Corrected on 6 March 2009 at 3.50pm
PERAK was one of the biggest surprises after 8 March 2008. After some early difficulty in appointing the menteri besar (MB), the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) state government went on to perform well beyond expectations.
The PR government has not only increased the state’s revenue by RM97 million or a whopping 15%, but also introduced a couple of praiseworthy reforms.
Perak was the first state to start electing village heads since the 1960s. It was also the first state to grant permanent land titles for residents of new villages and kampung tersusun. “First” implies that the other states, whether under the PR or Barisan Nasional (BN), may have been eventually forced to emulate Perak.
One of the most politically sophisticated states in the 1950s, Perak in 2008 seemed to be a possible model for tomorrow’s Malaysia.
Cut to 11 months later, and no one would want such a model anymore. Worse, Perak today may indeed be Malaysia’s unfortunate tomorrow if nothing is done to reverse the present catastrophic trend.
Disintegrating parliamentary democracy?
What we are seeing in Perak now is no longer a constitutional crisis, but the beginning of the disintegration of parliamentary democracy.
Democracy is essentially about popular sovereignty, which, in the modern sense, refers to the rule by an elected government.
Although many democracies have a host of powerful institutions autonomously run by professionals and technocrats such as independent central banks, the executive and legislative powers remain in the hands of elected representatives.
The most powerful state apparatus — the bureaucracy and the security forces — must take orders from the government of the day.
This is to ensure a clear control of government by citizens. Whenever citizens decide to change the government, the new government will control the state to execute the will of the citizens.
Democracy collapses or fails when ultimate power rests with unelected institutions, such as the military, the police, the bureaucracy, the religious establishment, the media, a too-powerful judiciary, the monarchy, or even mob machinery like the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in Thailand.
A line of armed demonstrators from the People’s Alliance for Democracy in Thailand,
August 2008 (Pic by Mark Micallef)
The ultimate power should only rest with the electorate or their duly elected representatives. In short, when you have doubts or deadlocks, you go to the polls. Only when everyone accepts that democracy is “the only game in town” can democracy be said to have been consolidated.
Such acceptance entails a pact by the political elites to keep out of unelected institutions. In other words, politicians and political parties must see losing fairly to their opponents as superior to reigning as the puppet of some unelected institutions, whether it is the monarchy, military or bureaucracy.
As unbelievable as it may be now to Malaysians, parliamentary democracy is actually a superior system for such esprit de corps or fair play to be cultivated among politicians, compared to presidentialism.
In a parliamentary system, the head of state is separate from the head of government, who holds the real power.
Such separation allows the head of state to act as a unifier, a nonpartisan symbol. In a US-style presidential system, the president is both head of state and government. He or she would therefore be partisan, and in times of crisis this partisanship could accelerate public alienation from the government into a rejection of the state.
The parliamentary system, however, applies a fusion of power between the legislative (parliament) and executive (cabinet) branches, rather than a pure separation of powers á la presidentialism.
While deadlocks between the president and the congress are common in presidential systems, a legislative-executive stand-off in parliamentary systems is simply not sustainable by design.
Having its power derived from the parliament, the cabinet cannot survive if it loses the parliamentary confidence. Cabinet office-bearers can choose either resignation or to seek fresh polls. In other words, a change — or renewal — of government will have to be done either at the polls or in the legislature.
It’s a hairy situation (Pic by EncycloPetey;
source: Wikipedia) Parliamentary democracy is a deadlock-proof system, if you will. So what has gone wrong?
Mutation, mutiny and muscle-flexing
The constitutional crisis of Perak did not begin with the crossovers of the three PR lawmakers and flip-flopping of one BN assemblyperson. Even if these crossovers can be confirmed as being motivated by seat-buying, the situation would merely have remained a political crisis.
The constitutional crisis began when the legitimate, democratically appointed PR MB was asked to resign when he technically still enjoyed the confidence of the legislature. Had he lost the legislature’s confidence and thus been “sacked” by a majority of the lawmakers, there would not have been an assembly under the rain tree.
When the power to fire the MB shifted from the legislature to the palace, the constitutional monarchy effectively mutated into something other than what the designers of our political system envisaged.
The constitutional crisis deepened when the bureaucracy and police took sides to literally force the elected PR government out of office. To give them the benefit of the doubt, they might have been confused by the emergence of two state governments and chose to heed the palace’s decision.
This was, however, not the case when the state secretary locked out the state secretariat where the legislative assembly is housed. It was also not the case when the police barred PR lawmakers from entering the assembly. The actions of the police and bureaucracy in these instances cannot be excused as resulting from confusion.
According to the logic of the Westminster system, the legislature is the most important branch of the government. It has its own rights and privileges. It can penalise those who commit contempt to the legislature with no judicial recourse allowed.
By consciously defying the assembly and attempting to subdue the lawmakers, the state secretary and the police commanders involved have therefore committed political mutiny.
Equally disturbing is the muscle-flexing of the judiciary and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).
While the court is the rightful arbiter of disputes involving different elements of the government — such as the monarchy and the legislature — it has no business to step into the internal affairs of the house.
Even if the speaker erred politically, such an error can only be corrected politically by the assembly or the electorate. In other words, only the lawmakers or voters can punish an errant speaker, not a judge or a politically appointed commissioner.
Democracy under siege
In a nutshell, the crisis in Perak is that the legislature is under siege by a host of unelected institutions: the palace, bureaucracy, police, courts, and MACC.
This has happened because politicians from the PR and BN have shown their willingness to court unelected institutions. They do so because they believe the public will tolerate such a rape of democracy and the triumph of Machiavellianism.
If the wrestling over Perak can lead to the mutation, mutiny and muscle-flexing of unelected institutions, what will we see come the next general election? Could some parties turn to the military?
Tengku Razaleigh (Source:
Wikipedia) One thing leads to another. Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah has rightly reminded us that the Perak crisis is a chain reaction of illegality.
We all hate the endless political impasse. But doing nothing or looking for a short-term solution will only prolong this crisis and encourage more in the future. We can ask for a truce or a national unity government, but this means we must brace ourselves for the possibility of a military coup after the 13th general election.
Or we can step up the call to force fresh polls and penalise — legally and politically — those who have acted treasonously against democracy.
We have come so far after 8 March. The choice is ours.
An anak Perak, Wong Chin Huat believes that good sense among the public must prevail to restore the dignity of constitutional monarchy, democracy and political stability in Perak and Malaysia. Tolerating political falsehood is as dangerous as taking fake medicine. A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, he is based in Monash University Sunway Campus.