Timeo Sabri et Dona Ferentes
In Post-Apartheid South Africa, the new Mandela government established Truth and Reconciliation Committees – executors of a complicated, oft painful process that had people of the black, coloured, and otherwise-discriminated-against communities describe and share the harms and pains they suffered individually and as communities; and people of communities that apartheid favoured (to be clear and explicit, white South Africans) explained the ways in which they benefitted, how they felt about Apartheid, and their fears for the future. It was important that, whilst it was clear one group of people was far more harmed than the other; there was an understanding that the underlyingly unjust system of Apartheid had caused a great deal of social and ethical harm, both to its victims as well as to its perpetrators. Whilst individuals no doubt had their hands dirtied – and bloodied – with complicity, the problem was bigger than any one individual had the power to change. You had might as well have asked a lone soldier on the beaches of Normandy to end the Second World War with a single shot. Individuals could be held accountable, but only the system was guilty. An imperfect solution, painful for all involved, and one which required active and conscious effort to maintain – the hallmarks of a real compromise.
Only after a truth was constructed – a truth emerging from compromise and conflicting viewpoints, assembled from the testimonies of a nation; could national healing begin. It bears reflecting upon – justice in an unjust system requires the oppressors of that system to acknowledge their structural positions of power, even (perhaps especially!) when there exist some or many individuals of that privileged group who are not personally in positions of overwhelming privilege and material wealth. It requires conscious admission of and regret for complicity, passive or active – which prima facie requires an acceptance that the system was unjust. It is these requirements that make any such movement towards Truth and Reconciliation an as-of-now untenable dream in Malaysia. Myriad reasons exist for this – most distinctly from the political class the fear of loss of face, or of ethno-religious political legitimacy and clout. Admitting wrongdoing – whether recent or historical – is so anathema to our leaders that they are not above utilising the threat of state violence to rewrite history; or to censor-by-libel-suit.
All this bears remembering as we consider how, after meetings with the new Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Dato’ Sri Ismail Sabri MP, voices from within PH and the Opposition are beginning to speak more widely of conciliation (not reconciliation, of course, as that requires conciliatory behaviour to begin with) and cooperation with the new UMNO-led government. Perhaps I am blessed with an overabundance of cynicism, but it seems that never has a chalice been more clearly poisoned – you half expect to see an evil stepmother out of a Disney film pour a conspicuous purple vial into a goblet with a skull-and-crossbones puff of smoke. It seems the only real consequential change at Putrajaya has been an upgrade in the quality of press and media personnel, allowing the new Sabri government to sell his halfhearted veneer of reform so successfully. His offer was and is, on the surface, an opportunity for a more collegiate and compromise-ready politics – but is in reality only looking to construct a blame-diffusing, responsibility-confusing appearance of bipartisanship. Accepting or engaging with this government on Sabri’s terms will indelibly damage the reputation and credibility of the opposition as a liberal, principles-based grouping; which should and must be pit in dichotomous conflict against (and in rejection of) the Ketuanaan-Islamist axis of PPBM, UMNO, and PAS.
Even before Sabri, Mahiaddin’s reforms were impotently dangled like withered carrotsin an ultimately futile attempt to claw back some form of parliamentary majority – a deal which longtime PH-DAP stalwarts Tony Pua and Ong Kian Ming appeared to push for in public (a decision they no doubt regret based on the immediate public backlash from their supporters, though one fails to see how they could have expected any different; and from the arms-length distancing that Lim Guan Eng has since applied to their statements). Before even commenting on the substantive issues with Mahiaddin’s offer; it should be pointed out (with a massive red hand, cognisant of Denning LJ’s judgment in Spurling v Bradshaw) that it is arguable that Mahiaddin had no legitimate constitutional authority to extend that offer in the first place if he did not possess the confidence of the majority of the Dewan Rakyat at that moment – as implicitly or explicitly contended by both men to one degree or another, and by their party.
If Mahiaddin did not possess a parliamentary majority – and therefore parliamentary and constitutional legitimacy – at the point of making the “Anti-Kleptocrat Reform Offer”, that must by simple operation of logic render that offer nothing more than the too-late plea of a failed authoritarian trying to patch together a wayang kulit of parliamentary majority through promising what should be minimum expectations of civilised societies – fair financial treatment of MPs irrespective of political party, suffrage for all legal adult citizens in Malaysia, equal distribution of ostensibly cross-party Parliamentary Committee Chairs between parties, and recognition of the position of Leader of the Opposition (a position which was officially recognised by statute in the UK in 1937 - a full 10 years before Anwar was born). These steps were proffered as great concessions to liberal reformers – when in reality they should have been the basic demands to even sit down at the negotiating table. Conceiving them as political mana from heaven, or as conciliatory olive branches, is not only Nietzschean slave mentality of the highest order; it is a spit in the face of reformers who aspire for something more than simply basic democratic moral decency in this country.
