By Dennis Ignatius
What an amazing time to be alive in Malaysia! History is literally unfolding before our very eyes. I have to keep pinching myself from time to time to ensure I’m not dreaming. A long time ago, someone once asked, with not a little bit of rhetorical flourish, whether a country can be born in a day or a nation come forth in a moment? Now we have the answer.
It’s amazing to see the people of this great land finding their voice and getting actively engaged in the political process. For better or worse, everyone, it seems, has an opinion and is not afraid to express it.
Witness how animated they got when one of their PKR heroes was thought to be undermining Pakatan Harapan (PH) unity. Or their immediate disapproval of Umno-BN members trying to sneak into PH. At the moment, they are furiously making known their views on the recent appointment of the education minister; an online campaign regarding his appointment quickly gathered some 80,000 signatures against the appointment and more than 110,000 in favour of it.
For too long the rakyat have suffered under an unresponsive and uncaring government; now they are relishing their new found freedom. Their views may not always be constructive or informed but, if it keeps the government on its toes, it will at least serve some purpose.
The people’s prime minister Mahathir himself never ceases to amaze me. He has shown an incredible propensity to accommodate and placate different views within the PH coalition.
When it was pointed out, for example, that it went against the PH manifesto for him to hold another cabinet post (education) in addition to that of prime minister, he immediately relented and gave up the post. Many who protested his decision are now wishing that they had not made such a fuss about it; in the new Malaysia, be careful what you wish for!
More importantly, he is displaying great humility in listening to the views of the people, keeping what’s worth keeping and gently blowing the rest away.
I don’t think there’s ever been a prime minister more conciliatory and respectful of the people who put him in office. The long campaign to dislodge Najib connected and bonded him to ordinary people in a unique way. He knows their heart and is determined to deliver on his promises. It is the true measure of the man.
I think he will leave behind an inspiring legacy for all who follow after him.
At the same time, everyone knows that he can be tough when he needs to be. Governments, after all, cannot run on public opinion alone, especially these days when public opinion is increasingly influenced by fake news and manipulated by cyber troopers and trolls. At times, hard but unpopular decisions need to be made in the best interest of the nation regardless of public opinion.
Government for the people
I hope we never lose our new found passion for democracy, for actively participating in the political process. Freedom is more often than not lost through apathy and complacency.
It’s happening in many of the so-called “mature” democracies. Voter turnout is diminishing; people are becoming jaded and cynical and convinced that nothing will really change no matter which party comes to power. They appear to be losing faith in their power as citizens to shape their own destiny.
Perhaps it has now fallen to us to inspire faith in democracy in some small way.
Hearing the voice of the people
We must find ways to encourage and deepen popular participation in the political process. We can start by holding our members of parliament accountable and accessible to the people who elected them. There must be no more free rides for MPs. If they want our vote, they better be willing to leave their ivory towers and come down to us on a regular basis.
Districts that voted for the opposition should not be ignored either; the people there exercised their rights as citizens and should not be punished for it.
To this end, ministers and MPs should consider holding regular town hall type meetings to listen to the views of their constituents, learn about the challenges and hardships that people face and give an account of what they are doing in the service of the people. Service centres, supported with public funds, should also become the focal point of service to voters.
This is particularly important when it comes to anything that directly impacts local neighbourhoods. In the past, for example, public spaces like parks and playgrounds were arbitrarily taken over for construction projects, condos or road building despite strong protest. Local government tended to favour big business and cronies rather than the welfare of the people themselves.
It was another reason why Umno-BN was so despised in many neighbourhoods.
Partnership for progress
The hard work of rebuilding our nation and re-energising our democracy has begun. A strong and respectful partnership between the government and the people will help ensure that we succeed, that we restore our nation to greatness. More power to the people!
Dennis Ignatius is a former ambassador.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.