Wanted: an imaginative opposition

By Wong Chin Huat

[Updated at 11:15pm, 20 Feb 2008 with correction]

You think that enough is enough. After all the leakages, all the tapes, all the royal commissions, all the demonstrations, all the arrests, something must change. You feel that every patriotic person must vote for the opposition. You tell yourself that this is the first election of Malaysia’s next 50 years, and it must not be the same.

Politics must not be business as usual. You register yourself as a voter. You forward political messages to all the contacts in your phone. You surf political blogs. You attend political rallies. You even sign up to be a polling agent for the opposition or civil society candidate in your constituency.

You hope that the opposition will deny the Barisan Nasional (BN) a two-third majority. You secretly pray that they will even topple the BN in a few states if not also at the federal level.

You are anxiously looking forward to March 8, much like your first date many years ago.

The Morning After
Now, here’s the catch.

The morning after may turn out to be a disaster. Let’s imagine this nightmare of yours.

In the wee hours of March 9, you shed tears of disappointment before the television.

The opposition does not only fail to topple any BN governments at the federal or state level, it has even failed to deny the BN two-thirds of the seats in Parliament and the state assemblies. As if that is not bad enough, PAS loses Kelantan even though it wins 51.8% of the popular votes.

Abdullah appears happily on all the television screens, with his beloved Jeanne, thanking the voters. He says, “The performance shows that the BN government and policies are well trusted by the people. We will carry out the unfinished business forcefully. We will do more of what we have not been doing enough.”

You know all these are possible under our distorted electoral system with all the possible frauds.

After all the passion, you may find that politics is really just business as usual.

What do you do? Queue up for PR applications at foreign embassies? Return to your apolitical mode – “politics is not me”? Acquire the Stockholm Syndrome – “actually, the BN is not that bad…”?

Plan B and roadmap
No, it does not need to be so. Politics can be exciting and change can happen even if the opposition fails to deny the BN a two-third majority, even if all the 13 states are ruled by the BN.

All we need from the opposition is a Plan B and a roadmap to real political changes.

Their manifestos are Plan A: what they will do if they win the federal government. Unless you are a super optimist, you know very well this is basically a cheque that you cannot cash.

Plan B is what the opposition parties will do when they win insufficient seats to form the government. In other words, what your lawmakers can do as opposition parliamentarians?

Plan B is not about “negative goals” – preventing the BN from corruption, power abuse and incompetence. It is about “positive goals” – what they can do other than criticising the government and tabling motions to cut the minister’s salary by RM10.

Plan B is also not only about destinations. It is a roadmap. It is about milestones and timeline – who will do what at what point of time – giving us a full picture of how things can be better than they are today.

A Plan B roadmap is about changes that you can imagine.

An imaginative opposition
What can the opposition parties do without federal power?

Plenty. What is short in supply for the opposition is not power, but imagination.

Politics is the art of possibility but you must be able to visualise your dream before it comes true.

Here are a few things the opposition lawmakers can do.

Task 1: Private members’ bills
The most important measure is the private members’ bills.

Many voters see the primary function of lawmakers (to be precise, those from the BN) as the distributor of government money for all and sundry and development projects. The job of lawmakers is actually to make laws, which BN members are not doing and the opposition members can outdo.

At present, almost all laws are made by the Attorney-General’s (AG) Chambers under the instructions of the ministries and the cabinet, often with little consultation with the stakeholders. This results in bad laws as well as a shortage of good laws.

The opposition lawmakers can subvert this by using the private members’ bills. These are bills tabled by the opposition or government frontbenchers in their individual capacity, in contrast to the government bills prepared by the AG’s Chambers.

They can initiate consultation with civil society groups to come up with draft bills on issues that need urgent redresses: access to public information, water supply, gender equality, planning for new schools, local elections, etc.

By tabling private members’ bills on these issues, they capture the public’s imagination on what the changes are and force the BN lawmakers to take a stand. Can you imagine BN parliamentarians voting against a Sexual Harassment Bill?

In short, private members’ bills help to advance the agenda of legal reforms on many issues.

Task 2: Shadow cabinet
The next thing the opposition can do is to appoint their shadow cabinets. Just like the ruling coalition, the opposition parties must have their shadow frontbenchers.

With portfolios specifically assigned, opposition lawmakers will sharpen their saws on the respective fields. It helps the party to formulate its policy stands related to the portfolio and eventually prepare the opposition lawmakers for ministerial responsibilities.

In other countries, shadow ministerial positions are sought after because once the opposition is swept into power, the shadow frontbenchers will be the real ministers.

In brief, the shadow cabinet structures the mind of the opposition parliamentarians as well as the voters to imagine an alternative government.

In both the 1990 and 1999 elections, the opposition parties won a total of 53 and 45 seats respectively but shadow cabinets were never successfully formed, either within individual parties or across the opposition camp.

When even 45 53 parliamentarians could not result in a government-in-waiting, is it any wonder many voters believe that the opposition has no long-term vision to run the country?

Task 3: State-level reforms
We need an imaginative opposition not only at the federal level, but more so at the state level.

Firstly, it is easier for the opposition to win a state government and implement change. PAS has ruled Kelantan for18 years consecutively. The probability of the opposition taking power in states like Terengganu, Kedah, Penang, Selangor or Sabah is not zero.

Secondly, changes at the state level can force similar reforms at the federal level. Public opinion will be swayed when the public can see the benefit from experimental reforms in certain states. Five working days a week was quickly copied by the BN nationwide after its introduction by PAS in Kelantan.

First on the list are local elections. Article 113(4) of the Federal Constitution stipulates that either federal or state laws may authorise the Election Commission to conduct local elections. If PAS has introduced this in Terengganu after 1999, it will not be completely wiped out at the local level after its defeat in 2004. In fact, local elections in Kelantan and Terengganu would clearly force the BN to do it nationwide. Next time, if you want to complain about the lack of local elections, remember it is PAS, which promised local elections in 1999 and 2004, that should be blamed for failing to deliver.

State governments can also introduce important institutional changes like the Freedom of Information Enactment and public financing for election campaigns, where state government and elections are concerned.

Why is the opposition not imaginative?
Em… Interesting. You wonder why the opposition parties do not take up these ideas – they all seem feasible and practical.

Why are they not imaginative? I don’t know the real answers. You have got to ask them.

But I know well what their response would be: “These are great ideas. But the people are not interested-lah. Laws are too technical for ordinary voters. They don’t know what private members’ bills are. They care only if we do constituency service. They don’t get excited over issues like transparency or democracy….”

Yes, they would blame you, the voter, because you are supposedly ignorant and uninterested in imaginative politics.

They say people deserve their government. People deserve their opposition too. It’s an unimaginative opposition that partially makes authoritarianism so successful.

Politics as usual after March 8? Your choice.

Wong Chin Huat is a journalism lecturer at a private university. He is completing his PhD in the University of Essex on the electoral system and party politics in West Malaysia. He is also chairman of the Writers Alliance for Media Independence and resource person for the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections.

11 responses to “Wanted: an imaginative opposition”

  1. Bravo Wong!
    One of the most original and inspiring piece I have read so far, as compared to all the conventional pieces on the upcoming election 🙂

  2. Regarding “Task 1: Private members’ bills.”

    This can be tried on a wikipedia-like software, such as Mediawiki, the contents management software behind wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mediawiki). Start by uploading the full version of the existing, actual, law, and reserve space for their future amendments in the parliament.

    Then start a parallel version of the alternative law proposed by the Opposition, with each proposal, revision, comments, and past revision archived for all to see. Editing can be done by anyone, can be moderated, or it can be restricted to only registered users (Opposition parliamentarians, their staff, legal specialists, academicians).

    Bloggers can then educate the public and generate broader interest. They can refer to and comments on specific proposal, law, version, comments, simply by links.

    Task 2: Shadow cabinet

    This is a good suggestion. Only parliamentarians can realistically implement this due to a practical information constraint in Malaysia.

    In the past there were NGOs and non-parliamentarian Opposition leaders talking about shadow cabinet. But that is unrealistic in the Malaysian context because of our tightly controlled government information channels. Non-parliamentarians can only guess what numbers are in the budget, infrastructure project, the number of people who might be affected by development projects, industry restruture, etc.

