“Unpopularity Contests” or What Type of Leaders Do We Deserve…


Who should sit here?

Partyforumseasia: Nurturing Good Political Leaders and Character Screening for Candidates – an Unusual Debate about “Presidential Material” in Singapore:

Foreign Policy, in: Battleground ’16, 15 September ( LINK ) calls it “Unpopularity Contest“. Election campaigns, in the US and elsewhere, come with a lot of dirty tricks, heaps of dubious funds, and increasingly dubious candidates. If they are popular, they are called populist, which is supposed to be a negative qualification but remains rather fuzzy one. The Trump-Clinton trumpclinton2competition is alienating sensible citizens who think that both do not deserve their vote,  as if the image of politicians and political parties was not bad enough already. Political gurus say it is not a crisis of democracy as such, but more people than ever are fed up with corruption, mud slinging, eternal infighting and bickering in and between the parties, and all too often impunity of their errant leaders.

In Southeast Asia, cultural traditions and social norms of avoiding open conflict and face-saving attitudes in difficult situations should provide a less antagonistic picture on the media surface. But the name of the game is power politics like everywhere else, sometimes skillfully hidden behind a smoke screen or the traditional shadow play dutertenajibscreen. Here are some examples:

– In Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak is fighting against the fallout of a huge financial scandal and tries to save his own skin as well as the patronage system on which the dominance of his ruling party is based. The electorate is more divided than ever.

– In the Philippines the new president Rodrigo Duterte, who won with a landslide margin in May, is already under heavy pressure from political enemies and human rights groups for his crime busting trademark and alleged personal participation in the extralegal killing of criminals and drug dealers.

– In Thailand a military coup has created a semblance of political and social calm after the earlier multi-party system had led to years of crippling controversy close to civil war.

– In Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian Peoples’Party are so insecure about their continuing grip on power that they are all out to destroy the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party with law suits, defamation and violent intimidation.

So far the regional backdrop. In stark contrast to the dominance of violent power struggles and aggression in the regional and international political arenas there is a small island state, sheltered from taifuns, earthquakes and other common natural disasters. Singapore‘s hegemonic People’s Action Party (PAP) enjoys uninterrupted rule since independence 51 years ago. Regular elections are sufficiently free and reasonably fair in terms of registration of parties and access to elections, though, like in other (British) First-Past-The-Post electoral systems the playing field is not even. But the dominance of the PAP against a splintered and weak opposition is also based on good governance, control of corruption, a carefully balanced communication strategy with growing participatory and nudging policy implementation, as well as the successful creation and maintenance of a conducive economic environment.

A review of the elected presidency, a widely ceremonial office but also called “the second key” because the president is supposed to safeguard the republic’s financial reserves against a potentially spendthrift and less responsible parliament is on the way. One of the reasons for a review are the eligibility requirements which would formally qualify many more candidates if not updated. In the 2011 election a former PAP member of parliament, running as an independent, came dangerously close to victory. The PAP’s candidate, President Tony Tan,  won with 745,693 votes against 738,311, a margin of 0.35 % only.

Singapore is now adopting many of the recommendations of the Constitutional Commission. An article in The Straits Times, 16 September, page A4, summarizes: “Potential presidential candidates will have their reputation, character and integrity assessed more stringently by the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC). (…) Applicants would also be required to list any “negative incidents”, such as disciplinary proceedings by professional bodies and market regulators in and out of Singapore, bankruptcy orders, personal protection orders for family violence and whether they have been the subject of legal proceedings of any sort.” The PEC will also be enlarged to six members, one from the private sector who will assess candidates without experience in the corporate world.

One may belittle these procedures as a luxury problem of a city state already known  for exceptionally good governance and cleanliness. But after a world-wide check of the political reality, dominated by too many aggressive and power hungry alpha males and females in leadership roles, caring about old fashioned personal qualities like character and integrity cannot be dismissed as naive. Ambition is necessary in politics, but especially in Southeast Asia’s predominant money-politics-model it can be more dangerous than we want.
Many political parties in the region would be well advised to think about character if they really care about their country and the citizens.


