Formulating a Citizens’ Manifesto
Manifesto is defined in the Cambridge English Dictionary as “a written statement of the beliefs, aims, and policies of an organisation, especially a political party.” It serves as an action plan for the political party if it gains power and an advertisement for the party to attract votes in an election.
On the internet, I have come across 3 past manifestos:
- People’s Plan, part of The People’s Declaration updated 2008 for GE12 in Haris Ibrahim’s blog.
- Agenda for Concrete Reforms, drawn up by civil society leaders for GE13 as reported by Dr Kua Kia Soong in Malaysiakini.
- Buku Jingga, Pakatan Rakyat’s manifesto for GE13.
But it is clear none of them had any effect on the outcome of the General Election.
This is because Malaysian politics is personality driven (politician A is better than B) rather than policy driven (policy C is better than policy D). Instead of a manifesto, people use branding: UMNO is seen as racist, fighting for race, religion, and royalty; PAS as corruption free but Islamic; DAP as Chinese dominated and willing to stand up to UMNO and PAS; PKR as well-meaning but ineffective. Pakatan Rakyat in GE13 was seen as the party of change, but few bothered to read its manifesto, Buku Jingga, to find out exactly what changes were planned.
But GE14 needs to be different. I have argued in my article “How a united opposition can win GE14” that the only way a badly divided opposition can unite is by agreeing to govern for a limited time, say 1 year, to implement a limited, specific and agreed program (i.e. a manifesto) of eradicating corruption in government, institutional reform and repeal of oppressive laws. I termed this coalition Pakatan Sementara untuk Menyelamatkan Malaysia
A manifesto is needed to record the agreements made between the opposition parties. It is also needed to reassure and attract the votes of Malays who fear the opposition will be Chinese dominated and those who doubt the capabilities of the opposition.
As the coalition will only govern for only one year, its manifesto needs to focus on proposals for institutional reform and on proposals which can be implemented within one year.
Other reasons why manifestos have not had much effect in the past are as follows:
- They are too long. An election manifesto should not contain more than 15 to 20 items; otherwise voters will get bored and cannot remember what they have read.
- They are in the form of lists, which are boring to read.
- As Dr Kua Kia Soong quite rightly says: Malaysians demand concrete reforms, not sloppy slogans These manifestos mix up concrete proposals with aspirations. If you think the aspirations are too vague or impractical or unaffordable, you start to doubt the concrete proposals as well.
- Anwar is reported to have said, as he was led away from the High Court in Kuala Lumpur, that “the change in the country must be citizens’ effort and not a change dictated by the elites.” The Buku Jingga was drawn up by the political elite and the other two by NGO elites. The ordinary public was not involved.
- They were not joint efforts between political parties and civil society. There was no cross fertilization between the two.
If the public participates in drawing up a citizens’ manifesto, we can expect hundreds, if not thousands of suggestions. How can we filter this into the optimum 15 to 20 items needed for an election manifesto? We can with modern technology of the Internet and electronic databases. The diagram below shows the process.
Proposals from NGOs and the public are moderated by a civil society committee to filter out the impossible, the offensive and the seditious and categorised into repeal repressive laws, reform of Parliament/State Assembly, institutional reform, economy, ete. Proposals will also be classified into whether they can be implemented within 1 year, midterm or long term and into how much more work needs to be done before they can be implemented as follows:
Specific: no more work needs to be done, e.g. The Public Accounts Committee in Parliament and State Assemblies to be chaired by an Opposition Member
More work required: e.g. how should the Official Secrets Act be amended to make it fit for purpose. This work can be done by working groups set up by civil society.
Aspirational: e.g. Affordable public housing for the majority of Malaysians. This category refers to proposals which are thought unaffordable, vague (within what price range does affordable public housing fall?), no clear way or many different ways to achieve the objective. It will be left to the proposer to turn what Dr Kua calls “sloppy slogans” for reforms into concrete proposals.
NGO manifestos often include items like the following: “Form Independent Commission to study which repressive laws should be repealed”. I am against proposals of this nature, as the work can begin now and not wait until the election is won. It will enable the new government to hit the ground running.
Clicking any manifesto item in any category of the data base will bring up background information on that item, if it is available, as well as provide space for those interested or knowledgeable to leave their opinions, comments, criticisms and objections.
The Citizens’ Manifesto will form a pool of ideas from which political parties can select their manifestos not only for GE14 but for future elections to come. Civil society NGOs can recommend which items should be included in the manifestos of political parties.
The rakyat will be able to vote online for or against each proposal to be included in the Citizens’ Manifesto. They will also be able to vote for the top 10 most important items they want to be included in the Manifesto. This voting will enable political parties to gauge which items are popular with the public.
Thousands of ordinary people, academics, NGO leaders, and MPs will have ideas on how the country should be reformed. Some of these ideas are published in newspapers or online sites. Up till now, these ideas are here to-day and gone to-morrow. The Citizens’ Manifesto allows us to collect these ideas together in an easily accessible library for reference and development through debate and discussion.
Dr Ronnie Ooi