April is my birthday month and as I age, birthdays have increasingly become occasions for reflection. Ageing has made me comfortable with things familiar, and I am enclosing myself in a cocoon that is increasingly solitary. But solitude is a companion of reflection, the means with which one can actually look beyond actions — asking why and contemplating reasons for why things are. This is also the month before the general election — a time to contemplate, to decide.
So, I started a conversation with my father, whose next birthday will be his 88th. He has always been my moral compass. He has been spending his time writing his story on his laptop.
A simple question — “What is our problem?” — led to the following list.
“We have lost the skills to strive and survive,” he started his diagnosis. The Malays, in particular, have lost that skill set, he said. Humans are born with the potential to do things and any skill has to be taught, to be learnt. It does not come naturally. Survival skills have to be sharpened by doing, failing and doggedly trying again and again.
The Malays have been given a false sense of privilege and entitlement, thanks to public policy and programmes premised on “giving rather than developing”. These policies and programmes have not only been ineffective but have also stunted the Malays’ skills to strive, making them less competitive and less resilient. There is a certain pervasiveness of government policies in their lives, which is debilitating. It does not encourage them to be confident, to be responsible for themselves.
We have to be like the snakehead fish found in padi fields, my father said. When it finds itself on land, it will struggle to find water. It will die trying to do so. We can’t be snakeheads if we are mollycoddled, he said. I cannot disagree.
His second point is that we have to do things well and correctly. To take pride in what we do. This immediately reminded me of the Election Commission’s two-volume report on the recent redelineation of electoral boundaries in Peninsular Malaysia. It is such an important piece of work but was done without the requisite rigour and due regard for quality. It is voluminous and filled with a lot of pictures but it is devoid of analyses of how things are and how they will change.
What was the methodology used? What were the principles and measurements used to derive the recommendations? I came across somewhat obscure facts like height of mountain ranges and length of rivers in the peninsula but I could not find much analysis on the substantive matter of drawing electoral boundaries.
I am aware that voters, and therefore votes, are necessarily unequal in weight, but I could not find the metrics and parameters, demographics or otherwise, that were used to guide the determination of the number of voters in a particular constituency, nor did I find any ex-ante and ex-post analyses of their recommendations in terms of metrics and parameters applied. There could have been technical appendices to the report, but there were none.
It made me wonder if this shoddiness is a reflection of the state of public institutions generally. If such an important institution produced a piece of work of this quality, what does it say about the other public institutions?
My father’s last point is to follow the law or rules as uniformity is a measure of justice. Societies that have achieved civilisational excellence are those that have the discipline and honour to follow their own rules. The Machiavellian norms of politics should not permeate social and public institutions, for such an infringement is corrupting. That is why there must be a clear demarcation between the worlds of politics and public institutions.
It is easy to be distracted by partisan politics and minimise the importance of public institutions — as the institutions themselves deteriorate. Partisanship purports to be about “what” and largely ignores the “how” part, whose effectiveness depends on the strength of the institutions.
Left unchecked, partisanship can actually destroy public institutions, through neglect or abuse. Whatever the reason, the consequences of weakened public institutions are damning — the political process is perverted and the effectiveness of the government undermined.
The Arab Spring phenomenon shows how totalitarian regimes with poor public accountability and governance — therefore lacking robust public institutions — struggled to translate newfound democratic freedom into developmental outcomes. Building institutions takes time as it involves not just developing the technical capabilities but also, perhaps more importantly, a convention or a tradition of doing things in the right way. Institutionalisation is about depersonalisation and that transition is not easy to complete, but it is one that is necessary.
Foremost in ensuring that there is accountability from not just the government of the day but also the public institutions is a robust and effective parliament. We hold elections because we are electing members to Parliament. It is imperative for voters to critically evaluate the candidate in terms of his or her ability to perform that oversight, as well as his or her job as an MP.
Campaigning therefore should focus not just on issues of “what” to do but also issues of “how” to do it, and protecting the integrity of public institutions. Candidates enticing voters with election goodies should be rejected outright. So should candidates proffering a record of service in the form of getting exemptions and preferential treatment for constituents.
Empirically, no elected official will be able to shower favours on everyone, so only a small, select group will benefit from such corrupt practices. So, even on a purely utilitarian basis, this mechanism should be generally rejected by the majority as it will only benefit a small group of people.
I find it quite perplexing that such handing out of favours, gifts and even cash is not deemed as corruption by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. It is certainly corruption as the consideration is clearly support at the ballot box. Not only that, this practice and culture is corrupting — it undermines the integrity of public institutions and destroys them in the process. A corrupting practice is worse than a corrupt act.
China had the system of what the west called mandarins or scholar-bureaucrat throughout its tumultuous imperial history. A strong and competent civil service manning public institutions is essential to provide the country with both continuity and stability. The elected part of government, the political part, can be volatile and it is the strength of public institutions that will carry any nation forward.
In the end, the capabilities of the bureaucrats determine how much can get done. There are many models of effective bureaucracies to emulate but all the good ones are accountable to an elected body — the very people we are electing next month.
Politicians are a peculiarly unique bunch of individuals — almost all of them are egoistic and extremely self-assured with an inflated sense of themselves. They would not put themselves through the process of getting nominated, contesting, winning the election and keeping their seat if they do not have confidence and the drive to achieve their objectives. To be fair to those offering themselves up for election, the process is an exacting and forbidding one to most people. A Machiavellian approach to things will typically get you further than being conscientious and principled — but easy the process is not.
The problem is we must choose those with well-defined ideas on how to use the power of elected office for the public good. That is what the office is for. Separating the rice from the chaff, so to speak. The chaff are those who speak about servicing their constituents and giving them things. They are the majority, unfortunately, and their government will be ineffective. More damaging, Parliament will be incapable of playing its role effectively in overseeing public institutions.
The patriotic duty of citizens is to vote, so take the time to reflect and vote wisely.
Dr Nungsari Radhi is an economist and managing director of Prokhas Sdn Bhd, a Ministry of Finance advisory company. The views expressed here are his own.