Tuesday, February 7

Jumping for gold


THE 2021 Olympic Games have come and gone, and — with the provisos I mentioned in my last article — provided a welcome diversion from the gloom that we are now accustomed to. We cheered when Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik won their bronze, and when Datuk Mohd Azizulhasni won his silver in the kierin (though this was paired with fury at Australia’s Matthew Glaetzer giving Team GB’s Jason Kenny an insurmountable lead with three laps remaining).

Still, debates continue about whether we should have done better, especially when compared to smaller and poorer countries (Jamaica has one-tenth our population and half our GDP per capita, but won four golds). Instead, we take credit for Philippine’s first gold medal because weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz trained in Melaka; and for British pentathlete gold medallist Joseph Choong whose sports-loving family is from Seremban.

Other dramatic moments included when Indonesia’s Greysia Polii swapped changed racquets mid-rally before winning a badminton gold; when Serbia’s Novak Djokovic smashed his racquet after failing to win tennis medals; when the USA’s Simone Biles’ withdrawal from gymnastics events sparked inter-generational conversations about mental health; and a heartwarming favourite when Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim asked “Can we have two golds?” enabling him and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi to both win the high jump.

Thus while we yet have to experience the emotions of seeing the Jalur Gemilang atop other flags while joining our Olympians singing ‘Negaraku’, social media nonetheless highlighted how our athletes are presently far better symbols of unity than our politicians. Instead of jumping high for our country, the predominant sentiment is that our MPs are willing only to jump for their own sake: to support whichever potential prime minister that is able to give them positions and money.

With such derision of our politicians and our political institutions, it is vital that reforms take place in time for the next election so that our democracy can be healed. Many have argued for the need for an anti-hopping law, and while our Federal Constitution refers only to “members” rather than “parties” in the Dewan Rakyat, and also guarantees freedom of association, one compromise is to enable voters to fire or “recall” MPs who switch parties between elections.  Another important change is to make candidate selection a grassroots process, instead of one where the party leader decides who should contest in which constituency: this present practice is precisely what makes MPs susceptible to bribing by other party leaders.

More broadly, political financing needs reform too, so that voters know how much money is being donated to candidates and parties. This is why the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) together with Bait Al-Amanah are hosting a webinar on ‘Transparency in Democracy’. Indeed, in one sense, there has probably never been a more opportune time to push for these changes. Many politicians — both the honest and crooked ones — know that they are hated. Perhaps some have such thick skin that they do not care and believe they will keep winning elections. But others might feel that institutional reform is a way for them to show their commitment to honesty and fairness.

In the meantime, as a constitutional monarchy, we are lucky to have a head of state that serves not only as a symbol of unity but also as a functioning institution: one that can help break deadlocks and, if needed, provide stability in a time of transition amid a continuing pandemic.

Indeed, throughout this entire period, our medical front-liners have continued to treat patients and vaccinate the public. I have now witnessed three vaccination efforts on the ground in recent weeks and I am pleased to see that demand for the vaccines is high, the actual administering of jabs is efficient and most importantly, the mood is buoyant. With ever increasing evidence around the world that the vaccines work, we may have a path towards opening up and follow in the enviable footsteps of other countries where life is returning to a pre-Covid normal.

Tragically, that optimism will mean little to those who have already lost ones.  Beyond the personal grief felt by friends and relatives, there will also inevitably be questions of policy and politics. Are there policies which would have saved more lives and opened up our economy sooner? Are there politicians who would have been able to provide better leadership? Like the heart-wrenching contemplations in the songs of the late Siti Sarah, who sadly succumbed to Covid-19, we think we know the answers, but proving them is difficult.

That is why, whether in battling Covid or improving governance, data and international best practice must remain central for Malaysia to take gold.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.