By Arveent Kathirtchelvan
The current predicament facing Malaysian politics is a clear indication that something is seriously wrong with Malaysian society. The bourgeois political system has given birth to 222 parliamentarians who can’t find amongst themselves 112 backing one person to be Prime Minister. This crisis was triggered by a group of parliamentarians within the ruling coalition of Pakatan Harapan breaking away to try to form a backdoor government with their opposition counterparts. Apparently, this was to block Anwar Ibrahim, the de-facto leader of the (then) largest party in the ruling coalition, from succeeding Tun Dr. Mahathir as Prime Minister. So, for the first time in history (probably), a new government was to be formed backing the same Prime Minister.
We could try to explore this history of the past five-day fiasco, but that is much too confusing. What is clear is that a small group of about 222 people, supposedly elected to represent the rakyat’s interests, through personal conviction are deciding what is best for a nation of 30 million people. It is obvious that the driver for this change has been political ambition and escape from legal convictions on the part of opposition politicians who are facing lawsuits due to corruption. How could this happen?
The Culprit: Bourgeois Politics
Malaysia, unfortunately, has inherited a deeply flawed political system which alienates the common man. What’s more, over 60 years of racialised governance has led to modifications in that system that institutionalised racial and religious discrimination through instruments of the state often used to instigate sensitivities within different groups to manipulate voting patterns. From gerrymandered constituencies to powerful religious policing, Malaysia has become a battlefield of the underclass fighting amongst each other, supporting an oppressive class of wealthy, powerful individuals who, ironically, display unity.
A supposed democracy, Malaysia entertains general elections every 5 years or so, where voters get to cross ballots indicating their preference for members of parliament and state legislative assemblies. However, there exists minimal direct involvement of the people within the planning and execution of government plans. This leaves the ruling class with no real drive to deliver proper changes within the system to benefit the people.
An example would be when the Pakatan Harapan coalition failed to adequately increase minimum wages after they had taken power from Barisan Nasional in 2018. Initially only mooting an RM 50 increase, the Harapan coalition subsequently added another RM 50 to make the minimum wage RM 1100 for the year of 2019 after protests done by a coalition of trade unions, NGOs and NGIs. With the main criticism towards BN being the unbearable cost of living, it was indeed strange for Harapan not to deliver on this front, but it was unsurprising as favouring the powerful Malaysian Employers’ Federation would be more politically savvy compared to lowly workers.
Therefore, many people are left disillusioned and do not want to cast their votes for anyone. You wake up bright and early, stand in a long line, carefully cross the box next to the name you prefer on the ballot paper (remembering to use a pen just in case of any funny business) and go home tired but satisfied. You feel euphoria when your candidate wins, only to be heartbroken when they completely forget their promises to you, preferring instead to stand for themselves and profit off of manipulating the electorate. Where is the accountability?
Backdoor machinations, though despicable, still are completely legal. There’s absolutely nothing normal Malaysians can do to stop it, nothing we can do to prevent the formation of a Muafakat Nasional government, if it is to be. This is indicative of deep structural problems that disempower the rakyat. No matter who is elected, the risk of pro-rakyat agendas being subverted due to money politics or personal political ambitions remains high.
The Solution: Education, Agitation, Organisation
We should be asking for the distribution of power to the common man. There needs to be the direct inclusion of interest groups within parliament. Representatives of Orang Asli/Asal groups, single mothers, students, the OKU community and environmental groups should be given representation in the highest echelons of the Legislative instead of waiting to be called by ministry officials for limited focus group discussions. There needs to be representation by party lists so that smaller parties who capture a certain percentage of votes are included within parliament to give a fairer representation of the rakyat’s sentiments towards policy directions.
We should be talking about strengthening workers’ unions. With only a very small percentage of workers being unionised, they are ripe to be exploited by employers through zero-hour contracts, eroding benefits and salaries much smaller than the living wage. The power balance between employers and employees ever since unions were busted has heavily favoured the former resulting in disproportionate political influence, leading to ever worsening labour regulations.
There needs to be an empowerment of farmers to remove exploitative middle-men arrangements where the profits of crops are haemorrhaged away by the rentier class associated closely with established politicians. The land belongs to the tiller.
This is deep structural change and it is the only way we can escape from the bourgeois politics of waiting on a saviour class to emancipate us. In reality, these chains are ours to break. We need to organise. Clusters of people with the same interest need to meet, work together and move as one. We need these clusters to work with one another for the benefit of all. Workers need to turn up for student protests, students need to campaign on behalf of Orang Asli/Asal groups, farmers’ groups need to speak up for women’s groups.
This kind of bottom-up approach is how politics should work. Those who have the wherewithal to help organise others need to turn up and start work. Those who can spare funds need to spend on empowering the common man. It is through these organisations that we can then truly ensure the power of the people stays in the hands of the people. No amount of criticising current elected officials is going to change, truly change, this situation.
Of course, electoral politics will remain relevant for the foreseeable future, but we must understand it as one part of many avenues delivering material benefits to the rakyat. Of course, state power is a formidable tool in hastening this delivery, but without the structural changes, the fall of a progressive government will lead to unanswerable oppression. So, we should field and vote for candidates who are committed to the cause. Standing on the outside of all this, complaining about your powerlessness without doing anything to help or, worse, looking down upon those who are committed to the cause due to the size and resources of their party will change nothing.
What pride have we in ensuring millionaires who don’t care about us continue winning to continue ignoring our needs? Don’t fall for the hype. Their banners, videos, posters and events may be gilded, but it is with pyrite.
Arveent Kathirtchelvan is the Chief Coordinator of Liberasi