The Missing Dimension: A Shadow Cabinet

Background

Since 2008, democratic rights, economic equity between gender and races, public participation and administrative accountability have had a profound effect on the thinking about both the process of development in Malaysia and the role of government in these processes. Views have changed. Faith in the government‘s ability to improve governance has slowly but surely diminished. Indeed, dominant- party developmental democratic state has ceased to be an attractive term in Malaysia. This is especially the case with the rise of the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR) to question about the distribution of the spoils of power; about the limits of public policies in this country; and the sovereignty of power in Malaysia-does it lie within the rulers or does it lie within the ballot box? The pursuit of change in the name of “reformation” has been the hallmark used by the opposition coalition to bring about justice, peace and equality for all.

Today, we see the possibility of some kind of solidarity being established between secularism and religiosity. Understandably, the success of the opposition coalition to mobilise political entities rooted in different politics of identity coming together as one, is far more pervasive than its limited failure upon which its manifesto is focused. The opposition coalition, formerly known as Barisan Alternatif, has long had the goal to secure the federal government, since its inception in 1999. By virtue of gaining 51% of the popular votes in the recent 13th General Election, the opposition coalition has a vital role to present to the citizens that is has a clear viable alternative to government. It is somehow perplexing that there is a lack of conceptual precision as to how the opposition coalition is going to govern Malaysia, should it be able to secure the federal government in the 14th General Election. From political perspectives, this limitation in definition is an attraction of support for the opposition coalition to take up the call to establish a shadow cabinet.

The Rationale of a Shadow Cabinet

Is “shadow cabinet” a necessity in Malaysia?

Punnetti defines shadow cabinet as “a group of leading figures of the opposition who organise itself in ways that bear comparison with government…this is done by modelling its structure on that the government by allocating portfolios to frontbench members…keeping a parliamentary check on government”.

Although there may be a consensus about what the opposition coalition mandate is, the fact of the matter is that the pragmatism of its ideals is far from settled. It is one of those essentially contested concepts whose precise ideology has yet to be spelled out and share with the public. Similar with the incumbent government, it would be problematic to speak of the opposition coalition exclusively as a single coherent actor without recognising the complexity of relationship within the different political parties. To say the least, Pakatan Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Pan- Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) are three entities whose motivations; structures; principles in actions, control of territory; cultural and ethnic dimensions are different. Most of these parties can be said aiming at geo-political stratification, where DAP has the Chinese population as its target group whilst PAS concentrates on the Muslim population. Neither of these parties has a clear cut strategy in governing at the national level, where multi-racial population is concerned. Theoretically, what is interesting here is that the DAP has generally enjoyed a reputation of employing secularism in its approach; and it has also clearly not conformed to many of the ideal characteristics of PAS Islamic state and bureaucracy. Should the opposition coalition come into power in the 14th Malaysian General Election, how would these parties compromise on their aforementioned differences in order to create policies that result in legislations?

Just as Edward Saidii (2001), abstract universalism is usually the universalism of one who happens to be most powerful. In this context, some points stand out as obvious. Citizens have yet to see how PKR, DAP and PAS can leave behind its cultural and religious differences and conform to this secular, universal space which is a “reformed Malaysia”, as proclaimed by the opposition coalition? Whose standard of reformation is to be dominantly employed? How is power to be equally shared among these different parties; and how would it look like in reality, for a country which is still being characterised by many forms of division including political divide, socio-economic divide, the rural urban divide and the ethnicity divide. Within the Federal Constitution, there is a spirit of accommodation which stresses on the idea of give and take. How would this translate into the basis of decision making processes relating to gender equality; banking laws; labour contracts; holistic education policy; poverty reduction strategies and so forth?

As it will become apparent by now, the need for a shadow cabinet cannot be denied. First, as Batemaniii (2008) claims, a shadow cabinet would give the opposition coalition a clear and identifiable mechanism to present itself to the citizens of Malaysia as the alternative to the government, if it were to become an incumbent government. It provides a framework for the different opposition parties to settle for minimum denominator when spelling out the practical details of policies; instead of emphasising the differences through abstract ideological principles and dogmas (Wong, 2008).

At the core of the orthodoxy that came to dominate Britain and Australian politics was the confident assertion that shadow cabinet is not simply desirable; but is fundamental for the role of opposition in parliamentary politics. Should the opposition coalition succeed in forming a new government in the 14th General Election, it is important to make a clear distinction between the process that lead up to and bring about transition to change, and the conditions to sustain for “change” on the other. The point here is that it is one thing for a “reformation” transition to take place; it is altogether another matter for a “reformed” nation to survive. So what could hold the opposition effectiveness in place? It is interesting to see, from an interpretive point of view, the ways in which boundaries are defined to seek agreement; what benchmarks are used for developing and evaluating options; and how the coalition come about in defining its legal obligations to an inter-party conflict? The shadow cabinet line up is therefore the most basic thing for the opposition coalition to establish for accountability, transparency and competency purposes, given that citizens are its primary constituency.

This is the call for the establishment of a shadow cabinet to hold the government to account, through constructive and healthy critique of its legislation, and policies through dialogues and questioning in parliaments. Shadow ministerial experience could build up a learning environment conducive for the opposition members to be familiarised with some forms of governing as incumbent government. In the long run, Malaysia will benefit from clear, constructive and healthy dialogues on the part of both the government and the opposition coalition in their negotiation with each other, should a shadow cabinet be held in place.

Conclusion

With an increase in the number of rallies organised by the opposition coalition to protest against the outcome of the 13th Malaysian General Election result, the challenge of national reconciliation is likely to increase in scale and complexity. Considering this, both the government and the opposition coalition will likely be called upon to assume greater responsibilities to reach on a common ground. This includes drawing together the necessary range of stakeholders to address both the underlying causes that have contributed to the new socio-political reality and the pre-conditions for sustaining reconciliation. These issues reinforce the potentially significant role that a shadow cabinet could provide in the oversight of both the opposition coalition and the government dealings’ with each other.

*Lynda Lim is Senior Policy Analyst at the Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS) in Malaysia. She has worked for UNICEF Indonesia, UNHCR Pakistan, UNHCR Egypt and UNFPA Timor-Leste. Lynda can be contacted at liml@cpps.org.my

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