Learning From The American Elections

M. Bakri Musa

The American election campaign is now in full swing although citizens will not cast their votes until November. In fact this presidential campaign cycle started right after the last general elections over three years ago. America seems to be in a perpetual campaign mode. One wonders when these elected public officials would have the time to perform the duties for which they were being elected.

I much prefer the Malaysian election cycle, modeled after the British, where the ruling party could call an election any time before its five-year mandate is over. Yes, it gives an unfair advantage to the ruling party, but it spares the country from degenerating into perpetual campaigning.

Malaysia has an election cycle comparable to the Americans in the elections of party – specifically UMNO – leaders. Since they would become the nation’s leaders, the benefits of the British system of national elections are somewhat diluted. While the country may not be in a perpetual campaign election mode, UMNO and its leaders are. Therein lies the problem. UMNO leaders are less interested in leading the country and attending to its myriad problems but more in ensuring their survival in the party’s leadership hierarchy.

During the last cycle of UMNO party elections, a number of ministers were chastened to learn that their positions as party leaders were threatened, and with that their chance of being appointed to plump governmental, including cabinet, positions. Hence the disgusting sights of ministers like Hishammuddin slavishly pandering to party members instead of paying attention to our deteriorating schools.

Decoupling Party From Governmental Positions

In my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I suggest one way of overcoming this blight by decoupling party from governmental positions. Apart from widening the talent pool, such a system would also diffuse power and create some semblance of a system of checks and balances. Both are severely lacking at present.

Currently, a Menteri Besar is not only the state’s chief executive but he also heads the party within the state, manages the state’s development corporations, as well as chairs the municipal council of the state capital.

A fast rising star in UMNO confided to me that she is giving up her elected and party positions to concentrate on her private business. She just could not do justice to her official duties while having to attend the numerous weddings and funerals of her constituents, as well as constantly humor petty party officials and members.

This is where the American system is superior. Cabinet secretaries (ministers) and other senior political appointees could concentrate fully on their official duties and not have to worry whether some political punk back in his home town would be scheming to usurp his party position.

An American president has a wide and deep talent pool to tap; he is not restricted to members of his own party. Contrast that to a Malaysian Prime Minister who is restricted not only to his party members but only those in top leadership positions. Consequently young party members are diverted not to developing fully their individual talent that could benefit their party and country but to clawing their way up the party system. The skills they learn and habits they acquire along the way are mainly the unsavory ones like brandishing their kerises and racial taunting. When they do reach the top levels in their party, they are reduced to being political animals of the worst type.

Consequently while America counts effective executives, accomplished professionals, and seasoned scholars as cabinet secretaries, Malaysian ministers are for the most part scheming and opportunistic politicians.

With decoupling and the resulting diffusion of power and greater accountability, ministers and other elected officials would now have to answer not only to the Prime Minister but also to other party leaders. This would effectively reduce the power and influence of the Prime Minister. If nothing else, this would minimize the current dangerous tendency of making the Prime Minister the country’s eleventh sultan.

The most important reason for decoupling is that the skills needed to win elections are not necessarily those needed to run an agency or department. In fact they are the very opposite.

Unfair Criticism of the Malaysian Model

An oft stated unfair criticism of the Malaysian electoral system is that it “disenfranchises” urban dwellers in favor of rural ones. The “one man one vote” mantra should be viewed as a statement of an ideal and not be read literally. With greater urbanization, an urban constituency of 100,000 would cover only a few square miles and be readily served by one Member of Parliament, while a similar sized rural constituency would cover hundreds of square miles, taxing the physical ability of its lone political representative

In America, the bastion of democracy, this “one-man-one-vote” rule applies at best only to the House of Representatives. California with the largest population has the largest contingent of Congressmen and women. With the Senate, while California has a population 70 times larger than Wyoming, the two have the same number of senators: two. Similarly, Alaska with a land mass 700 times that of Rhode Island and where you would need days if not weeks to go from one end to the other on a plane, yet the two states have the same number of senators. Meanwhile the District of Columbia with a population larger than Wyoming does not even have any Senate representation.

