Dropped candidates: Don’t get mad, get organised

There’s a lot of emotions currently running high regarding candidates being chosen, dropped, and moved.

Nathaniel Tan, Sinar Daily

I’m not really well positioned to comment individually and in depth on the cases like Charles Santiago, Wong Tack, Maria Chin Abdullah, Khairy Jamaluddin, and so on; but perhaps as we look at how cases like theirs play out, we might be able to get some insight into certain salient features of Malaysian democracy.

Maybe one way to start is to look at the common ‘categories’ or typologies of elected representatives here in Malaysia.

These are not mutually exclusive categories. A representative can be 60 per cent Type A, 30 per cent Type B, 10 per cent Type C or some other such combination. The following just represents how I’ve come to see representatives and politicians over the years.

Let’s call Type A the true blue ‘demi rakyat’ representative.

This type of individual really puts their blood, sweat, and tears into serving the community. Their first true passion is for solving the people’s problems, and are always on the ground seeing how they can improve the lives of their constituents.

I won’t name examples for the other two categories, but for Type A, I cannot possibly resist referring to the magnificent work of people like S. Arutchelvam and Michael Jeyakumar of Parti Sosialis Malaysia.

In my time, I have met very few people in this field who are as dedicated to the plight of the grassroots, regardless of how it affects their political fortunes.

Sadly of course, this is perhaps the rarest type of representative around.

A variation of Type A is the ‘feudal’ representative.

We can’t deny that these representatives also add value (in the literal sense) to their communities, mostly by ensuring the flow of resources (in cash or kind) into their communities. These representatives are always present at weddings, and sometimes funerals, along with all sorts of other kenduri, and they never come empty handed.

Let’s call Type B the national crusader.

These representatives, especially those elected to Parliament, are the ones who are always in the media talking about national issues. One might say they are a little more focused on the direction of the country as a whole, than with their individual constituencies.

It is quite common to find politicians who hold high office in their political parties in this category. It is also relatively common for them to be shifted around from seat to seat, ostensibly like chess pieces following some grand electoral strategy.

As an interesting aside, while writing I noticed that in the past, many key Pakatan Harapan leaders like Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Kit Siang are more prone to shifting seats, as opposed to key Barisan Nasional leaders, who tend to be more closely associated with particular seats.

Let’s call Type C the local warlord.

Each political party has its own way of electing its leaders internally, but most generally rely on grassroots support at the divisional level. Thus, politicians who are able to organise and ‘control’ the votes of a high number of grassroots members can hold strong sway in a party.

Oftentimes, such politicians leverage these votes that they ‘control’ in exchange for promises to be made a candidate.

Given the dynamics of internal party politics, party leaders often rely on these votes, and are often willing to trade the ‘surat watikah’ (letters of commission) that determine one’s candidacy in a particular seat in exchange for political support.

Local warlords are thus generally at least a little more concerned with party members within a constituency than they are with the general population within that constituency.

Understanding these different typologies and dynamics may help us understand the choices that political parties make with regards to how they choose, drop, and move candidates around.

Coming from a civil society background myself, and I can certainly understand the frustrations of those who are disappointed with the dropping of candidates like Maria Chin Abdullah and Charles Santiago, both of whom have a good reputation for speaking up on many causes of close concern to civil society.

I am not deeply familiar with their work at the grassroots level, but I get the impression that these two are examples of representatives who are mostly Type A and Type B, and have very little to offer in terms of being Type C.

Given this state of affairs, I suppose I can’t say it’s surprising they were dropped as candidates in favour of individuals seen to carry more weight in terms of internal party politics.

Many people within civil society and Malaysians more generally have expressed disappointment and anger about such changes. Again, I can definitely understand the sentiment.

In my view however, there is not too much point in tearing our hair or jumping up and down. I imagine political parties – built as they are – will always act in this manner.

That isn’t to say that this is a good thing that we should just lay down and accept. We shouldn’t be surprised, but this doesn’t mean we should be content.

What I am saying is that if we want different behaviour (with regards to candidate choice etc), we may have to design and establish vehicles that have an almost completely different internal structure from current political parties with regards to how leaders are chosen and decisions are made.

If we start new political parties without doing a design overhaul of that scale, it may only be a matter of time before we start behaving in the same way as the current ones.

At the end of the day, the only way to get significantly different results is to make significant changes.

NATHANIEL TAN works with Projek #BangsaMalaysia. Twitter: @NatAsasi, Email: [email protected]. #BangsaMalaysia #NextGenDemocracy.