Buencamino writes political commentary for Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in Business Mirror, May 3, 2006 edition, p. A10.
Awed by a recent meeting between Speaker Jose de Venecia and former Malaysian Premier Mahathir Mohamad, a columnist proclaimed a unicameral parliament dominated by one political party the greatest thing since sliced bread.
One advantage of a parliamentary system, he wrote, is the people cannot choose their leader directly. Presuming universal agreement that Mahathir was Malaysia’s greatest leader, he remarked, “If Malaysia had a presidential system of government, Mahathir might have never become its leader…this man could not win a popularity contest.”
He didn’t explain why choosing a nation’s leader through party caucuses was better than letting the people decide directly. I don’t blame him. I wouldn’t want to go on record calling the masa stupid either.
Anyway, hell-bent on proving the presidential system inferior, he fantasized about how Mahathir would have failed as a president. He wrote, “The legislature would have obstructed his most dramatic innovations. His team might have spent precious time and energy attending endless congressional investigations. Other aspirants to the top post might have constantly conspired to cause his failure or smear him in the public eye as a means to undercut his base of public support.”
He unwittingly revealed his low regard for Mahathir by placing him in a scenario more suited to the bumbling Mrs. Gloria Arroyo than, let’s say, a competent manager like Fidel Ramos who handled Congress and media quite smoothly.
The columnist recounted that Mahathir agreed with de Venecia “that a parliamentary system of government could work better in the Philippines because it ensures continuity in policy and the faster pace of approvals of development programs.”
The columnist scored brownie points with de Venecia for waxing philosophical about a strong party system, “A national project of achieving a modern economy is, after all, a task that is too large even for the greatest of leaders to undertake singularly. It is a task that requires the sustained effort that only a committed party can ensure.” He got a pat on the head from Mahathir with, “The dominant role played by the major party UMNO ensured continuity of policy perspectives independent of the fates of individual power-wielders;” And he got a check from me.
I fact-checked his “ensured continuity of policy perspectives” claim and discovered a glaring discontinuity in two of the biggest infrastructure projects approved during Mahathir’s premiership.
First, the proposed bridge to replace the causeway linking Johor Bahru and Singapore.
From the very start, Singapore, who would have to build half of the proposed bridge, showed no interest in the joint undertaking. Still, Malaysia, prodded by Mahathir’s willful leadership, proceeded with its half of the bridge and spent millions on a new immigration and customs complex.
Two weeks ago, Malaysia, now under Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s willful leadership, scrapped the project. It said Singapore might raise legal issues and Malaysia didn’t want to deal with lawsuits at the present time. Malaysia will now spend millions to connect the new complex to the old causeway.
Malaysians asked, “How can the same government controlled by the same coalition give good reasons for building the bridge one day and then give equally good reasons for scrapping it the next?”
The blithe response courtesy of F. Scott Fitzgerald is, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” The painful one is, “there is no ensured continuity of policy perspectives independent of the fates of individual power-wielders”
Another example, the most expensive infrastructure project in Malaysia’s history. A few days before he retired, Mahathir approved the construction of a multibillion dollar double-track railway traversing the length of peninsular Malaysia. It was a link in an ambitious plan by Asian and European leaders to connect Asia and Europe by rail via Singapore, Malaysia, Kunming (China) and Russian Siberia. Badawi cancelled the project within days of assuming the premiership. In so many words, his reason was, “no enough money, lah.”
One day Malaysia had money, a few days later it did not. Same cabinet. Same ruling coalition. Same parliament. Different power-wielder.
“Ensured continuity of policy perspectives independent of the fates of individual power-wielders?” That hound don’t hunt, Bubba.
Malaysia may look like the Philippines where a policy is announced one day only to be reversed the next. But there’s a big difference.
In Malaysia, there is no parliamentary oversight over the premier and his cabinet. The ruling coalition does not investigate itself. Once the cabinet decides, that’s it. The legislature will not hinder “the faster pace of approvals of development projects” because pork is the staple of that Muslim country’s ruling coalition.
Our dominant coalition says the system of checks and balances is a plague that has produced nothing but gridlock and endless investigations. They want to rid our politics of it. But is there really something wrong with checks and balances and oversight?
If politicians were angels there would be no need for any safeguards. But what if they were not?
Quick: Name ten angels in the ruling coalition. On second thought, one will suffice. And take as much time as you need.