The Malaysian Senate, while not an elected body, is far more representative of Malaysian society than the United States Senate is of American. While a literal interpretation of the ideal of “one-man-one-vote” would make the Malaysian Senate non “democratic,” in reality and in perception, it is more representative of Malaysians.

Having a representative elected political body is not enough. We must also ensure that the election process be fair and accessible. Unfortunately America has little to offer Malaysia in this regard. Public debacles such as Florida’s “hanging chads,” obstacles to voter registrations, the stranglehold of the two-party system and its staggered primaries, and the endless campaigns run by professionals, have turned the public off politics. The decline in voter participation reflects this.

The Malaysian Elections Commission is determined to best its American counterpart by not being voter friendly. The worst part is that Malaysia prides itself in doing this.

Fortunately in America, once in a while there comes a candidate who is so inspiring, who makes ordinary citizens believe again in themselves and who appeals to their better side such that voters are galvanized once again to take part in the electoral process. We had that in the 1960s with Jack Kennedy, in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan, and today with Barack Obama.

I long for the day when the Malaysian political system would produce its own John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, or Barack Obama.

  1. #1 by mendela on Monday, 28 January 2008 - 10:47 pm

    One important thing Malaysian public need to do is to boycott the shameless “mainstream media” —- the mouthpiece of UMO and its cronies!

    The behaviour of such “mainstream media” is totally adsurd and outrageous!

  2. #2 by Jong on Monday, 28 January 2008 - 11:29 pm

    These “mainstream media” are bought up and now owned by political parties – umno, mca and mic so what do you expect? Of course the boss calls the shots. Even Astro is crony-owned.

    Name me one “mainstream media” that that the man on the street without any computer knowledge or internet access is able to read free from govt propaganda?

  3. #3 by BoycottLocalPapers on Tuesday, 29 January 2008 - 12:06 am

    I long for the day when the Malaysian political system would produce its own Martin Luther King.

    I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” – Martin Luther King.

    Too bad our nation does not have those creed.

  4. #4 by merdeka on Tuesday, 29 January 2008 - 12:19 am

    YB Lim,

    Please make sure that all these issues be printed out & distributed to rural folks with no internet access. They need to know more since mainstream media is not doing their job !!!!!!!!!!!

  5. #5 by iggy on Tuesday, 29 January 2008 - 2:12 am

    Indeed Obama has shown an excellent display of leadership and potential which our country should try to emulate.
    I am obviously an avid follower of their speeches.
    And I can say without a doubt, that Obama, Clinton or Edwards should try running in Malaysia.
    They’d open a big can o’ whoop ass on UMNO. And of course.. BN.

  6. #6 by sybreon on Tuesday, 29 January 2008 - 2:55 am

    I personally feel that our problem is that we don’t have any votable people in politics. Voting for someone just because you don’t want to vote for the other person is very sad. It’s disillusioned many people, particularly the young. Like the writer of this blog, I look forward to the day when I’d be able to vote for someone real, someone different.

    Anyway, read if you’d like to understand why some people like Obama. It’s unfortunate that we do not have his equivalent, here at home.

  7. #7 by Bigjoe on Tuesday, 29 January 2008 - 8:08 am

    I find it amazing that Mr. Bakri Musa can talk about election improvement/comparison with US, lives in the US, and he misses some major points and happenings. More amazing is how people fall in the same trap as the US people do.

    No doubt Obama represents a seminal shift and its important. But the other story that need to be told is the story of Ron Paul.

    Dr. Paul is a Republican candidate that is driven purely by grassroots aided by the internet selling a traditional message of Constitutional integrity and believe in freedom, if anything, the same core ills that plague our country more than just an unfair system. From nothing, he is now raising as much as US$12million/day (a record by a wide margin in history) largely over the internet and has come in 2nd in Nevada and should have won Louisiana. In a recent debate, he came in essentially even with the leader Mitch Romney in public polls.

