Tuesday, September 16, 2008

'Prisoner's dilemma' in Malaysia

By Johan Saravanamuttu, OpinionAsia 2006 - 2008
Published: September 15, 2008, 23:53

The Malaysian political developments today could perhaps be likened to the situation of the prisoner's dilemma. That famous conundrum used by game theorists, economists and political scientists goes like this:

The police arrest two suspects but have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects) against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives a full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent (cooperate), both prisoners will serve six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence.

The prisoner's dilemma game has a unique solution in that from each individual's point of view, the rational strategy is to testify and betray the other. But when both individuals choose the same strategy, the eventual outcome is a five-year sentence, a sub-optimal outcome for both. Had both prisoners kept silent, the outcome would be best for both, as each would only serve six months. It is indeed a 'dilemma' because each individual choosing his best strategy ends up being worse off!

In the Malaysian scenario, the assumption is that the Barisan Nasional (BN) component parties would prefer to join Pakatan Rakyat (PR) provided that PR has sufficient numbers to form the next government. However, this outcome may yet not arise because of the prisoner's dilemma problem.

The reason is that for each BN component or their individual parliamentarians, there is still a strong incentive for them to remain with BN because of valuable government positions to be sacrificed, while defecting individually carries the risk of suffering the fate of being banished to the ranks of the opposition should Anwar Ebrahim not get the required numbers to form the next government.

In game theory and in real life, the structurally contrived situation of the prisoner's dilemma can be altered when, say, the prisoners somehow are able to communicate or are not in the dark about each other's decision.

Real life situation

In the real life Malaysian situation of today, the MPs are not necessarily in the dark as to what others may be thinking. They could be secretly communicating and Anwar may well be conveying separately to various groups that he has got so-and-so and so-and-so.

Second, the payoffs could be constantly shifting; the Anwar offer of 20 per cent oil royalties would be an example; the Prime Minister and supporters may be also secretly offering deals to component parties or individual MPs or introduce any number of stratagems to thwart crossovers. Witness the UMNO-PAS talks, which have now fizzled out.

Many have suggested that sequestering some 50 BN MPs in Taiwan from September 7-19 on a purported "study trip" was specifically aimed at blocking Anwar's plan and discrediting him when it does not materialise. Anwar's sodomy trial could also perhaps be seen as one other such strategem; an attempt to bog down Anwar and in the worst-case scenario, "take him out" with a 20-year prison sentence.

However, the Session Court decision to postpone the trial until a hearing is made on September 24 on the merits of a transfer of the case to the High Court is already a minor victory for Anwar. Hence, unlike the contrived circumstances of game theory, our analysis now enters the slippery and treacherous realm of realpolitik.

Anwar has not been quiet. He has varied his game plan and made it more flexible. At some point he said that today's deadline is not rigid given that some 50 MPs are abroad. But he also said that he could pursue them to Taiwan if necessary. In my view, in the context of the current politics, Anwar must show that something is achieved by today. If he fails to meet this '9/16' deadline, he loses a great deal of credibility.

Within a matter of days or weeks, the various scenarios implicit in the prisoner's dilemma, game theory and realpolitik will be played out on the ever-exciting terrain of Malaysian politics, which has clearly witnessed a tectonic shift since March 8.

Johan Saravanamuttu is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore and was the former Dean (Research) at the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). Full article on www.opinionasia.org