Be political

By Steven Sim, Member of Parliament for Bukit Mertajam

Many people do not like politics, especially here in Malaysia. It is understandably so, because we, naturally, associate politics with politicians, the “professionals who do politics”. We see politics as we see politicians: corrupt, dirty, pugnacious “good for nothings”.

As such, many people refuse to have anything to do with politics: “Let’s not bring politics into this issue.”  “I am apolitical.”  “Don’t talk politics.”  “Don’t be political!”

And seriously, believe it or not, the powers that be are more than happy for the masses to think that way.

Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign had a famous slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid”. But it’s never merely about the economy. Whether Democrats or Republicans – the politicians – have different ideas and ideals about running the economy.

Clinton’s was a highly misleading message, like all political campaign messages, designed to point voters “to look away” from the power ambitions of politicians to something else, whether economy or education (“study first don’t get involved in politics”) or, in our Malaysian context, race and religion. And the list goes on.

The typical formula for the disavowal of politics goes: “This is not about politics, it is about (…)”. You can fill out the (…) blank with almost limitless items. The whole idea is to leave politics behind and instead make things work. In other words, forget politics, let’s aim for productivity.

The classic example in the Malaysia is how former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad strengthened the Universities and University Colleges Act after the 1974 Universiti Malaya students protest, led, fatefully, by his future aide turned nemesis, Anwar Ibrahim.

Mahathir banned the students’ newspaper, students union and the participation of students in politics. His excuse was, as recorded in his parliamentary speech at that time:

“One of the instruments of the New Economic Policy is education. Education enables economic and social mobility that can change the fortune of a person or a race from bad to good. When undergraduates take part in elections or demonstrations, they will not be able to focus on their studies.”

Once again, the message of disavowal is clear: forget politics, let’s aim for productivity.

However, contemporary political philosopher Slavoj Zizek put it succinctly when he said, “politics and democracy are synonymous: the basic aim of anti-democratic politics always, and by definition, is and was depolitisation.”

The depolitisation of society is aimed at transforming us from autonomous people who are able to voice our opinions freely into vulnerable people who are dependent on, and therefore subservient to, the professionals – meaning, the politicians.

Crisis of depolitisation of the MH370 crisis

At the start of the MH370 crisis, Malaysians in general were united to offer concern and condolences through the social media. And not a few said, “this is not about politics…” (remember the formula above), “let’s not bring politics into this”.

In other words, let’s do something else: pray, meditate, make a wish, hold vigils, post sympathetical messages to give hope or even bring in the bomoh, but “don’t be political” about it.

However, it’s nearing a week and many, many people are beginning to get very, very frustrated with the Malaysian government’s lack of transparency and seemly loss of direction in handling the crisis.

When I say many, many people, I mean both Malaysians and the international community. In short, the whole world.

Like it or not, it is never merely about patriotism, the economy, education, the law or even public crisis management. Who runs the country matters, who runs the economy matters, who runs education matters, who runs the legal system matters, who runs public crisis management matters. In other words, politics matters.

We should demand accurate, up-to-date information, we should demand immediate and strategic action from our government, we should demand accountability and transparency, and we should demand responsiveness and responsibility. The government, being the administrator we appointed to run the state on our behalf, should then be commended and criticised accordingly.

The proper response towards this crisis is to be political, not politically-correct.

So what now?

A friend, presumably frustrated with the circuses going on in our country, asked almost pleadingly on her Facebook: What can I do to help my country?

The simple short answer is: Be political.

The solution to bad politics is not no politics. And it’s not about joining a political party, but rather, taking part in the continual public discourse and debate to shape our society, including taking sides.

Often we are told that this process is damaging and inefficient, it is not productive, it does not work. But if we choose to disavow politics and outsource completely the running of society to the “professionals”, we risk waking up one day to discover that things are working lesser and lesser for us, if not totally working against us.

Do not get me wrong, I am not saying we cannot develop people to be better prime ministers and better Members of Parliament. I am not saying someone cannot go to school to be trained as better administrators and technocrats; I am not saying we should not seek to position capable leaders to run our government.

In fact, I am saying we should do all that. But more than that, the whole business of deciding our own lives and the collective destiny of the human society is too important to leave solely in the hands of the few, even if they are experts.

“Making things work” is not enough, we must make things work for us as a collective whole.

When we tolerate suppression of media freedom, we may one day discover that our mass media cannot be depended on to report critical news promptly and accurately.

When we tolerate public corruption, we may one day discover that bad guys can pay their way through our immigration to harm us.

When we tolerate a non-transparent government, we may one day be paralysed by the lack of information about crucial life-and-death matters.

When we tolerate an unaccountable government, we may one day face leaders who will refuse to act for our welfare. Or worse, leaders who allow circuses and monkey shows in place of concrete, substantial actions to save our lives and the lives of our loved ones.

this article first appeared in malaysiakini

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