Can COVID be a catalyst for change?

Unexpected crises often lead to questions and eventual change. Within the lifetime of our elders World War II was the catalyst of the last major change in world affairs. Amongst its many affects, it triggered the independence of colonised countries, including our beloved Malaysia.

We don’t need or want a world war to trigger the next change. Human beings however often retreat into complacency, comfort, accustomed routine. We follow and accept ‘what is’ without query, out of fear of upsetting the norm or face the risk of being labelled a lunatic. Radical change therefore does not happen unless triggered by some external event. Is the current norm ideal? Is there a need for change? Is the current pandemic a trigger for change?

The “what is” in Malaysia is far from ideal. An ideal society would have been able to cope, handle and subdue any challenge to the norm, including an unexpected pandemic. Covid-19 found us grossly lacking and vulnerable. Granted, nobody has the experience in handling an epidemic of such magnitude. However it has become apparent that we suffer a total inadequacy of will, empathy, knowledge, expertise, direction, vision or adequate resources which ought exist and be available in an ideal leadership and administrative infrastructure, irrespective of the pandemic.

From inception we knew that the virus spreads by droplets and can be contained by the use of masks and social distancing. Lockdowns in its many forms and modifications became inevitable. However our leadership bungled the implementation of our lockdowns, and caused much of society to suffer. Our government then offered inadequate reprieve to those who were suffering, in the form of haphazard and slow relief . This inability to ensure the confidence and sustenance of the entire population is a failure of the system. Our leaders claim to be the experts, but we are ranked No 53 of 53 in pandemic handling.

If 64 years of independence has led us this far off from an ideal government, then did we take the correct path from independence? First, with regards to the political platform, we adopted (or were imposed with) a foreign Westminster style democracy. Second, we parroted a western capitalist economic platform. We were coached to believe that both were ideals to replicate. Any murmur of socialist or community autonomous self-determination ideas of any kind would invite an expulsion from the independence negotiations. Western democracy with capitalism was the only ‘ideal’ path, as opposed to the dreaded communist left in the post-war years.

The pandemic revealed that perhaps we took the wrong path. We could not ascertain who requires assistance during a lockdown because such is a trait of a capitalist economy. Every individual has to fend for himself and his family. Businesses are expected to create employment and churn profits. The role of government is to facilitate the drama of capitalism. Such is the norm which we had happily subscribed to. Government is not supposed to bailout private failures. Government is not expected to pry into how individuals live and prepare their lives as these are an individual’s unfettered right – so say our western tutors. Let us not kid ourselves that the current governing system is capable of the best solutions.

When faced with survival needs, with the population demanding that the government offers the life-line of sustenance, are we not in fact abandoning the capitalist model? Are we in fact craving for socialist ideals? Are we not saying that government should stop merely facilitating business but must be the custodian of the well being of the population?

We were taught to adopt the capitalist corporate model since independence. This was the only way our colonial masters could continue ownership of much of the economy while granting purported independence to us. Had we desired to nationalise all colonial-owned business, peaceful independence would have been a distant dream. Having adopted the western capitlist system, our attention and policies promoted corporate ownership of business. Wanting to reduce foreign ownership of our economy, naturally race politics surfaced as whom amongst the locals should own the local corporations? 64 years later, we are still grappling with this false perception and related politics. I say false because corporate ownership is not a true reflection of the ownership of a nation’s wealth. I say false because international financial assessment tools presently used by the capitalist western order including GDP, CPI, per-capita, etc, etc do not in fact reflect true prosperity or desired life. Their maths brand us as poor. Their models do not reflect the ideals of eastern cultures. Our civilisations and values were never dependent on consumerism which is an essential ingredient of capitalism.

With a built-in mindset that corporate ownership is key in an economy, the UMNO dominated leadership steered the government machinery into creating Bumiputera corporate ownership at a breakneck speed, to an extent that expertise, efficiency, ability, productivity and business efficacy took a step backwards. All government policies revolved upon race. The Bumiputera class had to match up with the expected prosperity measured by the statistical tools of the west. Government could no longer continue with the pure capitalist model which required meritocracy, competitiveness and efficiency. Our government took on a dual role of not only facilitating enterprise but steering towards so-called racial equality in corporate ownership.

