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When defections felled Sabah

AS I am writing this, the Perak state government is collapsing from the resignations of a crucial number of assemblypersons. By the time this column is published, we would have found out whether the state legislature is dissolved by the consent of the Sultan of Perak, and whether snap elections are called.

I will not debate the ethical question of whether an elected representative should vacate her or his seat upon resignation or defection. Nor will I discuss the legal issues, except to note that what is legal is not always what is just or right. I will say this: I am very troubled by what is happening in Perak. It reminds me of the collapse of the (then federal opposition) Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) state government in 1994 soon after state elections. The PBS government crumbled after wholesale defections of its state assemblypersons to Barisan Nasional.

I was a teenager in Sabah when it happened. My personal memories of the defections and subsequent change in government are dim, but the events 15 years ago had a major impact on my life and that of others. To borrow and up-end a famous feminist maxim, the political is personal.

The rotation system implemented for the chief minister post meant that some policies rarely had time to prove their effectiveness before they were dismantled in favour of new ones. More broadly, it brought a West Malaysian-style discourse on race and religion into Sabah, with chief ministerial slots reserved for specifically “Muslim” or “non-Muslim” bumiputeras. Whatever happened to Sabahans being Sabahans first, no matter which house of worship you pray in?

The rotation system every two years for the
Chief Minister’s post in Sabah
Cynics I am acquainted with also point to the suspicious timing of the dismantling of the rotation system in 2004. How convenient, they say, that it should be scrapped after Umno shouldered its way into Sabah and established itself as the state’s dominant political force. While these theories may have more than a whiff of conspiracy about them, there is no denying the underlying resentment that still breeds true in local politics no matter which side of the fence you stand on.

I say this, given what I have witnessed, with pain: I wish the current political imbroglio was all about conscience instead of (dirty) politics as usual. I wish that the discussions surrounding the events in Perak, as seen in various commentaries and news items, could be about something other than realpolitik and someone’s thwarted ambitions or desire for power and wealth. Equally painful is to see Malaysians, many of whom had cast a vote for change last year, shrug their shoulders in apparent helplessness. No. This country and this society can do better than the bitter scraps we’re expected to accept as our due.

Principles and scruples

Tony Blair shaking hands with then US President
George W. Bush (public domain /
As a university student who had participated in rallies against the 2003 Iraq invasion, and whose own conscience was indelibly awakened by working with war refugees, I listened with tears to Robin Cook’s resignation speech. Cook, a British Labour MP, resigned from his post as the Leader of the House of Commons in protest against the war. Some commentators spoke of his stalling political career as a factor that affected feelings of loyalty towards then Prime Minister Tony Blair. But they also acknowledge that above all, Cook’s decision was made as a matter of principle.

This is not and should not be a phenomenon alien to Malaysia. In 2006, we woke up to news of the resignation of Datuk Shahrir Abdul Samad as the chairperson of the Backbenchers Club over the “close one eye” scandal. This fiasco saw the shameful rejection by Barisan Nasional (BN) MPs of a parliamentary motion by Opposition Leader Lim Kit Siang for the matter to be referred to Parliament Rights and Privileges Committee.

And only last year, Datuk Zaid Ibrahim resigned from his post as de-facto law minister after openly criticising the detention of Teresa Kok, Raja Petra Kamarudin and Tan Hoon Cheng. Shahrir has since made a comeback as the current domestic trade and consumer affairs minister. But it should be noted that his appointment was made after an election that swept many BN incumbents from their seats.

I am not suggesting for a minute that these politicians are angels. I am wary of cults of personalities that can blind a person from making honest and thorough assessments of elected representatives. Furthermore, they are only two prominent examples of political leaders, including MPs and state assemblypersons, who have made and continue to make decisions based on principles.

“Cycling for Change” poster displayed in Ipoh

Sungai Siput MP Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj was threatened with charges of child exploitation for his support for Jerit’s “Cycling for Change” campaign. But again — though his stance is laudable — he is not unique in his struggles.

I have encountered MPs who continue advocating the fulfilment of the human rights of marginalised communities for whom the mainstream has little empathy to offer, including transgendered persons. I have also met assemblypersons who seem genuinely interested in issues that concern civil society, blinkered though they may be by ideological and cultural baggage.

Still unwritten

A more enlightened political discourse among elected representatives is not impossible. It comes down to not only the personality and effort of individual politicians, but also how willing we all are to hold them accountable — and to do so loudly and clearly.

I wish, however, that this process had progressed far enough that we could be discussing the events in Perak in less disheartening terms. Can anyone honestly justify these defections and party resignations as driven by principle and altruism?

