Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Mirage of Democracy: The Elected and The Electorate

Every four years or so, Malaysians (and other citizens) go to the polls to elect one of two parties to govern their country. Ideally, the elected government should represent the electorate's aspirations, values and bring their country into a more progressive era.

Important as they are, elections should be more than a way of establishing the people's choices and wishes. If choosing between two parties is akin to the consumer choosing between two alternative products/services, then the democratic process of free and fair elections is indeed highly superficial and mundane.

The problem with the consumerist approach to elections is that (a) it assumes the product does not affect our financial and emotional well-being even if it is faulty because we can throw it away (i.e. vote the incompetent government out in four years' time). Unfortunately, truly bad policies often destroy our financial and emotional health for many more years beyond what the next administration can undo; (b) this view assumes that the consumers/voters are to a large extent powerless in affecting the destiny of their country and its leadership in so far as they are faced with two candidates/products whose views and ideologies (i.e. product features) are invariably fixed.

A reversal of roles

The irony about democratic elections in the age of the Internet and instantaneous communications is that the elected leaders are actually not the ones that are being chosen. Instead, voters are themselves voting their thoughts, their intellectual life, their values into the political life of their candidates. Thus, an election should not be a matter of choosing the best leader and the best party to lead your nation but one of choosing wisdom and foresight as qualities that are needed for both the citizen and the government, both the electorate and the elected.

Three tales of Tom & Jerry
Apart from ensuring that elections are conducted in a free and fair way, there are 3 errors that voters should avoid: (1) the first error is to elect a leader who changes course and values after being elected. This error is called chameleon risk. (like current US President Obama who was voted in on a ticket of change and reform has changed his stripes and remain a Wall Street elitist at heart behind his socialist and interventionist facade).

(2) The second error is to elect a leader who represents the voter's values but fails to carry out the policies competently. That is called execution risk. (former PM Abdullah Badawi is a good example of a leader with good intentions but poor execution skills).

(3) The third error is to have voted someone who represents what we believe in, who carries out the policies effectively and, in due course, destroys the country because what we believe in is actually bad for the country. This is called voter incompetency risk. (e.g. compliant citizens of the Eurozone were sold the ambitious Euro project ten years ago by European leaders only to reap the fruits of economic despair today.)

It is the third error - voter incompetency risk- that is the most dangerous because it reflects on the voter's lack of intelligence, wisdom and sincerity. To paraphrase Deng Xiaoping: chameleon risk is when the cat you bought decides to catch squirrels instead of mice. Execution risk is when your cat fails as badly as Tom to catch Jerry the mouse. And voter incompetency risk happens when you bought a special cat to catch a poisonous type of mouse and after eating it, the cat dies of sickness that causes your household to be infected and eventually the whole country as well. 

While it appears suicidal for people to adopt policies and values that destroy their countries' economy, social infrastructure and institutions, there are many instances of democratic people selfishly doing so as they are often motivated by vested and ideological interests: the socialists will appoint a socialist leader; the elite will appoint their elitist wall-street leaders; the middle-class consumerist will appoint leaders who trade short term economic gains for long-term stagnation and burdensome debt levels that will be passed on to future generations.

(And in the case of Europe, there is increasing evidence that the powerbrokers behind the Eurozone are not aiming for a united peaceful Europe but a European political superstate that subsumes national sovereignty).  

To avoid voter incompetency risk, voters should not only examine their politicians fishing for their votes, but also re-examine their own personal values and aspirations vis-a-vis the nation and the global community.

1. Are they prepared to stop making trade-offs for short term gains in exchange for long-term pain? (cash transfers and debt-financed consumption today but higher interest rates and fiscal austerity tomorrow)

2. Are they prepared to reject a society where one group of vested interests thrive at the expense of other groups/communities? (e.g. race-based economic privileges)

3. Are they able to see themselves as active participants in the democratic process using the tools of the Internet and mass communications rather than passive consumers/voters choosing their leaders once in every four years?

4. Are they willing to engage their politicians, test them, challenge them intellectually and philosophically to ensure that they are governed by people who deserve a government of the people, for the people and by the people?

In other words, voters’s expectations can influence their politicians' standard of ethics and leadership especially before and during an election campaign period. If we expect mediocre leadership and half-baked policy solutions, we will get them no matter how capable the politicians are.

As Malaysia approaches its 13th General Election, slated to be in the first quarter of 2013, we, the people are indeed facing a major cross roads. On the one hand, we continue to be divided, not so much by ideology but by the ethnic pattern of voting for the parties that represent our race-based interests. This is a sad and tragic countervailing social reaction to the institutional race-based policies of the incumbent government for five decades. However, on the other hand, we are becoming more and more united by several positive trends:

- increasing activism by ordinary citizens (mostly urban professionals) in criticising government policies in blogs, facebook, tweeter, etc.
- increasing sympathy for the poor and the lower middle classes in their struggles to earn a decent living in a society that enriches the politically well connected elite.
- increasing empathy for those who are on the losing end of the rising disparity between the poor and the rich.
- increasing contempt for corruption among politicians and the elite.
- increasing unhappiness with government educational policies that reverted the teaching of maths and science to Bahasa Malaysia instead of the international English.

Hopefully, in the coming months, Malaysian voters will engage their politicians vigorously and challenge them to solve the decades-old dilemmas and overcome the simple yet enormous stumbling blocks that keep the nation from its true potential.

Of course, all these concerns and issues could very well be side-stepped if we are distracted by the hyped up "economic gains" of the government's half-baked Economic Transformation Program (which does not remove the source of the decline in our nation's productivity - social distribution policies based on race and a reliance on oil resources to subsidise and bail out failed government projects).


Anonymous said...

So where would the four-time elected Tun Mahathir stand with regard to the voter incompentecy risk, chameleon risk and execution risk?

I would not say that he was incompetent as he had big visions and some policies were good (e.g. the laws to reing in the power of the royalty, the English medium for Science and Maths).

He had some execution risk problems with cyberjaya which failed to take off.

But his record in raising the standards of living of Malaysians
is still questionable: many other peer nations have leap-frogged Malaysia (Indonesia, Thailand, Korea)and even Singapore's GDP has exceeded Malaysia.

Anonymous said...

Dr Sun Yat Sen, one of the founders of modern China said: the foundation of a nation should be based on a change of the heart.

Unless the heart of man changes and reforms from evil to good, from self-centredness to a supernatural nobility endowed from God, the citizen of the world will struggle with himself, his fellowman and with God.

Your call for citizens to raise their expectations on their appointed leaders and government is well and good. But the real question is what is the heart of man, where is the common ground of human values which truly connects people in a nation divided by race, class and privilege?

Politics can never change the human heart but democratic institutions and excellent schools and universities as well as a thriving intellectual ecosphere will provide the conducive conditions for man to reform himself internally and spiritually.

This is why freedom of faith and religion combined with a free, but sensitive press are essential to the true transformation of Malaysia. Not the tunnel vision of the Economic Transformation Program, which deals with symptoms and not the root causes of national social diseases.

Do You Want To Know God?

Do You Want To Know God?
Say this: Heavenly Father, I have sinned against You. Forgive all my sins. I believe Jesus died on the cross for my sins and rose again. I give you my life to do as You wish. I want Jesus to come into my life & heart. In Jesus's name. Amen