Imagine the implied political castration that would have been the outcome of making the Leader of the Opposition a Cabinet member - which must by any standard expose them to the principle of cabinet collective responsibility, providing the government of the day an opportunity for blame-spreading with only the facade of apparent power-sharing. And while an ‘anti-hopping bill’ and term limits on Prime Ministers serving in office might seem populistically attractive, the precedent set by either would be difficult to square with our current constitutional system. Dicey wrote with clarity that Parliament cannot bind its successors – surely this must also mean that Parliament cannot bind its members from sitting and grouping as they feel is most appropriate for themselves as representatives of their constituents, as has been their anointed right and privilege in the Dewan Rakyat. Imagine an MP who is part of a party which is suddenly overtaken by extremists of one kind or another – would they be barred from leaving their party to form or join a new one? Political parties are not a constitutional nor parliamentary requirement, and attempts to limit the freedom of MPs to associate with parties as they feel morally and ethically correct are nothing more than the overreaching Executive attempting to centrally regulate the liberty of the Legislative. To say nothing of the appalling attempt to introduce unconstitutional limitations and restrictions on HM the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s reserve powers to pick a Prime Minister whom he believes can command the confidence of the Dewan Rakyat – a reserve power which Mahiaddin had no constitutional business in attempting to legislatively influence, control, or limit.
The headliner of Sabri’s offer to the opposition is an offer to allow participation in the National Recovery Council (NRC) – not the National Security Council (NSC) which has been primarily responsible for the development and operationalisation of COVID SOPs and restrictions. There have further been murmurings from within the opposition asking for Mahiaddin’s deal from Sabri – which as I have explained above I think would be a bad idea. Irrespective of the latter, it is puzzling to see how the opposition would view being on the ex post facto advisory committee as a benefit to any degree. They would be relegated to second-class advisors in a body with no statutory decision-making powers, allowing the government to simultaneously say that their views and input were considered (but ultimately rejected); whilst also sharing and shouldering of blame. A clear modus operandum emerges – feigning reform, transparency, and bipartisanship are now critical tools for the Ketuanaan-Islamist axis to consolidate their slim majorities, to attempt to pay lip service to assuage the fears of moderates and liberals (without whose tax dollars they would not be able to subsidise their Damansara Heights mansions), and to tempt potential collaborators from the Opposition. It is surpassingly rich of the man who in the past established the now-failed Mara Digital Malls after ethnic minority small business owners were racially targeted and assaulted, and who insisted that a boycott of Chinese businesses (for which he was investigated by the Police) was not racist; is now attempting to portray himself as a Great Conciliator; helped of course by his allies at PAS – a stunningly and famously tolerant group of folk.
In the crudest possible terms: in asking for a political ceasefire, PAS is as full of shit as the Kabul airport is currently full of desperate and innocent victims of Taliban barbarism. PAS makes a sport of stoking extremism and an exclusionary religiousness that runs counter to the Federal Constitution at every opportunity. PAS has never been comfortable with the idea that Malaysia is not an ethnic, religious, or linguistic monostate; and has for years fired provocation and insult at non-Malay-Muslim communities from the security of their ethnoreligious battlements; knowing full well that the sedition, racial and religious harmony, and libel laws in this nation are inequitably skewed in their favour. The smokescreen of divinity has given them a dubiously moral high ground on which to stand and demand exemption from scrutiny or rebuke. PAS as an organisation no doubt deserves some further exploration, if nothing else to discover the secret of their boundless, unwarranted self-confidence. The actions of a single PAS minister (Takiyuddin) were ultimately what fell the Mahiaddin government; the state governments they control administrate the states with statistically lower incomes, education levels, diversity in political participation, and women’s rights; and in an upsetting but ultimately unsurprising development they have now (as part of the governmental ruling coalition, no less) received official thanks and congratulations for their particular brand of violent ignorance from the Taliban – and how are they rewarded? 3 Ministers (including rewarding the same Takiyuddin that received a royal rebuke from HM the YDPA for misleading the House with the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources) and 5 Deputy Ministers. Small wonder they would like everyone to stop pointing out their mistakes and ‘just get on with governing for the rakyat’.
When Sabri’s Malaysian Family purports to want to bring the nation back towards “the prosperity we once enjoyed” whilst offering no discernible change in tack or course; the earnestness of the offer comes into serious question. The conception of prosperity favoured by Sabri and his ilk is and always will be at odds with PH’s purported vision of post-racial politics and a pluralistic, broadly secular Federation. The prosperity offered up is not one of widespread opportunity and equitable standards of living – it is one of deeply entrenched, neo-feudal networks of personal, kinship, and ethnic patronage. What is intended is a return to the old order, with all the structural inequities that go along with it; but with a new coat of democratic paint and feigned accountability. The Opposition would be wise to treat with utter skepticism any offer of bipartisanship forwarded by this new Prime Minister – they can and should be certain that their voters will.