22 May 2018

What was the political compact between UMNO, PAP, and the people?

A democratic and liberal housecleaning is possible in Malaya

Having won an unprecedented election, Tun Dr Mahathir's new administration continues to signal its intention to prosecute Najib and his cronies over 1MDB, and investigate the state agencies that protected Najib and his cronies. From his pronouncements so far, it appears Malaysia's transition to from Barisan Nasional to Pakatan Harapan will be achieved, in defiance of popular expectations, without:

i. ruthlessly and undemocratically oppressing the former ruling coalition;
ii. cannibalising the partisan grassroots and patronage networks of the former ruling coalition;
iii. taking over the politically co-opted civil service.

These popular expectations are similar, if not identical to the narrative in Singapore, that in the event of a "freak election result", the new ruling party or coalition is expected to do all 3 (especially take over the openly partisan government-policy-friendly People's Association) and turn itself into a new People's Action Party. The subtext of this narrative: Better vote the PAP that you know, rather than an opposition who will betray its own democratic values and morph into the PAP rather messily.

Singapore and Malaysia: Even less dissimilar than Vulcans and Romulans!
For Dr Mahathir to achieve a transition without turning Pakatan into a new BN would be an achievement not only for Malaysia but Singapore as well, given how both countries continue to share a similar if not common culture.

Dr Mahathir's victory was only possible because the electorate decided that former prime minister Najib Razak's particular brand of corruption had broken BN's longstanding political compact on two counts: behaving badly (say, being spectacularly and narrowly corrupt and abusing the agencies of the state) while publicly failing to deliver key items (people really felt the pain from the inflation and public debt).

But what does the government supply in the Malayan political compact?

It is easy to see from self-gratifying behaviour when leaders have broken the compact. But what about the deliverables of the compact itself?

If presented with the disturbingly adjacent and anomalous positions of Singapore and Malaysian on the Ingelhart-Werzel cultural map, a student of historical sociology might propose that instead of seeing the two as far outliers from the "Confucian" and "Islamic" groupings, we should place India, Pakistan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Burma in a separate "former British East India" category, all incidentally occupying the narrow -1.0, -1.0 space. Said historical sociologist may argue that the similar if not common experience of than 2 centuries of British administration and decolonialisation have created a cultural and political similarity.

For Singapore and Malaysia, the birth of the modern political compact comes from their experience of post-war reconstruction. The end of the WW2 saw an immediate realisation that independence or divestment of Empire had to be given despite less than ideal conditions. Malaya had the best run and competent civil service in colonial Southeast Asia, but as United Nations observers pointed out, the people were too politically immature to govern themselves safely in 1945.

And for independence to be successful (at least to the British and their preferred post-colonial successors), the 5 and 10-year post-war reconstruction plans under the British Military Administration and its civilian successors had to deliver Malayanisation. That meant not just the expulsion of the transitory population in Malaya (a point recognised by the earlier UN report), but the continuation of British and Commonwealth grand interests and economic policy under a local administration and workforce. That could only be done by providing sensible social welfare (mostly in the form of affordable, standardised mass housing and healthcare), sufficient education, and create a modern industrialising economy. Failing which, the decolonialisation project would end in Mugabean chaos or a communist regime taking control of the industrial prize of Malaya. It helped that these were also the same things that citizens in Malaya told the BMA and the Social Welfare Department they wanted in several immediate postwar surveys.

Consequently, the political compact in both Singapore and Malaysia are the same: affordable mass housing (that would remain affordable for later generations), creating a native middle class and professional class through education (that would be gainfully employed in a native-controlled economy), and sharing with the people the fruits of a well-managed resource-rich and geographically strategic economy.

Likewise, the political leadership in Singapore and Malaysia are extremely sensitive to the same things: popular fears about the escalating costs of public housing, an education system that is failing future generations of workers, and an economy that is failing to deliver jobs and security to the people. In Singapore, these fears have put policy reversals for a largely immigrant-centric population plan, a moratorium on mass housing construction prior to GE2011, and sparked several rounds of economic restructuring talks and feedback sessions.

One more thing, perhaps the most important

While the Philippines had the highest GDP, it was Malaya had the best run civil service and the potentially richest economy in Southeast Asia (the British planned decolonialism and independence on the back of an expected postwar tin and rubber boom). This provides the final piece of the political compact between the political leaders of Singapore, Malaysia, and their people, beyond the deliverables that are expected, beyond the particular bad behaviour that cannot be tolerated.

In Singapore: The PAP has its mandate so long as Singapore is the least worst country in Southeast Asia.

In Malaysia: BN has its mandate so long as Malaysia is the least worst country in Southeast Asia, aside from Singapore.

So even if the People's Action Party should pull its socks together in the next two years, so long as Tun Dr Mahathir creates a post-BN Malaysia that inspires hope, that threatens to have a brighter future than Singapore, the PAP could be in for a lot of trouble in the next polls.

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