They play, we all pay

By Malik Imtiaz Sarwar (The Malaysian Insider)

MARCH 31 – The Umno Assembly has come and gone and, as has been the case for at least the last three assemblies, in its wake many of us have been left uneasy and in a state of disquiet.

Seeing the inner workings of the Leviathan’s mind is never an easy thing, even at the best of times. And these really are the worst of times.

Power lust has put a debilitating strain on our national institutions; they are in the mind of the public nothing more than lifeless marionettes in a caricature of democracy. The accumulation of money and influence has for some time now been the greater social good in the minds of many of those who claim the right to lead us. Governance has been wholly enslaved to the perverse politics required to feed this monstrous craving.

One does not have to go to great lengths any more to demonstrate these conclusions. After this last assembly, it is a matter of public record. Reading the speeches made, I was struck by how for many of those who attended the assembly there is no other way other than the Umno way that the are familiar with: exclusive privilege through patronage.

While it could be said that these are matters concerning the internal workings of Umno and, as such, really none of my business, this cannot be the case when Umno stakes a claim on the premiership of this nation as it does.

The Federal Constitution does not provide that the president of Umno must be the Prime Minister. That is, however, the understanding within the Barisan, whose component parties are compelled to leave the choice of that individual to Umno’s admittedly skewed method of electing its President.

This state of affairs is made more complex by the expectation on the part of Umno that it is entitled to govern this nation, a viewpoint it gives life to through its control over the wider system of governance.

The experience of the rakyat with matters of state has been a disappointing one and the general belief is that all constitutional bodies and agencies of the state will act to further the interests of Umno and, where interests overlap, the Barisan.

Seen in this light, the internal workings of Umno are a matter of national concern; the national interest underscoring the appointment of a prime minister is ultimately left vulnerable to those who are able to successfully wield influence at the Umno Assembly.

As I have written elsewhere, this is not the scheme envisaged by the founders of the Federal Constitution, which instead puts in place an appointment process grounded on His Majesty the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s judgment as to who commands the confidence of the majority of members of the Dewan Rakyat.

For many in Umno and the Barisan however, political convention must trump constitutionalism.  Both the party and the coalition have made this clear in the way in which concerns over the appropriateness of Datuk Seri Najib Razak as Prime Minister are being avoided.

This cannot be right. The unease that the failure to take appropriate steps to clear the air has given rise to is no small matter. It pertains directly to public confidence in the due administration of this nation.

If the positions were reversed, the same rationale would apply: Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim would not be an appropriate candidate until the accusation of sodomy by Saiful Bukhari is dealt with.

Public confidence is crucial to our survival. We are a nation in crisis facing external challenges of great magnitude.

Part of the reason for this is the sustained maladministration that we have had to endure over a prolonged period of time. Put bluntly, the nation is not firing on all pistons and we are not nearly as prepared or resourced to deal with what we will have to when the full significance of world events hits us.

The choice of Prime Minister at this point is a crucial one. In addition to addressing Malaysia’s response to the global economic crisis and its impact on the rakyat, the next administration must address two objectives that are vital to our continued survival.

The first of these is the serious deficiencies in our current process of general and state elections. These go deeper than the issue of perceived Election Commission and police bias to the more fundamental question of whether democratic purpose is being achieved through a first-past-the-post system and the “weighted” delineation of constituencies. Electoral ethics must also be made a priority with scrutiny of the continued value of racial ideologies that serve no purpose than to divide us. True democratic process is the only way in which this nation can ensures that it remains competitive.

Secondly, the foundations of governance must be shored up. The doctrine of separation of powers must be re-entrenched to ensure the due application of checks and balances. For this, reforms must be carried out at more than a superficial level.

For this to occur, constitutionalism must be breathed into the organs and agencies of state once more. The Judiciary must be liberated from any and all political influence and be made as capable as it once was, with public confidence in the institution.

The legislatures of the nation must be allowed to return to previous glory when debates were permitted without fear or favour and the legislative chamber served a purpose higher than rubber-stamping the dictates of majoritarianism.

Above all, the Executive must be made accountable once again.

This is what we need if we do not want to see this nation failing.

Momentum, however, threatens to propel us forward in that direction. The brakes need to be applied and our direction changed, impelled forward by the will of the rakyat with the Federal Constitution serving as our roadmap.

The question we must confront is, who it is that will be able to lead us in doing that?

If I wonder whether Datuk Seri Najib considers himself capable of doing this, it is because he has said precious little to suggest that he has considered the precarious situation we are in.

I am also wary of the political forces that paved his way to the top that will impede him much in the same way as they did the out-going Prime Minister.

There is also the matter of public sentiment concerning various matters that he either has been, or is seen to have been, involved in.

Ironically, the one person in Umno who holds to a need for serious reform at all levels, Tengku Razaleigh, received only one nomination and could not contest the presidency. This was an error on the part of Umno in my view.

My fear is that the nation will have to pay the price.

Malik Imtiaz Sarwar is the current president of the National Human Rights Society (Hakam) and a lawyer. He has been at the forefront of efforts aimed at promoting constitutionalism and the Rule of Law. His blog ‘Disquiet’, and weekly column of the same name with the Malay Mail, are widely read.