Why fear greater democracy?

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The levels of corruption in all areas of life are evident and marked. The judiciary is in a shambles; the police, customs and immigration departments are reeling from serious questions of credibility. The only option now seems to be to register a strong protest vote at the next general election, urges K Haridas.

Living in Malaysia where ethnicity, religion and culture continually interface, we are not devoid of issues that germinate tensions. The challenge, however, is to ensure that these issues are addressed. This could be done using several methods, some quietly off the media hype and others more publicly.

After 50 years of independence, the fact that we have not become a banana kingdom, the fact that we have thrived economically and have democratic institutions, ultimately says some things.

Nevertheless, what we could have become is still a far cry from where we are presently. It is therefore not appropriate to sit on our laurels and to say that all is well and that dialogue will foster goodwill. This seems inadequate to many Malaysians.

Rampant corruption

It is a measure of success to become an economically vibrant nation. But if this is not matched by a more transparent, accountable and resilient democracy, then it breeds corruption, injustice and inequality. Our problems are compounded by the fact that we have had the same political party basically in power all through these fifty years.

It has been the notion of ‘stability’ that has kept the social contract between the different ethnic groups viable. For want of peace and stability, we have given in to corruption and injustice. We have reached a tipping point where to do so continually for many is to betray their deepest convictions.

Most issues in this nation have an underlying ethnic connotation. This is at times compounded further by a religious dimension. While the Government in power is made up of a coalition of multi-ethnic parties, the opposition presently seems more ethnically marked. Power nevertheless is vested in the dominant Umno, an equal partner in the ruling coalition, but one that behaves as though it is a step more equal than the rest. Opposition parties are perceived as representing particular ethnic interests. Issues are thus scuttled for want of stability and never addressed.

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As we look ahead to the future, we have to acknowledge that before us lie several challenges. Levels of corruption in all areas of life are evident and marked. The Judiciary is in a shambles; the Police, Customs and Immigration Departments are reeling from serious questions of credibility. We have a confused political leadership who come out with statements saying that we are an ‘Islamic State’. It seems to be all a matter of playing to the gallery and not dealing with the substantive issues that the nation faces.

Fear of scrutiny

The New Economic Policy was launched for a 20-year period with its positive discrimination policy aimed at balancing economic equity with political power. While much has been done, there has never been an open and transparent analysis of the targets achieved or otherwise. What should have ended in 1990 continues fanning inequality, injustice and corruption. What we need today is democratic equity in the context of power and justice. The sad reality is that we lack the political will and leadership to make the shift.

All exceptional companies are known for their systems and operational procedures. They have adequate checks and balances to ensure that all departments are working to the utmost efficiency. Despite all our economic achievements, we are today faced with a judiciary that is reeling from executive interference. Year after year, we have the Auditor’s Report outlining scandalous issues. Today, we have a stunted democracy that is incapable of meeting the economic challenges facing the nation.

Our politicians fear scrutiny. They are high on rhetoric but low on substance and action. The present prime minister led his party to victory on an anti-corruption ticket. Today, he has very little to show for this call. There seems to be a lack of moral authority because politics itself in the country reeks of corruption. The ruling party seems hesitant to form any royal commission to discuss issues or to initiate wide-ranging change.

Unless the ruling political leadership gives due attention to democratic institution building, we are not going to have the systems and processes to deal with the dialogue that is critical and the accountability that is essential if justice and fairness are to prevail. There are so many sensitive issues that call for mature handling. We have the capacity and the people who love this country to make a difference. Our politicians seem to be our biggest dinosaurs.

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Perhaps they have been so conditioned by corruption that they perceive every call for a Royal Commission to be a threat. If we look at what has happened to politicians in Thailand, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and other nations such as South Korea, this is evident. Power and those engaged with power are faced with tremendous temptations. That is why systems and processes that call for good governance, openness and transparency are critical.

Some of our politicians preach religion but practise corruption and rationalise their ill-earned wealth. Others just enjoy in silence. The lifestyle of some of our politicians and others who have been caught with ill-gotten currency in their suitcases attest to this reality.

Why do our politicians fear the creation of an ombudsman, the formation of a judicial commission, and moves to make the Anti-Corruption Agency an independent body? All this and more will only make it easier for those in power to govern. What is it that makes politicians shirk from such meaningful opportunities? Why is a greater expression of democracy viewed as a threat?

One realisation perhaps is that such initiatives would challenge the existing political culture. They will call into question the nexus between politics, power and patronage, which is at the root of much of the inefficiency and corruption that one presently witnesses.

Strong protest vote needed

Nobel laureate Professor Amartya Sen in his book, ‘Development as Freedom’ argues that development should be seen as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. Freedom is now widely accepted as a key prerequisite for successful development.

“Focusing on human freedoms contrasts with narrower views of development, such as identifying development with growth of gross national product, or with the rise of personal incomes, or with industrialisation or with technological advance or with social modernisation… If freedom is what development advances than there is a major argument for concentrating on that overarching objective rather than on some particular means or some specifically chosen list of instruments.”

If what we are going to get is more of what we have, then what the future holds is cause for concern. Through more democratic institutions and greater expressions of freedom, the Malaysian economy could yet find the leap necessary to engage in the globalised world that is before us.

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The only option now seems to be to register a strong protest vote at the next general elections. It is sad to see that several component parties of the Barisan Nasional seem equally unconcerned with some of the critical issues facing the nation.

We have reached a point where change is needed. The question is whether our politicians have the capacity to respond to the economic opportunities that lie ahead through a more open and inclusive approach. In spite of the fact that the electoral landscape is so skewed that it would be difficult for the present ruling elite to be dislodged; nevertheless, the people’s only option for change is by registering a strong protest vote.

But if they come back into power then these very politicians will claim that we the people have endorsed their style and corruption. A strong protest vote will dampen their glee. At the end of the day, we get the politicians we deserve – because for many Malaysians ‘stability’ seems more important than freedom, honesty and vision.

We have to strengthen our democratic institutions, the checks and balances that are going to be critical if we are serious about becoming a developed nation by 2020. Otherwise, it is mere wishful thinking. Our very diversity becomes a liability because the institutions are not there to represent the diversity and respond to the creation of a just and fair society.

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