Tuesday, September 16, 2008


As the law stands today, there is no legal impediment to elected members of parliament crossing over to a different political party or platform.

Attention is therefore switched to whether or not such crossovers are morally permissible.

There are those who oppose crossovers simply because of their unspoken fear of losing power, or that of a change in government. The worst kind are those who had in the past explicitly or implicitly supported previous crossovers when it suited them.

But there are also those, among whom many good people, who argue on ground of principle that political crossovers lack moral fibre. It is with these people that I wish to engage.

The ethical objection to crossovers may be expressed as follows. Since a parliamentarian had been elected, by a majority of his constituents, on a particular political ticket or platform; it is logical to suggest that those who had elected him, or at least some of them, might not have voted for him if he was contesting under a different ticket (such as that of the party to which he now wishes to cross). Hence, his mandate from the people might become questionable if he were to switch camp now. In short, we could never know for sure whether or not his original mandate would be renewed if, say, we were to have a re-election now with him standing on his new ticket. This is essentially why crossovers are thought to be morally objectionable, even for some who consider the likely consequences of such crossovers in our circumstances to be positive and beneficial to the people as a whole.

The moral dilemma involved is a real and difficult one. The solution to this dilemma, as I will propose in this article, cannot be correctly reached by merely pursuing a single straight-path approach, as has been done by some. This requires some explanation.

When considering controversial moral issues, it is sometimes easy, or even tempting, to overlook one or more of the following factors:

(a) That only very few ethical principles are absolute in nature. Most of them have exceptions. For instance, even killing can be morally justified if it is committed out of genuine self-defence.

(b) That many moral standards are not static. They evolve and change through time. It may, for example, be difficult for us to see autocratic rule as anything other than immoral, but at one time (and for a long period in world history) it was indeed not seen as immoral.

(c) That much of moral right or wrong is relative to both time and circumstances.

(d) That when judging the morality of an act, its consequences frequently have to be weighed against the consequence of its omission, and vice versa.

(e) That moral wrongs do come in different sizes. There are bigger wrongs and smaller wrongs. For example, rape is certainly far more deplorable than badmouthing someone, although both acts involve the violation of another person. This element becomes particularly important when there exist competing ethical considerations respecting the commission of an act as compared with its omission.

(f) That morality should not be considered in a vacuum or in abstract, but in the situational context of the relevant act. Few situations consist of just one single moral issue that is relevant. More often than not, there is a basket of multiple moral issues, some of them competing with one another, that needs to be weighed in together. A clear example would be when a group of armed men is pursuing a pregnant lady and they stop to ask an honest farmer in which direction that lady had run, and the farmer deliberately points to the opposite direction, believing that those men intend her harm. Surely in that situation no one should criticise the farmer as immoral for having lied, even if his suspicion of the motive of the armed men turns out to be misplaced.

(g) That the true purpose of a consideration of personal and interpersonal morality issues is not to determine or illustrate who is (or can be) holier than thou, but to suggest and guide people’s actions with the view to fostering a better society. Thus, a functional assessment of the moral value (or turpitude) of a particular act cannot be divorced from an examination of its possible impact on society, in both the long and short terms.

I shall refer to the above collectively as “the contextual factors”.

If one examines the issue of crossovers standing alone, free from the contextual factors, it is indeed logical to conclude that crossovers are morally suspect because there is the uncertainty as to whether or not a would-be party-hopper would continue to enjoy his original mandate from his electorate.

However, is it morally right to consider the issue of crossovers in isolation, and without regard to the contextual factors? My proposition is that it is not.

First of all, the uncertainty over the issue of continuing mandate remains at best an uncertainty, and is at worst a mere conjecture. No one can say that the original mandate is definitely going to be reversed by the electorate if a crossover occurs and if a fresh mandate is immediately sought. Secondly, this uncertainty is based on a number of assumptions that may or may not be true. I will sample just two of them. One assumption is that the majority of the electorate had voted based on their faith in the representative’s party, rather than in the representative himself. Is that really the case with regard to all, or substantially all, of those who had voted for that representative?