    While Obama represents a lesson we all can learn and so does Hillary Clinton, its the message of Ron Paul that ultimately we must learn especially almost all the leadership of our political parties be it BN or the opposition.

    Ron Paul talks about the importance of the US constitution and its intention. It talks of small government, fiscal and monetary restraints, individual rights and responsibilities, building relationships vs. building empires.

    What is most startling to be about the story of Ron Paul is that when I think about it, the intention of our original constitution was NOT that different. Our founders did not really intend for our nation to be THAT different. In fact, I believe the aspirations were the same fundametally but had placed a greater burden on the future generation to do it. Ron Paul talk about how the Republican Party had betrayed its original ideology and how the founders of US would be ashamed of the country they had built. That applies even more so to us.

    While the story of Ron Paul would be hard to repeat in our government primarily because 1) we have a Parliamentary system and 2) the state controls all the media. It serves a lesson to us of what liberties we DON’T HAVE. That has been deprived from us, how far we have gone away from the intend of our original constitution and worst how much harder it is for us to go reverse it, to claim our rights back again.

    Americans are rediscovering the original ideals of their founders and have a system, while difficult, can sent that message to their leaders and actually make their leader do what they want. The worst part of our system is that we can’t do that, not without a lot more pain.

    This US election is pivotal, it will represent a seismic shift not just Obama and Clinton, but the larger message of Ron Paul will change America forever. New Technologies combined with the message of freedom has fundamentally change the relationship between voters and their leaders FOR the better. Its a new form of democracy and the countries that embraces it will be better off for it. The sad thing is we will not likely embrace it for a long long time as our politicians are unqualified to do so ALTHOUGH we probably need it more than Americans do.

  8. #8 by StevenT on Tuesday, 29 January 2008 - 8:10 am

    I’m a Malaysian student studying in California who is very active in US politics. I’ve been interning with various NGOs here helping to get Democrats into office and with huge success as seen in the 2006 elections (started my courier at the right time ^^!) I’ve also written a few articles for the Star Newspaper but i think that they are not published because it’s viewed too liberal. Here are my 2 takes on what’s wrong with our Opposition party. I’ve intended to write a long letter to DAP but could not find the time to complete as the Feb 5th election is very close and am therefore very busy.

    I find that our Opposition lacked news coverage. Though it’s pretty obvious why but there are many ways that we can do to improve our publicity to the general public. With DSL getting more popular now, and with the very many bloggers in Malaysia, the Opposition could improve their standing by making videos and posting them on youtube. I read in Teresa Kok’s blog about a MCA MP saying that ‘the rise of crime rate is showing the improvement in our economy’. Statements like this could be well publisized and making umcompetative seats to become competative. I’m sure that with enough publicity, that seat which the MP hold will become very tangible as i believe that the Chinese worry more about crime rate than equal rights. Just like what happened in the US 2 years ago, if enough coverage the video gets on youtube, it will be spilled over to the general media and therefore will gain free publicity.

    Next is the theme that our Opposition is carrying. Currently we are perceived as the anti-establisment party. If you want someone to make noise in Parliament, vote for the Opposition. We need to take this mentality out of the general public and more so out of our Opposition leaders themselves. The opposition has to stand for something? Currently the BN is just a party of a huge collection of various parties aim to please everyone in the nation. Pleasing everyone is impossible and therefore it is important for our Opposition to take a stand. One way of doing so is to actually draft policies and tell the public what we stand for. Framing is the key strategy in winning elections. Whoever that can framed the subject will have an edge over their oppoenents. Instead of arguing for equal rights, secular state, etc.. we should argue about states rights or what we call federalism. The malays are very favourable of federalism since that is their pride in our sejarah textbook. Have Keadilan making that their theme to win the Malay votes while DAP focusing on states rights to win the Chinese and Indian votes. With the right marketing, we can fight for both the state government and the federal government. This would bring more power to the people as the states will have more say. We could also attach key subjects such as improving our education with this argument. In Penang, you can tell the voters would they want someone from the east coast state having a stake of what we should study? or should we have the right to dictate what’s best for our kids instead? I can go on and on with this but i hope that you get my point.

