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Debunking “politicking”

MY previous column, which analysed the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s aversion to local government elections, drew one particular reader’s comment that amazed me. KIM GAN wrote: “To avoid the politicking that may impinge on racial [sensitivities], perhaps the campaigning can be minimal and voting can be carried out electronically through the net, sanctioned and monitored by the [Election Commission] and political parties.”

As much as the commenter accepts the argument for local democracy, he or she apparently has no confidence in its operation because of his or her fear of politicking. If this is the case, then what is this fear of “politicking” really about?

What is politicking? says politicking is “to engage in or discuss politics”. It is also (1) a “political activity, [especially] seeking votes, and (2) an “activity directed towards acquiring power and influence, achieving one’s own goals, etc.”

Reverso makes clear the word’s negative connotation: “If you describe someone’s political activity as politicking, you think that they are engaged in it to gain votes or personal advantage for themselves.”

But the question is, if politicking is actually competition amongst political parties and politicians for votes, why should we fear it? Analogously, do we fear price wars among hypermarkets or hawkers in their quest to win our bank notes? Would we fear “negative competition” if prospective employers tried to outdo each other to win us over? To take it further, would we fear our admirers if they went all out to defeat each other to win our affections?

I’m sure many people would be flattered to be the focus of some high-stakes competition where rivals try to outdo one another to win money, services or love.

What is wrong with our perception of politics?

So the question remains: What’s wrong with politics, or more precisely, our perception of politics?

I would argue that the “politicking” discourse — which is fundamentally an attack on electoral and party politics in a representative democracy — has two roots. The first is a Hobbesian fear of violence. The second is sheer elitism.

Hobbesian fear

The Hobbesian fear makes politics different from all other human endeavours because it may lead to violence. Or, more precisely, politics is born out of our fear of violence. This fear leads us to believe in and hope for government as the ultimate, disinterested arbitrator. As long as the government is perceived as being fair, then suppression of freedoms is justified.

And because Malaysia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual society, the argument escalates. It goes: In the absence of government, there would not only be an “all-out war”, but group differences would likely lead to deadly ethnic riots where all members from one communal group attack all members from another group.

But if the over-riding purpose of government is to minimise violence, then a government that suppresses freedoms but allows violence to be carried out with impunity is perhaps not so Hobbesian after all. Such a government is not conservative, but reactionary.


The second line of attack on modern party politics, elitism, treats the population as intellectually inferior — they are just incapable of choosing what is best for them.

Why provide choices that allow voters to decide against their best interests?
(pic of desserts © bewiki | rgbstock)

Hence, while they can handle competition among hypermarkets and act in their best interests as consumers, they would fail miserably as citizens when it comes to competition among politicians.

Instead of choosing what is good for them, the masses would do the opposite — they just like shooting themselves in the feet. The term to describe their stupidity is “populism”.

And how would we know when voters fall prey to populism? Is it when they vote for the government in response to handouts like bicycles or sewing machines or last-minute repairing of potholes on the road? No — according to the “politicking” rhetoric, voters respond to populism when they vote against the government despite all these goodies. And so, is the “politicking” discourse then not a sour-grapes response by the sore loser?

An attack on democracy

tea party
(screenshot of prime minister’s Facebook page)

We must ask, what is the difference between politicking and “meeting the people“? How does a feel-good Facebook fan party by the prime minister differ from an anti-goods and services tax (GST) rally, or a public forum attended by representatives from both sides of the divide?   

The ultimate difference is really about whether there will be differences of opinion. In all likelihood, the PM’s Facebook party was not meant for different or alternative viewpoints to emerge. The anti-GST rally, on the other hand, would have offered the public an opinion other than the official line propagated by the government-controlled media. This is also what public forums with multi-partisan participants — and by extension, election campaigns — do.

“Politicking” is essentially about public debate. When we attack politicking, we are actually attacking the very concepts of freedom of speech, the public sphere, and the foundation of democracy — that citizens are capable of making choices advancing their interests.

This is not to say that democracy does not make mistakes. Democracy cannot prevent voters from choosing the wrong government. Democracy minimises that danger by having meaningful debates and deliberations — “politicking” if you like. And as long as society has zero tolerance for violence, “politicking” can remain civil.

If after substantial deliberation, the citizenry still wish to make what may turn out to be the wrong choice, then it is their right to do so, for they will bear the consequences. After all, who can tell them what is right?

The BN’s objection to local democracy is therefore greater than the issue of local democracy itself.

It is no different from its objections to a longer campaigning period, to televised election debates and to media freedom in general. It is but a symptom of the BN’s anti-democratic “politicking discourse” that was championed by Tun Abdul Razak in the post-1969 atmosphere of fear.

