I can’t fit in UMNO: Marina Mahathir

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A question I’m often asked these days is, why don’t I enter politics and why don’t I stand for elections? It always puzzles me when I’m asked this because it’s not a question that I ever entertain myself. So for people to even think of it is something I find curious.

But I suppose I shouldn’t be. I come from a ‘political’ family, apparently, and for many people, it is only ‘natural’ to go into the ‘family business’, given that other ‘political families’ have done the same. But what most don’t understand is that in my family, it is not at all natural. If my parents had their way, all their children would be doctors because that’s their real wish for us. But none of us did. They left us to decide for ourselves what we wanted to do, hence we all wound up doing anything but medicine.

Nor was there much encouragement to go into politics. My father doesn’t happen to believe in dynastic politics so he never encouraged us to enter the field, certainly not while he was in office. That’s why my brother Mukhriz didn’t join until after Dad stood down. We don’t as a rule huddle as a family to talk about political strategy of any kind, though of course as people who are aware of current affairs, we do talk about what is going on around us on the rare occasions that we get together. And believe me, it’s a much more well-rounded conversation than you’d expect.

So there was never any talk about me going into politics or even joining any political party, which would naturally, I suppose, have been UMNO. Certainly my parents have never insisted I should, probably because they know me well enough to know that I won’t fit in. Neither did I think of it myself, having a natural aversion to any sort of political organisation, whichever side they may be on. Something about the need to always toe the party line, wear uniforms, sing party anthems etc turns me off. I’m one of those people who cannot stand dancing poco-poco for too long because I get impatient with the need to conform with everyone else. I prefer to boogie on my own.

So entering politics is something I’ve never considered. My only regret really is that in all the years that Dad was in office, I never ever went on the campaign trail during elections, not to campaign but to observe it from close quarters. I sort of feel that as a writer, I should have done that for the experience but I never wanted to at the time and didn’t really think of what I missed til Dad stepped down. Ah well, can’t turn back time now and yes, it’ll be a major omission in any autobiography I might one day write.

But lately I’ve had to analyse why people want me to go into politics. There are basically two categories of people who keep mentioning it. One lot are those who get very irritated with the many comments I make on the state of politics today. They think that if I want to comment on it then I should enter politics or butt out. By that they mean join a political party and stand for elections. The thing is I don’t find a single one of the political parties in Malaysia today at all appealing, whether in Barisan or in Pakatan. I think it’s because they are all filled with politicians.

Unfortunately politics today is pretty much a discredited occupation. Once upon a time it was a noble profession because people entered politics to fight for their fellow citizens. They wanted freedom, self-determination, the right to progress on their own terms. Politicians then came from professions who were in touch with the realities on the ground – teachers, doctors, lawyers, social workers.

Today we have to wonder what background some of our politicians have. Some don’t seem to have worked at a regular job at all, going almost directly from being student activist to national figure. Some may have worked before but seem to lack a basic grasp of the fundamentals of political representation and governance. Some have been there so long that they seem to have forgotten what life as an ordinary person is like.

If we had problems with our health, we would go to a professional who has done years and years of study to qualify to certain standards. This is important because we need to trust them in order to place ourselves in their care. Similarly we wouldn’t ask just anyone to design and build our homes, offices, roads etc. We would go to architects, engineers, contractors and others who have the sort of professional qualifications that would be required.

Yet when it comes to governing the country, these days we accept pretty low standards. We choose people with either little governing experience or qualifications which are often suspect. That’s partly because at the candidate level we don’t have a say as to who gets to stand for elections. We just vote for whoever is there on the slate. And really very often, as was the case in the last election for me, we really don’t know what makes these candidates worth voting for. We’re supposed to simply trust the party they come from. If that were all it takes to secure votes, why do parties talk about ‘winnable’ candidates? The candidate himself or herself does matter.

Perhaps we should institute some sort of exam for wannabe politicians and only allow them to stand for elections if they pass. Certainly the exam should include knowledge of the Federal Constitution and world affairs. Plus maybe a long essay on “why I would be good for this country.” Exam papers should be marked by a panel of ordinary citizens and results made public.

So one lot thinks I should enter politics because as an individual or as an NGO, I shouldn’t be talking about politics. I have a problem with that line of thinking because for one, why should I have any less qualifications than the lot that we have right now? And secondly, as Aung San Syu Kyii said, “even if you don’t like politics, politics will come to you.” Like it or not, politics affects everyone so we should all be able to have a say, any time, all the time and not just once every five years. Politics cannot be limited to ‘professional’ politicians from political parties only. After all, what they, the limited few, do affects the rest of us, the majority of the citizenry.

Then there’s the other lot who think I should enter politics because they like what I’ve been saying and doing all these years. Well, thank you but… no thanks. Firstly, as I said, I’m not about to join any political party and therefore if I ever stood, I’d be an independent. The impact of independents thus far has been pretty minimal. Standing for elections is a difficult and expensive business and there is no point, I think, in standing and in the unlikelihood of a win, being one of a tiny number of independents in Parliament. Against the behemoths that are our existing political parties, we’d just get drowned. Unless there are enough independents that they essentially form a third party which both sides need to court. But fat chance of that! (I did once on Twitter jokingly suggest forming a Common Sense Party, because that seemed to be the trait most lacking in our politicians across the board. Surprisingly many people said they would join it!)

