By Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin. Published in The Malay Mail Online 21 October 2016

OCTOBER 21 — After the third and final US presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, citizens of the United States of America have under three weeks to cast their votes for the 538 members of the electoral college who will in turn elect their nation’s 45th President.

These debates drew record numbers of viewers, but did not reveal major shifts in terms of the contenders’ personalities, styles and policy ideas, which have been on display ever since they battled for their party’s nomination.

Of more impact were the leaks that emerged in the past few weeks: thousands of emails providing enemies of Clinton with material to attack her with (resulting in the resignation of the CEO of the Democratic National Committee), and recordings of Trump making offensive remarks about women, which have finally made a negative impact on his poll numbers, particularly among women and conservative Christians who traditionally vote Republican.

These odious views have finally crossed the line in an election where the choice is essentially between two packages where you don’t get to pick and choose the bits you like and don’t like. (It is taken for granted that Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will not get any electoral college votes, but that is a topic for another article.)

However, Trump has sprung remarkable surprises before to get this far and it is still a possibility that the next president of the US is someone who will not operate according to established norms. This is precisely why those who have lost faith in the system are attracted to him, to the extent that anything that emerges from the “establishment” is dismissed with no regard to evidence.

For us in Malaysia, how he conducts foreign policy could signal a drastic change of direction in the bilateral relationship, given his previous pronouncements against Muslims (which any leader of a Muslim-majority country cannot ignore), explicit views on China (likely to ratchet up conflict in the South China Sea) and desire to scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership (one issue on which he has been more consistent than Clinton, who spoke approvingly of it in the past).

Some argue that any president will be constrained by the machinery surrounding the office, but Trump seems determined to break with that tradition. Indeed, his candidacy has been condemned by those who would not normally comment on another country’s election, such as the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner.

When I lived in Washington DC in 2005-2006, and toured the country coast-to-coast during my Eisenhower Fellowship in 2013 (which I wrote about), I observed many of the divisions and fault lines afflicting the United States, and the intensely polarised nature of this contest is commensurate with many of the conversations that I remember.  No American I know is proud of the way this campaign has been going, and there is alarm over the damaged state of their democracy.

Although their Declaration of Independence (whose text provided the backdrop to all three debates) and Constitution are often explicitly invoked to justify the thoughts and actions of Americans, the fact that starkly different worldviews can result continues to baffle outsiders, especially when the cause of the division is an issue which simply isn’t a priority in most other parts of the world, such as gun ownership.

Indeed, one reader remarked that the various observations I made about reclaiming our Federal Constitution last week are applicable to many older and “more advanced” democracies, especially the United States.  That may be true, but that should never be used an excuse to not try and improve ourselves.

To say “others are worse” in response to criticism of oneself will never lead to self-improvement — and it is most damaging when children are taught to have this attitude.

So as we try to become a better democracy albeit on our own terms, we must learn the lessons provided by the experience of others. Already, you can find Malaysians whose conceptions of what it means to be a Malaysian bear little resemblance to each other. Already, you can find demagogues who spew racist and sexist remarks with no respect for norms or facts – maybe such a person might become Prime Minister one day.  And already, misinterpreters of the constitution seek to alter the very foundations on which this country was built.

The longer we wait to resolve these different understandings, the harder it will be to do so. The polarisation in the United States has been evident throughout the presidential campaign and its result will certainly affect us in Malaysia. But we should not wait to see how they resolve it before attempting to resolve ours.

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