Cautionary tale for Malaysia

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October 3, 2019 @ 12:29am 

THREE lessons could be learned from what is happening in Britain over Brexit which could come to cause crisis in our country as it has the United Kingdom. 

The first is about deep and bitter division that is ripping society apart. It may, to an extent, have been derived from huge income and wealth disparity in Britain, but there have been so many other forces at work, not simply a division between rich and poor.


You have a toffee-nosed prime minister in Britain, who went to Eton and Oxford, championing the cause of the “common people” who voted for Brexit, against the elitists in London where he has spent most of his life.

Just as Boris Johnson is riding on populist sentiment, so are wealthy farmers and gentry. Forces behind Brexit are a mix of believers and opportunists.

The referendum in June 2016 was not a campaign based on fact, on how and why and at what cost the UK was to get out of the EU. Essentially it was based on emotion and anger, on a platform of “taking back control” from the Eurocrats in Brussels.

The EU, rightly or wrongly, got beaten up. So we have Brexit at any cost born largely of raw emotion of resentment, even as rationalists try to secure an orderly exit that would cause least harm to the economy.

The deep division in the country is not just at the popular level. It is found in the establishment and has cut into and across political parties, and caused realignments which make it difficult to know what direction Britain will take, with Parliament and MPs under attack, the prime minister under attack, even the courts under attack.

Populist appeals have taken hold. MPs threatened. One was actually murdered in the run-up to the referendum in June 2016. There is a threat to public order which is encouraged by Brexiteers if Brexit does not take place on Oct 31. Britain is on the cusp of entering unknown territory.

In Malaysia, appeal to emotion takes place with scary regularity. The issue of race and religion causes definite division. But the real divide that could upset the stable political order is not one between the races, but one between the Malays. Without Malay consensus it would be difficult to run the country.

Malay-Muslim extremism is a real challenge which could come to undermine the basis on which this country is founded. The Pakatan Harapan (PH) electoral victory in May last year gave hope that a moderate consensus was being formed for a New Malaysia, which really is nothing more than what is provided in the Federal Constitution.

But with extremist Malay-Muslim consolidation taking place, the PH Malay leadership has been pulled away from that New Malaysia, the benign construction being it is a tactical political necessity.

Additionally, there are serious differences within PH, not least over the issue of succession and when the prime minister steps down, which could cause the coalition to fragment and, most likely, bring about a realignment of and in political parties. New formations could emerge in the race for political support. Darkly, there has been mention of the events and disturbances of 1998.

If there was a vacancy for the post of prime minister without a clear successor, there would be a struggle for power that will see new divisions and alignments and the break-up of PH. In that circumstance it can even be imagined that Umno, from being castigated as nation-wrecker, could become kingmaker with Pas of course.

The historic victory in 2018 over the ruling party after 52 years will then be an aberration, a chimera.

Constitutional issues will arise in the event there is no smooth succession as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong will have to exercise his discretion in the choice of the person most likely to command a majority in Parliament. This is not an easy thing, as shown in the Perak constitutional crisis in 2009, when political affiliation is moving about.

There may well be fresh elections. What will be the issues beyond the contest for power and will divisions heal after the elections? Would the defeated party take to the streets? Could there be a threat to public order?

Division rather than compromise, extremism and not moderation, will harm Malaysia even more than Britain in its Brexit crisis.

Secondly, the Brexit turmoil has seen a titanic clash between two central institutions of government, the legislature and the executive, something not recalled in recent British history. Who would have thought the mother of Parliaments would have been so suspended by the prime minister from a political party wedded to parliamentary democracy.

Parliament fought back with backing from public interest groups and individuals. The matter went right up to the Supreme Court. The prime minister’s action was deemed illegal, by a unanimous ruling of all 11 justices. Parliament was called back into session. But the prime minister did not resign.

In fact he has been more defiant and aggressive, describing an act of Parliament against a no-deal Brexit as surrender. He raised the temperature of hate against MPs, with death threats being received. Will the prime minister break the law and get out of the EU on Oct 31 without a deal? Britain will then move into yet new territory of grave uncertainty.

In Malaysia, with the PH reform programme at a very early stage, will Parliament have the backbone to stand up to the executive? Will the MPs and the Speaker defend the sovereignty and rights of the legislature?

Parliament in our country has been pliant, passing laws drafted by the executive without proper scrutiny. Indeed passing repressive laws which threaten the rights of the people of Malaysia.

The fact there is no overwhelming majority of the ruling party in the present Parliament is a help, but what is more necessary are sitting MPs of stature who would not tolerate any violation of parliamentary rights, indeed the rights of the citizen.

In the distant past, in the 1964 Parliament in particular, we had great MPs like Dr Tan Chee Koon, Ahmad Boestaman, the Seenivasagam brothers, and Dr Mahathir himself despite the fact he was in the ruling party backbenches.

What and who do we have now?

Also, with the toxicity and fluidity in politics today, over race and religion, more particularly on the succession as prime minister, there might in Parliament be more interest in falling on the right side for the next election — all even before reform has taken root.

Finally, the British courts have played an exemplary role in the Brexit nightmare. As we have noted, the case of Johnson getting the Queen to prorogue Parliament on misleading advice went right up to the Supreme Court which resoundingly thundered his action was unlawful.

The president of the Supreme Court, however, was careful to say that the ruling was specific and had nothing to do with the merits or otherwise of Brexit. The courts are being challenged by populist uprising. Previously when a ruling affecting the substance of Brexit was made there was public uproar, with newspapers like The Sun leading the charge, accusing judges of being elitist, removed and remote from the reality of life.

In Malaysia, the courts are only just beginning to be strengthened with diminished public confidence in them following a long period of decline after the judicial crisis in 1988, when the Lord President and Supreme Court judges were sacked. This event was seen as the end of judicial independence in Malaysia.

There was some recompense in 2008 when an open apology was made to the sacked judges. But it is a long road to recovery. The PH institutional reform programme, especially of the judiciary, is critical to give confidence that judgments would be handed down without fear or favour.

We had reached the peaks before with justices like Tun (then) Azlan Shah, Tun Suffian Mohamed Hashim and Tan Sri Eusoffe Abdoolcader. The immediate question however, is how will Malaysian courts today handle political make or break cases if they were to come up.

Given the state of Malaysian politics, every single branch of government must be prepared to show its mettle.

From the Brexit crisis we can see the searing cost of a divided country, the need for institutions of government to perform their due and proper constitutional role and, most of all, the supreme importance of the rule of law.

These are challenges not distant from Malaysia. We should be prepared even if the worst does not happen.

The writer, a former NST group editor, returns to write on local and international political affairs. He is also member of the Economic Action Council chaired by the prime minister