To begin, a disclaimer. I don’t feel all that comfortable giving my opinions on the politics of a nation that isn’t my own. There are certain universal truths I will always promote and defend, even in foreign countries, but getting involved in a debate about an election seems beneath that. I want to be clear that I am forming my opinion on this election based on limited information. I have lived in Malaysia for a few years and had the chance to observe the Malaysian people and hear about the issues affecting the country, but none of that can substitute for living an entire life as a citizen of Malaysia. It’s rare for me to admit this, but I could be wrong.
My hope is that Malaysians will finally sweep the Barisan Nasional party out of power on Wednesday. Doing so would not only be the best thing for Malaysia at this point in time, it would also be the best thing for BN.
Allow me to explain.
For the majority of my life, I have considered myself to be a Republican in American politics. I think government should be small, and that the primary responsibility of taking care of people who are struggling rests with the people, not government. That’s generally what Republicans say they stand for.
Also for the majority of my life, I have resisted voting for Democrats like I would resist inviting a cockroach into my house. True, Republicans rarely do the right thing, which in my mind would be cutting government’s size, balancing budgets, and generally not interfering in people’s lives and businesses. But voting for a Democrat was orders of magnitude worse in my mind.
Looking back, philosophically that’s perhaps true. But in reality, the situation is more complex.
A Sports Analogy for GE14
If you’ve watched any sport for long enough, you’ve seen superstars who seem to carry the entire team on their backs. You’ve also most likely seen a superstar get overly confident and begin to make mental mistakes. Their hustle diminishes, and they become less effective or even detrimental to the success of the team.
Success without the occasional failure breeds laziness. When the situation gets bad enough, the superstar is sometimes benched in favor of an obviously inferior player. When that happens, there’s always a great deal of hand-wringing among fans and professional commentators.
What is the coach thinking taking out the best player on the team?
But the coach knows his players better than fans do. Letting a superstar know that he can and will be benched if he doesn’t perform well puts uncertainty in his mind—the same uncertainty that probably motivated the player to become so good in the first place.
This same story plays out with amazing predictability throughout all sports. Superstar player gets message, fixes his mindset, and returns to play as an improved version of his former self. He magically rediscovers his hustle and determination, and the entire team benefits. The coach is hailed as a brilliant leader of men.
An Example from American Politics
In local Arizona politics, one Republican politician dominated for over two decades. I mostly helped him dominate by casting votes for him for many years, even though I knew he had “lost his way” philosophically. He was no longer being careful with taxpayer money, and he had become dishonest and crude. He didn’t fit my idea of what a Republican should be, yet I continued to vote for him because the alternative—voting for a Democrat—was something I just couldn’t bring myself to do.
Then one election year, a friend of mine introduced me to the Democratic candidate in the race and I had the opportunity to ask him how he felt about certain local issues. His answers weren’t always what I wanted to hear, but it was clear to me that he was a decent and honest man with an open mind.
I decided to vote for him, and he eventually won (on the second attempt), knocking the Republican out of power after 23 years. The result has been that the office seems to be running better with fewer controversies, and it’s now possible for a better Republican to come in and compete in the next election.
I happened to be living in Malaysia during GE13 in 2013, which at the time was considered to be the biggest threat to Barisan Nasional finally losing power. During the election, I reasoned that BN winning would probably be the best thing for Malaysia. BN was obviously far from perfect, but Pakatan Rakyat, a coalition of parties that included Islamic hardliners from PAS and social democrats from DAP, seemed like too much to swallow.
And so, BN retained parliament and its Prime Minister.
Fast forward to 2018, and a new coalition, Pakatan Harapan, has been formed to take on Barisan Nasional. Leading the coalition is former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. I deem Dr. Mahathir to be an intelligent and decent man with his own history of corruption and megalomania that’s obviously concerning.
I think it’s safe to say these are two deeply flawed leaders representing two deeply flawed parties. The ideas of Pakatan Harapan are not significantly better (or different) than those of Barisan Nasional, and I doubt the direction of the country will immediately change if Pakatan Harapan takes over, but it needs to happen.
A Nature Analogy for the Election
No one wishes for a forest fire, but like everything else in the ecosystem, forest fires serve an essential purpose. Just about every year, parts of the forest in Arizona catch fire. We hate to see it, and we spend millions of dollars trying to put the fires out. But without the occasional fire, our forests would become less diverse and die out anyway.
Pine tree seeds are kept in hard cones that can stay attached to a tree for decades. There they’ll sit, closed up for years, with the seeds protected deep inside from the cold winter nights. A forest fire produces enough heat to cause the cones to pop and release their seeds onto the forest floor below. The nutrient-replenished post-fire soil is perfect for a young pine tree to sprout and begin the process of rebirth for the entire forest.
So, much as we hate to see forests burn, a forest fire is a necessary ingredient for maintaining a healthy forest.
Elections can seem a lot like forest fires. The losing party and its supporters wake up the next day feeling utterly devastated and listless. I’ve been there. But soon, they realize it’s not the end, and the progress-suffocating undergrowth that had been allowed to accumulate for decades on the forest floor has been cleared out. There’s suddenly space and motivation to begin again, armed with the priceless lessons that can only come by being scorched on occasion.
Malaysia needs a diversity of ideas to find solutions to complex problems. Decades of management by a single party, even if that party is the most competent, creates a stagnation of ideas.
A win for the opposition would remind politicians that the people’s support is not to be taken for granted. Similarly, it’d remind the people that sometimes a strategic benching is necessary for the good of the team in the long run.