Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Government vs Mafia

22 Apr 09 : 8.30AM

By Wong Chin Huat

WE are now told by the new Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak that by-elections are bad because they distract us from dealing with the economic crisis.

Tunku Abdul Rahman (left-Public domain) This aversion towards elections is nothing new to Malaysia. In the spirit of learning our national history, let's revisit some past decisions made by Alliance/Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders.

The BN's track record

In March 1965, Tunku terminated local elections, which were mostly won by opposition parties, especially in the urban centres. Tunku promised to restore local elections once the Indonesian Confrontation was over. Of course, he never did. Neither did his five successors. Their reason? Elections are a waste of money.

Lee Kuan Yew (right - Public domain) In August 1965, Tunku expelled Singapore from the federation of Malaysia because Singapore Premier Lee Kuan Yew — like Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim 43 years later — was actively courting East Malaysians to challenge Umno rule. To be fair to Tunku, his Umno colleagues actually wanted a more repressive solution — Internal Security Act (ISA) detention for Lee and his People's Action Party lieutenants.

In 1966, Sarawak Chief Minister Datuk Stephen Kalong Ningkan — from the Sarawak National Party (SNAP) — was ousted unconstitutionally following dubious defections, much like Perak's Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin 43 years later. When the Borneo High Court ruled to reinstate Ningkan, he wanted to let the people decide.

However, before Ningkan could dissolve the legislature, the Tunku administration proclaimed emergency rule in Sarawak. The Federal and Sarawak constitutions were amended so that a motion of no-confidence could be passed and a more compliant chief minister appointed.

Mustapha Harun (left - Public domain) The late Tun Mustapha Harun was allied to Tunku and also avoided elections in Sabah. In 1969, when the Malaya Alliance struggled to hold onto power, Mustapha's Sabah Alliance bagged the state's 16 seats through "walkovers". In later years, he even contemplated making himself a sultan.

Tun Abdul Razak also had his moments in outmanoeuvring the electoral process. He expressed an aversion to "politicking" and preferred to focus on administration and development. After 1969, he gradually co-opted all but two parliamentary opposition parties, DAP and SNAP, first into coalition governments and later in 1974 into the BN.

His reward? A total of 47 walkovers or 31% of parliamentary seats in the 1974 elections.

In 1974, Razak also carved Chinese-Malaysian-majority Kuala Lumpur out of Selangor presumably to ensure that opposition parties like the DAP could never capture the state. The new Federal Territory was not to have its own state government, or any elected government for that matter.

Hussein Onn (right- Public domain) Razak's successor, Tun Hussein Onn, took a slightly different tack when faced with political difficulties. For example, he declared an emergency and imposed direct rule in Kelantan in 1977 when PAS, then a member of BN, tried to oust their own menteri besar, Datuk Mohamad Nasir, who was much-liked by Umno. Hussein lifted the emergency and went to polls four months later when Umno had strengthened its base. Umno and Nasir's splinter party, Berjasa, eventually thrashed PAS in the election.

While elections under Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad were arguably never free or fair, he was particularly innovative in his own party's elections. In 1988, he effectively purged Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah's supporters, by triggering the deregistration of Umno and the creation of Umno Baru. To protect the incumbents, Mahathir introduced the quota for nominations for the presidency and other senior positions, which Najib now proposes to remove.

In 1994, Anwar, then deputy prime minister and Umno deputy president, brought down the Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) state government through mass defections of lawmakers within a month after elections. Denying the use of financial inducement and coercive measures, Anwar recently reiterated that he merely "invited" those defectors. Of course, no fresh elections were called.

Musa Hitam (Source: One BN leader who made markedly different decisions was former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam. As the acting prime minister in 1985, he prevented Tun Mustapha's plot to install himself as Sabah chief minister despite not having a legislative majority, through — yes, even then — a palace coup.

But Musa's decision can be seen to be the exception rather than the rule in the BN's elections track record.

In February 2009, Najib orchestrated the downfall of Perak's elected government and installed Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir as menteri besar.

While Anwar's Pakatan Rakyat (PR) has no legal or moral ground to protest the defections in Perak, why didn't the BN subsequently allow for a fresh poll?

Their answer is the usual — elections are disruptive and wasteful, and now bad for the economy.

Why are elections a must?

Why must we have elections to decide our governments?

Why can't we opt for horse-trading among lawmakers; palace coups; the rule of judges; military coups; mutinying police officers; mutinying bureaucracies; or mob rule à la Thailand's People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) as alternatives to topple and install governments?

PAD supporters armed with makeshift batons and golf clubs, 2008
(Pic by Mark Micallef, source: Wikipedia commons)

Provided the people do not protest, these methods may well be much smoother, more efficient, peaceful and attractive to certain types of investors.

So, why must the so-called liberal democrats and constitutional monarchists protest?

The answer, in a nutshell, is that elections distinguish a government from a mafia or triad.

A state is similar to the underworld in three senses: (a) they extract money; (b) they control territory; and (c) those living on their territories cannot opt out from being their subjects.

Tilly (right - Source: Why do governments fight against foreign countries (war-making), suppress domestic rebels and outlaws (state-making) and offer law and order for their subjects (protection)? So that they may have the power to extract their subjects' resources (extraction).

Charles Tilly, the American sociologist, called a spade a spade: war-making and state-making are but organised crimes. Four centuries before him, Tang Zhen, a Chinese thinker in Imperial China, called emperors thieves who fed on their subjects.

It is clear that in political theory, there is only a thin line between a government and a mafia or triad. While a government collects "taxes", a mafia or triad collects "protection fees". Sometimes, the mafia or triad is the government and carries out most governmental functions. For example, Kapitan Yap Ah Loy was both in 19th-century Kuala Lumpur.

Yap Ah Loy (left - Public domain) So, what is the real thin line between a government and a mafia or triad? That mafias or triads do not know how to employ a public relations company for legitimacy branding?

No. It is elections. It is the principle of "no taxation without representation", which ignited the American Revolution.

No mafia or triad will allow their subjects to elect their Godfather or Patriarch. You only have a duty to pay protection fees, but no right to elect your protector.

In a civilised world, a state must not be like a mafia or triad. That's why electoral processes and elected governments must not be subverted.

This month, when you pay your income tax, remember to cherish elections. Without elections, what you pay is only protection money.

The Godfather (© Paramount Pictures)

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He hopes his home state will soon cease to be a kleptocracy propped up by unelected institutions. If democracy can only be restored with two more by-elections in Perak, he would appreciate any act of God.

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