In any case one needs to enter politics at a relatively young age in order to have the stamina for it. And I’m getting a bit long in the tooth for that I think.

So I kinda like being where I am, an independent observer of events. But I know I confuse people a lot, principally people who are so immersed in politics that they can only see things in black and white. Well there are some of us who prefer to stand on principles rather than politics. I’ve talked about hyperpartisanship before, where people on one side, by default, insist the other side is wrong because they are on the other,  and therefore ‘wrong’, side. I think all political parties are guilty of this, which is really a shame because then we, the electorate, get forgotten. Surely nobody can be totally wrong, or totally right all the time.

Standing on principle means that regardless of who, or what party they belong to, if they’re right, they’re right, if they’re wrong, they’re wrong. And if civil society ie NGOs, individuals, writers, artists and everyone else who don’t belong to political parties, is to have any credibility, then we should call it as it is. Our strength is in NOT being partisan.

Personally, my principle is that I will always support and help those who have no voice. Unfortunately, usually, though not always, the voiceless are the ones most ignored by those in power and even those who aspire to power. They don’t know anybody, have no money, have few outlets to have their grievances heard. Often they are scorned and stigmatised by society for being different. Yet I do believe that the true measure of a good government is how it takes care of the weakest segments of society, not the strongest.

I also do not understand injustice and inequality. My years at the Malaysian AIDS Council opened my eyes to a lot of both. As my ‘guru’, the late Dr Jonathan Mann, emphasised, one’s health is directly affected by one’s enjoyment of the basic human rights. The more rights you have, the better your health. And the opposite is also true.

So if you cannot have basic health care, your right to life, to health, to employment is jeopardised, if not totally violated. If you do not have the right to education, then again all your other basic rights are affected. All these rights are guaranteed not only under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also in our Federal Constitution. Therefore I think it should be the role of all of us, as well as politicians, to fight for those rights for everyone. And if our politicians don’t, then it is incumbent on civil society to call them out on it.
For me therefore, life is about principles. And trying to tell the truth is a great part of that. I had several people come up to me at open house and ask me why I have joined the opposition. I’m sure the oppos may be just as surprised as me to hear this! Apparently, joining the Bersih rally is tantamount to joining the opposition and these people believed it because some noisy people said so.

Well! That’s news to me! I went to the Bersih rally for all the reasons I said in my post about it. I do believe in clean and fair elections. Who on earth would want dirty and unfair ones? I’m sorry, that is beyond my comprehension. I also did not feel it right to remain in the safety of my home while so many young people I know, including my daughter, were risking being teargassed at the rally. My presence there doesn’t mean that I have thrown my lot in with those political parties in the opposition. I’m afraid I don’t particularly trust them because after all, they ARE politicians and by nature they’ll say anything to get a vote. They may sound good on some things but a good test, I find, is to check their attitudes towards women. Most of them are quite shaky or fail miserably on that score. (Of course I would welcome any election pledges to lift every single reservation on CEDAW for example but I don’t see anyone doing that yet…)

On the other hand, there are those who purport to work for the ruling government who do them no favours either. When they censor news, or worse, make them up or distort them, then they only make people angry. It is a mistake to think that the ordinary Malaysian is too dumb to see through all sorts of political machinations. And when you see the powerful unjustly attack the powerless, then the decent citizen’s natural inclination is to get indignant. It is beyond unseemly really when the most powerful people in the country see fit to call individuals all sorts of ugly names. For one thing, it makes them look dreadfully insecure.

This is therefore a plea for some common sense and decency to return to our political arena. Voters like me want to elect representatives who truly represent us and our concerns, are regular people with good values and are nice to everyone, even those they don’t feel naturally comfortable with. We want people who respect every citizen in this country and who understand that everyone has the same rights under the Federal Constitution, with some exceptions (okay, it’s there in the Constitution, let’s not deny that). And we want gracious and magnanimous people who, if they lose, will reflect humbly on what they could have done better and not go all out to sabotage winners.

We want leaders who realise that freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are among the rights they need to protect, not curb. We need leaders who have the guts to say so. We don’t want wishy-washy people.(And as a fine example of wishy-washiness and confusion, today the lawyers’ walk to protest the Peaceful Assembly Bill was itself protested at by others who didn’t seem to realise that with this new Bill, they too would be prohibited.)

And I think we want a stop to nonsensical statements by all parties, statements which seem more geared to getting headlines than about real well-thought-out policy on real issues, not manufactured ones. People, there’s a global economic disaster looming!!

Perhaps for the coming elections, instead of our political parties or coalitions issuing manifestos on what they will do for us, we the voters should issue a people’s manifesto on what we want from whichever coalition that wins. A list of demands which, if they want our vote, they must promise to fulfil. In other words, WE set the agenda. Then they can compete for our votes. And let’s make it clear that our votes cannot be bought with money. We are just way too expensive for any amount of money.

So for anyone who thinks I’m on this side or that side, make no mistake: I’m terribly snotty about the company I keep. And thus far, there are truly very few people who imagine themselves our leaders who I could stand to sit down at dinner with. I do think however that there are lots of decent people lower down the scale, those who are genuinely progressive and sincere but who are perhaps suppressed by the perennial need to toe the line. And that’s a real pity because it’s all of us who lose in the end.

By: Marina Mahathir