Transcending dualism in public administration

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Ancient Taoists realised that contradictions were creations of the human mind. When Yin appears, so does Yang. In modern Western thought, notions stemming from the Hegelian dialectic are the closest thing to this old wisdom. These were traditions meant to point to the endless divisiveness of dualistic thought, which in public administration and politics causes more problems than it solves.

THE OLD GREEK philosophy has a famous law, the law of non-contradiction, which says, a thing cannot be its opposite in the same time-space continuum. In plain English, this is what we call “Either/ Or” thinking, or in plainer English, a durian cannot be at the same time a mangosteen.

While many of us may not know this law by name, we are often its faithful adherents. This is more so for politicians. Politics today, especially in Malaysia, has become painfully partisan. You are either in Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat, you are either a United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) Muslim or a Malaysia’s Islamic Party (PAS) Muslim, you are either with us or against us. The middle ground, like Atlantis of old, seems to have submerged into oblivion. 

But is all hope lost?

Enter Georg Fredrich Hegel, an early 19th century German philosopher who decided that the old “Either/Or” logic may not be true all the time. He acknowledged that there will always be opposing views, but concluded that this need not necessarily lead to an “Either/Or” situation. In plain English, while there are opposites, there is always a middle ground of concession. If we look hard enough, in life, this is almost always true. Take for example the idea of government; the question of who should administer the society. On one hand, we have the platonic idea of the know-it-all king who rules as a wise dictator, and on the other hand, a free state where everyone does what is right in their own eyes. We somehow prefer a middle-ground compromise found in the idea of democracy, where the people (everyone) choose the leader or leaders they think suitable to rule. This process of nding the middle ground is sometimes called a Hegelian dialectic in honour of our German philosopher.

This is what we need most in our highly partisan politics today.

Perhaps in such dichotomised politics as ours, it is best to start this Hegelian dialectic by focusing on certain problems within our society. My own proposal is to start by looking at the civil service. The current federal-state political di erences should be an opportunity to adopt a Hegelian dialectic, to look into the strengths and weaknesses of both political ideals in regards to the civil service, and to bring forth a better, more eficient public delivery system.

A very good place to begin this process of dialectical reform is in the local government. For example, while the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP),of which I am councillor,is formed by a federal legislation, the council is bound by the same legislation to adhere to the directions set by the state government. Again, while the staff of the council, including the Mayor, are appointed by the federal government through the Public Service Department (Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam), councillors who are responsibility for the overall policy of the council are appointed by the state government. With such an arrangement, if we take an “Either/Or” position, then not only will the council be paralysed by the dualism; the whole municipality suffers due to a divided local government. There is of course, always the choice to go the Hegelian way, to leverage on the strength from both the federal and state governments and bring forth a synthesis, better than each divided and on their own.

If we really aspire to create a two-party system and build a more vibrant democracy, then perhaps we should start giving marks for bipartisan collaborations, not just for individual performances of our political parties. A healthy democracy requires both the Government and the Opposition to be able to look beyond the political divide in order to uphold national interests. Recent developments in the US demonstrated the adverse effect of blind political partisanship. The deadlock in the US debt ceiling debate due to the widening political gap between the two major parties in the Congress has affected the credit worthiness of the country for the first time in 70 years. Too much politicking can really affect the economy adversely, even for the US.

I am not asking us to throw away the law of non-contradiction, because when we cross the road, the car is either heading our way or not heading our way, and we have to make a choice. But when it comes to durians and mangosteens, maybe it is wise to listen to the old wisdom, eat some of both; because durians may be delicious, but they are also “heaty” and you need the cooling mangosteenstobalancethe“heatiness”.

Steven Sim is the senior executive officer of the Penang Institute and a councillor of the Seberang Perai Municipal Council in Penang, the largest municipality in Malaysia.



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