In a constitution-sanctioned racial preference system, UMNO politics went beyond facilitating Bumiputera private enterprise. They created a politico-economic kleptocracy which in turn is dependent on government contracts and handouts. The Bumiputera entrepreneur class was not allowed to naturally evolve but was handed and converted into purported capitalists overnight. Their interlinking inter-dependence grew with billions of Ringgit of contracts in the hands of the political-economic kleptocracy. Under the veil of a nation’s cause, those perpetrating corruption and rented prosperity don’t see it as a wrong, but as their right, being oblivious that their conduct ensures the lagging of their community. The continued survival of that kleptocratic class, without real business income, requires protectionist measures, often at the expense of the masses outside that class. The disparity between the haves and the have-nots is inevitable and will surely grow.

These kleptocrats need the ‘what is’ to continue. They are not the capitalists in the Marxist sense as they don’t dominate the production and capital. They use the administrative machinery to perpetuate their survival to the exclusion of others. Together with the controllers of capital, their actions have a common result, i.e. the inevitable suppression of the rest of the population in a non-level playing field. They give those outside their class a false sense of ‘equality of opportunity’ and enslave them to continuous consumerism.

We reap what we sow. There is neither a need for accusations nor blame. Unless there is an admission that the current system does not bring about the desired ideal, we would not seek an alternative model. Unfortunately despite the negatives of the pandemic, it appears we are returning to the pre-pandemic chaos. There is no search for a better ideal.

We are now exposed to many economic models and experiences in the last half century. Extreme left communism not only broke-up the USSR but moved those economies to capitalism and veiled democracy instead. On the other hand, state controlled socialism has engineered China into a modern high income nation, admittedly with elements of capitalism infused within. Why must Malaysia stick to an economic model which has proven to be far from the ideal?

Malaysia experienced a tumultuous leadership crisis in the midst of the pandemic with a third Prime Minister in 2 years besides changes in leadership in numerous states. Again, instead of querying whether the Westminster parliamentary model is the cause or whether it has served us well, we appear to be falling back to that same model, expecting it to bring better results in GE15. We refuse to learn.

Our model, the Westminster system, prevailed with two dominant parties in the UK. They however do not have a written constitution. They have a system which evolves into accepted mature practices. They respect the freedom of association as we do in our constitution. However an elected MP does not jump ship after being elected via a party. Parliamentary discipline is maintained by the party whips. A parliamentarian can vote against his party whip but he faces the risk of being reprimanded, marginalized or even expelled. If expelled, he sits in the independent block of the House, not with the opposite wing. There is an unwritten contract or at least legitimate expectancy by the electorate that their winning candidate will not jump ship to the losing party. It is this certainty that gives credence to the continuity of the Westminster practices.

64 years after independence, while in the midst of our worst political crisis, where the elected is ousted and the ouster is ousted and the loser reigns, are we still insisting that in our society, all aspects of the Westminster system must continue to apply?

Race was the key to coalition party politics in Malaysia. It was convenience at the time of independence as a speedy solution, instead of a risk of turmoil and break-up akin to the Indian experience. Whether the Westminster system is conducive to coalition politics was never questioned. Is the first-past-the-post model suitable in a plural coalition party system? Coalition politics has flourished in Malaysia. Jumping parties appear to be a norm, irrespective of which party won. Coalition politics produces many masters but no leaders. Why did our system compel the highly-held and impartial Royal House to determine a matter which ought have been resolved by our parliamentary system? Was the ceremonial privilege of the Monarch intended to be an executive function by the framers of our constitution? Did the framers of the constitution grant liberty to the individual MPs to indicate their choice of the country’s leader irrespective of their party? Are coalition parties free to discard the flag that won them their seat? Is the electorate to be educated that the flag and the party mean nothing? Are we not able to see that the parliamentary system as being practised by us is not working? Our polity has not evolved naturally and has not matured enough to insist on good practices. Why are we then expecting that change will happen in GE15? In a flawed system irrespective of the victor, these ills will remain.

The easy escape is to follow ‘what is’ by saying we don’t have an alternative. We as a nation must find our own peace, not stick with one imposed on us. A hybrid of democratic socialism with a centre left economic model which permits private ownership and enterprise can be workable. However, we need to diagnose before we prescribe. Before diagnosis we need to admit an ailment exists. We have not reached that stage. The current leaders of all sides do not admit to the flaws. The pandemic does not appear troubling enough to be the catalyst for real change (I don’t desire a worse catastrophe either). Whether this pandemic is a lost opportunity will remain a question for future historians.

K. Jeyaraj
30th August 2021

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