Somewhere in Streatham, south of London earlier this year, I found myself slouching lazily on a couch watching the BBC with a friend and his still lazier cat. On television was the Egyptian revolution “live”, with protesters and government supporters throwing rocks at each other. Such was the lamentable state of Egypt that used to be the apex of human civilization not once, but twice. Its deeply flawed institutions had reduced Egypt into a state of anarchy.
“Don’t you find this impossible?” I think I asked my friend. “We know these protesters want Mubarak out but what about his supporters? Are their wishes less legitimate than those protesting on the streets?”
The reply came promptly, “The importance of a credible election. Credible elections are important in determining popular opinion. Nothing in Egypt has enough credibility or the competence to ascertain the popular opinion right now.”
The Arab Spring is an extreme example but it does highlight the importance of a working electoral system. It highlights the importance of individuals trusting a system to aggregate popular opinion fairly and peacefully.
For this reason, the effort at electoral reforms by Bersih is important. Some of its demands add transparency in the electoral process and transparency goes a long way in creating credibility.
Bersih, of course, is about electoral reforms but the question of confidence in institutions is really part of the larger trust deficit problem in Malaysia. The problem of trust deficit is this: a considerable portion of Malaysians distrusts the government. And they are not libertarians. Rather, they are part of the everyday people.
It does not matter whether that portion makes up the majority of Malaysian society or not. The point is that they are big enough that they cannot be ignored, or banned just like that. There is no place for an ostrich if the country plans to solve the deficit.
For Malaysia, distrust in public institutions will not degenerate to the deplorable level seen in the Arab world recently anytime soon. It is an exaggeration to say otherwise. That is a long way down the canyon. Yet, various other not-so-ideal things can happen with the lack of confidence in public institutions.
When the public distrusts the courts, the police and everything that is commonly understood as the typical uncontroversial functions of the state, the government will have a hard time doing its job.
Take distrust in the police, for example. Crime cannot be the responsibility of the police alone. Crime fighting requires co-operation from the public. In an overly distrusting environment, is there a reason for a person to aid the police? Be a witness for the police? Is there a reason for the person to report the occurrence of crime to the police? Is there a reason for the person to believe the police will protect them?
All that will see individuals investing in their security, taking resources away from more productive activities. They make redundant activities typically funded by taxes.
This is already happening. Drive around Petaling Jaya and other neighborhoods and one can see what effectively are gated communities. Residents are pooling their resources to hire private firms to secure their property.
It shows they are distrustful of the police. Or at least how they do not believe that the police are competent enough to serve them, the taxpayers. What, one might ask, is the point of paying taxes to support the police force when one has to employ private security firms to keep one’s house safe?
And just to be naughty, if there was enough trust between the public and the government, the government would not have to spend millions of public funds for public relations exercises. That money can better be spent elsewhere. Yet, in times of great skepticism, what would be wasteful during normal times could become a necessity to keep the government running.
It is good to keep a healthy dose of skepticism against the government and the state in general. Yet, there is some optimum level of skepticism before destructive cynicism sets in.
Quite unfortunately, the current government of Malaysia — the Abdullah and the Najib administrations alike — is too good at inculcating public cynicism against itself. Given how the government tries hard to erode the independence of public institutions, the government is undermining public confidence in public institutions.
Bersih is a modest effort at trying to ultimately restore credibility to public institutions. In its little way, it is an effort to tackle the wider trust deficit.
The Najib administration, however, disagrees and demonizes Bersih instead. Maybe that is not at all surprising. The flawed institutions of status quo benefit the incumbent. The administration and its fiercest supporters are happy with the status quo. In jargon-speak, they have captured the public institutions.