Fixing the Fundamentals

Fixing the fundamentals 

(First published in theSun on Friday, 16th May 2013)

THE country needs a sincere leadership that is serious in fixing the fundamentals of our system of governance, but since this seems almost impossible to achieve, the question is really: what are realistic steps ahead?

Newly sworn-in Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak called for national reconciliation following the 13th general elections. This is ironic as it was preceded by labelling the election results a “Chinese Tsunami”, which the Barisan Nasional coalition is now saying was only a natural knee-jerk reaction to an even worse parliamentary performance than previously.

In a closed-door roundtable discussion on inclusive development among civil society organised by UKM’s Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA) held earlier this week, it was established among many present that to move Malaysia forward, differences must be acknowledged and then addressed – not just ethnic but on the points of socioeconomic class, geographical, locational, religious, gender and more.

One might add another dimension to the list, that of a political divide. Advocates of either political coalition might have seen themselves increasingly hostile towards each other in the lead-up to polling day. And following from an exhausting and mentally stressful few weeks of election hype, some might even respond to this by calling for a pause on all things political.

Some, including myself, would like to see Barisan and Pakatan Rakyat members of Parliament practising bi-partisanship in pushing certain agendas for reform forward.

Indeed, this paints a pretty picture of a world in which individual conscience might guide parliamentary voting – as opposed to the bloc-voting style now imposed. This also assumes that there are individual politicians who do have moral compasses.

In this imaginary universe, reform-minded politicians from both sides would gladly come together in the substantive efforts of, for example, freeing the media from political interference; strengthening Parliament to create a check-and-balance on the increasingly powerful executive arm; and perhaps – the most utopian of all – put an end once and for all to race-based politics (linked to which is the incessant fanning the flame of racial polarisation). These are just some of the basic building blocks of what any progressive, democratic nation ought to already possess.

Take for instance the gaping divide between the information that rural and urban communities are able to access. During and after the election, media infrastructure at the disposal of the ruling coalition have been fully harnessed for propaganda purposes.

Mainstream media in the form of television, radio and newspapers whose ownership is linked to Barisan continue to spew out messages that can be deemed as stirring up negative response.

If the government were serious about building reconciliatory bridges across what it considers to be racial division, would it not be most logical to deal with these remarks? Such messaging is what creates lingering uneasiness and tension, which may not even necessarily reflect the reality of daily amicable cross-ethnic interactions.

Add to this the inability of those in more secluded rural areas to access any form of alternative media online, and you get the widest possible gap: that of the mind. This creates disparate worldviews, the single biggest problem that any society faces.

With divergent sources of information and, therefore, education, it is almost impossible to speak of honest reconciliation or inclusivity without seriously addressing media reform. Malaysia has fallen to its lowest-ever position in the 2013 World Press Freedom Index “because access to information is becoming more and more limited”, falling 23 places to 145th rank among the 179 countries surveyed.

This should be of great concern to our leaders who we hope are trying to educate, and not dumb-down, its citizens. The reality is that for bi-partisanship to work in our political system, parties will have to give up the practice of bloc-voting.

Second, there would be absolutely no point if the like-minded agenda does not include reforming laws and policies which are considered archaic and restrictive to basic liberties. In all likelihood, it will be tremendously difficult for Barisan parliamentarians to push for any of these fundamentals individually, if their leader does not equally mandate it.

The 13th general election has created many conversations, which should be encouraged as each community seeks steps for improvement. But given the dismal conditions of certain fundamentals that do not seem likely to be corrected in the near future, how feasible is it for the electorate to trust that “reconciliation” will be managed in its proper and rational manner?

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