We all know what the world’s oldest profession is. Well, politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. 2020 should have marked a watershed in the modern history of Malaysia when one truth – the scourge of gerontocracy – was truly shattered.
A gerontocracy is a form of oligarchical rule in which a party is ruled by leaders who are significantly older than the rest of the members. In many, if not all our political parties, power accumulates with age, making the oldest the holders of the most power. And as we have witnessed, this advantage is too often used to create a dynasty and before you know it, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
2020 began with a bang when the sixth prime minister and numero uno of Umno was completely exposed as a kleptocrat. Yet, at the end of 2020, he still bestrode the country like a colossus. Then in February, in a rather clumsy “Sheraton Move”, the nonagenarian “Saviour of the nation” gave up power to the new Perikatan coalition … just like that! Yet, by the end of 2020, he was still being courted by the Pakatan Harapan hopefuls for another go at a “grand coalition”. Meanwhile, the incumbent prime minister is in his seventies and recovering from a serious ailment.
Within PKR, the inspiration of the Reformasi movement in the nineties had become soiled goods with sodomy charges piling one over another. The sorry denouement of the “Sheraton Move” was the disaffection of his former reformist lieutenants and at the end of 2020, his former Bumiputera detractors had leapt into the ruling PN while his former non-Bumiputera detractors are still weighing their political options.
As for the DAP, their Great Leader since the sixties remains the helmsman while the hand of his closely nurtured pedigree is firmly on the rudder of the party. As 2020 ended, the call for the father and son combo in DAP to step aside for other leaders by a retiring DAP leader of Selangor (who is only in his fifties!) sounded like a distant echo of a similar call by the late Fan Yew Teng many years ago.
So what hope is there of any political regeneration in 2021? Will these gerontocrats be generous enough to step aside for new young leaders with fresh progressive vision and skills?
In 2020, we heard of some new political initiatives. Maju announced they intend to field independent candidates in the next elections while a new youth party is in the process of being registered.
Let us face it, the number of available seats in the federal parliament and state assemblies is strictly limited. To have served three terms in Parliament is surely a reasonable limit and allows new candidates to have a go at representing the people. Term limits for elected representatives will create the opportunity for younger people to get elected to public office. Will we see such a reform in our lifetime?
In other democratic countries, we also see responsible and honourable politicians resign at the slightest failure of judgment on their part or when their term has reached a convenient point for some other younger leaders to pick up some experience and have a go at taking politics forward instead of the incumbents shuffling positions in the same old political merry-go-round.
While being young may be a necessary condition, it is not necessarily a sufficient condition for a progressive alternative. Firstly, young candidates must eschew racism and racial discrimination, and be ready to serve citizens inclusively by embracing the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Only recently, we had a youthful politician who joined a Pribumi-only party and went on to become a minister in the Pakatan Harapan government. Would any new young politicians even consider joining a race-based party?
Secondly, the young must honour our 2015 commitments to the 17 sustainable development goals centred around climate change and effectively and urgently address our global ecological emergency.
Political parties and MPs are lobbied by powerful corporations and often seem unable to propose the bold changes necessary to address this emergency. We have seen some induced by developers to pass environmentally destructive projects through corrupt methods.
Evidence abounds of the long history of Malaysian politicians and political parties being in the pockets of the big developers. We only need to audit, in astonishment the scale and range of socially disruptive, environmentally destructive, and economically dubious projects that continue to be passed by the respective authorities.
Thirdly, the young must pursue, side by side with the people, the fight to ensure a safe living environment for all, with potable water, clean air, sustainable soil, and nutritious food free from radioactive and toxic contamination.
This struggle has repeatedly shown the power of direct action by empowered people united with a common aim, to right wrongs and ensure these goals directly through our own actions.
In the face of the climate change crisis, it is time for people in communities to form a solidarity and activist network for a “People Before Profit” green movement in Malaysia. There are signs that the youth today, who after all will inherit the earth, want to lead this movement.
Such purpose, energy and focus must be nurtured for the benefit of all, and especially for future generations to come.
Thus, after the disappointments of 2020, it is time for jaded politicians who have clung on to their parliamentary seats for decades to take a long hard look in the mirror and make way for new young, progressive leaders.
The climate crisis demands a commitment to addressing the urgent need for long term change via institutions like citizens’ assemblies to reverse greenhouse gas emissions and to collectively co-create a regenerative future. Malaysia needs service-oriented young people in different elected positions, providing diversity and strength to the citizenry.
But if this is not going to prove to be another false spring, how do our young hopefuls assure us they are incorruptible and sworn towards making Malaysia an equal, socially just, and democratic society?
Kua Kia Soong is the adviser to Suaram.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.