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Government vs Mafia

WE are now told by the new Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak that by-elections are bad because they distract us from dealing with the economic crisis.

Tunku Abdul Rahman (Public
This aversion towards elections is nothing new to Malaysia. In the spirit of learning our national history, let’s revisit some past decisions made by Alliance/Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders.

The BN’s track record

In March 1965, Tunku terminated local elections, which were mostly won by opposition parties, especially in the urban centres. Tunku promised to restore local elections once the Indonesian Confrontation was over. Of course, he never did. Neither did his five successors. Their reason? Elections are a waste of money.

Lee Kuan Yew (Public domain)
In August 1965, Tunku expelled Singapore from the federation of Malaysia because Singapore Premier Lee Kuan Yew — like Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim 43 years later — was actively courting East Malaysians to challenge Umno rule. To be fair to Tunku, his Umno colleagues actually wanted a more repressive solution — Internal Security Act (ISA) detention for Lee and his People’s Action Party lieutenants.

In 1966, Sarawak Chief Minister Datuk Stephen Kalong Ningkan — from the Sarawak National Party (SNAP) — was ousted unconstitutionally following dubious defections, much like Perak’s Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin 43 years later. When the Borneo High Court ruled to reinstate Ningkan, he wanted to let the people decide.

However, before Ningkan could dissolve the legislature, the Tunku administration proclaimed emergency rule in Sarawak. The Federal and Sarawak constitutions were amended so that a motion of no-confidence could be passed and a more compliant chief minister appointed.

Mustapha Harun (Public
The late Tun Mustapha Harun was allied to Tunku and also avoided elections in Sabah. In 1969, when the Malaya Alliance struggled to hold onto power, Mustapha’s Sabah Alliance bagged the state’s 16 seats through “walkovers”. In later years, he even contemplated making himself a sultan.

Tun Abdul Razak also had his moments in outmanoeuvring the electoral process. He expressed an aversion to “politicking” and preferred to focus on administration and development. After 1969, he gradually co-opted all but two parliamentary opposition parties, DAP and SNAP, first into coalition governments and later in 1974 into the BN. 

His reward? A total of 47 walkovers or 31% of parliamentary seats in the 1974 elections.

In 1974, Razak also carved Chinese-Malaysian-majority Kuala Lumpur out of Selangor presumably to ensure that opposition parties like the DAP could never capture the state. The new Federal Territory was not to have its own state government, or any elected government for that matter.

Hussein Onn (Public domain)
Razak’s successor, Tun Hussein Onn, took a slightly different tack when faced with political difficulties. For example, he declared an emergency and imposed direct rule in Kelantan in 1977 when PAS, then a member of BN, tried to oust their own menteri besar, Datuk Mohamad Nasir, who was much-liked by Umno. Hussein lifted the emergency and went to polls four months later when Umno had strengthened its base. Umno and Nasir’s splinter party, Berjasa, eventually thrashed PAS in the election.

While elections under Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad were arguably never free or fair, he was particularly innovative in his own party’s elections. In 1988, he effectively purged Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s supporters, by triggering the deregistration of Umno and the creation of Umno Baru. To protect the incumbents, Mahathir introduced the quota for nominations for the presidency and other senior positions, which Najib now proposes to remove.

In 1994, Anwar, then deputy prime minister and Umno deputy president, brought down the Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) state government through mass defections of lawmakers within a month after elections. Denying the use of financial inducement and coercive measures, Anwar recently reiterated that he merely “invited” those defectors. Of course, no fresh elections were called.

Musa Hitam (Source: vod.uum.
One BN leader who made markedly different decisions was former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam. As the acting prime minister in 1985, he prevented Tun Mustapha’s plot to install himself as Sabah chief minister despite not having a legislative majority, through — yes, even then — a palace coup.

But Musa’s decision can be seen to be the exception rather than the rule in the BN’s elections track record.

In February 2009, Najib orchestrated the downfall of Perak’s elected government and installed Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir as menteri besar.

While Anwar’s Pakatan Rakyat (PR) has no legal or moral ground to protest the defections in Perak, why didn’t the BN subsequently allow for a fresh poll?

Their answer is the usual — elections are disruptive and wasteful, and now bad for the economy.

Why are elections a must?

Why must we have elections to decide our governments?

