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Perak today, Malaysia tomorrow?

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.

The Palace of Westminster in London (Public domain; click on image for bigger view)

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:
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.

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23 Responses to “Perak today, Malaysia tomorrow?”

  1. Singam says:

    Chin Huat, I agree with most of what you have written but there is one statement that I have to take exception to.

    I understand that it is important for a journalist to hold his personal views in check and present his observations in a neutral vein. However I think you have bent over backwards to appear balanced when you wrote: “This has happened because politicians from the PR and BN have shown their willingness to court unelected institutions.”.

    If you disagree, do educate me – what unelected institutions has the PR courted? To date what action has been taken by the PR that is unlawful or not provided for in the state constitution?

  2. Jin Tan says:

    What we are seeing is a manipulation of the other branches of government by the executive. The executive is using all its power to ensure that the different institutions do what the executive wants. A dangerous trend indeed! It is time to let the people decide.

  3. Pratamad says:

    Dear Chin Huat,

    You have chronicled the chain of events (and chain reaction of illegality) well. Mahathir did the first round by destroying our institutions but the country was generally handicapped to resist. Now, Najib is trying to imitate this time round, but only worse. Worse because he is even more reckless and doing it on top of the much tainted institutions inherited from Mahathir. Now they choose to live in pretension. Sigh.

    However, all is not lost because this time round the country is relatively more organised (i.e. PR and civil society) and most importantly we are better connected through the Internet (case in point: you in KL, I in Singapore!). We must not lose faith and continue the struggle.

    You have been ardently anti-hopping leading up to Sep16. Now, if you can appreciate the potential of disintegrating democracy, I hope you will understand the exigency now. Many of the hopping concerns and principles can be addressed by incorporating some mechanisms and framework into the change of government. E.g. fresh election within one year or two, after the institutions have been somewhat remedied.

  4. kinistau says:

    Good article,

    “.. Or we can step up the call to force fresh polls and penalise — legally and politically — those who have acted treasonously against democracy… ”

    Give us some idea how we can do it.

  5. lena says:

    Malaysians need to be educated. Many still rely on the daily major newspapers for news which are biased. Many are caught in a web of working hard to ensure our needs and wants are met to the extent that they do not think (no time and energy to think) hard and deep about the political ramifications in our nation. Many choose to be complacent because they think there is nothing they can do about the situation in the nation, so let others who are more capable do the work. Most are fearful for their rice-bowl to shrink in any way and of course they hope for the best to turn out so that the nation can prosper and that eventually something good will come out for the nation. Quite fatalistic.

  6. lizzie says:

    An excellent piece, Chin Huat. We want to stop this rot, but how do we do it? The so-called unelected institutions are wielding such power so ferociously and shamelessly, as I see it, it seems unstoppable. When laws and statutes and even basic moral values are being ignored and trampled on, is there still hope?

    I draw comfort though, that just like 308 did not just happen because it was the will of men, I believe, the present wickedness on display can only be stopped and uprooted, when we go on our knees and let God intervene once more.

  7. D Lim says:

    Democracy? It’s becoming an elusive concept in Malaysia. Military coup? Everything is possible when the grab for power prevails over everything. It has happened before so why not happen again? Sadly, Malaysia has not moved beyond race politics despite 40 years after becoming independent from colonial rule. Look around us? Which are the countries which have moved on and which disintegrate into total chaos and suffering? We make our choices, politicians make theirs. Good luck!

  8. ilann says:

    Ah yes, good main graphic picture you have up there. Very telling. A picture speaks a thousand words. ‘Malaysia’ is of course the tail of the Asian continent AKA Semenanjung. The Borneo states as usual don’t count. Never mind that Sarawak alone is five kilometers short of being the same size as the peninsula.

    Yes, in this article you’re referring to Perak state but you’re also referring to “Malaysia”.

    This kind of graphic is extremely common and reflects the Malayan mentality of Malaysia and is offensive to the Borneo states. But yes, I know, who cares, right? Out of sight, out of mind, Sabah and Sarawak are just those far off colonies of Malaya, not part of parliamentary or constitutional concern.

    Shame on you, Nut Graph.

    Note: We have been receiving criticisms over this, as you rightly put, unforgivable mistake. Our most sincere apologies, and we will rectify it ASAP.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  9. S.Chandra says:

    Democracy is truly the manifestation the voice and desire of the people. The ruler has been vested with the power to ensure the sanctity of democratic institutions is sustained at all costs and at all times. The voice of the rakyat of Perak is so evident that no more time should be allowed for the constitutional impasse to degenerate to an uncontrollable point. Continued litigation and counter-litigation cannot resolve the unprecedented crisis.

    Mistakes made should be corrected by whichever party concerned for the sake of restoring the legitimacy and dignity of the people’s voice. That is the ultimate that is envisioned by our sacred constitution. All other agendas are subservient to this vision. Tengku Razaleigh’s suggestion that fresh elections be held in Perak seems to be the best solution to end the present crisis. May God give the needed wisdom and courage for the impasse to be overcome and for the Silver State to be put on its future right path.

  10. East Malaysian says:

    Misleading image: is Malaysia only the peninsula?

    Note: We have noticed this glaring oversight and we are trying to rectify it immediately. Our apologies for this – this oversight was not caught due to crazy deadlines and limited human resources in the office, but we assure our readers that we are aware of the ramifications. We do not mean, and have not ever meant, to denigrate or sideline Sabah and Sarawak.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  11. Abe says:

    Talking about a chain reaction of illegality. The High Court ruled that the speaker cannot appoint private lawyers because the speaker is a public servant. Then how come MB Zambry and his colleagues can hire a team of private lawyers to argue their case? (They are also public servants as they are also paid from public funds. Shouldn’t they too be represented by the state legal advisor?) Totally confused trying to understand what’s going on. Can some legal experts clarify this please ?

  12. abubaker says:

    The deep feeling of calls to force fresh polls and penalising the abusers must be aroused. No matter what apparent obstruction appears.

    Negative influence from the palace, bureaucracy, police, court and MACC will die in their attempt to subdue the lawmakers if the calls for force fresh polls is energised and sparked.

    The people can put the bureaucracy, police, courts and MACC into a natural death through the ballot box.

    “The days of mourning” will cease if fresh polls can be forced. By force, meaning if it is necessary and unavoidable.

  13. Hi ilann and East Malaysian,

    A picture does speak a thousand words. And what our graphic for “Malaysia” says is that our default in the newsroom is to be peninsula-centric.

    How embarassing when we’ve tried to promote the site as an inclusive one and have made it a policy to include voices and stories from Sabah and Sarawak.

    I was the editor in charge last night and take full responsibility for my peninsula-dominated worldview. An apology would just be another apology. So, what’s important is that as a news team, we will learn from this and strive to better keep our promise to be inclusive in future.

    Thanks for taking us to task for this. The image will be changed once our sub-editor, who is not working today, can get online.

    Jacqueline Ann Surin
    The Nut Graph

  14. PH Chin says:

    Well done, truly an excellent and analytical piece of article on Malaysian politics.

    We have heard the calls from the ‘rakyat’, NGOs, the Bar Council chairperson, statespersons and even politicians from both sides for new polls in Perak to resolve the current impasse.

    What ways forward should the ‘rakyat’ embark on so that their voices will be heard, loud and clear?

  15. chinhuatw says:

    Dear Friends,

    I appreciate your passionate responses. It’s a crisis that is getting larger if we sit and do nothing.

    1. What can we do? (To Kinistau and Lizzie)

    EXPAND the voice of reason. We need to get more groups coming out condemning the attacks of elected government by unelected institutions. At the moment, it is only the Bar Council and the usual suspects amongst the vocal NGOs. Where are other professional groups? Business chambers? Religious groups? Trade unions? Community groups? Can they survive if Malaysia is hit by a military coup amidst the economic crisis? We must get every concerned citizen to speak up.

    SHOW our determination to right the wrong. I have been wearing black every single day since 8 Feb. I will wear it until a fresh poll is called. My life becomes colourless but it’s a matter of black and white – no grey area for me. It’s a very small thing I can do to show my defiance. When people notice and ask, it gives me a chance to explain. You can express your feeling in many ways, creating your own or disseminating others’ – t-shirts, car stickers, buntings, posters, mugs, buttons, e-cards, sms-es, emails, emoticons. You can also take proactive actions: prayer, fasting, discussion, donation, lodging police reports against the police, or even a visit to the Pokok Demokrasi. The point is we must show our civil disobedience. Doing nothing is giving the coup-plotters silent consent.

    I don’t think the illegitimate government can survive if every day you read about the call for fresh polls in newspapers or every where you go you see signs of civil disobedience. At the very least, that should deter them from trying it out in Selangor or elsewhere.

    I am positive we can make a difference. This time it would be more meaningful than even 8 March, when many might have shied away from voting opposition for the fear of instability if they knew opposition would make unprecedented gains. Whatever we do today to preserve the fruit of democratization since March 8, we do it consciously because we cherish democracy and liberty.

    2. Is PR guilty? (To Singam)

    While Anwar did offer to stage a motion of no-confidence in Parliament at some point [his original plan was to have the MPs who defected swear their support through statutory declarations], his 16 Sept plan was eventually one to form a government without fresh elections. (Anwar’s courting of the royals was obvious with his support to restore immunity.)

    The most “democratic” offer made (by Sivarasa Rasiah) was a fresh poll within six months. If Anwar had his way, Abdullah Badawi would be denied dissolution even if he were to make such request. Would it be fair to Umno voters? Do you think Umno would take it lying down and the country could have maintained stability? The answers to these questions are obvious.

    So, I cannot and will not excuse Anwar, PKR and PR, not because I want to appear balanced but because I want to keep my right to be angry at Najib, Umno and BN.

    3. Are extreme measures justified? (To Pratamad)

    Some (like Zulkifli Sulong) are still toying with idea that the king may stop Najib from succession and I am sure many will be tempted to consent to such muscle-flexing of the palace.

    I will still oppose it. I oppose the idea of forming a new government in dodgy circumstances without going through fresh polls. Not because I have naive expectations of the prime minister-to be. Quite the opposite. If he would play foul even when you win democratically, would he restrain himself when you win undemocratically?

    True, keeping our principles may not stop him from hitting below the belt, but to do that first would justify his reaction. Imagine if Elizabeth Wong had attacked her opponent’s private life, how could her friends come to offer her moral support?

    By tying our hands from Machiavellianism, it does not mean we give up fighting. The PR’s resistance in Perak is perfectly shrewd but nonetheless legitimate.

    So, we must fight authoritarianism with democracy, fight Machiavellianism with integrity. How to ensure democracy and integrity are powerful tools to carve a brave new world, rather than beautiful but vulnerable prizes like fine china? This is the challenge of our time.

    4. Malaysia is beyond Malaya (To ilann and East Malaysian)

    I believe the mistake was a genuine oversight on TNG’s part. But the peninsular-centrism is indeed planted in the minds of many, whether or not we are aware, thanks to the Alliance/BN’s half-a-century indoctrination of the “three races” and “1957 nation-building” discourses. Like authoritarianism, I believe Malayan chauvinism – even the subconsciously-adopted one – will have no place in the new Malaysia.

    Salam reformasi,
    Chin Huat

  16. Murai says:

    BN has been in power far too long and have now reached an absolutely corrupted level. What ever PR does to salvage the Perak crisis is useless. What we need is political detoxification and it has to be done now. Why? The rot inside can no longer hold, it’s too toxic and smelly when we burp. Flush out BN and let new cells grow. Let’s face it, PR may also turn bad, but for now PR is more palatable than BN. Perakians … lead the change in Peninsular Malaysia.

  17. Kem says:

    Wong Chin Huat’s article is short in explaining that all the unelected “powerful” parties are in the hands of the federal government – their career and income is ring-fenced by the ruling federal govt.

    Thus all actions and reactions have to favour and “protect” their masters – to safeguard their rice bowl – personal and family. Can you blame them?

    How many people are willing to do otherwise in their lives? Hardly 5%! Face reality!
    So how do we find a way out while making sense of our life’s idealism? This is the answer we are looking for — and all others are merely like a football game commentary (with the added bias, of course).

  18. zik says:

    The one institution in Perak that can end this deadlock is the Istana. And for God’s sake, please someone in this country have the guts to tell the ruler, once and for all just dissolve the state assembly. For what it’s worth, this is just not about democracy anymore, it’s more about the future of this country and the future our children and their children.

  19. vp says:

    If the crisis in Perak ever spreads to the rest of Malaysia, Umno will not the only one responsible for it. MCA, MIC and other the BN parties will also be responsible for it. These other BN parties are doing nothing when their big brother is raping democracy. They are just standing and watching the show. Why don’t they join together and teach their big brother in Parliament? Without doing anything, these BN parties will suffer in GE13. I really wonder if they represent the rakyat.

  20. chong says:

    I totally agree. If Perak fell, the whole of Malaysia will fall apart. The constitution will be at large. Malaysia will go into a dark age.

  21. kah seng says:

    Chin Huat,

    I wish you had put a summary of your ending points in the very FRONT. More readers will get your good points and respond to your call to action.

    These are the good points that you placed near the end of the article:

    * the constitutional crisis is deepening with the police action
    * state sec and police effectively committing mutiny
    * judiciary’s and MACC’s impropriety in meddling in legislature,
    * legislature under siege by unelected institutions,
    * increased risk of coup in GE13
    * a call to action

    Separately, the problem also involves our federal-state messed-up relationship.

    The fed controls police (by current law, although managerially police should have been controlled by each state). Fed also controls the judiciary (illegitimately but this is a matter of fact). The state bureaucrats probably grew up taking goodies from fed too often (from scholarships to brainwashing camps, to family business contracts, etc).

    Hence this is a also a mutated and dangerous fed-state power struggle.

  22. tengku mohd faizal says:

    The unforgivable mistakes by the Nut Graph team, on showing Malaysia, depicted with picture only of peninsula Malaysia, may have indirectly been perceived that these people never check their reporting, and a lot of questions will come out on fair news reporting. B Because from now onwards, every thing that is reported here, will make me want to ask this question “Do they really verified this information or they just put it up for propaganda?” And they will not ashamedly ask for forgiveness.

    Note: The oversight regarding the image used for this article has already been duly explained and corrected. Our editor, Jacqueline Ann Surin, has duly admitted to a kind of peninsula-centric default in the newsroom.

    In all instances, we aim to be a transparent and accountable news organisation, and when we are held accountable for our mistakes, we will admit to them publicly and transparently. This is, after all, how any organisation can evolve for the better in the long term.

    Shanon Shah,
    Columns and Comments Editor,
    The Nut Graph

  23. bobbshu says:

    Wresting control of Perak by BN, as I see it, will be short-lived. The rakyat’s dismay leading to anger seals the fate of BN and it will be their undoing. It would appear that regardless of anything, BN would like to continue to rule and after 51 years in power, the advancement of the people and in particular, the bumiputera are still left in the doldrums with little to show. What does it prove if Malaysia achieves the status as a developed nation when the majority of the rakyat is tottering and left no better than what it was 50 years ago?

    The divide and rule policy will not work and will fail miserably. The majority of the Malays must realize and shackle away their false pride that it does not help their cause by voting any political party into power that promotes dissent and upheavel by creating racial strife. It can only bring about their own condemnation and political demise. Wake up people, 51 years of aimless uncertainties for the people, free and astronomical corruption, racial politics must absolutely cease if we are to survive as one nation and one people – all Malaysians vote for the party that will serve the cause of its people and nation.

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