Malaysia’s Democracy: A Democracy On Life Support

In the year 2008, 45 years since the inception of Malaysia (1963) as a nation state, the incumbent Barisan Nasional party lost 5 states and its two-thirds majority in Parliament. The opposition Pakatan Rakyat made substantial gains. It was a political tsunami. People thought the political climate in Malaysia would improve. That a demoralised BN would make amends and listen to the demands of the people. Draconian laws would be repealed, restrictions relaxed. They were wrong.

 

Is Malaysia's democracy flagging? | Source: flickr.com/ericteoh

I believe that in a democracy, there are 3 essential pillars (feel free to disagree): representation, participation and accountability. I believe that these 3 principles should be maximised. Any acts to curb or suppress these 3 principles should be rejected.

Elections ensure that these 3 principles are upheld. It allows participation as the rakyat would be able to choose who can govern them, it allows representation as the person chosen by the rakyat would represent the rakyat and it allows accountability, if the representative fails to meet the expectation of the rakyat, he would be voted out of office.

Elections also offer a brief respite to the rakyat; for a couple of weeks, parliamentary hopefuls would try to curry favour with us. Momentarily, we are masters; until the candidate is elected of course. Suffrage also has an element of personal choice, but it is limited to only choosing your representative, no more. However, elections are not the sole means of ensuring conformity to these 3 principles.

Liberal democracy

I believe that a democracy is different from a liberal democracy. A liberal democracy offers all of the above and also a buffet of other characteristics such as rule of law, separation of powers, individual liberty, the absence of personal privileges, term limits etc.

In my opinion, Malaysia is a democracy but not a liberal democracy. Power is heavily centralized at the Executive branch; we have limited individual liberties, personal privileges are ubiquitous, scant respect for the rule of law etc. The US’s democratic structure can be considered as a liberal democracy.

Fast forward to June 2010, we see that things are still the same as it was back in 2008. Maybe in terms of economics, the Government has endeavoured to free us from the middle income trap and accelerate us into a high income nation with grandiose economic transformation programmes. Bravo.

However, I’m not here to look at the state of our economy. I’m here to analyse the health of our democracy under the current establishment. Why do I say that our democracy is on life support? Is it near death? Are we going to revert to military rule as we were under the British Military Administration? Or is the writer exaggerating by using an attention seeking title to entice you to read what he is trying to convey?

To be frank, our democracy is an ailing democracy. I’m apathetic and disenchanted by the Opposition and the Government. Under status quo, we see laws, draconian laws which are an affront to the dignity to humanity. The Internal Security Act (ISA) is still untouched, and arbitrary detentions without trials still occur. Despite a mass rally in 2009 calling for the total abolishment of the ISA, the calls fell on deaf ears. ISA is widely used creating a climate of fear and a culture of unquestioning obeisance to authority. All this is self-effacing.

We have a potpourri of laws that restrict freedoms. The restriction of freedoms, especially speech, assembly and expression limits citizen’s participation in the democratic process.

“A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to Farce or Tragedy or perhaps both. A people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives,” wrote James Madison. How can citizens be well informed when the mainstream media are pliant to the will of the ruling coalition? It a disaster when public perception of the mainstream media is slanted and more credibility are apportioned to the alternative media. It’s sad to see Utusan Malaysia spewing rubbish on a daily basis. Credit go to the journalists for their extraordinary capability to generate creative verbal diarrhoea.

The clamping down on dissent and the prohibition of students in public universities from participating in politics show that the principle of participation has been violated, raped and sodomised. If the intellectual class are excluded from the democratic process, how do we aspire to become a mature democracy? As a student, voicing dissent has consequences and as such, I’m writing under a pseudonym.

I see my friends apathetic about the system which is a shame. Apathy is institutionalised; maybe an unintended consequence of University and University Colleges Act, but it is a problem nonetheless.

Suppressed peoples

How then do we ensure a proper democracy when people are suppressed from voicing out opinions when these things affect our daily lives? This is exacerbated when freedom in Malaysia is only an illusion. A facade.

Freedom is selective to whom the ruling coalition supports, albeit tacitly. Police permits that are required for rallies exemplify this freedom mirage. It proclaims “you have the right to protest” but stabs you in the back to say that “only if you have our permission given at our arbitrary discretion.” A clever deception indeed.

