Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia New Year Message for 2017

Prioritise Political Institutional Reforms in GE14

The year 2016 has come to a close.  This has been a very challenging year for most Malaysians. On the economic front, we have a worsening exchange rate for the Malaysian Ringgit, rising prices of everyday goods and expenses, and increase in uncertainty.  All these happen against a backdrop of even greater political uncertainty, with many unresolved issues such as the 1MDB scandal, which ultimately can be traced back to Malaysia’s political institutional framework.

Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia (GBM) calls upon all Malaysians to put political institutional reforms before personalities and identity politics in the equation of change, especially for the upcoming 14th General Election (GE14). Overly winner-takes-all with power increasingly concentrated in the past three decades, our current political system has not only led to power abuse and corruption, but also makes any reforms overly risky and intimidating.

GBM empathises with many Malaysians who feel alienated and disempowered by Malaysian politics which has become directionless since 2013 and had only gotten worse in 2016. On one hand, endless episodes of ethno-religious contention loom large and have dwarfed concerns of good governance. On the other hand, the political parties are undergoing unprecedented political realignment, which see allies becoming enemies and enemies becoming allies in seemingly pure expediency.

These, coupled with the absence of any consensual prime ministerial candidate, not only leave voters with practically no meaningful choices to the extent that some voters are contemplating abstention or casting spoiled votes. Such situation also locks Malaysia into a political stalemate and quicksand, where the government is becoming increasingly unpopular but can and is likely to survive by being more repressive and manipulative.

GBM is worried about the future of the nation. However, we do not believe that middle-ground voters abstaining from polls is a viable solution, such action will only exacerbate polarisation and likely result in the capture of power by extreme  forces such as Trump and the European far right parties. In principle, we view positively compromises and realignment as politicians in any multiparty democracy should see each other only as competitors, not enemies.

What worries us is the lack of a clear road-map to transition and post-transition political settlement. The lack of such roadmap will make any rapprochement look expedient and opportunistic. Sadly, political elites from all sides continue to speak in moral and self-righteous tones, apparently unaware of the public’s growing anger, distrust and disgust of them.

GBM sees Malaysia’s deepening political crisis is an inevitable outcome of the existing political system. Horizontally, the Executive marginalises and dominates the Parliament and the Judiciary. Vertically, the federal government marginalises and dominates state governments and local authorities. Combining the two, the power of prime minister is effectively not checked by either law or public opinion in between elections.  Such concentration of power directly induces gigantic cases of corruption which triggers the current political and economic crises..

Meanwhile, the current winner-takes-all structure makes any changes extremely risky and intimidating to many. Where ethno-religious group interests are concerned, many fear a change of prime minister and government would mean a total collapse of status quo. Where personal ambitions are concerned, many fear that whoever occupies the Prime Minister’s seat would emerge as another strongman for many years..

To overcome such fear from preventing clear choices to emerge in the GE14, GBM calls upon all political parties to commit to sustaining the basic structure of status quo where ethno-religious group interests are concerned, from affirmative action to criminal jurisdiction of courts, for the 14th Parliament’s term while upholding and enhancing human rights. Any substantial changes should happen only with dialogues and consensus in a democratised environment after GE14.

For the GE14, political parties should instead promise in their manifestos and compete on bold political institutional reforms to restore democracy and good governance through enhancement of check and balance among and within different branches of government – Executive, Legislative, Judiciary – at all levels. Such an agenda is already well articulated in the Bersih 4 and Bersih 5 rally, stressing 10 key institutional reforms. Whichever parties that form the new governments after GE14 must implement such institutional reforms, such as free and fair elections, reform of the Parliament and other key institutions such as the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, Attorney General’s Chambers, enactment of Freedom of Information laws as well as the abolition of draconian laws such as SOSMA and Sedition Act.

With these reforms, Malaysia will have a real parliamentary democracy, whereby the executive branch especially the Prime Minister will be held accountable for their actions, rather than enjoying effective impunity. With the reduction of prime minister’s power and the ease to sack a corrupt prime minister, the question of who will be the next prime minister will be relatively less important.

The call for political institutional reforms over ethno-religious polemics and personalities is also indirectly a reminder where Malaysian politics has gone wrong. Despite the high stake, increasingly heated political competition since 2013 has not brought about enough attention to bread and butter issues. The poor and the marginalised are feeling the pinch the most as seasonal cash handouts are inadequate to cushion the effect of rising prices throughout the year. Hopefully with the right incentives, a less “winner-takes-all” and more decentralised political system will drive politicians and political parties to also compete in reviving our economy and building sufficient social safety net for those in needs.

With GE14 on the horizon, GBM therefore calls upon all political parties, civil society groups, businesses and individual citizens who want a healthy democracy to prioritise political institutional reforms in the GE14. We should all press for democracy, good governance and good socio-economic policies, rather than getting bogged down with disputes over ethno-religious group interests or rivalries between personalities.

Let us stay focused. Happy and rewarding 2017!

Zaid Kamaruddin,

Chair, Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia

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