“My kind of loyalty is loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its office holders.” — Mark Twain, (1835–1910), The Father of American Literature
By the time you read this, the Melaka state election would have gone by and the victors counted. This election was a very interesting contest because for the first time, the Election Commission decreed that the candidates and their supporters were not officially allowed the luxury of physical campaigning, and candidates’ walkabouts, long a political tradition, were prohibited due to the danger of a flare-up of Covid-19 infections. The last Sabah state election and its pandemic aftermath serves as a stark reminder that we are still not out of the woods yet.
Be that as it may, our Malaysian politicians proved a wily, if not really a clever lot. They studied for loopholes in the election guidelines, and many braved the fines imposed for such breaches to still “meet and greet” their constituents. Bad habits die hard.
They do so confident in the knowledge that during times of uncertainty, it is a leader’s role to bring order to chaos, calm nerves and manifest a non-anxious presence. They know that a seen leader builds confidence, the pandemic be damned.
So they built time into their busy days in Melaka to do walkabouts — letting their team and constituents see them on the streets and at public food stalls served as an instant stress reliever. Their presence served to remind the audience that they are not alone, and they will get through this together.
Now that this election is over, the looming question is whether the divisive climate in politics created during the process will change one iota. I imagine you too might doubt the ability of the Melaka government, or any government, to solve any problems the way things are going today.
You know as well as I do that our political parties are deeply divided on core issues such as solving the people’s mounting debts, stalled economic growth and a growing racial divide. If our elected officials keep doing things the same way, nothing will change.
Albert Einstein hit the nail on the head when he said, “You cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it.” Now is the time for self-examination and self-reflection to launch the changes that will drive transformation, not just in historical Melaka but in our whole country.
I believe our elected politicians have the power to make positive changes for our country if they are willing to work together. To do that, they must dispense with what psychologists call “confirmation bias”.
“Confirmation bias” occurs when you seek to confirm what you believe, so much so that you miss anything that does not align with your beliefs.
It takes self-awareness to recognise your confirmation bias, and then discipline to actively look for examples that go against your beliefs. Checking confirmation bias at the door, and looking for ways to connect across parties, can lead to positive outcomes.
Our country faces big challenges with mounting debt and stalled economic growth, just to name a couple. I believe working together toward a common goal, like solving these challenges, does not require common beliefs, but it does require an open mind from both sides of the political divide. Productive conflict is all about finding better solutions and working together as a team with an open mind. The best decisions come when you bring all possible points of view to the table.
Channelling the late John Lennon, I can imagine an environment where it is possible to raise and discuss points of view and issues without offending or alienating one another. I know I am preaching when I say that listening to understand, rather than to defend one’s position, is key to engaging in productive conflict.
Political alignment for the sake of our beloved nation is possible if our politicians truly seek to understand different points of view and then partner together to find the best solutions for our country. Our neighbour Indonesia is a clear example of the success of such a mindset.
This is because, like you, I think how you think matters. If you do not have the right mindset, you will never make big things happen and distrust will close the door on unencumbered free thinking that leads to the best solutions.
Because your thoughts impact your actions, and how you act is contagious, it is important for our elected politicians to adopt a powerful positive mindset. The negativity we see today spreads like wildfire, and our elected officials can lead the change here. Choosing to believe that change is possible, that opposing political parties can work together, and trusting in positive intentions can ignite fresh solutions to the stubborn problems our country faces.
I believe there is hope yet for our country, mired as it now is in cronyism, corruption and inefficiency. What we sorely need now are leaders who are willing to step up to collaborate and find the common ground that will bring us the best solutions. If Einstein is right, perhaps it is time for our youth to take the stage and lead. They come with less baggage.
Zakie Shariff is executive chairman of Kiarafics Sdn Bhd, a strategy consulting group. He is also adjunct professor at the Faculty of Industrial Management, Universiti Malaysia Pahang.