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Thinking Liberally

Tuesday, 13 February 2018 | MYT 12:00 AM

It’s high time for a shift to policy

THE date of GE14 has been on our minds for quite some time. Most analysts I know are suggesting that polling will likely take place in April or early May.

Political parties are clearly ramping up their efforts to woo voters. Ceramah are organised every night in various places across the country. These talks are quite exciting to watch.

In the absence of good stand-up comedy shows, the hypocrisy of some of our politicians is the next best thing, especially when they claim that their side monopolises everything that is good, while those who are not on their sides are the root of all evil. Isn’t it amusing that, in their eyes, everything is either black or white, with no shades of grey at all?

I suspect that as we get closer to GE14, race and religion will once again dominate the political discourse.

This is necessary because politicians from ethnic-based parties need to achieve immediate-term victories, while the long-term fate of this country is not the top priority.

Ensuring society is divided and sowing distrust between groups are the only way for ethnic- and religion-based parties to remain relevant in the modern world. If society rejects division, starts to trust each other unconditionally and opts for unity, these parties will become irrelevant.

I can be more specific. I have been studying Malay politics and Malay political parties in depth since March last year. In the many interviews and focus group discussions I’ve conducted, the most common issue brought up by the Malay voters is their fear of a Chinese “takeover”.

In the eyes of many Malays, the Chinese cannot be trusted because they want to remove Malay political control from the rubric of this country. Supposedly, the Chinese can only be trusted if they are subservient.

The impact of this sentiment is many-pronged. Umno and PAS will remain influential in constituencies with certain demographics without much contest. As a coalition, Pakatan Harapan must accept the Malay leadership provided by Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Pribumi), just like Barisan Nasional accepted the leadership of Umno.

Non-Malay parties in both BN and Pakatan must know what they can talk about and what they must avoid. The dividing lines may be invisible, but they exist. And, for the politicians who feel that they cannot win when debating policy and governance, their best strategy is to further embed the dividing lines.

Sadly for Malaysia, the divide-and-rule strategy is still the more successful one when it comes to political competition.

In fact, ethno-religious division is so rooted in the country today to the extent anyone who does not play the same game will find it very difficult to win.

My biggest fear is the damage created by this divisive strategy will be entrenched even further in our society as a consequence of what the politicians do to win in GE14.

But desperate politicians usually have no qualms about destroying relations between our multicultural groups so long as they can win in the immediate term.

Having said the above, I am glad that there is an increasing number of political leaders calling for debates that are more policy-oriented. If you listen to the formal speeches by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak over the last few weeks, you can sense the push towards policy. And many other politicians, from both sides, are following suit.

I also noticed that among the ideas gaining traction is the proposal to separate the roles of the Attorney-General from that of the Public Prosecutor.

Currently, there is a clear conflict of interest because the A-G is also the Public Prosecutor. The A-G holds absolute discretion in deciding whether to prosecute someone.

The A-G is also the chief legal adviser to the Government, which means the Government is his “client”. It is incredible that the defence lawyer also holds the power to decide if his own client should be taken to court.

I think this is among the most urgent changes that we need to make. The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) has been advocating this reform for more than three years now, and I am glad that more people have warmed up to the proposal. I hope political parties from both sides will now take it one step further and include this reform in their respective manifestos.

It is not difficult to make this change. The A-G should be a politician who is a member of the Cabinet.

He will continue to be chief legal adviser to the Government. The Prime Minister should appoint a trusted MP to this post. But the Public Prosecutor should be a different person, appointed from the legal or judicial system, or perhaps even a suitable senior civil servant.

The main point is, the Public Prosecutor should not be a political appointment, whereas the Attorney-General can be. That way, the Public Prosecutor has no master other than the rule of law.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my). The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.