by Tricia Yeoh. First published in the Sun 12 March 2014

AT the time of writing, it would be more than 60 hours since Malaysian air traffic control lost contact with the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. For the past few days, so many of us have desperately sought out bits of information to make sense of this mysterious disappearance, with very little explanation forthcoming as to what actually happened. We have to face the reality that even if the wreckage is eventually found, it will take months or even years to obtain and analyse the contents of the black box.

It never rains but pours, or so the saying goes.

This crisis comes at a time when Malaysia is facing multiple challenges. Especially for those living in the Klang Valley, this might feel like the straw that is about to break the camel’s back. What with the dry spell, haze, water rationing, dengue outbreak, monkey malaria cases, tussle over “Allah” and the court judgment that is likely to end opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s political career, reading the news can cause a migraine.

The tendencies in such a situation for us who feel thoroughly exasperated are multiple: one is to throw up our hands and consider migrating to another country. Second, to declare the oft-repeated phrase of “There’s too much politicking in this country. We should leave politics out of it.” The latter phrase was also used by one of the panellists at the National Economic Summit last week (which the prime minister officiated).

Leaving the problem behind is an easy way out and does not confront or resolve matters. And I suspect that by blaming “politicking”, many point to the playing-up of issues brought up by one side or the other to score public brownie points.

The truth is that it is impossible to “leave politics out” in Malaysia at the present, a country whose decision-making processes lie predominantly within the political structure itself. Many things we face on a daily basis have resulted from intervention from a leader or policymaker somewhere along the line. Politics has everything to do with this, and it is also why we keep turning to it when things are in need of reform, whether or not this ought to be the case.

When Malaysians suffer annually from haze as a result of fires in Indonesia, these are fires that burn on timber and oil palm plantations owned partly by Malaysian companies (some companies have been known to use fires for land clearing). While Indonesia is responsible for enforcing the law, Malaysian government-linked oil palm companies could also step up their monitoring of activities in Sumatra.

After all, this has a direct impact on our respiratory health back home.

When Selangor residents suffer from water rationing, this is a result of poorly managed water distribution, and indirectly of the still yet unresolved complex relationship between the private concessionaire (which was a political choice made by the then state government and federal government), the present state government and federal government.

Some have accused the present Selangor government of being at fault for the current water shortage, because the mentri besar had held off the Langat 2 construction amid water restructuring negotiations. But this claim is unsubstantiated; even under original plans, Langat 2 would not have been completed till 2016.

These two examples illustrate just how much politics has a role to play in things that affect us daily.

In fact, the political process is part and parcel of opening up democratic space. The conduct of elections is giving voice to each citizen equally to choose for oneself the country’s leadership. It is when the boundaries of this space are abused – which is often the case – and extended way past its rightful limits that it cannot be condoned.

It might be different in countries that have much stronger institutions, namely a free media, a robust and independent judiciary, a culture of civil society movements, and an independent civil service (including independent commissions and agencies that report to government). In those instances, each institution would be free to exercise its discretionary abilities as accorded to it, without any political interference. Citizens would also be able to claim recourse through alternative means, not just by lobbying their political representative as is the case in Malaysia.

This does not mean, of course, that those not in political positions should sit around and do nothing. On the contrary, the objective of removing political interference ought to be amplified by the actions of citizens through various means: advocating for a free media, supporting think-tanks and civil society, and strengthening public voice. But, until the day when political interference is minimised in institutional decision-making, we have to concede that politics is still one of the main routes through which most administrative change takes place.

So, as we face daily encumbrances, we should use all means available to us to make Malaysia a better place to live, but while equally acknowledging that politics is a perfectly legitimate way to push for change as long as it stays well within its limits as defined by the country’s laws.

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Tricia Yeoh is the COO of IDEAS

Image Credit: Gulf News

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