Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser 26 March 2018

Malaysian political culture is really one of a kind, or “one kind one” as they say. Instead of the prospective Premiers of both coalitions gearing up to debate their policies on national television, we have all the Lesser Spotted Ah Bengs challenging each other to debates on side issues. As if Malaysians were interested in their petty squabbles rather than the Big Issues that confront the nation…

Debates between the leading candidates for the Presidency or Premiership in any general election campaign are the centerpiece in democratic elections worldwide. Malaysia seems to be the exception. Now, why is that?

Such debates help voters make informed choices and encourage candidates to focus on national policy issues rather than diversions such as scandals, personality, religion or ethnic loyalties. Candidate debates are dignified fora where the top leaders of two or more parties respond to questions posed by a moderator. Listeners and viewers can thus compare the candidates’ positions on issues. There are of course mutually agreed rules regarding response and speaking time as well as opportunities for rebuttals or follow-on questions.

Let the people judge who will make a better Premier

National televised debates are perhaps the only time during a campaign when candidates are together at the same time in the same place and give voters an opportunity to make proper comparisons between the two prospective leaders. They can then see what the prospective Premiers offer and how sincerely or passionately they can defend their ideas. In the absence of such a “live” public debate on key issues, Malaysian voters are left with a stream of selected communication that tends to focus on name-calling, allegations of scandals in partisan ceramahs and manifestoes in small print.

A televised public debate gives political rivals a chance to show that, despite their differences and disagreement on issues, they can treat each other with mutual respect. A debate also provides a chance for candidates to commit publicly to a peaceful election, including agreeing to accept election results and use nonviolent legal channels to resolve election disputes.

Debates Promote Accountability

A candidate’s statements, policy positions and campaign promise during the debate become part of the public record and once winning candidates take office, the people can hold them accountable by citing transcripts or press coverage of debates. Debates are increasingly seen as a benchmark of a healthy democracy in which an open, transparent election process exists respected by all and in which all candidates can compete equally.

Integrate Premier Debates into our electoral system

Isn’t it time Premier Debates were integrated into our electoral processes? Any attempt by any prospective Premiers to dodge such public scrutiny will show that he holds the public in contempt.

So let the Premier Debates begin. It’s what Malaysian democracy needs and what the Malaysian people deserve…

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