The limits to toeing the party line


Galvin Wong, The Malaysian Insider 

The recent debacle between the DAP and its vice-chairman Tunku Abdul Aziz Tunku Ibrahim really sparked my interest and got me thinking. My thoughts however centred not on his arguments but how the DAP reacted to the public breach of his party’s stand, of his failure to toe the party line. A strong reaction ensued. Few days ago, it was reported that he was being investigated by the DAP’s disciplinary body. Just yesterday, that he would be dropped as a senator when his term comes to an end.

The concept of toeing the party line is not new or uncommon. It’s used in both Australia and Britain and in Malaysia itself, it has been a common practice. It refers to publicly agreeing and supporting a party’s decision. There are certainly certain advantages to this practice. Namely, to present a united front with a single-minded focus on a certain issue. However, there are severe disadvantages as well. Such a political culture requires strict party discipline. Strict discipline allows the leader of the party more freedom to choose whose views he intends to accept, as no one would risk their political career coming to a premature end by publicly disagreeing with the leader’s decision, and he would select an elite few who would have his ear. The selection of a specific view the party will take will lead to disregarding other views within the party. If only views from certain power players in the party are favoured others may feel marginalised, leading to discontent and quite possibly internal rifts and arguments that will destabilise a party.

One other tremendous disadvantage to this system is the fact that MPs are required to vote according to their party’s stand in Parliament. Malaysia is a representative democracy. And the core purpose of MPs in this system is to represent the rakyat who elected them. However, partisan politics has very much taken over. An MP’s role in Parliament has shifted from voting based on their constituents’ interest to voting based on their party’s interest.

Such an occurrence has very much reduced the directness and effectiveness of the input citizens have in policy-making, making Malaysia a much less democratic country. Remember, a democracy is the rule of the majority. And MPs’ toeing the party line is more on the lines of rule by the minority due to the fact that it is mainly the party decision-makers that have much input into the country’s policies.

How then do we correct this situation? The answer is simple. We must deviate back to the core purpose of a representative democracy — that is to represent. Parties must begin to realise that the people’s interests are best represented when decisions about Bills in Parliament are not made by those in the party’s core leadership but by the people themselves. MPs need to start going to ground once again to speak and receive feedback from constituents, and they need to begin voting based on the interests of the community they represent!  

Not merely toeing the party line would also ensure the MPs representing minority groups in Sabah and Sarawak get to have their fair say in policy making. Bills will have to be formed with minority groups’ interest in mind before being passed because only then would these Bills receive the “yes” vote from MPs in Sabah and Sarawak.

Also, Bills that put into place policies that a party has put forth in its manifesto no longer need to be mired in protracted debate and political point scoring. The rakyat had already agreed to such policies by electing the government. This will save the limited time during parliamentary sessions for Bills that are important and crucial thus ensuring that a situation that happened just recently where Parliament had to debate a high number of Bills on its last day, leading to the opposition accusing the ruling party of forcing through certain Bills without sufficient scrutiny.

I am not suggesting that the culture of toeing the party line must be completely abolished. To a large extent, this political culture is needed to ensure that a party does not fall apart because of undisciplined individuals. What I am suggesting is that the principle of how an MP must vote in Parliament based on a party’s stand must be reverted. MPs are willing to fight tooth and nail in the name of the rakyat. But is it truly their constituents they are representing, or their parties?