The Spirit of collegiality

The cries of ordinary people have been flooding on WhatsApp lamenting the loss of incomes due to the third major lockdown.

May 22, 2021

By Anil Netto
The cries of ordinary people have been  flooding on WhatsApp lamenting the  loss of incomes due to the third major  lockdown.

Malaysia’s efforts at fighting the pandemic  have been stymied by u-turns, poorly thoughtout measures and double standards in enforcement.

Things have taken a turn for the worse since  Parliament was suspended at the beginning of  the year.

The suspension of Parliament and the state  assemblies has removed a major institution of  checks and balances in our system of separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.

Without Parliament, there is reduced oversight of major government expenditures. How  are the people to know if the government has  spent public funds properly, that it has gone  to the right parties without inflated costs and  “commissions”?

There is no avenue to systematically question the ministers about how money is being  spent. Without Parliament, what we have is  unaccountable leadership, a lack in transparency, the executive steering the nation according to its whims and fancies. 

There is no one to express the people’s  grievances in a public platform when firms  chop down forests, when developers undertake extensive land reclamation or evict farmers and others from the land they have lived  and worked on for generations. Elected representatives are also unable to question the  executive and provide feedback and input into  new policies.

Might this also explain the flip-flops and Uturns in guidelines, policies and even COVID  prevention measures since Parliament was  suspended? Without a collegial body like Parliament, we lose a vital avenue to improve on  policymaking after listening to the different  views in, at times, heated debate and discussion.

True, Parliament and the state assemblies  are not perfect. Many elected representatives  seemed more keen on jostling for power and  position. They seem beholden to the neoliberal policies which concentrate wealth in fewer  and fewer hands. 

Of course, this is a generalisation. Some  elected representatives are genuinely hardworking and attend to their constituents’  needs without delay. They put up pro-people  policies and speak up for the marginalised, the  landless and the poor. 

The suspension or closure of the legislature  allows for creeping authoritarianism and dictatorship to emerge. 

Parliament used to provide an avenue for  the people’s views to be heard through their  elected representatives. In this way, the ministers attending Parliament would have a fair  idea of what the people across the nation,  whether in urban or rural areas, are going  through.

But a year of lockdowns and partial lockdowns has taken its toll on ordinary people  who are feeling the pain. Food price rises have  hurt the ordinary person. Small businesses,  roadside stall holders and night-market vendors have suffered as fewer customers patronise their stalls. Those who depend on tourists,  whether domestic or foreign, for their livelihoods have taken a hit as well.

There is no avenue to highlight their concerns and ask for corrective policies to be  taken.

In our own spiritual tradition, often the wisest, most enlightened decisions are arrived at  after a process of discernment in the collegial  spirit.

That is why Jesus chose 12 Apostles, not  just one. The Spirit often works through a collective process. The first major challenge in  the early Church came at the Council of Jerusalem around 48AD, about two decades after  Jesus had left his earthly ministry. 

The thorny problem: what were the requirements for Gentiles to become Christians?  Should they first adopt most of the Jewish tradition or practices, especially circumcision, or  could they bypass much of that? Among those  who spoke at the Council were Peter, Paul,  Barnabas and James, the head of the Jerusalem Church. After much debate and discussion, the Council decided that the Gentiles did  not need to observe many of the Jewish rituals, including circumcision, before becoming  Christians. The Spirit must have been working through that process.

In the 1960s, Pope John XXIII convened  the Second Vatican Council to usher in a  breath of fresh air to the Church and to sweep  off the cobwebs that had accumulated over the  ages. For three years, from 1962 to 1966, over  2,000 bishops, theologians and experts from  around the world deliberated in a spirit of collegiality to chart a new path for the Church in  the 20th Century, on the threshold of the new  millennium.

A decade later, in 1976, a similar process of  collective renewal was kicked off in the Malaysian Church with a month-long study and  reflection by the local clergy, known as the  Aggiornamento.

In all these councils, the Spirit was there  to guide the discernment and to tease out the  finer points in the spirit of collegiality. In this  way, the people were open to the promptings  of the Spirit – in the same way the Apostles  were gathered as a collective – to receive the  Spirit on that first Pentecost.

If we apply this collegiality to a more secular context, the same openness to the views of  others in policymaking and deliberations will  produce much more discerning decision-making than the dictates of one person or a small  group lording it over others.

That is why it is such a loss when that spirit  of collegial decision-making is lost. It is not a  coincidence that Germany lost its soul to Nazism when much of its parliament building,  the Riechstag, was set ablaze in 1933, and  Adolf Hitler used that opportunity to consolidate his power. A string of basic rights were  then abolished – freedom of speech, freedom  of the media, freedom of assembly – while  surveillance was enhanced. This is a salutary  lesson for all about the threat posed by executive overreach. 

Witness also what is happening in Myanmar today after the military seized power in  a coup after the recent general election and  arrested lawmakers. Today, the country is in  chaos as the people demand the restoration of  democracy.

All this shows us how vital collegial decision-making is for a society or nation to progress on a more enlightened path that reflect  the aspirations of a broad consensus. 

This kind of collegiality may be messy,  heated arguments may erupt, but it often does  tease out a more enlightened path for us to  move forward. That is why we should hope  for the early restoration of our own parliamentary democracy

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