IN September 2013, I began my travels across the United States of America on the Eisenhower Fellowship: an initiative that began in 1953 as an international leader exchange programme for non-Americans to better understand the US, and for Americans to better understand the world, with a view to promoting peace and international cooperation. Since then, Malaysians representing different sectors, including the cartoonist Datuk Mohammad Nor Khalid (Lat), former Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim, and more recently the social entrepreneur Sasibai Kimis and musician Cheryl Teh, have been fellows.
In the middle of my six-week programme there was an excursion planned to the Grand Canyon National Park. However, on Oct 1, the federal government entered a shutdown. As dramatic as that sounded, this was when I appreciated the extent of decentralisation in the United States: with much of education, health, policing and justice under the responsibility of state and local jurisdictions, people’s daily lives are not significantly disrupted, except for federal government employees who are furloughed (forced into unpaid leave).
Still, national parks were closed and there was some concern that we would not be able to go to the Grand Canyon, and arrangements were made to stay in Sedona instead. Luckily, the shutdown ended by the time we arrived and I did indeed visit one of natural wonders of the world. It was a memorable day as I had never seen such incredible geography in my life: millions of years of erosion creating indescribably beautiful landforms.
As my fellowship involved meeting politicians from both sides (despite its name, the fellowship is non-partisan, and anyway Eisenhower would have probably disavowed many policies of the current Republican leadership), I also remember the bitter political divisions that led to the shutdown in the first place, as well as in ensuing debates.
At that time, Republicans in the House of Representatives were blamed by Democrats for using an unrelated issue to create a budget impasse: their desire to defund the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’).
In the recent government shutdown from Jan 20-22, Democrats in the Senate were blamed by Republicans for using an unrelated issue to create a budget impasse: their desire to protect those affected by Trump’s rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) immigration policy.
Thus, many of the recent accusations of hypocrisy are themselves hypocritical: the real determinant for supporting or opposing either shutdown is your opinion as to the relative importance of the policy issue compared to keeping the federal government funded. (Interestingly however, Trump committed to keep national parks open given the furore in 2013.)
This time, the shutdown ended when enough Senate Democrats agreed to end the impasse based on a commitment from Republicans to debate legislation to create a route for young non-citizens to eventually obtain permanent residency (the DREAM Act). But this was criticised by liberal Democrats who thought that their senators should not have caved in so easily: they wanted the shutdown to continue.
All these point to the great cleavages within American politics, which I had observed when I worked there in 2006 and again during my travels in 2013. What makes the polarisation so potent is the fact that both sides really believe that they are upholding their constitution and the American tradition. Both sides believe they have legitimacy, and that the other side are traitors. Like the opposing cliffs of the Grand Canyon, they claim the same origins but the two sides have ended up so far apart.
Unfortunately, in Malaysia today there are also those are attempting to appropriate our Federal Constitution by stealth, grafting on their own interpretations to it and claiming that those interpretations were always there, when in fact they were not. Certain articles are elevated or taken out of context in ways that none of the authors, adopters or champions of the Constitution could have fathomed. If these misinterpretations gain popular credence, then the eventual effect could be the shutting down not merely of our government, but the fundamental basis of our nation.
It is fun to contemplate the difference in mood and content when Tunku Abdul Rahman met Dwight D Eisenhower in the White House in 1960, compared to when their successors met last year. In both countries it now seems more difficult to achieve consensus, to believe in institutions, and to disagree with respect.
For some, including those who gleefully celebrated the shutdown on WhatsApp, this is proof of the failure of democracy and the need for authoritarian government. But for those who value past agreements and our Federal Constitution, the grand canyon of disagreement must be bridged.
Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.