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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Frequently Asked Questions about the 13th General Elections

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Finally, after months of speculation and guessing games, we’re gonna have a general election. The thirteenth in our history since independence, and one that seems, somehow, to be different from the other twelve we’ve had so far.

Why different? It looks like for the first time, there’s an acknowledgment that the possibility of regime change is certainly plausible. We’ll get back to this idea further into the post, but for now, suffice it for Walski to say that it’s different this round.

For some of you, this will be the first time you will vote. And so with that in mind, Walski thought it would be a good idea to do a quick FAQ for your benefit. We’ll start with the basic questions, then work our way down to the more inanely complex conundrums.

Even if you’re not a first-time voter, Walski hopes that you’ll find this FAQ useful.

There are, of course, many other questions that one may have but let’s focus on the ten most frequently asked. Or, at least, what Walski thinks are ten important questions you should be asking. (the FAQ, Walski's answers, and more, in the full post)

What’s all this voting business about?
To answer this question, we’ll have to digress a bit, and look at Malaysia and its system of government. Malaysia is what’s considered a Constitutional Monarchy, which means that we have a King, whose jurisdiction is limited by what our Federal Constitution allows. So contrary to what you may have been told, our King doesn’t have unlimited powers and jurisdiction.

The same constitution defines the kind of government we have, and it is modeled very closely to the Westminster parliamentary system, which is a democratic parliamentary system of government.

Contrary to what you may have been told (again), “Democracy” is the process with which we select our government. Granted, ours is not an ideal democracy (no country’s is), it still is a somewhat functional democracy, and one that’s been practiced since gaining independence in 1957.

Of course, democracy goes beyond voting, but that’s a subject for a different conversation. A Westminster system of government (or most democratic governments for that matter) splits its powers into 3 components: Executive, Legislative and Judiciary.

What happens when we vote is that we select individuals to represent our voice at the state and national/federal levels of government. Essentially have a direct hand in only voting in the Legislative arm of government at both the Federal and State levels. At the Federal Legislative level, we only directly vote for the Lower House (Dewan Rakyat) of the bicameral Parliament. The Upper House (Dewan Negara) members are appointed individuals of good standing in society, selected by both the Ruling and Opposition parties/coalitions.

At the national level, we select a member of parliament – one of 222 nationwide – who will then sit as part of a democratically elected Lower Legislative arm of government. The leader of the majority grouping – party or coalition – will become our Prime Minister, who in theory, “commands the confidence” of the majority of those elected. Similarly at the state level, we select state legislative representatives.

The Prime Minister, in turn, will appoint members to his or her Cabinet. This cabinet forms the Executive branch of government. Cabinet members are called Ministers, who are then tasked to head the various ministries and departments of the Civil Service.

That, in a nutshell, is what all this voting business is about – the selection of the two arms of a democratic government – the Legislative and the Executive.

Why do we need to vote when there’s a perfectly functional government already in place?
The “visible government” consists of the Executive and the Civil Service. In the Malaysian context, the Executive is the Cabinet, headed by the Prime Minister. The Executive’s role is to set policy, which is then carried out by the Civil Service.

In a democratic governmental system, when a change of government happens, it’s only the Executive that gets replaced. The Civil Service, which serves the government of the day, remains pretty much constant.

A problem arises when the same party/coalition stays in power for too long. There is a tendency for the Civil Service – which is supposed to be non-partisan, and politically independent – to be beholden to not only the Executive, but also to the party/coalition the Executive belongs to. This is what’s happening in Malaysia today.

Half a century of being governed by the same coalition has blurred the lines between party and government, something that is not healthy for any functional democracy. Having the ruling party/coalition’s every whim and fancy railroaded through to become “government policy” without due process and debate (again something that is to some extent happening in Malaysia today, from Walski’s viewpoint) will be detrimental to the nation in the long run.

The “functional government” you see is the Civil Service carrying out its duties. Changing who leads the Executive does not take away the visible functionality of government machinery.

If I vote against the ruling government, am I considered unpatriotic?
Simple answer: NO. You’re not voting against the government in toto, but essentially against the political party/coalition that constitutes the Executive branch of government. And yes, the two are very different.

Because the same party/coalition has been in power for such a long time, the distinction between political entity and government to the point where said political entity (UMNO/BN specifically) can make the claim that anyone voting against it is being unpatriotic. Such a claim, however, has more holes in it than a block of Swiss cheese. It is a fallacious claim, in other words.

I am a civil servant. Isn’t voting against the ruling government unethical and wrong?
This has been answered, somewhat, a little earlier. The answer, quite simply, is NO. The Civil Service, in a Westminster-like system, is supposed to be politically independent. The Civil Service, as a whole, cannot have any political allegiance, and therefore members of the Civil Service are free to support whichever political party best resonates with an individual civil servant’s own ideals. A civil servant’s job is to carry out the specific civil function that he/she is employed to do, and it is not their job to be beholden to any political entity, even if that political entity makes up the current Executive branch of government.

The situation in Malaysia today, however, is such that many civil servants are being told that their allegiance MUST be with UMNO/BN, because UMNO/BN is the government. Again, a result of the blurring between Executive and party, due to half a century the Executive belonging to (pretty much) the same political entity.

