Thoughts on Malaysian protests

I did not participate in the latest iteration of the Bersih protests. My wife and I are currently living in Seremban and in fact we are in the process of moving house this week. My wife wanted to check out the local chapter of the protests here but it turned out that we were too busy for that too. We had some furniture deliveries to handle on Saturday and our carpenter came in too to do our kitchen cabinets. We did pay attention to the central square where there the gathering was supposed to happen but there was only like a couple hundred or so people in yellow shirts and some police looking on disinterestedly.

I should note that my wife is much more enthusiastic about the movement than I am. I guess my own interest in local politics only go so far and no further. As I’ve explained to my wife, Malaysian politics is about opposing personalities rather than opposing policies. Neither the governing coalition nor the opposition has any real ideology beyond getting into power however possible. It makes things no fun at all for a policy wonk. Headline proposals such BR1M and the cancellation of student debts are attention-grabbing populist measures with no attempt at all to spin them around a coherent and differentiated political philosophy.

Be that as it may, and with acknowledgment that all this is coming from someone who is self-admittedly neither particularly interested nor particularly knowledgeable about local politics, here are some comments:

  1. Bersih 3.0 turned out to be more political than previous iterations, with opposition politicians playing a more active and visible role. This has upset many participants in the protests. I agree that this is sad. At the same time, I don’t see how this can be avoided. In fact, I think it is a necessary part of the political awakening of Malaysia. Elections are a zero-sum game. There is a clear winner and a clear loser. After the governing coalition tried its best to shut down the last round of protests in no uncertain terms, it was always a given that any future iteration would not be just for clean elections, it would also necessarily be against the government. Implicit in a show of popular strength of this type is the message, “This is what we want. Do it or we will put the other guys into power.” How can this be anything but political?
  2. Malaysians are reluctant participants in the political process. There are things that we want and there are things that we are against, but we find it difficult to translate this into support for a specific politician or opposition to a specific politician. We prefer to stick to statements of general principle. This is because we perceive all politicians are dirty and that politics is an inherently unsavory business. But I believe this is a naive view of the democratic process. The process is all about picking winners and losers so let’s not pretend that it isn’t.
  3. Winston Churchill’s dictum that democracy is the worst system of government except for all the others is probably the one quote I pull out the most often in this blog. But once again, it’s worth looking into what it really means. What it’s saying is that government is inherently bad because it involves coercion against citizens. It would be better for everyone if no coercion was necessary at all and people could just live and let live. But that’s not realistic and since no government is worse than a bad government, we might as well employ democracy to ensure that the coercion we must exercise is at least backed by a plurality of the country’s voters.
  4. By the same token, you could say that all politicians are bad. These are by definition people who have expressed a desire to possess power over other people’s lives. Surely there is something egotistical about that? So in line with Churchill’s dictum, I would say that democracy isn’t about choosing the best leader, because they’re all bad. Arguably, it isn’t even about choosing a good leader, because anyone who has come into a position of power in a democratic system must surely have made many, many questionable compromises along the way because you just can’t please everyone all of the time. Instead, democracy has the much more modest aim of choosing the least worst leader.
  5. So what I’m saying is that not supporting the opposition parties because they’re not perfect is a terrible way of looking at democracy. At the same time, if you’re a Malaysian who wants change, I can’t imagine how you can avoid baldly stating that you want the ruling National Front coalition to be toppled. Unless you sincerely believe that it is capable of internally reforming from within, which seems wildly implausible. So why pussyfoot about it? Any protest in favor of change is a protest against the government. And any protest against the government is a token of support for the opposition. Perhaps one day power can slip easily enough from party to party that we can have real civic bodies around specific policy issues and such bodies would be able to endorse whichever candidate, regardless of party affiliation, that best exemplifies their values. But that day is far in the future.

With all that said, and again bearing in mind that this is coming from someone with no real knowledge of Malaysian politics, I think those who despair about the worth of our opposition politicians and have the energy and drive to do something about it, could do well to get in touch with their local representatives. I have a friend who regularly volunteers to do work on behalf of the DAP. He has no illusions about the worth of grandees like Lim Kit Siang, but he has plenty of nice things to say about his local representative. From what I understand, the low-level MPs in the opposition coalition are very approachable and you might be pleasantly surprised by how easily you can be involved in the thick of things if you’re so inclined.

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