When Do We Abandon Our Principles?

The issue of principles, and holding on to them, is confusing me. I used to think of it as a rather straightforward beast-you have principles and you hold on to them. Simple. Now I wonder how black and white the issue of principles is. One question in particular concerns me-must principles be rules governed, or can principles be discretionary?

I ask because until about 3-4 weeks ago, I held one principle dear-any member of parliament wishing to jump parties should first resign his/her seat. We should not countenance the defection based on the assertion that the original party being represented has changed its tune and no longer represents the electorate. I hold this view as I firmly believe that the majority of people vote for a party and not an individual candidate (in the main).

I abandoned this principle for Anwar's possible (now certainly near impossible) heroic promise to form government based on defections, despite initially being very critical of such a thing. Why? Because:

*IMO, the government had stopped governing. The government's job is to govern, and not just sit there, inert. And IMO, that is exactly what happened. In such a scenario, one cannot claim the right to form government despite winning the election if one then, upon forming government, not actually govern.

*Anwar's promise to hold free and fair elections within 12 months of forming government after fixing up the electoral roles and getting rid of draconian legislation such as the ISA. To me, this was the decisive point that made me support his aim of toppling the government by using 'jumping' parliamentarians. If the government has stopped governing, and he can not only get elections to be held again, but make them 'freer and fairer' then it is worth pursuing especially when:

*The government continued to use state apparatus to suppress the people.

The last of this is the most subjective of all, and where my decision to abandon my principle is at its weakest, and can be safely disregarded. I got ahead of myself there but the arrest of the Sin Chew journalist really got my goat.

But the first two deserve closer scrutiny and can be analysed via two separate prisms:

*Should principles be universally applied (be rules based)? Or,
*Should principles be contextual (discretionary)?

Should principles be universal, then my decision to support the defections is wrong. I cannot abrograte my principle 'just this once.' It is a non-issue. But does this then imply that the world is static, and not dynamic, for why should it be just my principle that is static? In a static world, nothing changes and the principle of not supporting defections will apply as governments govern and express the will of the people. How realistic is that?

If, on the other hand, principles be placed into set contexts, then discretion applies. The principle of not supporting defections applies to situations where governments actually govern and express the wish of the majority of voters. When that does not occur, the principle is untenable. This unfortunately, opens up a can of worms. Who decides that the government is not performing? Who decides that it no longer represents the majority? Are they rules to follow, in which case why am I using rules to apply discretion? Why the hypocracy?

I wonder if economics can help us out here with its concept of 'constrained discretion' with regards to the independence of central banks in setting monetary policy. When monetary policy was in the hands of politicians, we often witnessed opportunistic behaviour close to elections, with adverse long-term consequences for an economy. It was argued that governments with discretion in the use of monetary policy could not be credible, and that it would be better to use rules instead. Central banks were made independent and targets (rules) were set for them to follow. So in Australia, inflation must be contained within a 2-3% band. Failure to do so will result in penalties. Sticking to this, over time, creates credibility.

But there has been an understanding that such rules must be abandoned should the 'landscape' significantly alter. For example, imagine a scenario whereby Australia falls headlong into recession due to a collapse of the Chinese economy but inflation remains high due to cost-push inflation led by high oil and agricultural prices. In this scenario, say that GDP = -3% but inflation = 5%.

Now, the RBA, following its rules would attempt to lower inflation by running contractionary monetary policy. In other words, it would raise interest rates to contain inflation. This would only further prolong the Australian recession. In such an unlikely scenario, we all know that the RBA would be allowed to abandon the band 'just this once' as the rule was set in place to reflect an ideal scenario in a fairly static landscape. When that landscape suddenly shifts, a change in rules, or an abandonment of rules in order to return to the original landscape is pretty much accepted as being valid. The credibility it has built over time would not be compromised when it abandons the rules due to severe unforseen impacts on the Australian economy.

So it is that I return to my conundrum. Can principles be universal? I think only in a static world, or to be clearer, in a world where the paradigm in which the principles were formulated still remain strong. It can change if the paradigm shifts, and there can be times when the principles can be abrograted while we attempt to return the paradigm to its initial starting point. If so, then we should not be fixated with always standing our ground, but neither should we change our point of view willy-nilly. We need credibility in order to be able to ignore our principles in exceptional circumstances and still be taken seriously after the fact. That is 'constrained discretion.'

It still leaves open the question of when, where, how and why the 'exception' occurs though. And that is surely subjective.

I was initially uncomfortable with supporting the possibility of defections but not anymore. Under the circumstances, I thought the situation was 'exceptional' and thought that by supporting a defection-led change of government I would be able to see the landscape change back to a scenario whereby I will once again be able to state my principle of non-defection. It did not occur in any event, and now we'll see if UMNO can reform itself and get on with the job of governing. Till then, I hold dear that I can, and will, continue to support a defection-led change of government that will end the tenure of a non-governing government (should it not start governing) and bring forth 'freer and fairer' elections where the will of the people can be heard louder and clearer.

Or so I tell myself anyway....


  1. vinnie10:41 am

    i was catching up well until you started lecturing economics and my hangover isn't helping at all

    all in all, i get you. i had the same thoughts all this while. i always tell everyone, BN/ UMNO had 50 years; PR would have less than 5 years if they can't pull things straight. how much worse could it be compared to now? let them try

    and hey, 2 wrongs do make a right, so let them lompat katak ;)

  2. vinnie10:42 am

    oh btw, nice polka-dot theme you have there, did shinji pick for you? :P

  3. sendiri pilih....
    What I don't understand is if Anwar is bluffing, why doesn't Badawi agree to an emergency parliamentary sitting & humiliate him live on national TV? As much as I think Anwar is talking out of his arse, I'm not 100% sure because badawi refuses to 'entertain' his request.

    It is easy to say that there is no reason for Badawi to play along with Anwar's games but hey come on, if I am involved in a high stakes game to cling on to power & have a golden opprtunity to blow out of the water one of my opponents & I don't, then I must either be stupid or perhaps, just perhaps, am running scared that the bluff is actually no bluff at all.

  4. Anonymous6:45 pm

    Hi Dr,

    Do you still have time to help translate Malaysian driving license?
    How much?

    Thanks for helping last time and now I got my Au drivers license, just helping another friend.

    David Chong