Because of my politics — the libertarian kind — I always find representing the collective will as something hard to do. I would think of voting as a way of settling such matter but there is always something to disagree with and I am mindful of the times when I might find myself in the opposition camp. It is tough accepting the result that one disagrees with. Even in a democratic system we use to decide on things — at least a liberal democracy, the one I like — the power of the majority is always limited to secure the rights of the minority.
In a mature democratic society, we must accept the results of an election under normal circumstances. Win or lose, we need to respect the results for if we only respect it whenever we win, why would others respect it whenever they lose? Trust in democratic institutions would quickly evaporate into thin air that way.
But I think acceptance is conditional on the understanding that the winner would not change anything significant, or effectively changing the institutional structure of the country, after winning the election. We are not playing a modified Calvinball. We are deciding the direction of our society. The winner does not take all.
For instance, in Malaysia, if you want to abolish the office of the Agong, I think winning a general election alone is insufficient to do so, especially if the election is a divisive one. Or if the winner suddenly decides to do away with elections to become a pure dictatorship, then it is hard to respect the authority granted by the election to the aspiring dictator. You would need a strong consensus to do so.
I think the need for a strong consensus is especially important where there is no opportunity to undo a policy that fundamentally changes the structure of a country. Winning the simple majority vote is not enough a backing. A strong consensus does.
I am writing this because I am thinking of Scotland. Scotland tomorrow will vote on whether they would stay within the United Kingdom, or become independent. I think it is safe to say that there is little chance for a u-turn if Scotland becomes independent, and opinion polls show voters are divided right in the middle. There is no consensus among the stakeholders, the Scots.
I do not know much about Scottish politics and while I think I prefer Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom, I do not have a strong opinion on the matter. I am not a citizen, I have never been too far north of London and it is quite an effort for me to think of ways which a Scottish independence would affect me directly. So, my opinion matters less than a Scot’s.
But clearly, the referendum is a template to further separatist agenda all around the world peacefully. This is the mature way of doing things, not by throwing those with separatist sentiment into prison or by going to war.
Here, I think of Sabah within the Malaysian context. But also on a more general level, within the context of a new country.
A country where the 50%+1 votes for independence and the rest opposing it sounds like a country that is heading for a political disaster. There is little consensus to start with and the effort of building national institutions will be a big problem. How can you start when you disagree on the fundamentals at the very starting line?
If you had the consensus, then perhaps there would be a wide common ground to begin a new grand political project.
I wrote political disaster because I wonder, what would the 50%-1 resort to? Not everybody everywhere will conduct themselves in a peaceful way. At midnight Malaysian time, I am having trouble thinking and looking for examples. I wanted to use the Partition of India as one, but that might be stretching it since there was no voting. I looked through Wikipedia and I found the Partition of Bengal. While they voted in their legislative hall, I am too tired to read and make sense of it. I am so tired, I think I am making a lot of typos and grammatical mistakes more than usual. But in both cases, there were violence and even ugly population exchanges.
But I think the point I am making is that with such a large fraction of society, almost a majority even, disagreeing, you as a country will have recurring existential issues. It might not be violence but politically, I think there will be hostile exchanges and that will set you back.
Besides, would it not be utterly unfair for the 50%-1 to suddenly find themselves living in a different country that they do not want to be in? Such a new country will not begin with a clean slate. They will have a very large almost a majority fraction to appease. Again, it is not a case of winner takes all. The losers will form an important component of the new country.
I do not know what the “consensus benchmark” should be. All I know is that it has to be considerably higher than 50% but not too high as to make the referendum a joke. If 100% is a practical sign of consensus, then why bother have one? The 100% level risks a referendum its credibility, dishonestly tilting the results toward the status quo.
Two-thirds benchmark sounds reasonable to me only because it is the usual ratio used to amend the constitution in Malaysia. But I do not know. Finding a benchmark seems like an arbitrary exercise to me.
What I know is that in my ideal world, there need to be a strong consensus. In the context of Scotland, the need for a strong Yes before the Yes is actually implemented, and not merely a simple majority. But Scotland has agreed to their referendum and their benchmark. So they will have to live with it and I sincerely wish them all the best.
But for us Malaysians, if it ever comes to that somewhere in our federation, I think we need a higher benchmark. It has to be higher that 50%, beating some higher level signifying consensus. I think this is for the well-being of the almost majority in that state, and for the good of the Malaysian citizens, too.