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Saturday, March 6, 2021

A political earthquake… that no one noticed

 


THE breakup between Umno and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia has been likened to an “earthquake’ by some.

In theory, this formalises a fundamental tectonic shift in the balance of power in Malaysian politics.

If you had told me beforehand that this was going to happen officially and publicly, I too would have said: “Oh, that will probably be big news when it breaks.”

When I finally did come across the news, however, I did a double take.

On the breakup between Umno and Bersatu though, there was barely a peep on any of the multiple WhatsApp groups I’m in, or Twitter.

I had this weird moment where I was literally asking people: “Hey, did this thing really just happen? Did I miss it from a few days ago?”

Long story short though, it did just happen.

And nobody cared.

For politicians, and analysts like me, it was of course something of an earthquake.

The rest of Malaysia, however, seems to have responded with what basically amounted to a “meh” and a shrug, and went about their daily lives.

Everybody knows that Malaysians have long been experiencing political fatigue and disaffection, but I honestly didn’t really know it had gotten this bad.

If people get angry, it shows they still care. But people didn’t even bother to get angry. I’m now guessing that some people aren’t even really aware of what has happened.

There are many reasons for this of course.

At time of writing, there are no changes of ministers yet. There is no major changing of policies. No convening of Parliament, and thus no vote of no-confidence. There is no changing of government.

The Umno-Bersatu divorce technically concerns GE15 mostly. That event casts a long shadow from the future, but one that doesn’t hit immediately.

Maybe some people can’t really tell the difference between what is happening now and what has been happening in various degrees of intensity for well over a year now.

When something that concerns our politics so deeply seems to concern the rakyat so little, one really must ponder the relevance of our political system.

I saw this wonderful joke on Twitter recently.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Takiyuddin Hassan tweeted: “Tiada keperluan lagi untuk panggil sidang Parlimen” (“There is no need for Parliament to convene.”)

Someone tweeted in reply: “Tiada keperluan lagi untuk ada Ahli Parlimen” (“There is no need for parliamentarians”)

I laughed at the word play.

But after laughing, I realised how deep this joke really went.

I sometimes worry about boring my readers by making the same point repeatedly, but what we are witnessing is the growing irrelevance of our political system - one which is clearly less and less fit for purpose.

I picked up the term “fit for purpose” while working for a client last year, and it’s a phrase I feel is really, well, fit for purpose.

Systems and tools are designed to achieve certain goals. Over time, those goals, social dynamics, technologies and the context in which these systems and tools operate all evolve and change.

When there is too much institutional inertia which prevents those systems and tools from evolving and changing alongside everything else, we end up with dysfunction.

Indeed, I think few words better describe what is going on with Malaysian politics today then “dysfunction”.

Perhaps the worst of it is, the end of it is not yet in sight.

The Umno-Bersatu breakup is neither the first nor the last shot in this war. We’re neither at the beginning, nor are we at the endgame. We’re just in some gray boring middle.

Malaysia’s political ecosystem was designed and shaped in the 50s, and thrived in the 80s and early 90s.

In 2018, that outdated ecosystem was upended, and in many ways, we are still trying to figure out what to replace it with.

All transitions are difficult, and I see what is happening today as this struggle between an old guard that refuses to let go of old ways, and forces for something new that has not yet done a good job of defining what it wants to be.

Our system is best suited for scenarios in which one party is dominant. Without such a dominant party, the system struggles to function.

Some try the obvious response and look to reassert dominance. I think in our current context, however, this is futile grasping at a past that will never be again.

Rather than try and put the genie back into the bottle by struggling to fit ourselves back into an old system that is not fit for purpose, this stage of our nation’s journey should be dedicated to working on evolving the system so that it better fits the realities we now find ourselves in.

If we fail to do so, then it would be foolish of us to expect politicians within the system to behave any differently than they have before, or respond any differently than they have to the same incentive structures they always have.

NATHANIEL TAN works with Projek Wawasan Rakyat (POWR). He tweets @NatAsasi, clubhouses @Nathaniel_Tan and can be reached at nat@engage.my. - Star

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