by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. A version was published as “The importance of checks and balances” in The Malay Mail 12 June 2015

When you don’t like a person or organisation, you are ever ready to express your disapproval when they do something you think is wrong. This can come in many forms: from mild criticism to outright condemnation, sarcastic quips or ingeniously produced YouTube clips based on video games. We have seen the whole gamut of such varieties in recent days, triggered primarily by the Prime Minister’s failure to turn up to a dialogue session organised by an NGO. Whatever the plausibility and consistency of the excuses for the premier’s non-materialisation (which have seen multiple permutations since that debacle last Friday), the damage to public perception has been significant judging from the volume of internet traffic on the issue.

Conversely, when you do like a person or organisation, or your own livelihood is linked to their fortunes, then expressing disapproval publicly is a difficult choice, even when you know they’ve probably made a mistake. However, over the last few weeks I have observed how continued news about the country’s most famous four-character alphanumeric acronym has led once ardent fans and supporters to exasperation and confidential withdrawals of support. When I speak to former politicians or members of tycoon families who might traditionally not be associated with political dethronement, it is clear that emerging facts and a simmering public mood is affecting their decision-making process as well. Sure, they won’t participate in any attacks, but they aren’t going to invest resources in defending anyone either.

As spectators of these attacks – possibly with a dose of Schadenfreude – it’s worth taking a step back to consider the extent of routine disrespect to leadership that is now so openly displayed. In any mature democracy it should be expected that sometimes criticism will cross into satire and even insult, but for a conservative society generally respectful of authority like Malaysia, the kind of material seen on social media and online portals now is unprecedented.

Yet one response to this phenomenon is blaming communications technology: “previous Prime Ministers didn’t have to deal with the Internet”. This implies firstly that one’s own actions have nothing to do with the criticisms, and furthermore that such things represent a new normal (since the Internet is here to stay). However, I suspect that the experience of many democracies will disprove the idea that there is a correlation between the Internet and greater criticisms of leaders (by proportion if not by volume, since praises of leaders can also appear online, sometimes invoking language which is even more offensive, although in a different way).

Furthermore, other decisions, taken to represent the administration’s attitudes to citizens, contribute to further discontent. Obviously natural disasters are less predictable than scheduled forums to address man-made disasters, but after the rare 6.0 magnitude earthquake in Sabah many might have expected the Prime Minister to go and visit the people affected. Instead, for the second time in six months, diplomacy was prioritised over immediately visiting the site of a natural disaster. I am sure both were difficult calculations, but one Sabahan told me they’re far more incensed by this delay than #Nothing2Hide.

Parties too make difficult calculations. Last week the voting delegates of PAS ejected nearly the entire moderate (“Erdogan” may no longer be valid as a synonym) faction, throwing the future of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition into question. I have had the pleasure of interacting with some of the moderates in recent years at dialogues and conferences. They have consistently been wheeled out by the party to strengthen engagement with urban and non-Muslim audiences, and now have swiftly and ungratefully been thrown out. It looks like the parties’ investment in them – and the reciprocal goodwill it received from sections of the public – has all but evaporated.

In Malaysian politics individuals and parties can disappoint and frustrate even those who hope so much from them, particularly upon the realisation that their stated objectives or attitudes were not what they claimed them to be. The more politically mature we become, the more citizens might realise that primarily depending on merely liking or disliking a person or organisation to make political choices is a bad idea. Those emotional connections, although temporary, may empower people to make drastic changes that can have lasting impacts.

That’s why our founding fathers, in their wisdom, gave us a constitution that prevented any one institution from gaining too much power. They understood the importance of checks and balances and expressed ideas of liberty and justice. For a time, leaders and parties on all sides (except the communists) took their cue from it. Not any more: the constitution’s degradation has degraded everyone.

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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS

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