People in Perak now understand, as we did in Sabah, how a change of government by defections can extinguish a citizen’s sense of empowerment and confidence in the democratic process. Yes, we cannot change what happened in Sabah in 1994. The future, however, is yet to be written.

See also: No snap polls in Perak, Nizar asked to step down

Yasmin Masidi works for an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur. She finds unthinking optimism and apathetic pessimism to be equally irritating.

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10 Responses to “When defections felled Sabah”

  1. linkinstreet says:

    Who was it again that lead that defection in Sabah? Oh yes. Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

  2. vp says:

    “People in Perak now understand, as we did in Sabah, how a change of government by defections can extinguish a citizen’s sense of empowerment and confidence in the democratic process.”

    The people of Perak can lose the government they chose in election 2008. But, we can not lose our confidence in the democratic process. It’s the only way to change. We will tell the Perak Sultan & BN what we want in the next poll.

    We can lose anything but not confidence!

  3. Justitia says:

    I imagine the principle at play here is: Me, me, me.

  4. Karcy says:

    I wish I could share the anguish (of Perak, not of Sabah) but there were very few tears and cries of injustice when the potential of party-hopping was moving in the favour of the Pakatan Rakyat during Anwar Ibrahim’s attempted takeover. As it is, I feel terribly apathetic to the whole deal.

    In a way, yes, government defections do extinguish a citizen’s sense of empowerment and confidence in the democratic process, but in my case, and probably not a few others, it is certainly not as a result of disappointment as much as it is boredom and frustration. We just want to be able to get on with our lives, and if the governments keep playing games with themselves, we’ll eventually stop paying attention to the governments (state or national).

    I’d certainly prefer a PR majority in the country over a clumsy and gradually obsolete BN majority, but I honestly cannot find any moral ground to stand on regarding the party hopping because the same tactics were already attempted — and cheered on — by PR and their supporters.

    Oh, and that was a good article on Sabah, Yasmin.

  5. Wong Siew Lyn (LWong) says:

    I was a journalist with a daily who covered the 1995 general elections in Sabah and the overwhelming feeling on the ground then was to right the outrageous injustice of the 1994 hop-over, captured here so eloquently by Yasmin. The constituency which I covered saw a PBS newcomer defeat the massive Barisan machinery and sadly, a veteran DAP strongman. Kota Kinabalu was decked with copious depictions of frogs, from large billboards to pamphlets. It is extremely disheartening to see ‘katak’ reappear, this time in my home state of Perak. The people will speak loud and clear in the next elections, and not just in Perak.

  6. ilann says:

    Thanks Yasmin. I really appreciate how you described the anguish that was felt in Sabah and i totally agree the “change of government by defections can extinguish a citizen’s sense of empowerment and confidence in the democratic process”. This became a very tangible thing in Sabah, debilitating for the state.

  7. JustOne says:

    Who is the one that leads the cross-overs in Perak? Oh yes, the DPM Datuk Seri Najib!

  8. kayu says:

    Thank God Perak belongs to BN. Bye PKR.

  9. Jayamany says:

    I was born in Perak in the late forties, grew up in Kedah. 25 years ago shifted to Perak and had been a dutiful citizen, voted in general elections on a few occasions. I had been a loyal supporter of Barisan National. I started losing trust in BN when it started accepting the defectors from PBS. I was so sorry that PBS, getting the majority of the Sabahans’ trust, could not form the state government. I was then employed in Labuan and I could hear their dissatisfaction since the people of Labuan consider themselves Sabahan.

    Now the same thing has happened in Perak, three of the male defectors seem to have personality problems. As we all know the two PKR assemblymen are waiting for a corruption case hearing. The other who hopped from BN to PR and then back to BN – what are we to say. The DAP assemblywoman would not have had a chance to win an election if she had stood as a BN candidate. Knowing very well about them, how could they be so morally down to accept these assemblypersons? Is BN so hard up to govern Perak?

    People whom we respect most and trust do not seem to bother with the peoples’ sensitivity. What is the point of an election, electing someone not as an individual but from a party we trust would do us good and that individual turns independent to support another party? Please do not take us for a ride, we the taxpayers do not forget things that fast. See you all in three years, if you dare try for another term as independent candidates.

    Sorry I was carried away with the present situation in Perak. To comment on your article, it serves as a reminder to all. You may also realise, when PBS was not a member of the BN, the president and members were complaining about non-existing voters (undi hantu) but after PBS joined the BN, everything seemed to be alright. I hope you will realise something – politics is dirty and not as they say they work for the people.

  10. sang kancil says:

    I sincerely hope the rightful MB of Perak is restored.

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