Systems are only as good as the people who guard them
“What can you do to the system after forming the government in the next election to prevent a prime minister from abusing his power or extending his affluence to gain political mileage? How can you prevent the next prime minister from exercising ‘cash is king’ philosophy?”
These were the questions asked by one of the participants in the “What Say Youth” town hall held in Petaling Jaya, featuring two most recognisable political giants - Tun Dr Mahathir and Mr Lim Kit Siang. The town hall session attracted more than 200 young participants, who created an interesting interaction and heated atmosphere during the two-hour session.
The participant raised his concern that a change in system is necessary because if the current Prime Minister can abuse the system, so can the next Prime Minister.
Tun did not immediately provide the standard political answer which was the series of institutional reforms that were declared during “Himpunan Sayangi Malaysia Hapuskan Kleptokrasi” held last month and adopted in Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto. Afterall, the participants would probably have heard of them plenty of times. Tun instead explained that what brought us to where Malaysia is today was not the system, but the person in power. There is a system in place and it has been abused. Any effort or attempt to modify the system is futile if the person in power lack the integrity and will in upholding the spirit of the system, or would game the system for desired outcome.
It reminded me of a case study I came across in a book on corporate management: how do you create a security system that is most effective in safeguarding the most important document of your company? You can place your document in a vault, locked in an armored room, have numerous CCTV installed, biometric passcode required by two different individuals, and even a separate armed team patrolling the premise. However, a simple collusion with the personnel will easily get your hand on the document. The case study depicts a management limitation in a security system.
This is precisely what happened to Malaysia.
Our system of separation of powers i.e. the independence of judiciary, legislative and executive branch should have encouraged check and balance. Our laws should have prevented abuse of power. Our police force should have acted on or deterred any conduct that has criminal element. Our anti-corruption agency should have taken a more decisive stand on financial scandals. Our ministers in power should have been able to address the elephant in the room. Our government should have acted in the interest of people. Our opposition should have formed the government when they garnered 52% popularity vote. Why then did the system, if you think it did, fail?
Yes, Pakatan Harapan can enact a dozen more laws when they come to power. Yes, a couple more agencies can be formed to fight corruption. However all these will only go in vain if there is no political will in upholding the spirit of the system. This is because the key to success of any system is the people.
If we believe that no system is perfect, the reforms that Pakatan Harapan proposed and preached cannot be perfect as well. But it very much tells us what kind of government they aspire to become. This is exactly the difference between the current government and Pakatan Harapan - the government in waiting.
One key take-away from the exchange: a system is as good as the person who guards it. If the person is corrupt, the system becomes corrupted.