Thursday, May 17, 2012

Internal Disagreements Are Like Ginseng

The Malaysian media encourages the misguided view that differences of opinion among members of political parties are unhealthy. Differing views are often portrayed as ‘squabbling’ or ‘spats’ or ‘rifts’ between members of the fraternity and indicative of weakness and disunity.

The contrary is true. Firstly, the ability to accept differing opinions is a sign of maturity in political parties or coalitions. Every person is unique, and that uniqueness includes our worldviews and of course, our opinions on matters. Even people in the most intimate of relationships do not agree on everything. Lovers fight. Married couples argue.

Some of us are more opinionated (or if you prefer, stubborn) than others, and when it comes to political parties... well you can expect a much higher concentration of strong-willed, passionate people who have their own take on things. The important thing is that the disagreements are in pursuit of a higher cause. The point of debate goes beyond demolishing the other person’s arguments and proving yours are better. Constructive debate and discourse which involves different viewpoints often results in a compromise that is agreeable to most. And isn’t that the point of a democracy - to reflect the views of the majority?

But even when the middle path is not taken, and when different factions with irreconcilable differences emerge, it can be for the better. Take for example the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States. The business-friendly  Republicans  believe people should be as free as possible to pursue their own best interests and government should play a minimal role in the economy. The Democrats have a broader social agenda and believe government is crucial in creating a fairer society.

Many would be surprised to learn that these polar-opposites today share the same roots in the Democratic-Republican Party founded by Thomas Jefferson. Differences of opinion within led to a schism in the 19th century. In the short term, this split certainly was destructive - the Democratic-Republican party ceased to exist.  But in the long term, it created two powerful parties that now dominate politics in the richest country in the world.

Disagreements still rumble internally within the parties. Just consider the race to be the Republican candidate for president of the United States. Rick Santorum, the previous front-runner who recently pulled out, is a very conservative Christian focused on social issues. Mitt Romney, the present front-runner, was a successful venture capitalist and presents a more moderate face. All the candidates have hotly debated, and indeed, attacked each other. But the internal competition creates a dynamic in which the strongest, most ‘winnable’ candidate survives, behind which the entire party then closes ranks.

Notice the difference between these mature parties and the immature, insecure ones in our country? The losing candidate is not demonised as a traitor to the party, ostracised or expelled. Neither does he storm off if a huff or retreat to sulk in a corner. He and his followers are absorbed back into the fold and continue the fight for the greater good as the party sees it. The different opinions expressed during the campaign are not viewed as detrimental or bad for the party. Rather, they are recognised for what they are: just different viewpoints. And the winning candidate may well absorb some of these viewpoints.

Rick Santorum.
This brings us to the very important point that successful political parties recognise constructive dissent as not only natural, but also necessary for rejuvenation. The Democratic and  Republican parties in the United States have now been in existence for nearly two hundred years. The fact that they are still relevant is testimony to their ability to absorb and accept new ideas and evolve to meet the changing needs and demands of the people they seek to govern. New ideas, and change, by definition, require freedom to dissent and debate. 

The real problem is not dissent. It is suppressing dissent. UMNO for example, has not seen a contest for its presidency for a quarter of a century - ever since the titanic battle in 1987 between Tunku Razaleigh and Dr Mahathir which lead to Tengku Razaleigh leaving UMNO to form Semangat 46 and a sycophantic culture developing in the new UMNO. Dr Mahathir recently admitted that UMNO faces a scarcity of competent leaders at the top[1].  The shortage is so severe that the UMNO now cannot find a woman capable enough to helm the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development.

Take this test yourself. Name the vibrant young leaders in UMNO, MCA and the MIC, the bulwarks of conformity and ‘unity’. Next, name the vibrant young leaders in DAP and PAS[2], the parties often portrayed by the mainstream media as riven by disagreements.

Differing opinions are simply a natural democratic process, are in the bigger picture constructive, and a mark of a mature, strong parties. So the next time the mainstream media highlights another intra-party ‘spat’ within Pakatan Rakyat, think of it as Ginseng- it is bitter-sweet but is natural and rejuvenating!

[1] Dr M: Field talented outsiders. The Star, 29 Mar 2012.
[2] We deliberately avoid mentioning PKR as it is a relatively young party.

Originally published on REFSA, an independent think tank's website.


  1. Still mulling over this post, but I just want to say: Rick Santorum is a huge douchebag.

    1. Hahah! Mitt Romney and his "oh I have two cadillacs" and bland personality doesn't compare too favourably either.