Being Human: When citizens wake up by themselves

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 14 - 20, 2016.

OVER the years, many citizens’ declarations have been adopted to highlight pressing problems affecting various groups, but the Citizens’ Declaration of March 4, initiated by former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, has created a watershed in the national political landscape that is perhaps unprecedented.

To the astonishment of all, the mercurial Mahathir has assembled an unlikely array of friends and foes from both sides of the political divide as well as prominent activists in a single-minded mission to unseat Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

By drawing political heavyweights from hitherto irreconcilable alignments to his side, Mahathir has caused a ground shift to occur in the political situation, opening the field to dramatic new possibilities that were unthinkable before.

For the moment, however, the Citizens’ Declaration has generated as much controversy as it has traction, but this is only to be expected when battle lines that have defined Malaysian politics for decades have been erased overnight.

While proponents of the Mahathir-led alliance may be ready to focus on its primary goal of removing Najib by legal and non-violent means, its detractors reject the idea of ignoring Mahathir’s central role in the breakdown of checks and balances in key national institutions as an unacceptable abdication to opportunism. Some also see a total makeover of the political setup as the indispensable goal, making a mere change of prime minister a fruitless endeavour.

No doubt, those in favour of Mahathir’s gambit see the strategic value of initiating a cross-party, inclusive coalition as a rare opportunity to rouse the conservative-minded electorate to chart a different future for the nation. 

The jailed Pakatan Harapan de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who pledged his support for the initiative despite being perhaps Mahathir’s most prominent victim, is surely among those who appreciate that point. Nevertheless, it is early days for the movement and much will depend on the extent of its reach before the final word on it is written.

Further, the Citizens’ Declaration has the effect of presenting an alternative democratic means of voicing public sentiment about the prime minister in addition to institutional channels like a general election or a vote of no confidence tabled in Parliament. In addition, as Mahathir noted at the announcement of the declaration, the move was taken because the usual channels for raising pertinent issues are not working.

It is no small irony that virtually all the measures that concentrated power in the hands of the executive and Umno president were introduced or took off during Mahathir’s 22-year tenure as the country’s prime minister.

Even for those who support the status quo, the assurance of a monolithic political base for the ruling coalition has been eroding. Confirmation of this comes in the form of senior Umno leaders, including deputy party president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, and former MCA president Tun Dr Ling Liong Sik in the Mahathir-led alliance.

It is likely that the uncertainty which has erupted on the political front with the Citizens’ Declaration may become a significant feature of the national life for some time. Clearly, there is a growing trend towards a fragmentation of political blocs in both the ruling and opposition ranks. For the Malay-Muslim vote, in particular, the emergence of Amanah and the mellowing of Pas’ relations with Umno portend further repercussions for the political balance.

In this growing political flux, it is important that the dominant role of political institutions in national life be moderated in order that voters do not remain dependent on the state of political networks for access to opportunities and remedies.

For this to happen, parallel sectors, including the civil service, civil society and business community, must outgrow the patronage and rentier culture to become more apolitical.

The “father knows best” mode of politics that is common in developing countries often becomes a hindrance to the evolution of a strong democratic tradition rooted in accountability and good governance since it embeds the idea that leaders are beyond scrutiny as long as they distribute benefits to their constituents.

To curb the influence of distributive politics, a self-help culture must be nurtured among the electorate and a more robust sense of ethical behaviour internalised.

This can only be effective if the work of developing economic resilience and building an ethical culture is undertaken independently of the political machinery, irrespective of its colour. This could take the form of a non-partisan social development movement that evolves from the grassroots. Such movements have been a feature of many Third World countries, especially where government programmes have been slow to take off.

In effect, the target communities must develop the confidence to shake off the belief that their welfare is in peril without the protection of a generous benefactor.

Put another way, the key to the emancipation of the electorate lies in outgrowing the mental colonisation that comes from the dominant political discourse. That is something that the citizens themselves must find out how to do.


R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge Malaysia