn from our own political and historical experiences that galvanised the diverse citizens till we gained independence and overcame the chauvinist politics with the success story of the New Economic Policy in defining our socially cohesive and prosperous nation. The cultures of power-sharing and governance have always been our political tradition that is grounded on our supreme law of the Federal Constitution. 

Today, political party democracy has failed the nation where the urban poor are losing jobs, finding no means to have access to basic needs of food and housing, and psychological stress leads them to commit suicide. We are not restoring law and order in the wake of ethnic riots as in 1969 but the eventuality of a failed state due this political stalemate needs to be halted where an emergency administrative body be given the tasks to govern and reset the political culture that has failed the nation.

Our shared history and culture of the Malay Archipelago and the (Global) Asian plural civilisations must be integrated and embedded as the national heritage in defining our own civilisational canopy of indigeneity of the Malay, Orang Asli, natives of Sabah and Sarawak as Bangsa Malaysia of our diverse nation. Bangsa Malaysia which should be comprehended as beyond ethnicity and religiosity should define our contemporary political life.

The preamble of the Rukunegara should be internalised as the aspirations of all Malaysians to nurture the ambition of achieving a more perfect unity amongst the whole of her society, preserve a democratic way of life, create a just society where the prosperity of the country can be enjoyed together in a fair and equitable manner, guarantee a liberal approach towards our traditional heritage that is rich and diverse, and build a progressive society that will make use of science and modern technology.

Left standing for us to emulate is the political culture of party politics in Sarawak. We could learn and reconstruct the national political culture that are in line with Malaysian political life where the defence of societal welfare is the pragmatic culture which blends the diverse population with harmony, stability and progress as the goals.

Malaysian should be courageous as they are the stakeholders to redefine the political culture of the nation based on how we define the political life of our diverse society toward progress and nationhood.

There are many forms of government and party politics. Democracy is one of the choices.

Prof Dr Mansor Mohd Noor is with the Institute of Ethnic Studies, (KITA) Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia

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