Reprint free of charge, copy requested!


Mixing the Cards Anew in Malaysia’s Power Game?

Partyforumseasia: Malaysia’s political landscape has seen enough dramatic maneuvers but the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has withstood the storms so far with the First-Past-The-Post election system and heavy gerrymandering in the narrowly won federal election in 2013, but also with the help of a widespread and costly patronage system. Prime Minister and UMNO President Najib Razak is under growing pressure with the 1MDB financial scandal after nearly 700 najib-under-pressuremillion US$ were found in his personal accounts. Few Malaysians are convinced that this money was a donation of the Saudi royal family when at the same time billions of Ringgit are missing in the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund. The dubious money flows are being investigated by several countries while the domestic clearance by a hand picked Attorney General are far from whitewashing the Prime Minister in the public perception. All the missing millions, and billions in the local currency, might signal emerging problems to maintain the patronage system. Many citizens see it anyway as appalling political corruption.

With the incarceration of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, once again on alleged sodomy grounds, UMNO and its dependent coalition parties looked like having achieved their  dream of splitting and emasculating the opposition. But they have also created a number of internal and external enemies. Among the sacked, resigned or retired UMNO members who are concerned about the future of party and country, one enemy is standing out: Mahathir Mohamad, Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003 and 91 years old, is probably the keenist and most influential political figure in the country to bring down the Prime Minister. Many accuse him of abuse of power and growing money politics during his own term, but many voters may now support his fight against Najib.

The new player: Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM)

Mahathir’s latest  maneuver is the formation of a new Malay-based party which has been registered in principle by the Registry of Societies (RoS) on September 8. Cleverly avoiding a popular uproar by denying them the registration, the RoS is not really facilitating the start of the new party.  It ruled that it cannot use the word Bersatu (United) in its name because there were already six parties or organizations with this name, ironically the ruling party UMNO or Pertubuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Bersatu in Malay… Full registration will only be possible when a changed name is acceptable.
The racial orientation of the new party has been criticized, but strategy-wise it is correct. UMNO as entrenched as it is in the rural Malay constituencies can only be defeated there. The Chinese and Indian minority parties will take care of the urban voters anyway.
Another shrewd maneuver is a surprise meeting between Mahathir and his former deputy and later victim Anwar Ibrahim. handshakeThe two have not met since Anwar’s sacking in 1998, but many believe that at least a strategic reconciliation and tactical alliance between the two is possible. The enemy of my enemy is my friend is a viable and common pattern in politics. Since the fall of PM Najib may trigger Anwar’s release from prison and his return into the political arena, the personal bitterness should be overcome. Anwar’s smile, handshake and their 45 minute tête-à-tête  discussion seem to signal that.

The noose around the Prime Minister’s neck looks like tightening with these domestic developments and the international financial investigations, but Najib and his faithful cronies will certainly fight on. As Partyforumseasia has argued before, they cannot concede defeat because a collapse of the patronage system would be more than a disaster for too many people involved.
PS (16.9.):
The Straits Times, Singapore,
reports that the boundaries of voting districts have been changed, which may indicate that PM Najib will call early elections before a new opposition coalition can regain strength: “The changes, so far, lend credence to the suspicion that the redistricting exercise will likely be at the opposition’s disadvantage,” said Merdeka Centre director Ibrahim Suffian. Most changes, he said, are to the states of Perak and Selangor – home to a large number of opposition lawmakers – where “significant changes make previously safe opposition seats become marginal”. LINK

For details on UMNO’s patronage system see:
Edmund Terence Gomez, Resisting the Fall: The Single Dominant Party, Policies and Elections in Malaysia, in: Journal of Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 46, 2016, issue 4, pp. 570-590.