by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail 20 November 2015

Once in a while I’m invited to speak to students about politics, and usually I will start with a question on political philosophy: I ask them to imagine that they are citizens of a hypothetical country, and pose a few questions. What is the function of the government? Who should it be composed of and what makes them legitimate? What other institutions would you have in the country to make sure that the powers of government are properly executed and not abused?

In most cases it quickly becomes clear that most members of the class have never engaged in such a contemplative exercise before, so rather than shout out ideas (a difficult feat in itself) I have them hand in (“pass up” in Malaysian school parlance) their written answers. Typically, delivering quality education and healthcare are mentioned as duties of the government. Some will say transport, and a few will mention defence, foreign policy, security and the provision of law and order. Universally, students will say that the people in power should be well educated, morally and ethically sound besides having a democratic mandate (acknowledging there are different ways to achieve this). In terms of other institutions, older students might suggest the civil service, the courts and bodies like the electoral commission.

Curiously I often get asked back what the “right” answers are, and I explain that there are no “right” answers: disagreements about the appropriate role of government form a central plank of political debates in democracies around the world. Of course, I share my own views on the powers of government – the executive distinct from the legislative and judicial branches – divisions of responsibility especially in our federal system, but in this class exercise it is not for me to impose these views: the objective is to get young people to understand that citizens can ascertain – and determine – whether the right people have the right powers within the constitution, conventions and institutions that we have inherited.

Indeed, when I finally ask them to leave their hypothetical country and return to their own, the reactions are always interesting, ranging from bewilderment that things could conceivably be so different, or cynicism that the just-concluded intellectual exercise will forever remain just that. Of course, I point out that the battle for better governance is common to every democracy.

For some politicians, the above intellectual exercise will have no value at all. Those who enter politics motivated by power and self-enrichment will perceive ideas such as separation of powers and checks and balances as either barriers to be eradicated or mere material for soundbites. The advancement or perpetuation of their own position is the first priority, no matter the damage caused to the nation. This usually entails the creation of patron-client relationships (often involving the dishing out of contracts imbued with rent-seeking or the granting of exceptions to regulations), or appeals to particular constituencies to encourage a dependence on that politician. This in turn incentivises the government to expand further especially in the economic sphere, for it needs to secure the goodies to give out.

When a new industry or popular but as yet-unregulated service or product emerges we can see how some of the dynamics work: established players now under threat fight with the new players to get the political class to be on their side. Sometimes this can manifest itself in principled terms, but often there is obvious clientelism: consider the fight between the likes of Uber and Grabcar and taxi drivers, where the language of greater competition and efficiency clashes with pleas for protection. Or the ongoing debate on vaping, where disagreements between principles of freedom of choice and protecting public health are waylaid by those who frame the issue in terms of the economic well-being of the ethnically-defined suppliers of vaping paraphernalia.

In every sector of public policy, in history and the present time, in other countries and our own, you can find examples where sound and moral principles of governance conceived at the time of their establishment have been distorted and hijacked by similar phenomena. In some cases, it has become the predominant feature of national political and economic life.

It is also a feature of international agreements – in fact it is easier across borders, because leaders are not fighting for votes from the same people. Perhaps we will see some of it during the regional meetings we are hosting this week.

It might be bleak to think nothing can be done about this, when even charismatic and hopeful leaders seem to eventually succumb, rather than positively change, the status quo.

I can only hope that students I pose my questions to will think and eventually do differently.

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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS

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