Moderating polarisation

MEETINGS with politicians, civil servants and others on the public payroll, as well as diplomats representing countries near and far, seem to have taken on a familiar and repetitive format of late. The first part of the conversation will centre on things that are wrong or should be improved in Malaysia, the second will be discussing what can and should be done about it, and the last part will be about how great Malaysia nonetheless is.

The content and length of time allocated to each part depends on the interlocutor’s political and ideological alignment. Part one can either be about the government’s brilliant work or its destruction of the country; part two is therefore how to expand on the brilliant work or how to reverse that destruction; and part three exists so people can leave on an optimistic note (although the undertone remains: Malaysia is great either because, or despite, of the government). After these conversations conclude, I become more convinced that most people calculate what is best for them and their futures given their current position first, and then only construct their beliefs (or at least, their rhetoric) to match their strategic objectives.

The likelihood of changing someone’s mind once they have created this mental infrastructure is extremely low, at least on a rational basis. Perhaps enticements with lots of money, a superior position in a different political party or simply blackmail would meet with greater success: suddenly you’ll find that their ‘rational’ analysis of the national situation has changed.

Whenever such movement occurs, party hacks get terribly excited, conjuring up all manner of arguments to justify why it is okay when they are the beneficiary, but not okay when they are not. Perhaps I am being overly cynical and have watched too many political dramas or comedies in my time, but with everyone certain that the 14th general election is coming soon (whether caused by the Prime Minister’s advice to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong or the natural expiry of the Dewan Rakyat’s mandate), these positions are becoming increasingly extreme (and either extremely entertaining or extremely depressing to watch).

We are not the only country where political polarisation can cause such myopia and apoplexy, of course: in particular, I saw the same thing in the United States, where to be politically aligned often means to forcefully, sometimes hatefully, defend your side against the other. Many in the middle keep quiet to avoid being embroiled in such spite. But at least in the United States (until recently at least) the divisions are still rooted in public policy differences: on healthcare or abortion or gun control, for instance. In Malaysia it is still about personalities and perceptions of their character. Only a tiny minority of the most ardent supporters of either side are able to tell me how their party’s economic vision, for instance, differs from their opponent’s. As for the renewal of our national institutions, the best that can be offered with any degree of conviction is that “there’s a greater chance of that happening if we’re in power”.

This is not to disparage every politician. I salute those who really believe what they say when they talk about the country’s challenges, convinced that their leaders and policies will endow their citizens with a better future. They deserve additional sympathy if, despite their being genuine, they are still insulted and attacked on a daily basis by citizens who whack their party and everyone associated with it, without contemplating the possibility that some of the individuals within it are honest and have chosen this path out of a patriotic sense of responsibility. Unfortunately, they probably never expected that voluntarily committing to public service (sometimes in lieu of more lucrative and safer careers) would be so thankless.

Tougher moral considerations are required for those who claim to have chosen the path of “change from within the system”. Often, it is the system that changes them instead; and after they are successful the exhortation that “I can’t speak up too much because then I’ll lose my position and my positive influence” becomes all too familiar. On the other hand, critics of civil society tell us that change from outside is too slow, and too easily thwarted: it takes political power to institutionalise changes in the country. Yet there is a reason why politicians and their parties engage with civil society: because influence can be more lasting than power.

As the political tension continues to heighten ahead of what the political, bureaucratic and diplomatic communities know will be an important general election, it will take all the strength that civil society can muster to moderate the inevitable polarised ugliness to come.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is president of Ideas.

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