Another assumption is that the electorate, at the time of voting, had in mind that they would want their representative to always tow his party line no matter how important the issue is and how abhorrent the party position is, including on issues that had not been in the contemplation of the electorate at the earlier time of voting. Would it not be equally (if not more) reasonable to make a different assumption, namely that the electorate had voted for the representative on the basis that they perceived him to be one possessing the maturity and ability to put the interest of the nation before the interest of his party? Is it not morally proper to expect all representatives to place the country before his party? Of course as a matter of practicality no representative should lightly break rank with his party on minor issues. But if it comes to crucial issues that will affect the entire future of the nation and the paramount interest of the people, and in such exceptional circumstances, what is so morally objectionable for a parliamentarian to defect to another party if he finds (for example) that the interest of the nation is being gravely compromised by his original party for the immorally selfish sake of holding on to power at any cost?

In other words, when one compares the nature and degree of the moral doubt or taint that can be cast upon the act of crossover by a representative, with the nature and extent of the immoral and disastrous consequences that will visit upon the people by his remaining a passive participant in the continuation of the status quo; which act is by far, by very far, the greater evil? How can it be morally superior or imperative for one to refrain from crossing over (thus taking care of a small moral uncertainty), when in the process it would pave the way for a much greater moral disaster to occur?

Take the example of the most recent ISA arrests, including that of the journalist Tan Hoon Cheng, and the subsequent idiotic excuses proffered that could hardly disguise the government’s real motive. If a parliamentarian feels that this has gone beyond all sanity, that it threatens the entire fabric of our society and whatever we have built over the years, that it manifests a dangerous disregard of the interest of the rakyat, and that it would plunge the country into dark ages; why in all these circumstances should it be immoral for him to pursue and perform his duty to all Malaysians by crossing over, if he finds that this is the best way to save the nation in a time of unusual crisis? What is so morally unforgivable about that?

It is easy for armchair critics to insist that, because there is no practical way of ascertaining whether a representative will enjoy continuous mandate from his electorate, he must refrain from crossing over; never mind the nature or scale of the prevailing crisis facing the country. It is equally simple for Utopians to maintain that the only thing a representative in such a situation can morally do is to resign and trigger a by-election; and in the meantime it is just too bad if he (along with others) has to watch the country burn and its people suffer.

That is the result of neglecting to take into account the contextual factors.

When one takes into consideration the whole basket of moral issues, the answer will be the opposite.

The solution to the moral dilemma will become obvious when one bears in mind that: (a) most morally challenging situations have exceptions to the rule, (b) many moral values are relative and also evolving, (c) one must judge a moral issue in its circumstances and by reference to its consequences as compared with the consequences of the opposite act, (d) moral taints do not come in one single size, and sometimes a weighing exercise is required, and (e) when applied to real-life human situations, the purpose of moral guidance lies not in the desire to be holier than thou, but in enabling society to proceed along a path that is more just and equitable than before.

In my view, our country is not just at crucial crossroads. It is more precarious than that. For the first time in the nation’s history, a real opportunity for change and betterment presents itself. If missed, no one knows how long more it will take for another opportunity to come. And while waiting for the next bus, situations will no doubt worsen, and more human sufferings will take place.

Hence, I for one would not come down like a ton of bricks on political crossovers, when failing which the reality is that those much more grievous and immoral acts that have oppressed the Malaysian people for decades will continue for God knows how long more, and cause untold sufferings. Such being the likely consequences, I do not see it as morally right to insist on absolute “correctness” in satisfying a relatively minor (and arguable) issue, when by doing so will permit a trainload of greater wrongs to continue to steamroll over an entire population.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me make it clear that I am not suggesting that political crossovers are always morally justifiable. My point is that it would not be correct to insist, on moral ground, that crossovers should be avoided in all circumstances and at all cost. Crossovers should remain the exception rather than the rule. But they should be judged (as to whether or not justified) not in isolation, but by reference to the basket of moralities alluded to above, and by taking into account all the circumstances and weighing their consequences against the likely consequences of their prohibition or refrain.

Like other Malaysians, I hope for a better tomorrow.

Yeo Yang Poh
15 September 2008
(on the eve of Malaysia Day)

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