    Privacy laws are important to the urban areas. And coincidently they are where our strongest supporters are. Thanks to the God given opportunity of our Health Minister, we should make this a campaign theme as well. Enacting privacy laws for our citizenship. No public officials such as cops, shariah guys, etc can barge into someone’s property without a warrant. This subject can also help us in ways such as Keadilan and PAS playing issues about the immoralty of the BN ppl, while DAP playing the issues of protecting our rights. By playing on both ends, the BN truely will not be able to please everyone.

    Lastly i would say that, other than creating a proper defination for the opposition party (such as socially liberal/ fiscally conservative etc) it is important to pair the right candidates to the right seats. As a Penangkia who is favorable to the Opposition party, me and at least my generation of English ed classmates are very infavorable of Lim Guan Eng personally coming to lead the fight in Penang. This is an issult to us that the DAP cannot find enough ideal candidates to take back Penang. The DAP made a bad bet in allying with PAS 2 elections ago. I just hope that the DAP will pair their candidates properly in this coming election.

  9. #9 by Bigjoe on Tuesday, 29 January 2008 - 8:20 am

    For story of Ron Paul


    You can listen to the latest message

    There are many youtube interviews that you can google to learn more but my favourite is

  10. #10 by Jimm on Tuesday, 29 January 2008 - 8:42 am

    We just cannot compare Malaysia with the States as we only have about 26 millions populations with another 7 millions of immigrants.
    Our government directly control all the civil servants welfare with public funds as to make sure that all of them will vote for BN in each GE.
    The entire system is only living for the ELITE group and only them.
    So, forget about sytem.
    Enjoy your living time in Malaysia as they are very few.
    Enjoy the latest box office – Lingamgate .. even Oscar winners also cannot compare with their acting skill dan scripts.

  11. #11 by oknyua on Tuesday, 29 January 2008 - 9:33 am

    M Bakri,
    I won’t dismiss the early days of Dr Mahathir as uninsipired. In his early M&M administration, the British wanted to borrow them. Dr M inspired us Malaysian and countries beyond our shores. The Arabs and third world countries looked up to him. Indian states send delegates to Malaysia and Singapore to learn from us.

    Today if you ask any average European, “Who is the Prime Minister of Malaysia?” The answer is still Dr Mahathir Mohamed.

    We only remember Dr. M for the gloom of his second half excesses.

  12. #12 by Jong on Tuesday, 29 January 2008 - 10:28 am

    Well, it’s always ‘new broom sweeps clean’! Look at our Snoozy PM, he looked and gave us the impression that he was all ready to jump in to clean up the system but after one or two arrests – a deputy minister and some ikan billis for corruption, it paused there and looks like it’s all forgotten. The APs corruption has also been swept under the carpet.

    Now he dares to ask for more time and new mandate this GE 2008 when he has not even delivered what he promised 4 years ago?!!!!

    He has to go. BN has to go. We have to make sure they GO!

  13. #13 by catharsis on Tuesday, 29 January 2008 - 7:24 pm

    Don’t for a minute think our leaders would look at the American Model to bench mark against. Remember this ……our leaders are at par with the world leaders.SSSSSSSSSSSSSH…….. lest we wake them up from their dream

  14. #14 by locoza on Tuesday, 29 January 2008 - 7:27 pm

    Wow, I don’t know where to start. How bout a quote from Bill Clinton.
    “Give me a break!”
    Now about the article, somewhere towards the end, the author actually mentioned,
    “We must also ensure that the election process be fair and accessible. Unfortunately America has little to offer Malaysia in this regard………….the endless campaigns run by professionals, have turned the public off politics. The decline in voter participation reflects this”

    My respond, Are you kidding me? The number Obama put on the charts in the South Carolina primary is cannot be overstated. American care about what is going on. Prominent leaders, educate the people. Senator Ted Kennedy’s speech endorsing Obama is one of the best ever heard. Obama’s victory speech is out of the world to say the least. Number of hits on Youtube is off the charts. Hope is in the air. Decline is participation? Think again.