Why can’t we opt for horse-trading among lawmakers; palace coups; the rule of judges; military coups; mutinying police officers; mutinying bureaucracies; or mob rule à la Thailand’s People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) as alternatives to topple and install governments?

PAD supporters armed with makeshift batons and golf clubs, 2008
(Pic by Mark Micallef, source: Wikipedia commons)

Provided the people do not protest, these methods may well be much smoother, more efficient, peaceful and attractive to certain types of investors.

So, why must the so-called liberal democrats and constitutional monarchists protest?

The answer, in a nutshell, is that elections distinguish a government from a mafia or triad.

A state is similar to the underworld in three senses: (a) they extract money; (b) they control territory; and (c) those living on their territories cannot opt out from being their subjects.

Tilly (Source:
Why do governments fight against foreign countries (war-making), suppress domestic rebels and outlaws (state-making) and offer law and order for their subjects (protection)? So that they may have the power to extract their subjects’ resources (extraction).

Charles Tilly, the American sociologist, called a spade a spade: war-making and state-making are but organised crimes. Four centuries before him, Tang Zhen, a Chinese thinker in Imperial China, called emperors thieves who fed on their subjects.

It is clear that in political theory, there is only a thin line between a government and a mafia or triad. While a government collects “taxes”, a mafia or triad collects “protection fees”. Sometimes, the mafia or triad is the government and carries out most governmental functions. For example, Kapitan Yap Ah Loy was both in 19th-century Kuala Lumpur.

Yap Ah Loy (Public domain)
So, what is the real thin line between a government and a mafia or triad? That mafias or triads do not know how to employ a public relations company for legitimacy branding?

No. It is elections. It is the principle of “no taxation without representation”, which ignited the American Revolution.

No mafia or triad will allow their subjects to elect their Godfather or Patriarch. You only have a duty to pay protection fees, but no right to elect your protector.

In a civilised world, a state must not be like a mafia or triad. That’s why electoral processes and elected governments must not be subverted.

This month, when you pay your income tax, remember to cherish elections. Without elections, what you pay is only protection money.

The Godfather (© Paramount Pictures)

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He hopes his home state will soon cease to be a kleptocracy propped up by unelected institutions. If democracy can only be restored with two more by-elections in Perak, he would appreciate any act of God.

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14 Responses to “Government vs Mafia”

  1. Andrew I says:

    In exasperation, I once reached a similar conclusion in a discussion with a retired commercial TV director during the dark ages, circa 1990.

    Needless to say, this logical conclusion was shot down as youthful naivety.

    Of course, it wasn’t backed up by all these wonderful arguments.

    Thank you, Chin Huat. If I felt like a nutcase then, I don’t now.

  2. prussiablue says:

    It seems that the interests of the majority of taxpayers’ group are not being represented in the government (going by the trend of contemporary election results). Hence I conclude, there must be something wrong with “No representation without taxation” OR we are really living under mob rule. Either way, we are screwed.

  3. cruzeiro says:

    Just my thoughts, mate!

    Doesn’t leave much room for doubt as to what exactly rules Malaysia, does it?

  4. KW Mak says:

    As a local councillor in the Petaling Jaya City Council, I must now declare that I feel like a triad boss. 😀

    On a more serious note, the need for local government elections is pressing. I would love to say my piece about the issues afflicting local councils, but being an ‘appointed’ representative rather than an ‘elected’ representative, I’m constantly told (and sometimes scolded) to keep my comments internally, away from public scrutiny.

    (I’d probably be admonished for making this comment too.)

  5. lizzie says:

    A wonderfully crisp and well written analysis… You always manage to give a fresh insight and a different perspective.. Thanks for a very convicing argument put forward…

  6. Pratamad says:

    Great article, Chin Huat!

    By comparing the government to the mafia, it helps people to understand the issues clearly and make the right demand from their government. It is much easier to understand some of the current teething issues from just the last few paras in your article. Well done.

  7. kahseng says:

    “A state is similar to the underworld in three senses … Sometimes, the mafia or triad is the government and carries out most governmental functions.”

    Chin Huat,

    Writing like a true libertarian! Don’t know if you consider yourself one.

  8. kamal says:

    Well put. And again, if non-BN led states can somehow reintroduce elections at local council level in their states, wouldn’t that be nice. This would show us that at least they are working on different paradigms, rather than talking about getting people to ‘walk-over’ or what have you.

