THE PREROGATIVE OF CHOICE

Posted on November 5, 2010

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This we have to admire about the more established democracies: that there is no monopoly about which party will form the government of any level. The two or more main parties or coalitions of parties have reasonable chance. The people are not saddled effectively with just one choice. In recent times, the world has witnessed a change of government in Britain and just days ago, the house of represenatives in the US has changed hands. Just two years after a very popular president was swept into office, congress is now in the hands of the opposition.

This should be the case in most things in life. An exception being family. We can of course choose who to marry or whether to marry at all. But we cannot choose which family we wish to be born in. This is of course because you can’t make choices before you have come into existence in the first place!

You go to a neighbourhood grocer’s and there is not just one brand of toothpaste or, for that matter, toothbrush. With multiple choices for any product or service, an alternative is available. So a decision becomes necessary on your part. It could be that you walk into a megastore of today with ten choices of anything and still only stick to one brand of anything. That’s your prerogative.

Choice is on the whole healthy for human beings. To have the prerogative of choice is what you and I must have.

Such a prerogative is not always extended to all. In fact, choices are limited and sometimes not possible for certain sections of the human race for reasons of poverty, for example. Having spent time working alongside poor communities, I have been able to witness for myself how and why poor people have few options in life let alone worry about what brand of toothpaste to use. Children of poor family walk to school on an empty stomach, arrive in school about two hours late and make little progress through tiredness and hunger. For them, which school to go to isn’t an option nor will it be their primary concern. Under such circumstances, parents will already do well if they can find a way to feed their children, put clean clothes on them and walk them to the only school for miles around just to arrive a little earlier.

In a consumer society like ours, we who can afford to care about multiple choices must also be circumscribe about what things and issues are more important than others. I won’t suffer much, for example, if my favourite brand of toothpaste, soap, soup, toilet tissue, instant noodles, shoes or socks isn’t available at times. I won’t die for lack of choices in such things for the simple reason that the differences between brands are not always very wide. Food is food, clothes are clothes, toothpaste is toothpaste and hopefully the gaps between branded goods are closing. For such everyday things and needs in life, the enterprising among us have found that sometimes the brandless, cheaper stuff turn out to be better. So among the choices we have, we can now also choose between the really expensive and the less expensive without too much loss of quality.

The prerogative of choice is important to human beings. This is especially true in the matter of choice of government.
Choice of government is very much more important. My branded toothpaste may last two weeks if I am sparing in my use of it. If I am not happy with this particular brand, I can change brand the next time I go to the store. With government, change is much more diffuclt and complex. The opportunity to change a government is not as easy as going to the nearest convenience store. An elected sitting government can by constitutional provision keep the power to govern for five long years at state or federal level. In Malaysia, for lack of alternative given the weakness of opposition fare, essentially the same party coalition has been in power for 53 years!

Nobody is suggesting that the Malaysian situation is like Myanmar or North Korea but, over the many years, we have been saddled with the same ruling coalition since independence and independence has become dependence. The message is that “You can’t trust anybody else but us” and “Change ruling party at your peril”. Never mind how this 53 rule has in many instances and in many ways impacted the country and culture and business in negative ways! There is no choice so “Better stick to the devil you know than the devil you don’t”.

Moreover, and even more important than the 53 years of continuous rule under the same party coalition, the tactics, antics and stunts used to ensure that power stays only with one team continues unabated and unashamedly. The same pattern remains every election: liberal use of catchy slogans, promises, liberal payouts of goodies up to the eve of polling day. It seems that an unfailing formula is working and winning regardless of what happens or not happen between elections.

Come on Malaysia, even in sports, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Chicago Bulls and Manchester United are no longer Number 1! Yet the game goes on in better state. It is because of higher standards of play, genius and fitness that the monopoly has come to an end and now that the stranglehold that former champions had on the prestigious titles have been loosened, we the sporting spectators can expect to see better matches and better returns for tickets we paid to enter the stadiums.

Time has come for change. Time to establish a two-party or two coalition system to provide Malaysians the preogative of choice they deserve. Time to show the powers that be that we cannot and will not depend only on them forever.

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Posted in: Perspective