An X (or Ex) for institutional renewal?

MANY recent elections around the world have been described as defining events for nations ‘at a crossroads’, or as ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunities’ for citizens to determine their societies’ onward journeys.

This was certainly the case for both the 2014 referendum on whether Scotland should remain in the United Kingdom, as well as the 2016 referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union; these more so than the general election of 2017, in which the Conservatives under Theresa May lost their majority.

And from the moment it happened, the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America has repeatedly been described in superlative terms – the first outsider, the least qualified, the most dangerous – that has had a powerful impact on policymaking and American society more generally. Decades from now, the election of Trump will still be remembered as a defining moment, together with the election of Barack Obama eight years before (even if for different reasons and with opposite sentiments).

I’ve also met citizens of France and Germany, and residents of Jakarta and Hong Kong, who have shared how their lives will be affected for better or worse for many years to come after recent elections.

Of course, before any election, it serves the agenda of politicians to emphasise how life-changing the election will be: vote for us and miracles will happen; vote for the other guys and there’ll be a catastrophe from which we will never recover.

But having witnessed several elections, Malaysia’s 14th does feel special. This is the first time so much information (and disinformation) can be circulated amongst voters through mobile devices, the first where international scrutiny is this high, and the first in which a common logo unites four opposition parties. (Though note that the red bands framing the eye were only added after the 2003 merger of Parti Keadilan Nasional with Parti Rakyat Malaysia: it is a convenient coincidence that Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia uses the same shade of red, turning an homage to the socialist Left into a nod towards the conservative Right – in Malaysian terms anyway.)

And so many questions are being asked. Will there be a tsunami or merely a wave, and if so will the policies really change significantly? How representative will the popular vote be compared to seats won, and at what point does that discrepancy become unacceptable? What result will trigger a leadership change within parties? What if there is a hung parliament? Will there be crossovers, and if so by whom? Might there be a risk of protests, even violence, and a declaration of emergency (or ‘security areas’)?

There is no shortage of pollsters, pundits, diplomats and civil servants trying to answer these, with a wide variety of possible scenarios. Exasperated around one dinner table with so many wild extrapolations based on projected chains of assumptions, I posited that some of the mental acrobatics is equivalent to asking hypothetical questions about past elections, like what if Onn Jaafar’s Parti Negara beat Tunku Abdul Rahman’s Alliance in 1955? Or if Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s Semangat 46 and allies beat Mahathir Mohamad’s Barisan Nasional in 1990? Or if Wan Azizah’s Parti Keadilan Nasional and allies beat Barisan Nasional in 1999?

“Those are stupid questions,” said my fellow diners. “They had no chance of winning and such an exercise would be purely academic.”

“It’s easy to say that now,” I replied. But perhaps, back then, the supporters of Parti Negara, Semangat 46, and Keadilan really believed that their party was different from the one they splintered out of, their leaders more wise, that the country would be so much better if they were victorious, and that they really had a chance of winning.

There’s another notable thing about this general election, which is the absence of the same virulent populism that has characterised so many of the big elections elsewhere. Because the focus is on individuals and legacies, the whipping up of racial and religious rhetoric seems comparatively milder compared to previous elections, and even compared to the racist demagogues of the United States and Europe. In other words, if the contestants were different, the promises would be different: a silver lining in itself, because some attention has therefore been paid to healing the institutions of our country.

Institutional renewal according to the principles of Merdeka has always been a primary interest of this column, and decades from now, I wonder whether young Malaysians around a dinner table will argue about when our institutions began to heal from a period of erosion, collusion and compromise.

Whether or not that date is sometime in 2018, may there always be advocates for those principles.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.

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