ONE of the core components of a Westminster-style democracy, which Malaysia purports to be, is the presence of both an effective government and opposition. Without stating the obvious, it is the job of the opposition to hold the ruling government accountable to the public, scrutinise their policies and programmes, and to be an alternative government-in-waiting by proposing different policies where appropriate.
Political scientists have written volumes of erudite thesis over the last century arguing that the more effective the opposition in a liberal democracy the healthier that polity. Unfortunately, the trend in many of the liberal democracies over the last five decades has been for one government party (or coalition of parties) and prime minister to dominate and rule for more than a decade.
Margaret Thatcher of the Conservatives and Tony Blair of New Labour are just two examples. Not that it is the fault of the Westminster model.
It is largely due to the demise of effective opposition in democratic politics per se. Just look at what is happening in the United States. The reasons are manifold. Perhaps, Winston Churchill was right when he allegedly stated that, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
Malaysia, too, is a shining example of one prime minister, a certain Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, ruling for 22 years in the face of a weak opposition. So, when Pakatan Harapan last week announced that it had nominated Dr Mahathir as its candidate for prime minister should it win the 14th General Election (GE14), the irony of the decision could not be lost.
The 92-year-old Dr Mahathir seems determined to make a defiant comeback in Malaysian politics, which, in the unlikely event of a seismic change in Malaysia’s short electoral history that Pakatan should win, would constitute very few cheers for democracy. The difference today is that instead of enjoying his time playing with his grandchildren and great-grand children as political grandees are supposed to, Dr Mahathir fell out with Umno, the main constituent of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, one which he led for more than two decades.
Dr Mahathir and his supporters, including erstwhile Umno deputy president and former deputy prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, went on to form the country’s newest political party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), the second largest component of Pakatan after PKR, led by former deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak should embrace Pakatan’s decision and throw down the gauntlet and tell his former “mentor” “to bring it on”.
This means BN has to treat Dr Mahathir like any other candidate, albeit his political baggage spanning three decades is fair game for re-scrutiny.
After all, it is his choice to re-enter the hurley-burley of Malaysian politics.
The democratic process globally is already dominated by the politics of gender, race, religion and sexual orientation.
It would be a pity that GE14 should degenerate into the politics of ageism.
Whether Dr Mahathir’s nomination is an interim choice for the 71-year-old Anwar to take over eventually, on the assumption that Pakatan wins and then gets him a royal pardon, is a moot point.
It is up to Pakatan to explain to its supporters and voters why they chose a nonagenarian and potentially a septuagenarian to lead the coalition, and whether they are physically fit to carry out the rigours of such duties should Pakatan win.
Judging by the current rhetoric of the discourse leading up to GE14, Najib must concentrate on articulating his policies leading to his flagship initiative, Transformasi Nasional 2050 (TN50), to Malaysians.
And, has BN got a compelling story to tell! Plaudits from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank; gross domestic product (GST) growth projected to rise to 6.2 per cent; inflation under control; growing gender empowerment and leading the fight against extremists.
Malaysia has coped better than its regional counterparts, thanks to BN’s effective management of the economy and country’s finances.
Yes, there are ongoing challenges, including reining in the cost of living, improving wages especially of the B40 segment, narrowing the gap between rich and poor, enhancing education and talent, promoting greater gender equality, boosting government transparency and reducing reliance on the state — all essential for achieving Najib’s TN50 ambition of a developed nation.
Dr Mahathir seems to be playing into the hands of BN by evoking populist issues such as the Goods and Services Tax and the debate on the rising cost of living.
BN should hold firm and not be tempted to tinker with populist promises.
GST can be a transformative tax, but with both positive and negative consequences, depending on how it is structured.
Politicians sometimes are oblivious to its unilateral implementation.
For Pakatan, it would be defining if for once it comes up
with policies of its own that
have clear blue water between itself and BN, instead of mere-
ly reacting to those of the government by politicising populism!
The writer is an independent London-based economist and writer