In a country of leaders who would rather stay in power forever, having two resignations in one week must be disorienting. However, the resignations of Muhyiddin Yassin and Azalina Othman were not the same. There were procedural and substantive differences.
The former was constitutionally required to resign after losing majority, whereas the latter was not. The former received widespread public pressure to resign after months of failed governance, whereas the latter voluntarily did so without coercion.
Azalina’s resignation is timely because it forces us to reassess the meaning of power.
Power is useless if it is artificial
First, any powerful position is essentially useless if you deprive it of its core function. In her public statement, Azalinaexpressed this frustration, by saying that there were “institutional defects” in our parliamentary institutions that limited her ability to discharge her duty.
You could not blame her. Of the 17 months as deputy speaker, parliament only convened for less than 5 months, and for 7 months, it was suspended under the Emergency Proclamation. Even though a deputy speaker is paid 30% less than a speaker, dispensing your task only 30% of the time is still being overpaid.
But even if Parliament had convened as it should, the expectation of a deputy speaker to be rubber stamps for the government diminishes the deputy’s power. In the past, this meant limiting the opposition from speaking, booting them out of the august house or bulldozing every motion without proper review and debates.
Compare this to the United Kingdom where its elected MPs see impartiality as a non-negotiable characteristic of the speaker; requiring them to sever ties while their political parties are in speaker office. Even after they leave office, the speaker takes no part in party politics. John Bercow, a former speaker of the House of Parliament for 10 years, allowed himself to stand in the middle, often criticising the actions of members from his political party, eventually leaving the party altogether.
A deputy speaker who cannot discharge his/her duties well is essentially a powerless and glorified government runner.
Power is something you give, not something you keep
The second reassessment triggered by Azalina’s resignation is an understanding of the use of power. Would you call yourself powerful if you constantly feel under threat?
Both sides have tasted power, and no one has the right to claim they have done a good job in governing the country. Thus, a government should procure all the help possible to make sure they succeed. This means involving the opposition in the decision-making process, either by way of collaborative discussions in the Cabinet or opening maximum space for criticisms in parliament.
To ease the political pushback, governments could also imagine this as a tactical gain. Giving more power to the opposition might expose the opposition to more public scrutiny (thus more criticisms), and/or the government might look magnanimous in its collaborative approach, especially in a time when the public calls for it. A listening government that acts on constructive criticisms would also likely make better decisions, avoiding blind spots and delays, which were endemic in Muhyiddin’s insular government.
The index of a functioning democracy lies in how much you include the opposition in the process. We could start by providing the opposition with leadership positions (opposition as deputy speaker, committee chairs, and leader of opposition with ministerial ranking) and/or legislative involvements (all opposition members to sit in parliamentary committees according to portfolios).
A government of thin-majority does not become more powerful by jealously guarding the little power they have left. That is a fallacy. Instead, the thinner the majority, the more inclusive you have to be of your rivals. That is your strength – compromise is power.
Power as temporary
Finally, everyone should start thinking of the positions they hold as temporary. The fluid state of politics these days ought to remove the idea of permanence and guarantee, and that is a good thing.
UMNO understood how difficult it was to be in the opposition with no constituency funding or any special allocation to dispense their task as MPs. Constituency funding was so important that it became one of the main bargaining chips in the change of political allegiances. When PH went back into opposition, they also felt stifled by the lack of constituency allocation and the lack of parliamentary reform. They could not perform their task at their home base, nor could they perform their task in parliament.
When in power, neither UMNO nor PH could imaginethemselves ever going back into the opposition one day. GE14 and Sheraton Move were extraordinary; now, they are within our sphere of possibilities.
Ceding power to the opposition should not feel like you are conceding to your enemies. Instead, you should look at it as providing a lifeline to yourself by reducing the cost of your downfall.
50 years ago, Bob Dylan wrote a song that captures the chaotic nature of American society. Two lines are especially fitting: “The loser now will be later to win; the first one now will later be last”.
Concepts of co-governing and equal partnership should start playing a prominent role in our understanding of politics now. Because no one wins forever.