LET’S say Malaysia is like a traditional kampung house. Raised above the ground and built on four stilts, one in each corner. Let’s say each of the four stilts represents the executive, the legislature, the judiciary, and the conference of rulers. They stand together in equal stead, each holding up the nation.
Then along comes a person, let’s call him the strategist, who takes charge of this kampung house. By some warped logic, he figures he can take charge by making one of the stilts bigger. To do this, he decides he must first reposition one of the other stilts. Oh well, he reasons, the legislature has traditionally been weak. It has never stood up to the executive. So let’s pull that stilt away and tie it to the one we want to make bigger. A strange kampung house, with only three stilts, one of them somewhat thicker than the other two.
Some years later, an opportunity arises to pull away another of those stilts. Our trusty strategist feels he’s very popular with the people, and they will back him. So he goes and pulls away the rulers’ stilt. It’s been a bit shaky of late, not very upright, going through some problems. So now we have two stilts, one much bigger than the other. Each positioned on opposite ends.
Yet a few more years later, the strategist feels that the judges have been very unfair. They always decide against the wishes of the strategist. So he starts hitting the judiciary stilt. The already shaky stilt tries to stand still, but the more it gets hit, the shakier it gets.
After a while, the stilt gets such a stilt-ache from all the hitting that it is no longer in the proper frame of mind to continue being an upright stilt. So the strategist sees his chance and pulls away that stilt and ties it to the three stilts that he already has. Since he finally has possession of all four stilts, the laws of physics dictate that this one agglomerated stilt must now move into the centre underneath the house, so that it can keep the house up.
The house gets renovated again and again, and extended, and increased in size and height. But all the time it is kept up by the one centralised stilt. Not very stable physically, compared to four stilts that can distribute the weight of the house evenly.
That’s the story, in a nutshell, of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003. Twenty-two years of gradual, and then increasing centralisation of power. In the hands of one person.
Going back to the corners
So when the strategist steps down and a replacement steps in, we all expect that the new strategist will maintain that one, large, centralised stilt. After all, that’s been the way for 22 years, and we’re all used to it. Not that it’s the best way, mind you; but hey, rather the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
But lo and behold, there seem to be overtures to return the stilts to their respective corners. However, the stilts can’t quite get there. Some of the strings by which they were bound to the first stilt haven’t been properly cut away. They are also a bit stiff from having been tied up all this while.
Hence, although the stilts have moved away from the centre, they haven’t quite returned to their proper places yet. Instead of making the house stable, it looks even more unstable than when there was only one big stilt. It looks as though the house is going to tilt over.
Then a bunch of new strategists come along. Some among them say the only way to rectify the situation is to bring back all the stilts to the centre, and tie them very tightly together. The house will be back to the way it was before.
Others suggest that the bits of strings that have been left behind must be cut away entirely so that all four stilts can go back to their original positions. Each stilt might need to be shaken and cleaned so that the stiffness will go away. Maybe only then will the house be fully stable again.
Who knows which view will prevail? But the message to any strategist is this: Strength is not in the power that you wield, but in the power that you are prepared to give away. A strategist can strategise on what to do with the stilts, but must remember that the house is a home for the rest of us.
May the house not just stay up, but be properly upright again.
(© Shariff Che’Lah / 123rf)
Andrew Khoo is an advocate and solicitor in private practice, and an aspiring columnist and commentator.