I understand the boycott campaign, and in better times, might even support them. These elections are not presenting us with a choice of good and better, but worse and worst. At least, let’s hope that this is as bad as a political option can get: Maybe Barisan still has some surprises up its electoral sleeves. Yet, I will be casting my vote. Not just because I have a candidate I can get behind standing in my electorate, not because for the first time in my life I’ll be able to contribute to a woman getting in to Parliament, but because these elections are going to decide whether we can just get over elections and get on with the task of building a politically aware electorate. There is no hope for that under BN. If you had any doubts of this beforehand, the dual farces of the fake news act and the redelineation exercise should have exorcised them.
It seems highly unlikely, but if the current Opposition wins, then we can finally get over that issue, the “can we get rid of BN” issue, and start looking at the more interesting stuff.
Like local elections. Anybody else notice that Pakatan Harapan seem to have dropped these from their manifesto? The ability to appoint councillors is a key power for the state government, it’s a system of patronage and gives those in place real powers. It’s easy to see why Pakatan Harapan have dropped it. We need to put pressure on them to reinstate, because local elections and local government are the power-house of a democracy, it’s where citizens are able to see how their vote directly impacts their lives. Decisions on zoning may sound dull, but if it’s about whether your pet is legitimate or not, they literally strike much closer to home. Decisions on parks, and advertising, on stalls and shops. Local councils is where we live, quite literally.
But what starts locally grows. There is an intoxicating power that comes from being able to control your own life, what the Founding Fathers referred to as public happiness. A friend told me it even has the power to extend your life: Power, real power, over your life tends to make you live longer, she said. Thomas Jefferson strove to bring power down to the smallest possible level, the ward. Democracy wasn’t just about choosing representatives, it was about generating political power at multiple levels, empowering each person to take control of the community decisions that affected their lives. And if they could experience this close to home, they’d be active in keeping an eye on what happened at a state, federal and international level. His views on public happiness were largely developed too late to influence the US Constitution, and writers from Tocqueville to Arendt have warned about the consequences, which were are now seeing blazoned across the White House in the 24-hour-tweet fiasco that is Donald Trump.
We need local elections, because until we have them, we will not have anything beyond a sham of democracy. And we need a strong, thriving democracy to face the challenges of the next fifty years.
We all know about climate change. It seems like something distant and far away to most people. It’s not. The impact of climate change, probably even if we do cut to zero emissions and start drawing carbon down tomorrow, are going to be massive. Because we’ve already started unlocking stores of methane and other greenhouse gases that have been locked away in permafrost, which is now melting.
Climate change means two things. We need to move to a zero carbon economy with urgency. But given our small population, and our geography, even more urgently we need to think about how we deal with a warming globe. Most Malaysians live on a peninsula. That means we are surrounded by water on three sides. Few people live in the interior of West Malaysia, we’re fairly well concentrated on the coast, and the same is true for Sabah and Sarawak: around 60% of the population. By 2050, sea levels are predicted by conservative (small c) scientists to rise just under 60 cm. Rice production is expected to fall, by up to 30%. Malaria is set to increase as temperatures rise, and other health impacts are uncertain.
So far, the government’s response has been to see this as an investment opportunity. Malaysia punches far above its weight in terms of solar panel and LED light production. But in terms of building resilience, pushing unpopular but necessary changes to our lifestyle, there is no leadership. On either side of the political fence. Both sides keep our political minds focused on the comparatively minor issue of who wins the election. And until BN is evicted from power, it is the only question in Malaysian politics.
We need to get over it. We need a new government. Not just because of corruption. Not because we need a new set of cronies. But because we need to get over the question of whether government can be changed by the people, whether it is possible to make government scared of us, rather than the other way round.
There are real issues looming on the horizon. They will test our coherence and patience as a nation. With a race-based coalition, that premises its power on the idea that our interests are defined by our ethnicity, not our common Malaysian heritage, we cannot possible meet the challenges the coming decades offer. We will splinter along the lines fostered by those in power who benefit from us being Malay, Chinese, Indian first, Malaysian last. Those who want us to define ourselves by religion, against others.
I don’t have much hope in Harapan. But I’m not hopeless enough to think there is an alternative.