Malaysians Can’t Breathe! End Dysfunctional Politics


COMMENT: On 25 May 2020, George Floyd died on a street under the knee of a policeman. Just before he breathed his last, he kept saying, “I can’t breathe!” George Floyd was a victim of a system of policing that had gone rogue; a system out of touch with human rights, commonsense policing and present-day norms of public safety and security.

Hundreds of thousands in America and indeed many other countries are now also uttering those fateful three words, ‘I can’t breathe!’ in on-going protests at this ‘Pandemic of Racism’. Protestors are angry and are demanding change. They are demanding that policing in the United States and indeed around the world adopts new standards of practice; one that is colour blind and respectful of human rights.

The onus of responsibility of delivering on these new reform measures falls upon the shoulders of politicians. Citizens are not interested in discriminatory policies an abusive system of law enforcement and broken government. They want reforms and they want it now. The tragic death of George Floyd that mushroomed into a huge peoples’ movement for legal, social and political reforms is testament to this desire.

Malaysia too had such an awakening. Except that our ‘I can’t breathe!’ moment was just before the 14th General Elections in May 2018. And no, it didn’t involve any policeman. But pinning all Malaysians down with a knee on our neck was 1MDB and a long litany of other corruption cases involving politicians that pointed at our seriously rotten system of self-serving patronage politics. A system of ‘dysfunctional politics’ where governments favoured crony businesses that made massive yet secret political donations to their election campaigns; where politicians distributed cash handouts in exchange for votes; where politicians got involved in businesses through family members and other proxies; where politicians ‘got scammed’ and amazingly found themselves richer; where elected politicians changed party allegiances often; and where politicians thought more about their own personal agendas than the public interest when making policy decisions.

Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal

Chief Minister (CM) Mohd Shafie Apdal and many Warisan members know more about this than many others. After all, CM Shafie was previously an UMNO Vice-President when he was ignominiously sacked from the party for doing what was right; when he stood up for the public interest against the kleptocracy of 1MDB and the local abuse of power by a former Chief Minister. He could have just as silently acquiesced like many others in UMNO. And he may have even benefited personally if he had just kept silent. But he did not. And for that, he was sacked.

Recognising that his sacking reflected that something was not right in the state of Sabah (and Malaysia), he set up Warisan and campaigned for political, economic and social reforms. He aligned Warisan with Pakatan Harapan (PH) and campaigned to return Sabah’s rightful place in the Malaysian Federation; to secure the constitutional rights promised to Sabah in 1963 and to improve the quality of life of Sabahans via development infrastructure, education and training, and jobs for the people.

His trust in the wisdom of Sabahans to do the right thing was well founded. Sabahans voted in droves for Warisan in May 2018. After Warisan-PH won 14 parliament seats that contributed towards the resounding defeat of the BN at federal level, the Sabah BN disintegrated. With support from the United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (now known as United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation) and Warisan-PH emerged victorious from GE14 and formed the state government with Shafie Apdal as Chief Minister.

Since then, the Warisan-PH-UPKO state government has worked hard to fulfill its campaign promises delivering on 17 out of the 21 promises of MA63. Especially crucial for native landowners has been the replacement of communal land title with individual land titles. As well, forest reserves have been degazetted to allow natives staying on forest lands to own land titles. Yayasan Sabah has awarded more than RM10 million in scholarships. The latest budget has also increased the value of each individual scholarship award to assist students to meet rising costs.

Another area where Shafie scored points is the rejuvenation of the civil service. No more extension of service. The mandatory retirement is at 60. Mid tier civil servants were also sent abroad on courses to enhance their administration knowledge and skills. Another segment of society, the developers, were utterly thrilled when the Warisan-led government opted to reduce red tape when it came approval of development plans. Such approvals have now been decentralised.

Thus, it was deeply disappointing, even repugnant to learn of the defection of two UPKO state assemblymen, Limus Jury (Kuala Penyu) and James Ratib (Sugut) from their party to become independents ‘for now’. As was routine in dysfunctional politics, these two state assemblymen defectors declared they had ‘lost confidence’ in the Warisan-PH state leadership and threw their support behind that of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) federal government, itself formed by a group of opportunistic defectors from PH who did not have any qualms about practising dysfunctional politics.

It is important to note that there is a big ethical difference when parties come together to form government after an election (as was the case in 2018 when Warisan-PH secured the support of UPKO to form the state government) and when individual Members of Parliament (MPs) or State Assemblymen defect from their parties in an attempt to bring down a legitimately elected government as is the case now with these two political defectors. One can only wonder about their motivation and political principles when they play so fast and loose with the mandate of their voters. Coming at a time when Sabah is reeling from the impact of COVID-19, with the state economy facing recession and the Warisan-PH government under pressure from the PN federal government to re-align its loyalties and parliamentary support away from PH to PN, these defections only serves to cause economic uncertainty and provoke political instability in Sabah. It would seem that there is no compunction in the conscience of these two defectors to cast aside the public interest of Sabahans in favour of dysfunctional politics just like the MPs and State Assemblymen who jumped ship and joined the PN coalition post-February 2020.

In May 2018, Malaysian voters created history by voting in a new government that promised the country hope for a new kind of politics centred on reforms. The PH coalition government was a breath of fresh air. After nearly 65 years of the Alliance/BN governments, Malaysians realized that the BN was not capable of delivering on their promises. Instead, voters realized that the once developmental and socially-progressive BN had degenerated into a rotten kleptocracy rooted in dysfunctional politics. And so, the BN was voted out and PH voted in.

Yet even more stunning to Malaysians was the sudden collapse of the PH federal government in late February 2020. In that nauseating weekend of parliamentary crossovers, many PH MPs and Ministers who were elected on a manifesto of political reforms callously abandoned the coalition (and their principles!!) to embrace MPs sullied and tainted by dysfunctional politics to form the PN federal government. Four PH state governments in Johor, Kedah, Malacca and Perak also collapsed, no thanks to political defectors who had ‘lost confidence in the state leadership’. In the process, the reform mandate of the PH coalition and the overwhelming choice of voters for reform was rubbished and cast aside. Malaysians found themselves again on the ground, their necks pressed down by the weight of dysfunctional politics – a déjà vu moment of ‘we can’t breathe!’

Sabahans certainly recognize this and have long been disgusted by the many political defectors in the state’s political history. Electoral choices in support of reforms and the return of Sabah’s constitutional rights need to be re-affirmed. Politics must serve the public interest and politicians must respect the electoral mandate of their constituents. Sabahans can set an example by not allowing political defectors to bring down a legitimately elected government. It is time for all to do what is right, to stand up and get dysfunctional politics off our necks!

* Andrew Aeria is a retired academic. He was formerly an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Faculty of Social Sciences, University Malaysia Sarawak.