    Malaysian politics? Hopeless. Not being voter friendly? Maintaining voters ignorance as a bliss? When United States of America is having a black man running for the Oval Office, we’re still fighting for our basic rights that’s on the constitution.

    Diverse line up candidates to lead the nation, the Americans are almost spoiled for choice. Barack, Hillary, Edwards, McCain, Ron Paul, Kucinich (dropped out), all offers multiple plans, structure and views. If each of this candidates were leaders of different nation in the world, things would be a whole lot different. Instead, we have Pak Lah leading the nation, and Samy Vellu representing the most oppressed community in Malaysia.

    So don’t even try to compare, let alone endorse Malaysian politics over Americans. It’s not even funny. These guys are seasoned pro and know what they’re doing.

  15. #15 by undergrad2 on Tuesday, 29 January 2008 - 8:32 pm


    The United States is what Malaysia is not and can never hope to be. It’s not hard to see that when one pitches a Parliamentary system of government against a Presidential system like what the US has.

    We never go to the polls to elect the Prime Minister like they do in the U.S. We go to the polls every five years to elect a party, and others to elect individuals. The Prime Minister is never elected by the electorate in Malaysia. His party is. The difference is the difference between the Westminster Model of Parliamentary and that of Washington’s Presidential system. The system prevents us from choosing the Prime Minister of our choice, but only the party of our choice. The result? We now have a Prime Minister who fancies himself as a feudal Malay ruler accountable only to his God, who rules by what he feels need to be done on the spur of the moment, whose vision is to have a vision and no more.

    We are a nation of different ethnicities, cultures and different religions but we have a Constitution which allows a role for a religion, privileges for the majority ethnic group and we have a Prime Minister whose de facto power exceeds that allowed him by the Constitution. We have a Parliament whose members act not to give voices to ordinary working class Malaysians, but those of their own and like their own. We have a Senate the existence of which we are made aware of only when our Prime Minister wants to short-circuit the political democratic process and bring in Made-in-Senate Ministers to handle certain portfolios.

    We have the trimmings of a democratic system of government but without its substance, a government which thinks it is accountable to the people only when it serves the interest of the party which runs it says so, a country where the concept of the neutrality of the civil service is but a joke. The doctrine of the separation of powers which to begin with does not work well in the Parliamentary system of government is further weakened by the activities of self-serving corrupt politicians whose vested interests ensure that the three branches of government remain fused.

    To expect an Obama to rise from among its current crop of politicians is like hoping to see Osama at the Gates of Paradise.

  16. #16 by ktteokt on Tuesday, 29 January 2008 - 9:42 pm

    We are a long way from what the Americans practise! A government which refuses to practice what i preaches is simply a hopeless and useless government!

  17. #17 by aiD_kamikuP on Tuesday, 29 January 2008 - 10:08 pm

    “To expect an Obama to rise from among its current crop of politicians is like hoping to see Osama at the Gates of Paradise.” – undergrad2

    True, but on the other hand people envy Osama that he has 72 virgins to lead him to paradise.

  18. #18 by DiaperHead on Tuesday, 29 January 2008 - 10:32 pm

    Why only 72? Anybody knows?

  19. #19 by alaneth on Tuesday, 29 January 2008 - 11:53 pm

    On the previous debate of the possibility of a Chinese becoming PM in Malaysia? “Technically, say if DAP wins……”

    Don’t even think of DAP,
    but here is a challenge – Can a Wanita UMNO member be a PM of Malaysia ?????

    On another thought, Benazir, Megawati can become PMs of Muslim countries.

