ACT NOW! Vibrant democracy requires eternal vigilance

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If we are passionate about Malaysia and our birthright, then we should ACT NOW to save our democracy, says Andrew Aeria.

In early March, University Malaya Law lecturer Azmi Sharom made a very pertinent observation in his weekly Star column that ‘Malaysians have this thing where they hope some mighty champion will sweep down from the mountains and solve their problems for them’.

His point was that instead of waiting for this ‘mighty champion’ to turn up and do the job for us, we should instead use whatever resources we have at hand and just ACT NOW if we want to mend our broken democracy and save it from our numerous ‘Bolehland-class’ politicians (defined as MPs, Aduns and party members who are either plain foul-mouthed, ‘tidak apa’, sexist, racist, lazy, corrupt, incompetent and even thuggish with only their personal and family’s material interests at heart). And by this, I also include many over-estimated opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) politicians and civil service bureaucrats as well.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding currently prevalent within our society that we do not need to do anything about our democracy since we have already elected PR (our ‘Mighty Champion’?) as our loyal parliamentary opposition serving King and country. As well, we elected them to govern in five states and so we have to ‘give them time’ to settle into the job. Unfortunately, this is self-deceiving and ultimately toxic to democracy. Simply because democracy is much more than just elections and what happens in parliament. And it certainly won’t flourish after merely being ‘given time’.

Just as we cannot assume that the Barisan Nasional (BN) government will act in our interests (and they often do not) simply because they are the ‘federal government’, there is also no justification to assume that PR will act in our interests whether as the parliamentary opposition or as the state government, if only we ‘gave them time’! In other words, we may have elected them to act in our interests but who is to ensure that they do so if not ourselves?

I think the unholy actions of the Perak three stooges, the recent resignation of the PR Penang Deputy Chief Minister/Penanti Adun, and Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s ban on the NST attending state government press conferences and his increasingly cosy relationship with housing developers are proof that the argument of ‘giving them time’ or ‘giving them chance’ is a hollow one when it comes to ensuring a healthy democracy. Similarly, if we do not upbraid the civil service for its deep-rooted incompetence and inability to meet public demands efficiently, who is going to hold them to account? The government? Likewise, although in principle the police are here to protect us, who in fact is going to protect us from the police if not ourselves? In the light of recent cases of reported police corruption, incompetence and abuse, I think you get my drift, no? Thus, eternal vigilance is the name of the democratic game.

My assumption here of course is that we ordinary Malaysians want to do something to rehabilitate the bleak circumstances of our democracy. In doing so, we hope to improve the quality of our society, our lives and the future for our children. If, however, we are not interested in doing anything, well, that is also a free choice in a democratic society. Only, please don’t complain if Malaysia turns into a failed state like Zimbabwe and Burma simply for want of vigilant citizen action! After all, as Robert Maynard Hutchins said, ‘The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment’. But if we are citizens passionate about Malaysia and our birthright, which should not be surrendered to politicians and/or bureaucrats under any circumstances, then we should just get stuck in and ACT NOW to save our democracy and to make it safe and secure from predatory politicians and/or bureaucrats.

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Here then are some “wish list” action ideas we can undertake to protect and promote democracy.

The how?

