I WATCHED a rerun of the sitcom Friends recently where Ross and Joey accidentally end up dating the same girl. They then try to win her affection by recounting increasingly embarrassing things about each other to her. “Ross was divorced three times!” yells Joey. “Joey eats his date’s food when she goes to the bathroom!” counters Ross. “Ross slept in the same bed with a monkey!” Joey retorts. They get so caught up in the insults they don’t even notice when the girl leaves in disgust at their antics.
It felt a bit like this with Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat (PR)’s antics in the recently concluded Hulu Selangor by-election.
“PR is just mad for power!”
“BN is in bed with the Israelis!”
“(Datuk) Zaid Ibrahim is a drinker and gambler!”
“P Kamalanathan is an Umno stooge — he kissed (Tan Sri) Muhyiddin Yassin’s hands!”
But amidst all the mud-slinging and grand campaign promises, I found myself asking, what should citizens really expect from their Member of Parliament (MP) and how come hardly anyone talked about that during the by-election period?
Roofs, bus fares, sugarcane juice
Hulu Selangor voters’ expectations of MPs puzzled me sometimes. “PR representatives didn’t fix my zinc roof when it blew off,” one voter said. “MIC didn’t help me get welfare support, my children have no bus fare to go to school,” another told me. “I voted for [Parti Keadilan Rakyat] last election but this election maybe not, because I applied for a loan to get a sugarcane juice extractor but I didn’t get it,” another voter reportedly complained.
Granted, these are bread and butter issues that directly affect voters’ lives, but is this a realistic expectation to have of our MPs and political parties? Are they supposed to be so directly involved with our lives — to fix our roofs, approve our loans and give our children bus fares? And are we supposed to be grateful to our government when it provides drains, roads, electricity and water? Who taught us as voters to expect handouts from the government and to be grateful for their “contributions” to the people who put them there in the first place?
Maybe our MPs should build our roofs too
Maybe for the average urban middle-class voter, things are different. Maybe bus fares and leaking roofs are not the main worries. But whether urban, rural or in-between, I think the mentality is similar, just that the demands may be different. Urban grouses would probably go like this: my MP should stop my neighbour’s illegal renovation; my MP should stop people stealing the steel grates in front of my house; my MP should give me contracts/licenses/”jalan” to do business.
Really. Why don’t we ask our MPs to do our laundry, clean our toilets and wash our dishes as well, while they’re at it?
Heard of Parliament?
MPs should do the bulk of their work in Parliament
Believe it or not, our MPs are supposed to do the bulk of their work in Parliament. As a nation, we need a government to think for the common good. To provide common facilities and form common policies that individual citizens may not think of in their instinct for self-preservation. Think of Parliament like a condominium management committee — the committee comes up with the rules which the condo office manager or management company (the government) then implements.
So in Parliament, MPs should be coming up with good rules, thinking at all times of the public interest. For national issues such as education, the environment, transport, defence, foreign policy, local government — our MPs should be in Parliament debating the merits and dangers of our nation’s laws and government policies.
In their debates they should ask basic questions. Who would lose out by this? Who benefits? Are the benefits long-term? Is it sustainable financially and environmentally? How much will it cost? Is the cost justified? Are there any vulnerable groups that we are missing out?
If they do not have time during Parliament sessions to discuss matters in detail, then select committees should be formed so that experts in the various fields can be consulted. If there is suspicion that policies have been badly implemented, then committee hearings should be held so that parliamentarians can question government ministers on what has gone wrong. And to top it all off, this should all be made public through free and independent media.
Theoretically, and I can only say theoretically because very little of any of this happens in Malaysia, this produces good governance, accountability, transparency and ultimately, stability and economic prosperity. When government ministers and departments are accountable to Parliament and the people, they would hopefully have more impetus to do their jobs properly. Perhaps then they might actually purchase submarines that work, find ways to clean drains, approve loans and licences efficiently, and so on. And, also theoretically, when all else fails, an independent judiciary is supposed to keep all these different stakeholders in check.
Vote for Santa Claus in your next by-election
Idealistic wishful thinking? Perhaps. But however we proceed, with a growing population and more mouths to feed, MPs and political parties can no longer play Santa Claus to the hundreds of thousands of voters they serve. The fact that they are still expected to do so demonstrates a serious breakdown of the system of governance. If MPs are meant to unclog drains, provide transport, grant land titles and approve hawker’s licences, it means the people who are supposed to be doing those jobs — contractors, local councils, government departments and ministries — aren’t doing it properly.
It’s time we let MPs focus on their jobs in Parliament, instead of just being our errand boys and girls. We should hold them accountable when they let laws pass which impact us and our environment negatively. We should question why they’re not abolishing repressive laws like the Internal Security Act or the Official Secrets Act.
Hulu Selangor voters don’t just need a new highway interchange, they need a functioning and affordable transportation system, which will only be put in place with a comprehensive transport policy. Their children don’t just need school bus fares, they need a good education policy that will ensure our best students become teachers, not our worst. They don’t just need loans and licences, they need an equitable economic policy that will ensure that those who can do the job will be able to earn a decent living.
No more begging
Whatever government we elect in the next general election, we cannot afford to perpetuate this handout mentality. It cannot be that nearly 50 years after the formation of Malaysia, Malaysians are still forced to go begging for scraps from the government’s handout table. It may be a shock to our overly-dependent system, but we need to choose a government that governs on principle, that would ultimately benefit us all. And if we don’t get it from either BN or PR, maybe it’s time to question why.
Maybe ultimately, we all get the government we deserve. For the reality is this — if you were that voter in Hulu Selangor with no bus fare for her children, and one side came and gave you money, wouldn’t you vote for that party too?
Ding Jo-Ann never realised how beautiful Hulu Selangor is until she covered her first by-election there.
Read previous Holding Court columns
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