The silver lining in Perak crisis

Ong Kian Ming (Malaysiakini)
Much ink, most of it negative, has been spilled over the events that transpired in the Perak state assembly last Thursday. But the optimist in me always tries to see the silver lining shining through the dark clouds.

And the silver lining is this – the current political crisis in Perak is good for Malaysia because it emphasises the importance of the role of (1) procedures (2) institutions (3) people in our political system.
Firstly, the manner in which Barisan Nasional attempted to topple the Pakatan Rakyat state government in Perak raised all sorts of procedural questions as to whether something like that can be undertaken ‘constitutionally’.
Is it sufficient for BN to demonstrate to the sultan that they have the ‘support’ of a few Pakatan crossovers without calling for a motion of no confidence in the state legislature? Should the sultan have acceded to Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin’s request for the state assembly to be dissolved given that he not been ‘replaced’ in his capacity as menteri besar? Could a motion of no confidence be tabled at the state assembly if the speaker of the legislature is from Pakatan?
The manner in which the BN state government was ‘installed’ and the manner in which Nizar was ‘replaced’ by rival MB Zambry Abd Kadir resulted in the current political crisis in Perak. It sets a stark precedent for both BN as well as Pakatan that such ‘takeover’ attempts, be it at the state or federal level, is bound to end in political gridlock.
Anwar was fortunate in that his Sept 16 attempt to take over the federal government did not materialise. Even if he had the numbers to form a majority in Parliament, including gaining the support of Pakatan ‘friendly’ independent MPs who may have left BN, the same kind of political gridlock may well have ensued.
anwar ibrahim nizar jamaluddin lim kit siang perak ceramah in pj 130509 05In this case, Anwar Ibrahim and Pakatan would probably have faced the public ire of causing such a political crisis. Instead, by successfully switching the allegiance of three Pakatan assemblypersons in Perak, BN finds that the public opinion is firmly on the side of Pakatan, or at least in favour of dissolving the state legislature and for fresh elections to be held.
After Perak, any coalition will have second thoughts before trying a similar maneuver to topple a government at the state or federal level. Similarly, any sultan of any state or the Agong, would also have serious reservations about not following the proper procedure in replacing one government with another. And these, in my humble opinion, are good precedents that have been set.
Need for an anti-hopping law
Secondly, the events in Perak have shown the need for the strengthening of institutional safeguards in the Malaysian political context. One such safeguard would be the introduction of an anti-hopping law which prevents a politician from switching from one political party to another after he or she has been elected.
The arguments which have been put forth against such a law – that it is undemocratic, that is unnecessarily restricts the freedom of conscience of a politician, that such actions are common in other democracies such as the United Kingdom and United States, ring hollow, especially after Perak.
Malaysia is nowhere near to being a democratic country by any stretch of the imagination and the fact that elected politicians, most of whom were elected based on their party affiliation, are ‘persuaded’ to switch sides so that democratically-elected governments can be toppled, either at the state or federal level, is surely more undemocratic than passing such an anti-hopping law.
Another institutional safeguard, whose importance has been highlighted by the Perak situation, is the role which our courts need to play in clarifying procedural and constitutional issues in such instances of political gridlock and uncertainty.
It is certainly heartening to see politicians on both sides use the institution of our courts to resolve these differences rather than resorting to other less peaceful ways of conflict resolution. But if the decisions which are made by our courts are not seen as impartial and not made without fear or favour, one could easily imagine politicians on either side resorting to extrajudicial means to gain control of the state government in Perak.
The public scrutiny which the courts are facing as a result of this political crisis, in my humble opinion, is also a good thing.
An explosion of online activity
The final silver lining that shines brightly through the darkness of this political crisis is the political awareness which it has raised among the average Malaysian citizen.
Almost overnight, the person on the street is much more aware of the role in which the sultans, the courts, the constitutions (at the state and federal levels) and the speaker of the House play in our political system. Interest in politics in Malaysia among the average citizen has probably never been higher.
The arrest of academic/activist Wong Chin Huat has also made people more aware of the cause of Bersih, to reform the electoral system in Malaysia, and increased the debate on how different people interpret the slogan of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak – 1Malaysia.
The explosion of online activity – forums, letters, Facebook and Twitter updates, photos, blogposts, podcasts, articles, reports – in the aftermath of the May 7 assembly clearly shows a Malaysian public that is politically aware, interested and engaged in the events in Perak and beyond.
This kind of public interest coupled with the ability to engage in a manner which demonstrates political maturity, are good signs for the future of democracy in Malaysia.
The political crisis in Perak shows no sign of ending anytime soon. But we should take heart in the silver linings that shines through amidst the dark clouds. And in the long term, the health of the Malaysian democracy will benefit from this experience.
ONG KIAN MING is a PhD candidate in political science at Duke University. He can be reached at [email protected].