I am concerned about the future, and the future of my children. Wouldn’t it better to just allow the current ruling government to rule in perpetuity?
Theoretically feasible, but then we must also stop pretending that we’re a democracy. Why bother having elections, when the result must be foregone? The best selling point about a democracy is that the citizens of a country get to decide who should govern. In fact, it is one of the very few democratic actions that we’re still free to exercise, without being subjected to restrictive laws. The notion that only UMNO/BN is fit to rule is one that UMNO/BN themselves have perpetuated, because they are the only ones who have held the reigns of the federal level Executive branch of government. The idea that they’re the only ones fit to rule only holds water if there were a situation to compare with. There is none.

From Walski’s own perspective, UMNO/BN has become increasingly self-serving over the years, and the only ones who truly benefit from their continued rule are those closely affiliated with the coalition itself. The common citizen gets scraps, while those politically connected are the ones who get the 10-course meal. Plus desserts.

Another sign that Malaysia is in dire need for a regime change: when our leaders don’t even have confidence in systems they publicly tout as “world class”. One example that immediately comes to mind is tertiary education – how many of our leader’s kids have attended local public universities, versus a true quality education abroad? Think about the future of your kids, and then think about this big gap between hype and reality. Then answer why you still think we shouldn’t be considering regime change.

If a new government is voted in, wouldn’t this mean all the government departments and institutions have to be reconstructed from scratch?
As mentioned before, the answer is NO.

Should I vote for an individual based on her/his merits, or along party/coalition lines?
For a long time, self-professed and somewhat self-centered centrist Anas Zubedy was promoting the idea of voting for the individual based on his/her capability and merits. And then this statement came from our former PM: General election not a contest among individuals.

Essentially, it comes back to why you are personally casting your vote. If you think that the candidate you support and vote for will make a real difference, then vote based on the individual.

Realistically, what Dr. Mahathir said is more relevant to the current Malaysian political scenario. Sorry Anas, but the reality (and Walski has mentioned this to you before) is that no matter how capable and good an individual candidate is, his or her capabilities will matter naught in the bigger scheme of things – it is the party/coalition that goes on to form government, not the individual.

So, back to the question: how should you vote? If you think that UMNO/BN should be given the mandate to effect reforms as they have promised, then vote for them. But before you do, ask yourself why is it that all of a sudden UMNO/BN is talking reform, when they’ve had decades to exact the reform they promise.

If it is real change you are looking for, then in Walski’s opinion what you’re going to get with another 4 or 5 years of UMNO/BN rule is, at best, small change.

It’s your decision.

Can I vote for a specific person to become Prime Minister?
Unfortunately NO. Since Malaysia is modeled after the Westminster system of democracy, the constitution doesn’t allow for it. You may THINK you’re voting for Najib if you vote UMNO/BN, but in reality you’re voting for UMNO/BN. And with the increasing irrelevance of the other component parties, you’re effectively voting for UMNO. Ketuanan Melayu, Ibrahim Ali-ism, and all the warts that come with the party, as far as Walski is concerned.

Similarly, if your voting for Pakatan Rakyat, you are NOT voting for Anwar Ibrahim. In fact, you will be voting for the particular Pakatan component that’s contesting in your area. Even if Pakatan does win the general election, it’s not a given that Anwar will become Prime Minister.

That’s simply how our electoral system works.

I don’t care which party/coalition wins. Why should I even bother to vote?
Walski won’t go into the spiel about it being your responsibility, etc. He will say, however, that voter apathy usually works out better for the incumbent. Not all the time, but Walski thinks more often than not.

You may think that whichever party/coalition winning won’t make a difference, but in actual fact, it will. For both you and your children, if you have any.

Why? The winning party or coalition forms the Executive and Legislative arms of government. And governmental policies are not written in stone.

Here’s a simple rule of thumb you can follow: analyze what each side of the political divide has to offer, then DON’T vote for the evil of the two lessers. For Walski, having weighed the options, it boils down to a choice between eventual, but almost certain doom, and a glimmer of hope that the path towards oblivion and disrepair can be averted.

Basing it this way, Walski’s choice was obvious – he chooses hope. If you bother to analyze, you’ll find that there is a distinct difference between the two sides.

If, after doing all this, you still find you don’t care, then all Walski can say is that don’t complain about the government you get later on. People who don’t bother to vote deserve the government they didn’t vote for.

I only have one vote. Will it make a difference?
For a change, the quick answer is YES, your one vote does make a difference.

There used to be a time when Walski thought that his single vote wouldn’t make a dent in the outcome of the elections. Until he realized that if enough people thought the same way he did, then the difference would be non-trivial.

If you recall, in 2008, many seats were decided on the slimmest of margins. Particularly those seats where big-ticket names were contesting. The same is expected this time around. Vote fraud – and let’s not delude ourselves that it’s never happened – typically only works in cases where the vote tally difference is small.

Put simply, and this will sound cliché, every single vote counts. Unless you prefer that a slim wins turns to shit just because some people thought it best to go postal. If you catch Walski's drift.

~ ~ ~ ~ o o o ~ ~ ~

And there you have it. The key questions Walski thinks you should be asking. Are there anymore questions that you think need answering before you cast your vote? Let Walski know.