First published in Malaymail Online
By Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin, (c) 2016, Malay Mail Online (c) 2016
Like probably thousands of other Malaysians who were students overseas, I have been to some foreign cities (or little towns) more often than I have been to some Malaysian state capitals — but still, I have visited each of our states at least once, and there is only one federal territory left I need to visit (Labuan).
This week that situation looked starker for me when my usual British and Malaysian news sources reported widely on two election campaigns: For the mayor of London and Sarawak State Assembly (with the ongoing US presidential primaries providing regular punctuation marks).
Visiting an old home is always sentimental, but visiting during election time when everyone is discussing issues and candidates means thinking about these aspects of everyday life after years of having been away.
I moved to London as an undergraduate at the London School of Economics in 2000, the year Ken Livingstone became mayor, and I left in 2006, two years before Boris Johnson followed him to hold that office for eight years (however I did meet him when he was MP for Henley while I was working in the British House of Commons, and again when he visited Kuala Lumpur and Negri Sembilan as mayor in December 2014). By the time this is published, Londoners may have already elected his successor.
As I caught up with my friends who still live in London — a cross-section of people comprising those who live in the historic parts of Zone 1, the grimier (but quickly gentrifying) streets of Zone 2 or the leafier neighbourhoods of Zone 4 — it was not just reminiscing about good old times, but also hearing complaints about public transport and council tax.
These issues used to affect me very directly since I took the bus or tube almost every day and saw my fresh graduate income being sucked up regularly, so it was interesting to hear my friends of different ideological stripes chart how certain aspects have either improved or regressed, and explain why they are voting for a particular candidate (in almost all cases either Labour’s Sadiq Khan or the Conservatives’ Zac Goldsmith).
The mayor of London is the most powerful individually-elected political executive office in the United Kingdom (since the prime minister is of course determined by securing the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons), and so the candidates’ proposals and ideologies are keenly analysed.
Of course, it’s not just about those: The candidates are affected by wider ongoings in their respective parties too. The Labour Party has been embroiled in a row over antisemitism and the leadership of its left wing leader Jeremy Corbyn, while the Conservative Party which is in government nationally has been cleaved by divisions over Europe, with several members of the Cabinet openly attacking the prime minister’s campaign to stay in the European Union, instead supporting Britain’s exit (termed Brexit), ahead of a vote on the issue on June 23 which was necessitated by a previous manifesto commitment.
As a now visitor rather than a resident with a stake, I of course did not attempt (too much) to sway my friends’ convictions. But as the Malaysian media intensified its coverage of the Sarawak election during my time in London, I realised I felt equally disqualified from offering advice to Sarawakians.
I was not alone though, as I saw how peninsular acquaintances on both sides of the political divide reported their experiences of observing or campaigning on the ground on social media mostly with a palpable sense of enlightenment.
Alongside that, there have been numerous allegations of audacious vote-buying and abuse of administrative power that have been met with everything from outrage, nonchalance, grudging acceptance and gleeful approval.
For sure, the political parties contesting in that election also have distinct features in Sarawak separate from the peninsula. Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem has stated that 1MDB has nothing to do with Sarawak, while peninsular leaders of the Pakatan Harapan component parties have tried to mitigate the damage from failing to avoid contesting each other for six of the 82 state seats.
Like the chief executive of London compared to other British cities, the chief executive of Sarawak compared to other parts of Malaysia is unique: the incumbent enjoys more budget, more visibility, more autonomy.
And even if the expression of democratic practices might be different in both cases, the complex dynamic between the national leadership and the sub-unit resonate strongly with the idea that some, if not all, politics is local. Other major British cities already covet London’s powers, and other Malaysian states will no doubt look to how Sarawak’s new or renewed government does things.
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