I know freedom is not absolute, lest it leads to anarchy. But our Government must trust that we would rally peaceably. That we are adults capable of formulating rational decisions and not creating havoc during protests.

It is sad to see the haemorrhage that our democracy is ailing from. It is even sadder to see that our Parliamentarians are not truly representative of the people. It is not my position to make value judgements on MPs and homogenising them to certain traits, but this is how I feel.

There is a sense of hyperpartisanship between both our major coalitions. Mudslinging and ad hominem attacks are of a daily occurrence. Parliamentary debates are not televised to show the actions of our MPs, and this symbolizes our lack of accountability. The reason why debates have not been publicly aired confirms the incompetence of our representatives: they try to seek attention and this creates scenes akin to a circus. And these are the guys we trust to legislate for us?

It’s sad that deliberation in Parliament is minimal. Yes, questions and answers are there. But any deliberation is there for the sake of deliberating, not for the sake of persuasion or clarity. Why? Because at the end of the day, our Parliamentarians would vote on party lines, by instinct or by the coercion of the party whip. This is a crisis indeed which polarises Parliament.

MPs need to vote on what they think is right and what they were voted to represent. Since most of the time people vote for the party and not the quality of the individual, or the principles and ideologies he or she stands for, he or she is expected to vote on what his or her party wills in Parliament. This is not representative of what the people (his or her constituents) want but representative of what his or her party wills. Bills proposed by the majority are always passed leading to a tyranny of the majority. Remember the times when the Opposition would walk out of Parliament in protest?

This representational crisis is exacerbated when we do not have referendums on single issues. The problem is, we vote MPs based on a multiple issues. Some issues in their manifestoes might not be agreeable to us. But we vote them nevertheless because they’re the least of the worst, and not the best. Having referendums allow us a ‘safety valve’ which ensures that we can focus on single issues on a case by case basis reflecting what society demands.

Fed up

We have two major coalitions. But ultimately, any notions of ‘choice’ that we are perceived to have is a Hobson’s choice. A false choice. Because under the status quo, the ruling coalition is by all means socially conservative. The Opposition, though we see a patina of liberalism within PKR and DAP, chooses to enter into a coalition with PAS, an Islamist and ultra conservative party. Compromises and concessions must be made leading to concessions to conservatism. I do see a glimmer of change within PAS with the election of Mat Sabu and I do hope reforms happen. But it’s too early to tell.

Accountability is minimal in this country. Our political masters are insulated from political suicide with a pliant media and laws such as the Official Secrets Act. Faith in the Judiciary has eroded, at least that is how I feel.

I disagree with the punishments meted out to the ‘Datuk T.’ trio. I’m tired of a replay of the sodomy allegations and current trial of our leader of the Opposition. I’ve had enough of sex videos, doctored or not. I want to see policies; I want debates on Buku Jingga and GTP!

Public perception on the electoral process is one that it is kotor. That is why civil society is planning to have the BERSIH rally to call for freer and fairer elections on 9 July 2011. This is our last bastion of democracy. And this too is being clamped down with preventive arrests, scare tactics and trumped up charges of communism against PSM members to mutiply the deterrent and fear effect.

We are a guided democracy, and bordering on fascism as it seems that the ultimate source of legitimacy is based on race or nation. We do not need guided elections. July 9 is the litmus test of our democracy. Let the rallies go on as a testament of our thirst for change.

Our forefathers rallied against the British as a protest against the Malayan Union. The British relented. It was a moral victory which symbolised people power.

Sadly, their children are denying us the right to walk and call for our right to be free.


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Batu 5 is a student in a local university. He writes under a pseudonym for fear of persecution by university administrators. He feels the suffocating grip of the authorities.

Posted on 29 June 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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2 Responses to Malaysia’s Democracy: A Democracy On Life Support

  1. Check it out a kind of literary piece on Bersih 2.0. Not a political writing. More of a the author's personal reflection on Chinese and Malay youth relationship with each other and with regards of Bersih 2.0. Poignant, different, deep but still political with in its own sprinkles of literary style of writing.
    http://diskopi.wordpress.com/2011/06/27/berlari-m

  2. therapy Boy

    i agree with you mate, the voice of the little guy (rakyat) is no more significant enough to evoke action anymore, sad to say freedom and liberty are words thrown around by politicians but they do not own up to it with a government which at times missuses, oppresses and take us (rakyat) for granted.