It is sad that the BN has not shifted its position at all on local elections despite a week of criticisms by civil society, the Pakatan Rakyat and even some BN leaders.

It shows a stubborn hostility towards democracy, which may have suited a post-1969 Malaysia, but should not be tolerated by the post-2008 Malaysia.

Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade. Former Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohamad Khir Toyo asks Malaysians to give Najib a chance, but Wong asks Najib to first give democracy a chance.

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7 Responses to “Debunking “politicking””

  1. Leithaisor says:

    Aiyah… “Kalau hendak seribu daya, tak mahu seribu dalih”.

    Which roughly translates as “where there’s a will, there’s a way”.

    But it would be more accurate and worthwhile to use the words of many who go “Ptui!” and spew coarse words about blatant hypocrisy, shameless spin-doctoring and outright lies.

    “People first, performance now”? Hah!

  2. dominik says:

    I have a suggestion to make about local council govts.

    First, the ruling state govt. shall have 51% appointed councillors from the various parties.

    The balance 49% could be put to voting like those done by the PR (for village head-type elections) during their short reign as govt of Perak.

    Then there is no worry as the appointed councillors outnumber the elected ones.

  3. sunny bunny says:

    Interesting article. I guess politicking is a waste of time, then no? It’s just a way to gain votes for elections. Also to quote someone famous, forgive me, I can’t remember who once said: “Human relations is essentially a struggle for power.” We could also add to the fact that much of politiciking news is gossip and creates drama which we Malaysians pay attention to. What is mundane, like good government policies, often go unnoticed.

  4. Rhan says:

    Less campaigning might not necessary be an obstacle to democracy, and to a certain extent, I do agree that the general masses are incapable to choose what is best or them. I don’t think we need any further facts to substantiate this claim by looking at our own country. However, democracy allows the people to choose, while it is not perfect, it provide us the chances to correct our mistakes, though sometimes this may take more than 50 years.

    In my personal opinion, politicking is no different from bullshitting unless there is a comprehensive mechanism of media freedom. Therefore in the Malaysian context, we can’t blame the masses in having a negative view towards politicking. And the elite could be right after all when they allege that our population is intellectually inferior.

    By the way, the hypermarket price war is one unsound analogy, we shouldn’t expect our voters to have behavior similar to consumers. For example, I would say GST is a good policy, but politicking causes the delay – the so-called “price war” may not be beneficial in the long term.

    Having said that, I would still remind others to look at the big picture.

  5. chinhuatw says:

    @dominik – why should we think appointment – rather than elections – would make [for] better politicians? Why would the need to appeal to the few be more conducive to rational behavior than appealing to the many?

    @sunny bunny – political competition, like business competition, can be bad to the recipients – voters/consumers. Both therefore need good rules of the game. But suppressing political competition is not and can never be the answer.

    @Rhan – hypermarket price wars might produce externalities like killing off small businesses. But that aside, what’s wrong for consumers? Who is to tell them what is best for them if not themselves? Can we regulate so that they should buy something and not other things? You say GST is a good policy, but a good policy for whom? Shouldn’t the recipients be convinced how it is good for them? I am not even a socialist but I think it is terribly wrong to impose what one considers good onto others.

  6. Naomi says:

    I agree that politicking is an essential tool of democracy. But I think that we, normal voters, would always harbour fears of politicking due to inherent distrust. Too many promises have been made that were conveniently forgotten the moment these politicians stepped into office. Your usage of the pricing wars analogy cannot accurately allude to politicking because politicking is based on promises, right? Whereas pricing is implemented and its customers are assured of the benefits of a lower price, voters do not have the same security. Each time we vote, we presumably do so on the same basis as the pricing wars: we choose the best and shiniest deal. But, how can we know that the politician will carry out his or her promise? Voters always have to carry a wary sense of distrust towards these politicians, who sometimes say things that are too good to be true. Therefore, is it really strange that this distrust, proven from time-to-time true every post-election or so, has degenerated into distrust for politicking?

  7. Rhan says:

    “what’s wrong for consumers?”
    Nothing is wrong, and my point is not on consumers. Perhaps Naomi’s comment helps put forward part of my contention. Hypermarkets and consumerism is about dollars and cents while a democratic system to elect government should be more than a cost benefit analysis.

    In referring to GST, all forms of tax are bad to a taxpayer – the counterpoint is therefore GST is not a bad policy, but we have an untrustworthy government.

    My opinion is I doubt if our voters could always make the best and wisest decision, but like I said, the voters are given the opportunity to correct the wrongs and mistakes, we shall therefore educate the masses what politicking is about, and on this part, I think you are doing a good job.

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