    Non-parliamentarians therefore, had to rely on the media and other third-hand sources to make shadow cabinet plans. Such plans tend to be inaccurate, waste a lot of the time of the staff planners, and results had to be open-ended and non-conclusive. They require more time to prepare, sap the energy of the “shadow cabinet” staffers and researchers, and can lead to erratic results that may make the “shadow cabinet” look like fools, and lose credibility. They soon had to give up out of exhaustion.

    In contrast, (opposition) parliamentarians will be able to ask questions and get information from Ministers and the various departments in the parliament. They get more detailed info on budget and advanced/draft info on new bills and laws being planned. They also get the answers in more detailed numbers and original copies.

    In other words, if the Opposition parliamentarians do not do this (shadow cabinet), then no others can do a good job, because of the stringent control over government information in Malaysia.

  3. Excellent piece by Chin Huat, love the plan B esp since too many of us will be suffering the Morning After – no pill will help I swear! And Kah Seng, the suggestion to use Mediawiki is a good idea – nothing to stop the MPs and civil society groups from joining in the discussions.

  4. Well done, Chin Huat. I think this GE is very different with so many excellent inputs and coordination.

    Keep it up. Give them a run for their $money$.

  5. Great piece. I’ve been wondering about the question myself. And it’s certainly enlightening. I’m sick of the government. But that’s normal for everyone. But the opposition makes me really angry. You’re right about the lack of imagination. It’s all just: Deny BN the majority! That is so lame. I’d like to see opposition politicians campaigning on issues, bills, etc. Not just react in an antagonistic manner against whatever the government has done (or not done). That’s the BN tactic.

    I’d like to see a part two to this article.

    Why is there a lack of imagination in the opposition. The reason given in the article “Why are they not imaginative? I don’t know the real answers. You have got to ask them.” is a bit shabby. Here is an article investigating the imagination-less opposition but this contention denies the opposition a channel to voice what really is happening within the parties. What is up with them?

  6. The most obvious priority now is ““How to plan for the various activities that should be geared towards ensuring that your supported political party is not denied of an election outcome due to irregularities.” For example, complaints and observer forms should provide for proper identification of persons, witnesses and properly documented evidence that can stand up to legal scrutiny and interpretation, in the event that these would be used in the pursuit of a post-election electoral contest. Proper and complete documentation of voters’ turnout by the political agent in the polling station is another example of utmost importance especially in dealing with irregularities related to the electoral roll (phantom voters). Unless one can provide the evidence that the so-called phantom voters actually cast their votes and that the numbers alleged would significantly impact on the outcome of the election results, no electoral contest would get past the preliminary hearings of such contest, let alone getting the judge to rule on opening the ballot boxes for scrutiny.

    This brings me to the subject on election preparation and training; the important agenda consisting of steps to take to address the problems and irregularities and their relationship to the different aspects of the electoral process. There should be, at least the following documents to monitor this election:
    1.Reference guide for monitors
    2.Election Complaints Form 2008
    3.Borang Pemerhatian Harian Pilihanraya
    4.List of some of the fraud/irregularities during election
    5.Some aspects of the Election Laws and Regulations.

    On the issue of phantom voters, this will still be a major problem that will continually be faced and how to deal with them before, during and after election day if there are evidence that they may impact on the election results significantly. Let us look at these aspects more closely to see how actions at different times and at different levels would deter, prevent such irregularities from happening and, if need be, what actions should be taken, if assuming that there were sufficient evidence to prove that such irregularities account for the difference in the election outcome.

    Though NGOs can assist at various levels in the election processes, political parties themselves can play a much more effective role in the monitoring process simply because they have rights that are provided for in the Election Rules and Regulations (provided of course they are aware of what these right are and how they should go about exercising these rights).

    This is a quote by Datuk Harun Din in a paper entitled “Aspects of Malaysian Elections” presented at the Conference of Commonwealth Chief Election Officers, Queens’ College Cambridge – 23-26 March 1998 on “Voting for Democracy”.“Usually if election officers on the ground are experienced and knowledgeable on the laws and procedures of elections, many of the problems encountered on the ground on election day can be resolved satisfactorily. The presence of responsible and informed political agents overseeing the process of election will in many cases help towards reaching an amicable solution to the problems that may occur. Therefore the importance of an informed and experienced election staff and political agents cannot be overemphasized. Such a situation can only emerge if proper and intensive training, supported by the necessary document, guidelines and checklists, are carried out in the preparation of an election.”