Diversity of thought is a natural phenomenon in any society. It is unavoidable because we are all victims of history. Our values are formed by our experience and no one experiences exactly the same life path. It is this uniqueness which leads to diversity of opinions as we utilize our differing values to form our worldview. Any honest difference must derive from this logic.
These days in Malaysian politics however, this particular reasoning is sorely lacking. Almost everywhere I turn I can find individuals taking up lines in the spirit of blind partisanship. It does not matter what the issue at hand is but to these individuals, their positions are determined before sufficient information is available and before debates and discussions take place earnestly. Even after all that have taken place, their opinions remain unmovable regardless of palatability of their positions.
Blind partisanship may be easy to spot. There are hints of that when various arguments thrown in support of a position are done only after the fact merely to justify it, rather organically reaching a solution by putting the building blocks first. Sometimes, even strong convincing primer reasoning is not in place. These are signs that the positions taken are not thought through thoroughly. There has to be a reason for that and the reason is likely a gross bias, possibly blind partisanship.
Worse, sometimes organic efforts to reach to a conclusion by considering all sides objectively are derided as biased by those subscribed to blind partisanship. This reminds me of a certain professor that I know from my undergraduate years who lamented about the political jabs he received from all sides for trying to tread the organic path. He said “the Left thinks we’re Right and the Right thinks we’re wrong” for merely suggesting for both sides to consider an issue more objectively and free of prejudice.
For individuals with blind partisanship, loyalty is an attribute regarded as higher than honesty. This is easily comprehensible especially because a political structure of a country like Malaysia takes the Westminster model as its basis. In that model, party unity in the legislative arm of government is crucial in determining who exactly leads the executive. It is this factor that fuels the threat and act of defection.
While strongly opposed to the change in Perak, PKR was equally fierce in supporting a change of federal government through defection in the Parliament. The morality of defection for PKR — as well as BN — suddenly changed when the situation switched. As I have opined previously, this indicates that the debate on political defection by these two political actors revolves merely around convenience and not around morality or conviction as many pretend to be so. Why? The path of convenience preserves party unity while conviction leads to division.
The importance of loyalty vis-à-vis honesty can further be impressed upon by making reference to 2006 when Shahrir Abdul Samad, an UMNO Member of Parliament for Johor Bahru as well as the chairman of Barisan Nasional Backbencher Club came under fire from his own party for supporting a motion moved by the Opposition against his fellow UMNO MP.
If the instance has been placed in an attic full of spider web, it is worth recalling that a former UMNO MP for Jasin, Melaka, Mohamad Said Yusof, allegedly requested for the customs authorities to “close one eye” to an illegal shipment of timber owned by his business. The then leader of the opposition, Lim Kit Siang, wanted for the Jasin MP to be referred to the House Committee of Rights and Privileges.
Shahrir Samad supported the motion and broke rank. Suddenly, the issue became a question of loyalty instead of the alleged wrongdoing of the Jasin MP. Shahrir Samad was harshly criticized because of his disloyalty and he eventually had to relinquish his chairmanship.
There are many other cases proving how loyalty and unity are embraced much closer than honesty and all of them show that nobody monopolizes blind partisanship. That much is certain.
It is this demand for unity and loyalty that suffocates the desire for honesty and this is why blind partisanship is so dangerous. It encourages groupthink while too easily dismisses the possibility that a partisan position might be wrong.
It cannot be overlooked that groupthink is one of those little things leading to fascism. In fascism, loyalty is ultimate and the slightest hint of disagreement is treason. Sure, the juxtaposition between blind partisanship and fascism may be a hyperbole but blind partisanship with political party or a community as a pillar is as much as dismissive of individual politics of self-empowerment as fascism. Blind partisanship contemptuously disrespects the ability of individuals to think as much as fascism, even if blind partisanship has miles to go before becoming fascism.
Yet, partisanship — including blind variety — is part democracy. But what a healthy liberal democratic society requires is idealistic partisanship based not on the concept of loyalty but rather on specific honest ideas held a priori where events become tests of ideals, not merely a chance to demonstrate one’s loyalty to an entity, or even an idea for that matter. A person may chance his or her position after experiencing those events but only if the change is organic. In other words, the change needs to be genuine and sincere. Blind partisanship gives no heed of that at all.
What we need instead are individuals who have the courage to stand up and call a spade a spade. What is wrong will always be wrong, regardless the perpetrator. If the question of right and wrong — and everything in between — is dependent on the identity of the perpetrator than the action and its context, then something is awfully wrong.
First published in The Malaysian Insider on February 16 2009.