A question commonly posed to me is what made me decide to choose politics as a vocation.
I wonder about it myself sometimes. Although it may not appear to be so, I am in fact naturally an introvert. Of course, I have since learned how to summon on demand the confidence and tenacity required to face the public on a daily basis. And while I would like to think I have assimilated well enough into my role as a public figure, there remains still a part of me who finds it all a little awkward.
To be sure, politics has always fascinated. As a child, I could rattle off the names of American presidents and British prime ministers, along with some associated trivia, courtesy of the reading material my father provided me. The first biography I read was Mubin Sheppard’s authoritative volume on our first prime minister, the Tunku. Until today, stories of wars, coups and the creation of nations enthral me.
One thing that was imprinted into my mind early on was that power makes the world go round, and that politics is the art of harnessing and controlling power. It is for this reason that history and the course of human development are often determined by those that wield power.
With Absolute Power Comes Absolute Responsibility
But power is a double-edged sword. It is an enabler that allows its wielder to exercise great influence and control over those subjected to his or her power. In the hands of a benign and development-oriented dictator, human progress can take place. But as much as a roll of a dice may turn out favourable, it can just as well be the opposite, resulting in oppressive conditions with the wrong person in charge. And as history has proven time and again, it sometimes takes only one wrong person to undo centuries of advancement.
This is why power must necessarily be accompanied by structural boundaries that define its parameters and preferably premised upon popular legitimacy. In the absence of such limits, the extent of a leader’s power is limited only by his or her imagination, as many absolutist systems of governments have proven. In autocratic societies ruled by dictators or monarchs, the efficiency and efficacy of its governance lie arbitrarily in the hands of the individual personality in power, thus resigning the fate of millions to the inherent predisposition of one person. As can be expected, this often results in gross inequalities, not just in wealth and economic opportunity but also in basic human rights and freedoms.
Dawn of Democracy
A turning point in human history occurred in eighteenth-century France when, tired of perennial subjugation by the clergy and nobility who ruled by “divine right”, the masses revolted on the back of the powerful slogan liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity). Even though it took France a little longer to finally become democratic – the French Revolution succeeded in deposing the monarchy but ended up replacing one dictator with another when Napoleon Bonaparte, another historical figure who captured much of my imagination as a boy, took over as emperor – the ideals and spirit of the revolution would go on to inspire the rest of the world, creating a wave of democratisation that emancipated countless societies in every corner of the globe.
The dawn of modern democratic governance, albeit in various shapes and sizes, ushered in what was previously unimaginable – an inverse power corollary. Suddenly, leaders were representative of and answerable to the people. And they were no longer there just because they were born into it, but because the people allowed them the privilege – until they decide to choose someone else.
More importantly, structures were put into place not only to set the limits of power but also to ensure the system is not abused to the advantage or disadvantage of any particular person or group for no justifiable reason. Integral to the entire democratic process is of course the process of elections, a periodic procedure that must be conducted as freely and fairly as possible in order to ensure that the will of the people is constantly and consistently reflected in the government of the day.
Power and Corruption
But structures and systems are only that. Where power is concerned, humans are not limited by the impossible. As Lord Acton was wont to remind, power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Such is clearly the case when even democratic processes can be usurped by charismatic personalities who often come into power with the gloried credentials of fighting for freedom and the oppressed, but who end up being oppressors themselves.
History is replete with such examples. The Nazi despot Adolf Hitler is probably one of the most famous. Others include the likes of Idi Amin in Uganda, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and closer to home, Suharto in Indonesia. All of them came into power promising a better deal for their people, and they were celebrated and loved. But they all ended up suppressing the very freedoms they championed, and eventually met inglorious endings, disdained by the very people who placed them upon their pedestals.
One thing we can always be sure of is that history tends to repeat itself. No structure or system is fool-proof, especially when charismatic leaders succeed in manipulating popular perception. Today, the world no longer regards Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the democrat he once claimed to be when he first took office 15 years ago as a persecuted victim of an oppressive government. Today, his own government is accused of a myriad human rights violations – including media crackdowns, the blocking of access to social media and the incarceration of journalists and dissenters.
Questions are now also being asked of Xi Jinping of China, touted to be a reformer when he first ascended to the presidency in 2013, following his recent move to abolish the two-term limit to the country’s highest post – a constitutional mechanism put in place to prevent any one person from becoming leader for life.
Despotism in Malaysia
Power is certainly the great corruptor, and it is no different here in Malaysia. After more than 60 years in power, it is no surprise that the ruling BN regime has begun to display excesses of despotism – corruption and abuse of power.
The 1MDB global financial scandal is perhaps a most appropriate manifestation of such excesses. Implicating those at the highest echelons of power in Malaysia, the scandal reads like a Hollywood script, not only involving the misappropriation of billions of ringgit but also the use of the ill-gotten gains on Picasso paintings, super yachts, private jets and luxury property all around the world.
Due to its global nexus spanning offshore shell corporations and complex money trails all around the word, the scandal is now the subject of investigation by authorities in various countries, while no less than the US Attorney-General has named Malaysia as a kleptocratic regime with the prime minister as a beneficiary of the corrupt funds. As a result, Malaysia’s latest corruption perception index ranking according to Transparency International is now the lowest in history, while The Economist has named Malaysia as one of the top crony capitalist economies in the world.
While international efforts are underway to unravel the 1MDB corruption scandal, news on the issue in Malaysia is blacked out while Parliament has been muzzled with MPs prevented from speaking about the issue at the risk of suspension, and Internal government critics are either promoted to keep them quiet or sacked, as the former deputy prime minister and attorney-general can attest to.
That Malaysia is now mired in grand corruption should not come as a surprise. It is the inevitable result of unchallenged rule. The fact is that BN is not corrupt simply because they are made up of innately greedy individuals, even if some may feel such an accusation justified. Their kleptocratic tendencies are actually symptoms of being drunk on power – over 60 years of it.
The moral of the story is that it is dangerous to allow any individual or party to have unfettered power. It is not just that wealth and natural resources get plundered. Rulers who have no fear of losing are also inclined to subvert public institutions to serve their needs and prolong their power, as we have seen in Malaysia where the courts are used to jail Opposition leaders and where the election commission has taken it upon itself to gerrymander and malapportion seats in the most creative manner possible to keep the government in power forever. And unless BN is stopped soon, forever might not seem so far off a possibility.
As the people of France showed valiantly 200 years ago, change and reform can only be achieved by a collective show of force. The same formula of people power has succeeded in overthrowing corrupt regimes the world over, from South America to the Middle East to Asia.
For us Malaysians, the coming general election may very well be our moment in history. So let us make it count. In the name of kebebasan, kesaksamaan, persaudaraan.
NB: This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of the Penang Monthly.