Wednesday, December 7

Understanding politics to attain sustainable development


Although now voters over 18 will be automatically registered, there is a fear the turnout rate will be relatively low.

MALAYSIA is about to hold its 15th general election (GE15) on Nov 19, 2022. As the current political situation has become highly unpredictable, the country is facing an increasingly uncertain outlook.

However, compared with the past elections, at least according to the author’s observation, there seems to be a lack of enthusiasm and motivation among the voters.

Although now voters over 18 will be automatically registered, there is a fear that the turnout rate will be relatively low. The situation is exacerbated by the effect of vote suppression – when casting a vote is too arduous for voters who live far from their registered constituencies.

Prof Wong Chin Huat suggested that ‘Parti Aku Malas Undi’ (I’m Lazy to Vote Party) may turn out to be the biggest party, characterising the people’s indifference to politics, or more precisely, despisal.

In the past few years, I have encountered a number of people who were passionate about sustainable development but showed no interest, if not disdain, in discussing politics. I was pretty surprised to see such a disconnection.

Politics determines the leadership, the outcome of the decision-making process, and, eventually, the development direction. Neglecting politics is like neglecting the elephant in the room.

We must determine the right course, design sound policies, and ensure effective implementations to achieve sustainable development. Advocates, thinkers, designers, researchers of sustainable development, and all stakeholders will need a basic understanding of politics to bring about change.

However, a systematic inquiry into politics in the discussion of sustainable development is largely missing in our country. Similarly, to the author’s knowledge, no political scientists specialised in Malaysia are making comprehensive analyses of sustainable development in the political dimension.

Sustainable development is about the future: improving, repairing, and protecting our ecological, social, and economic fabric to sustain the long-term prosperity of our human civilisation.

Sustainable development also builds on the past, understanding and critiquing our human behaviour, societal changes, and the impacts that result from these changes. As a layman, I have been learning from my colleagues and self-readings how political science explains power relations, the gap between rich and poor, and social justice – all critical issues that affect the sustainability of our civilisation.

I believe the basic knowledge of the four aspects of politics can be particularly useful.

The first is a fundamental understanding of where power comes from – who are the decision makers, why they get to make decisions, and how decisions are being made. Based on my observation, many people in Malaysia do not know which three major institutions the separation of powers refers to.

It is not uncommon to encounter an ironic situation where there is so much anger, but no one really knows who is to blame, and it ends up with vague accusations of ‘ini semua salah xxx’ (it’s all the fault of xxx). There is obviously a need for us to learn more about our political institutions and their power relations.

Second, it is also crucial to understand the dynamics of social and political movements. In the past decade, we have seen many advocacies, lobbying, publicity, and policy declarations on climate change. How did these movements form? Who is leading? Where does the money come from? Why do it?

We often hear people (including intellectuals) talking in general terms like ‘those people’, ‘environmentalists’, ‘big corporations’, ‘capitalists’, ‘the US government’, ‘fake news’, ‘the western conspiracy’, etc. However, the social and political dynamics behind these movements are not straightforward. We also see prejudices, biases, and a lack of capacity (or interest) to understand the sciences (sometimes, it is just about the maths), resulting in actions and decisions that could be ridiculous from a rational point of view. Systematic analyses of these dynamics and how to deal with the various forces will be essential to drive sustainable development.

Third, the function of ideology cannot be ignored. To move towards sustainable development, we will have to re-examine our way of comprehending the world and possible changes in our societal structure. Unfortunately, this is probably the most obscure part of the entire discussion about sustainable development, at least for Malaysia.

Understanding what it means to change the societal structure requires understanding the complexities of ideology. What is ‘capitalism’? ‘Neo-liberalism’? ‘Socialism’? Such knowledge is the foundation to effectively engage in discussions and debates about the concept of wealth, identities, inequality, social justice, and so on.

The fourth is knowledge about the various political systems. As sustainable development is not just a matter of one country, we will have to consider the different political systems around the world and how they interact with each other. The climate regime complex is probably the best example. We often hear about how the electoral cycle undermines sustainable development policies, with numerous examples from energy to food policies. Politicians tend to focus on short-term effects, which is the exact opposite of the nature of sustainable development.

In kopitiams and mamak stalls or on Facebook and YouTube, we have seen people lecturing each other about the differences between the Chinese and American systems, linking these to the increase in global food and energy prices. Given the globalised nature of sustainable development, it is inevitable to recognise and account for the differences in the political systems in different countries.

I believe that proper education in politics and governance is essential if we want to meet the real sustainability challenges of the future. Sustainable development is not only about the environment, the economy, or the society, but all three. Its complexity requires knowledge about politics to interpret. The four aspects mentioned above, i.e., the nature of power, social movement, ideology, and political system, are keys to decision-making and policy formulation.

Gaining knowledge of these aspects is essential for realising the changes required for sustainable development.

Dr Goh Chun Sheng is a researcher at Sunway University and Harvard University. His research interests lie within the intersection of bio-economy and nature-based economy, with a special focus on both Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo.