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Sordid game of politics

SILLY season seems to still be around in Malaysia. First we were forced to witness the spectacle of the bust-up that never was among MCA leaders. And last week, we were treated to a display of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) leaders posturing. First these leaders got on their respective soap-boxes to spout, only to step down to hug and make up.

All in all, such amateur theatrics do not bode well for the future of the country’s politics.

phone with speech bubble - alaaaa, biasa jeIndeed, one of the most damaging consequences of the theatrics we are witnessing is its effect in eroding public confidence in the political process and in politicians in toto. Following the 11 Nov 2009 publication of the photo of two PKR politicians embracing just a day after they publicly fought, I SMSed 40 people. Though by no means a comprehensive study, the response I received was instructive nonetheless. Close to 26 people replied with more or less the same answer: “What do you expect? Politics lah.”

Expecting more

But that is precisely what we ought not to expect, be it from politics and/or politicians.

Have we, as a young nation, aged beyond our time and grown so jaded with politics and politicians that we can accept and normalise such displays of posturing without complaint?

clown asking for votes
Why should we even bother with the politicians we get?
Has our level of expectation sunk so low that we are prepared to accept the casual U-turns, non-committal froth, propaganda and deceitful promises that have become the norm of political praxis and discourse in this country?

And if so, why do we even bother to vote at all, if voting will merely serve us yet another helping of the same assortment of ne’er-do-wells, hypocrites, party-hopping amphibians and demagogues who play to the gallery at the drop of a hat?

The malaise that seems to affect this country is the erosion of belief, not only in state institutions, but also in the parties and politicians whom we expect to bring about the reform of these ailing institutions. But how can we expect people to have faith in politicians, when those politicians behave like, well, politicians.

Political behaviour

This brings us to the question of politics, politicians and political behaviour. Lest we forget, the term “politics” is an ambiguous one that is double-edged. To say of someone that she or he has behaved in a “political manner” is, as we all know, a backhanded compliment. It can often be understood in realist terms as harbouring the propensity to place political gains and considerations above all else. A good politician, in this respect, is someone who plays the political game well; but that doesn’t necessarily make the person a good human being. On a similar note, one can also be a good thief — that is a thief who manages to steal and doesn’t get caught — but that certainly doesn’t make one a good human being.

Graph showing declining credibility
Credibility of politicians has declined with the
increase of political play
The credibility deficit that seems to be mounting for our political parties — and Malaysian politics by extension — perhaps stems from this perception: our politicians have become too good at behaving in a political manner, and have abandoned the principles we voted them in for in the first place.

It was for this reason that PKR in particular was admonished time and again by sections of the public for not doing anything effective about some of the loose cannons in its ranks. The latest brotherly hug-ins does little to assuage our concern that PKR will not get its act together before it is told to pack up and get out.

Now for the sake of politicians who have come to play the political game a little too well, we would like to remind them of certain normative principles in Politics 101. For a start, political parties are composite entities made up of many individuals with different subjectivities that are bound to be different and unique. It is also perfectly normal and mundane for members of any political party to have differences of opinion.

But parties also depend on some degree of consensus in terms of their collective goals and ambitions, and these common goals define that party. It is therefore perfectly reasonable, even banal to state that any party has the right to expel any member who does not agree with the party’s common goals. A socialist party, for instance, has every right to expect its members to agree with the principles of socialism.

If it is perfectly rational and mundane for any party to expel members who do not believe in the party’s ideology, why, pray tell is it so difficult for some Malaysian parties to do the same with their own maverick members?

Judging by the internal strife, dissention and ill-discipline among several parties in Malaysia today, particularly among the MCA, MIC, PKR and PAS, one might conclude that this most basic rule of political association is lost. And it is lost on the very same people who seem more inclined to play the game of politics than perform the task of governance as politicians.

Arm wrestling
Some seem more inclined to play the game of
politics than govern
If that is the state that we are in today — where the political game has taken a life of its own and has come to assume a greater importance than principles, ideology, governance and government — then we are in a deeper crisis than even this jaded historian imagined.

For it is when the public interest and the demands of governance are surrendered at the altar of realpolitik, that the path of political reform is closed off to the people. That would not only be an impasse for us all. Worse, it would be a betrayal of the highest order by the “politicians” among us. So, for Malaysia’s sake, we hope these individuals can stop being such a bunch of politicians. favicon

Dr Farish A Noor is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore and affiliated professor at Universitas Muhamadiyah Surakarta, Indonesia. He is also the co-founder of The Other Malaysia website. 

Read previous guest columns by Farish Noor

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5 Responses to “Sordid game of politics”

  1. dennis says:

    Oh dear Farish. If the politicians behave like clowns the people may long for Old Man to rule us as a dynasty. God save us.

  2. sad says:

    We must not lose hope. We must fight the good fight. Thanks for your contribution to the stream of political consciousness. On a positive note, now we know who the trojans are we can take steps to eradicate them.

  3. soul survivor says:

    If you are trying to paint a sordid image among the PR, well you are wrong and again your reversed-psychology analysis to keep trying to sway Malaysians from the real truth of Umno’s dark image has failed! First, we can smell the few wormy creatures planted inside PR to crawl around scavenging from within. You can hardly imagine Umno’s think-tank just sitting puffing their cigars and letting PR grow peacefully? Secondly, unless you can show me [why] TG Nik Aziz or even his wife (being a first lady, sort of) are sordid, then we can further eleborate your deeply-concerned-not-able-to-sleep-craving-for-truth political analysis! Well, being the MB, like Najib and Rosmah, Tok Guru is indeed a full-throttle high-riding politician himself. Prove that, then we can talk about politics and all the sordid affairs that tag along!

  4. yifan says:

    Oh Dennis, I cannot imagine myself and many other fellow Malaysians are mere bad taste spectators sitting in a circus watching the clowns’ poor performance. The temptation to call in The Old Man of Eternal Youth is hard to resist for some, but that I think is just self-deceiving.

    For any old man (or woman), wise or foolish, will age and pass on eventually. And who needs a dynasty by the way? What someone (a real political leader) should do is stand up and boo the clowns, throw some rotten eggs, and lead the crowds to walk away. Oh ya, don’t forget to free those poor caged animals in the circus. And never, ever the crowds should learn the lesson – not buying into another circus (not Royal London either).

  5. Phua Kai Lit says:

    Politicians from ideological parties (i.e. with a commitment to a particular ideology) and confessional parties (inclined toward a particular religion) tend to be more principled than those from “pragmatic” parties.

    But whatever the case may be, politicians and political parties are a necessary evil. Otherwise, how are we going to govern ourselves after the era of absolute monarchy?
    We, the people, need to actively participate politically to promote good governance and accountability on the part of those we elect into office. Peaceful political participation includes the following:

    Signing petitions
    Donating time and money to a political party
    Writing letters to the mass media
    Being a political blogger
    Writing articles and books on politics and social issues
    Joining a political party
    Recruiting members for a political party
    Working as a staff member for a politician
    Serving as a policy expert for a political party
    Running for political office

    And also, engaging in peaceful demonstrations and even civil disobedience (if necessary i.e. to protest against unjust laws).

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