    But in Taliban Afghanistan, Extremist Iran, can a woman be a PM???

    equate yourself…

  20. #20 by i-am-malaysian on Wednesday, 30 January 2008 - 12:28 pm

    I’m a student studying in the US, and I’ve learned a little bit about this country. I don’t know everything, but I have to say that to my personal opinion, Malaysia is far far far far from having a mature political system like what they have over here. It’s like comparing a broomstick to a Ferarri. You’re free to say which one is which.

    Seeing pathethic, insecure, child-like, overly-stupid UMNO and it’s long list of puppets – the EC, the police force, the maistream media, and the judiciary system – it’s truly heartbreaking. What’s more frustrating to me is that a lot of people in Malaysia doesn’t have Internet access especially in the kampungs, and even for those who DO have internet access, a lot of them do not even care to know about the goings-on. The Malays in the rural areas especially. It’s not that they don’t want to know, but when all they can read from is the govt-controlled newspapers, it is frustrating. It hurts more when I realize that I can’t do anything much about this.

    The US government is 100 times more transparent that the Malaysian government. Backed up with their checks and balance system, corruption could be kept at a very low level. There is also freedom of speech for media. And on top of that, their election process, although not perfect, is far far far cleaner than ours.

    Now, with the obviously manipulated EC, and no caretaker government some more? Although I will surely vote for the Opposition, I’m sorry YB Lim, but I just won’t be too optimistic about the final results.

    — i-am-malaysian a.k.a heartbroken

  21. #21 by aiD_kamikuP on Wednesday, 30 January 2008 - 9:09 pm

    DiaperHead says “Why only 72? Anybody knows?”

    I’m not a Muslim so I don’t know the reason for this number though I remember reading about it. I can’t recall where and since you asked, I did a bit of a search and found the following article an interesting read. I can’t do a cut & paste since article contains terms unacceptable in this blog.


    P/S No wonder such ‘rewards’ tempted many a closed minded youngster in various parts of the world today! If they do ever appear at the Gates, I’m sure they’ll regret it if they were to read the last few paras of this article there.

  22. #22 by laifoong on Wednesday, 30 January 2008 - 9:11 pm


    we don’t have to be a “student in the u.s.” to know all that you have said.

    u.s. is a matured democracy with a history of over 200 plus years. even spm student in malaysia knows that.

  23. #23 by DiaperHead on Thursday, 31 January 2008 - 1:55 am

    But McCain just said before he won the primary elections in Florida, that he’d follow Osama bin Laden to the Gates of Hell if needed. I’m confused. I’d have thought that Osama would be at the Gates of Paradise! Someone must have given him the wrong direction.

  24. #24 by aiD_kamikuP on Thursday, 31 January 2008 - 11:53 am

    It is understandable for McCain, a Vietnam war veteran shot down from his A-4 Skyhawk by a Soviet-made SA-2, to be fixated with the Soviet-made-AK47-weilding bearded guy and hence of his (McCain’s) determined pursuit. But whether it is for pain (as in Hell) or pleasure (as in Paradise) both Osama & McCain should be wary to now ponder on the virtues of 72 especially the #36 as in

  25. #25 by DarkHorse on Thursday, 31 January 2008 - 11:10 pm

    Well at to “whether virgins come with a warranty” the answer to that is “caveat emptor” Latin for buyer beware. So Osama beware! McCain be weary!

  26. #26 by DarkHorse on Thursday, 31 January 2008 - 11:12 pm

    As for the 72 year old virgin, my grandmother has something to say to that!

  27. #27 by aiD_kamikuP on Friday, 1 February 2008 - 9:35 am

    To spare her from having to explain the complexities of immaculate conception (no capitals here so I don’t blaspheme) or having to describe her bevy of heptogenarian Ursulas, some comments about this article found on another site might do.
    Go to the author’s website (his full name as one word dot com – and boy what a name!), scroll down to near the bottom of page and click on the link immediately beneath the link to “My 72 Questions to….”.
    My guess is McCain might learn something from the comments here in preparing his campaign trail for the Californian primaries.

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