Competition for better political and policy outcomes

First published in theSun on 26 April 2018 under the title “Competition for better outcomes”, here.

GRAB, the Malaysian home-grown riding app, recently bought over Uber in several Southeast Asian countries. Some of us avid users have already noticed a marked increase in riding costs, primarily because the app no longer features favourable promo codes and discounts.

Singapore’s Competition and Consumer Commission even plans to investigate if the take-over infringes competition laws as if so, Grab would be considered as monopolising the market, resulting in poor outcomes for both riders and drivers.

The modern capitalist world we live in is based on the principle that competition is healthy and provides positive outcomes for consumers. We shop for products, compare prices and quality, and congratulate ourselves when we emerge with the best possible item for our needs.

For that reason, we have laws penalising monopolies as they would dictate prices, thereby ending competitive practices that would have otherwise been to our benefit.

The same principle should apply to politics.

When parties compete with one another, they are forced to be on their toes to continually serve and satisfy the needs of their constituent voters.

The theory is that they would try to outwit the other through a slew of better policies, ideas, and services. Voters then judge based on these outcomes and decide who gets to stay in government for an additional term.

But just like in economics, politics requires a set of regulations to keep all the players in check on an equal and level playing field. This is ultimately the crucial key ingredient in maintaining fairness.

For goods and services, we have our own Competition Commission that regulates the market based on the Competition Act 2010. For elections, we have the Election Commission that regulates electoral practices based on the Elections Act 1958 and the Election Offences Act 1954.

The redelineation exercise managed by the Election Commission that resulted in severely malapportioned seats (in Selangor alone, the ratio between the largest and smallest constituencies is four to one) means that some constituencies would require a very small number of voters to secure a seat in Parliament, whereas in some others an extremely large number of voters is required.

This does not hold true to the principle of equal representation. This exercise has largely favoured the ruling incumbent Barisan Nasional, and will invariably be a main factor in determining outcomes at the general election.

Despite the unequal playing field that the opposition parties are dealing with, the opposition has managed to win over some states in the past.

Ten years ago in 2008, at the 12th general election, several states fell to the opposition – including states like Selangor, Penang, Kedah, and Perak, which was unprecedented.

Many had initially expressed concern that due to the lack of experience in governing, the opposition coalition would not be prepared to lead.

After all, they had only the previous experience of rallying on the streets.

Two terms later, despite some issues that each state government had to deal with over the last decade, many of which were not satisfactorily dealt with, it is clear that political parties other than the Barisan are able to rule when given the opportunity.

Whether or not they are governing well is a matter for the voters to decide – there are scores of “report cards”, administrative and financial outcomes that voters can use to decide on performance.

The point is that systems of government ought to be such that a takeover of government at any level – be it state or federal – is possible.

No one party must ever dominate government institutions such that a transition is not possible when the electorate demands so.

Countries around the world have experienced their own form of prolonged single-party dominant states, where it would not have been imaginable for their incumbent parties to be toppled. But it happened.

It happened in Mexico, when the dominant party Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) fell to the opposition National Action Party (PAN) after 71 years in power.

It happened in Taiwan when the Nationalist Party (KMT) fell to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after four decades (or eight decades if one includes KMT’s rule on the mainland before 1949).

In both cases, the opposition parties happened to secure victories at the subnational level first, before moving on to winning nationally.

In Mexico, PAN won over three states in 1994, before going on to defeat PRI’s two-thirds majority in Parliament and winning the 2000 presidential election.

In Taiwan, the opposition candidate from the DPP won the Taipei mayoral election in 1994 before going on to win the 2000 presidential election.

And there are times when the new government in power fails to impress voters, so that they are eventually voted out again.

In Japan, the incumbent Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) fell to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in 2009, but the latter was voted out very quickly after a very short term of three years in government.

Of note is that the DPJ leader, Ichiro Ozawa, was originally part of the dominant LDP party to begin with before he chose to join the opposition.

Two-party and multi-party systems around the world have seen the change of parties taking place smoothly without experiencing tremendous upheaval.

What Malaysia needs is a political system that ensures such change can be allowed to happen should the voters will it – and then allow for a series of continuous changes, again if people choose as such.

Political transition can be done smoothly and efficiently; this just requires political maturity, which perhaps some might argue in their interests that our country is not yet ready for. This is archaic thinking.

Yes, laws that silence and suppress exist to be employed, but these are signs of weakness exercised only by those who fear change.

If we endorse competitive practices for good in the economic sense of the word, then it logically follows we should do the same for political practices.

Parties are much like companies that offer their goods and services to us as consumers. The transition between buying one brand to another should be smooth; after all, it is our hard-earned cash.

Similarly, the transition between one party to another in government ought to be equally facilitated, just like what happened in states like Selangor, Penang, Kedah and Perak in 2008, barring some strange events.

The ultimate goal is for political competition to ideally result in better policy and delivery outcomes for citizens of the country – better schools, universities, hospitals, economic policies, and local council services for all.

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