I think if everyone was a politician, society would be better off, and that is why I am in politics.
To many, joining politics means that you have to join a political party and fight for the party’s agenda. This is very simplistic and narrow definition of politics.
My understanding of politics is that “I become involved in discussing pertinent issues concerning my society, identifying the problems we face, finding the solutions and taking part in efforts to implement the solutions”.
Therefore, I dare say that everyone is a politician whether they realise it or not as they are part of society, and are making decisions that affect their lives.
We also live in an increasingly integrated world. This complicates further, what already is a complex organisation called society. Many issues appear at all times from everywhere; and they require attention by all of us. From issue such as dengue fever locally to major global issues such as the ISIL militants, all of which affects us if they are unresolved.
Stated differently, if we acknowledge that problems exist in society, and we actively try to solve or mitigate them, then we are officially politicians!
There are many platforms that enable us to join politics but becoming a member of a political party is the platform most often selected. I think – in Malaysia – we are obsessed with certain political figures and political parties. This obsession has hindered us from becoming a mature democracy where “great ideas” are valued more than “great individuals”. Great individuals may rise to power not because of their great ideas but because of the ‘systematic indoctrination process’ of their ‘greatness’ to not only party members but also to the masses through political parties.
It is no surprise that Malaysia’s senior politicians – because of their ‘greatness’ – do not give opportunities to the younger generation to take the lead. This obsession with certain political figures and parties also distorts the democratic process as we blindly think that the political figures and parties are always doing the right things. The actions coming from these political figures and parties should be judged solely based on the rationale of the ideas, and not from whom they come from. Also, it is very immature to think that one side is always wrong and the other always right. There are always two sides to a coin.
Lately, Malaysia’s civil society movement has grown in popularity and influence. The BERSIH movement which calls for free and fair elections in Malaysia initiated by various NGOs has proven how society can be united in demanding important changes without relying on political parties. With the expertise of their members and the support of the masses, the BERSIH movement managed to send a powerful message to the relevant parties to reform the electoral process.
I believe that civil society groups and movements are closer and friendlier towards the common people. This is because they are less hierarchical as compared to political parties. We have many civil society groups to choose from depending on our interests and objectives.Whenever there is a discussion about civil society movement, let’s not forget about the role of the university students (mahasiswa). To me, the mahasiswa are among the most ‘intellectually stimulated’ groups and have the capability to think critically and contribute good ideas in resolving challenges society faces.
I believe that the mahasiswa have the power to not only shape but craft public policies. Other than being analytical, their fresh perspectives are really needed to ensure the needs of the society are fulfilled as the voting demographics have changed since the last 13th general election. I really admire the spirit and courage of the mahasiswa who fought for students’ rights especially in abolishing the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (AUKU) which prohibits university students to get involved in ‘politics’.
I am very pleased that more Malaysians realise that they still can join politics, and become political, without joining political parties. There is nothing wrong in joining political parties but we need both entities – political parties and civil society – as they are complementary. But being in civil society does not mean that we should have no political stand. In fact, it is part of our personal liberty to have a political stand.
My understanding of a political stand is that “what we believe things should be rather than which political party we should vote during elections”. Fighting for the rights of the people is not just during the election period, but it is an ongoing struggle. I strongly believe that our political stand will become the guiding principles and act as ‘check and balance’in our lives. Most of the time, elected members of parliament do not honour their election promises or their parties’ agendas may restrict them in serving the people. This political stand must also be extended to civil society groups. Stated differently, our ultimate ‘political stand’ will guide us to always reflect on the actions we take so that we will not be contradicting the causes that we believe in; and give us the courage to pursue them despite the odds.
There are two types of politicians – to me – in this world; smart politicians and dumb politicians. What differs between them is their attitudes towards knowledge and information, and towards the freedom to discuss and debate. My main concern is that Malaysia will end up having many dumb politicians because there is no freedom to express ourselves in Malaysia, including the ability to access to knowledge and information. Freedom of speech and expression is restricted as debates are claimed ‘not to be in our culture’. The 2014 World Press Freedom Index ranked Malaysia’s press freedom at 147th out of 180 countries. The mainstream media is controlled by one side and hence we only get the information that one group wants people to think. One group is allowed to shout down others.
This however should not be a hindrance if we are engaged in and with our society as we can easily assess the information spread in the media through our own personal experiences in dealing with various issues in our daily lives, and in our society. Moreover, those shouting too are often in the fringe, and not in the mainstream of society.
All of us are politicians once the concept of politics is redefined in our minds. When we identify challenges and we participate in finding solutions, we are being political. We can be politicians and political without joining political parties. Mahasiswa – as being one of the most intellectually stimulated groups in society and who has the biggest stake in society – should be politicians and political. When politically active individuals and societies come together to define their problems, challenges and seek to find solutions (instead of relying on political parties), the outcomes will be better for the society.
Aslam Abd Jalil is an alumnus of the Australian National University. He was actively involved in university student groups such as the ANU International Students’ Department and the Malaysia Interest Group. Aslam is also passionate in championing the rights of asylum seekers’ and refugees’. He is currently pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy at the University of Malaya.