Tuesday, March 26

Which way slither?


GONG Xi Fa Chai!

I was in the federal capital the entire weekend, taking advantage of the relatively empty roads to quickly criss-cross to various open houses. As usual there were boundless quantities of food, and for the second year in a row, endless chatter about the election. At one house, the same uncles were asking the same questions as last year: who will win where and by how much? The answers, too, were pretty much the same.

I pointed this out, and the discussion then moved to an idea that I have been hearing more and more over this period of political uncertainty spanning more than a year: fixed term parliaments for Malaysia. Currently, a general election occurs after the Yang di-Pertuan Agong gives his consent to a request from the Prime Minister for parliament to be dissolved within the maximum five-year term.

Of course, since we are a federation with legislatures in each of the 13 states, the same applies separately to each Ruler/Governor and Menteri Besar/Chief Minister. (Some in the Federal Territories complain that they don’t have an elected legislature, and argue that they should, but I would argue for the return of the territories to their mother states instead.) As many will no doubt claim, the waiting and the uncertainty can be damaging to the economy, to certain institutions and to conversations at open houses.

In a fixed term parliament, the power of the Prime Minister to determine when to seek the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s consent is removed, and thus, so is the uncertainty. Instead, the whole country will know exactly when the next general election will be. This principle is applied in many countries, perhaps most famously the United States of America, where the dates for the election and even inauguration of the President are fixed by law.

However, it is worth noting that even Westminster – from whom our and many other parliamentary democracies were modelled albeit with much infusion with indigenous institutions and adaptation to local customs – recently adopted fixed term parliaments. The introduction of the UK Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 came about rather by accident though, as it was forged out of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition agreement after the 2010 UK general election produced a hung parliament.

I very much doubt any of our contenders for Prime Minister will want to relinquish the power to determine the date of a general election if they get into office, so perhaps it will require a hung parliament to produce such a reform here too.

In the meantime, a few friends went up to Penang for the long weekend. All had stories to tell about PSY, and in the last few days the blogs have been hard at work to substantiate (or some will say disprove) these accounts. One curious response to the video evidence is that it is not nice to embarrass our national leaders. Treasonous, some comments suggested. Certainly, Malaysian society is less deferential now than it once was (you can see this within families as well as in public life), but those who go into public office should know this, and be prepared to hear all possible answers when asking a question.

Another predictable topic of discussion at open houses was what the Year of the Snake would mean for us as individuals and for the country. Some people clearly take this whole thing very seriously, and I note that respectable radio stations have devoted much airtime to proffering advice based on the positions of celestial objects.

I am astounded by the huge assortment of paraphernalia that is available so that people can ward off bad luck, and some even recommend expensive renovations or reorganising one’s home in certain ways to increase good luck. Apparently (and thankfully), my predictions for the Year of the Snake are quite all right. I was born in the Year of the Dog, and the aunties tell me that as long as I keep calm, money and love will come my way. Well, I’m glad there’s so much certainty in this prediction!

I am more of a cat-lover myself, but speaking of dogs, Malaysia’s cyberspace has recently featured the touching story of Pak Mie in Alor Setar, who has been caring for 500 stray canines and 100 felines for some years. Much commentary claims that Malay-Muslim culture has “traditionally” been biased against dogs, but I recall examples dating back to the 1930s of Malay Muslim leaders keeping these creatures.

Perhaps the most famous story is that of a mufti of Terengganu in 1960s who openly carried his dog around. Unfortunately, even then, the federal authorities felt it necessary to interfere in this matter and the mufti was transferred elsewhere.

Tunku Abidin Muhriz is president of IDEAS.