  9. Fikri Roslan says:

    Well, aIl this while I thought we are practicing democracy in this country. We have general elections every five years. I don’t understand the logic of the view that we are against election. My understanding is clear that elections are necessary to elect representatives to the state assembly or to Parliament. However, I agree with the view that we should not have elections/by-elections every other day. Five years is a good time for the people to decide who is supposed to represent them in those two categories of houses. But what I disagree with the by-election is when the representative could easily step down for no apparent reason. Chin Huat used Perak as an example where he proposed the by-elections to be held to install his preferred “government”.

    In this case I disagree. A group of representatives (from one party) that were elected during the last election now form the majority in the state assembly. Rightfully, they should form the state government. The other group that called themselves “PR” is basically contested under different parties with different ideologies and platforms. Sure, I prefer a stable government with very clear objectives. In this case, we could refer to Penang state government where this so-called PR created a lot of mess in appointing a deputy CM. The CM can’t even appoint his deputy as it depends on the pleasure of a leader from another party. So, don’t trust this group. If they are sincere, then they (PR) should merge their parties to form a united and single party.

  10. azmin says:

    A very bad time to small Malaysians.

  11. chinhuatw says:

    Thanks for the appreciation, all of you, my friends.

    To Kah Seng,

    I am definitely a liberal. If I were to have a temple for thinkers, Thomas Paine will be my first saint of choice. I do believe that government is only a necessary evil. I love public choice theory. But I do not object all interventions of the state into economy.

    What I object most, more specifically, is self-interested discretion of the state coated in shameless propaganda of self-righteousness. It’s the agency problem if you like. To me, if a state must intervene, it must do so with a veil of ignorance, not knowing which individuals will be benefited.

    I therefore have very low regard for any predatory state which has the courage to boast about its virtues and ask for gratitude after transferring state wealth into party/personal coffers. It’s like a robber who demands a thank-you card simply because he did not take all your money away. It’s an insult to your grey matter.

    In Malaysia’s context, I oppose particularistic affirmative action but think a universalist welfare state is a must. Am I still a libertarian? You decide.

    To Fikri,

    the Perak crisis is not one of normal party alternation. The constitutional convention is that when a majority government requests for dissolution, the ceremonial head of state should give his/her consent. A figurehead must not mistake him/herself as a savior or philosopher king. But beyond the mutation of the constitutional monarchy, you see also civil servants and police mutinying and the judiciary tearing the constitution into pieces. The unelected institutions which are supposed to prevent elected dictatorship have turned themselves into despots that cannot even be overthrown by elections.

    Do I propose the by-elections to be held to install his preferred “government”? No, I merely want to see democracy restored. If BN can win the state elections even to form an all-Umno government, so be it. I have my track record in opposing unconstitutional means in regime change.

    It’s interesting how you unwittingly confess that PR will be installed if fresh elections are held. By extension, is this not clear enough whether the ones occupying the state secretariat now are state officials or mafia bosses?

    I rest my case.

  12. Fikri Roslan says:

    I thank Chin Huat for his response to my view. However, my understanding about country’s election:
    – The election is to elect the representative of a constituency;
    – Representatives will select their leader that will form government;
    – The leader will inform the Head of the country that he receives support from the majority of representatives;
    – The Head of the country will verify before gives his consent.

    In the case of Perak, representatives of BN formed the majority among the contested parties during the GE12. However, the representatives of DAP, PKR and PAS selected Nizar as their leader and was endorsed by Sultan to form a government. A year later the majority of representatives, and verified by Sultan, appointed Zambry as their leader and he consented to form a new government. So I see no logic for Nizar to request to dissolve the State Assembly, just because he no longer commanded the support of the majority of the representatives. So let another leader that could command support from representatives to form a new government.

    The dissolution of the State Assembly for a fresh election should only be done when none of the representatives could clearly command majority. This is the reason why I disagree with Chin Huat for fresh election in Perak as the new leader that can command majority could be found (Zambry). The result of GE12 could still be used.
    The police, civil servant and etc condemned by Chin Huat as comparable to the Mafia is too much to swallow.

  13. Antares says:

    Superb essay, Chin Huat. You’ve turned into a shining beacon of common sense, decency and illuminating political commentary. Thank you for articulating the truth so convincingly 🙂

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