  • Start with yourself. Commit yourself to uphold democracy, human rights (HR) and integrity at all times. Remember Michael Jackson’s ‘Man in the Mirror’? Change starts with me!
  • Practise and nurture democracy and HR within your home. Educate all family members about the importance of democracy and integrity. This is a long-term project.
  • Promote and uphold democratic ideals, HR and good governance when attending mosque, church, temple, work place, school, association, club activities and events. Get your local group to organise awareness sessions about democracy, HR and the need for leaders with integrity.
  • Challenge undemocratic practices and HR abuses everywhere you find it – be it at home, school, church, mosque, temple, NGO, club, association, workplace, or on the streets.
  • Pepper your daily conversation with issues concerning Malaysia’s democratic deficit, weak HR and lack of integrity among politicians. Dialogue with others about creative and practical ways to improve things. Don’t simply complain, complain, complain….
  • Always respect the rule of law, especially laws that are in harmony with democratic principles and human rights. Peacefully defy laws that are not democratic like laws against peaceful public assembly, shouting ‘Justice for Altantuya Sharibuu’ aloud in public, etc. We don’t need permission from the police or ‘5 sen 2’ politicians to exercise our human and constitutional rights.
  • Refuse to give bribes to anyone no matter what! Bribes undermine the rule of law, our society and ultimately our souls.
  • Print issue-oriented car stickers and badges, distribute/sell and use/display.
  • Design, print, and distribute/sell T-shirts and postcards with democratic messages.
  • Take photos or videos of good examples and/or sickening abuse of democracy and HR. Upload them to various internet blog sites or YouTube.
  • Start your own blog or join Facebook/Friendster. Give your blog or social networking page a democratic reform and HR focus. Network with other bloggers and netizens. Organise yourselves online and push for key online campaigns to strengthen democracy – such as bloggers against the ISA, better public transport, ending discrimination, and ending corruption, etc.
  • Join a cause-oriented NGO such as Aliran, Amnesty International, Transparency International, ERA Consumer, Hakam, Suaram, Tenaganita, Komas, and other professional associations and trade unions. Meet its members. Contribute your talents to strengthening the organisations and civil society. Network with other NGOs/professional associations. Get the NGO/association to organise public meetings and national campaigns to strengthen democracy and HR.
  • Join your local Residents’ Association (RA). Push your RA to take up local government issues, including local government elections to ensure that the local council uses public funds in a more accountable, transparent and efficient manner. No RA in your neighbour-hood? Start one!
  • Hold regular discussions with other members of your RA about how to improve the quality of community life in your neighbourhood; invite your MP/Adun to attend. Pressure the MP/Adun to take up your neighbourhood and also larger issues.
  • Network with other groups on common issues. Solidarity of many is strength.
  • Write/fax or e-mail your MP/Adun or ministries or MACC/JAC/Suhakam about democracy, HR and other key problem issues in your neighbour-hood and/or society. Be courteous but firm. Keep ‘harassing’ them. Copy letters/faxes to your local mainstream and internet newspapers, blogs, NGOs, industry and professional associations, ministries, Governor, Sultan, King, Ambassadors, and UN Secretary-General. Send them letters regularly. Only consider a petition if you can raise thousands of signatures.
  • Take time to visit the office of your local MP/Adun on your own or better still with a group of residents. Get to know them. Request them to take a stand on issues of democracy and HR concerns. Visit your MP/Adun once a fortnight to demand follow-up action. Publicise your actions and/or visits on-line with nice photos for visual impact. Take out adverts in local internet media or in blogs to praise/criticise/shame your MP/Adun’s performance. Even classified ads can have an impact.
  • Ask your MP/Adun/Minister or local councillors to sign public commitments to support democracy, HR, the rule of law and good governance at all times during their term of public service. Publicise when they sign and certainly if they refuse or foot-drag.
  • Don’t give your MP/Adun or Minister any ‘face’ by inviting them to any function unless they first give us respect and commit themselves to democratic practices, to the rule of law, to good governance and to respecting HR. Boycott all recalcitrant MP/Aduns/Ministers who debase democracy, the rule of law, HR and good governance.
  • Reach out across ethnic, religious and class lines to make common cause with others who are also suffering from the lack of democracy in the country. Make a new friend from another ethnic or religious group every few weeks to promote inter-ethnic, inter-religious, inter-class solidarity.
  • Use Twitter, Delicious, Digg, Reddit, Stumble or plain SMS to campaign for democratic reforms and the strengthening of HR.
  • Boycott all mainstream media that do not provide fair reporting of the news. Don’t buy their papers. After all, there are alternative internet media.
  • Identify crony businesses and boycott them if you can help it. Tell others to do the same.
  • Support any and all events and campaigns in favour of strengthening democracy in whatever way you can. Don’t be afraid to commit yourself. Do it for the sake of our children.
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And here are some ‘more radical’ measures to adopt:

  • Boycott political party and government-organised events if you disagree with their attitude towards democracy and good governance. If you do attend, protest peacefully with a placard or via distribution of pamphlets or by speaking up when you are able to during the event.
  • Hold creative tea parties (like the Tanjong Bungah Residents’ Association) in different locations and invite others to join you in campaigning for a cause.
  • Walk, run, swim, climb, cycle (like Jerit does!) for a cause! Organise a mass aerobics session in various locations throughout your neighbour-hood or state or nationwide in support of democracy, HR and good governance! (Besides, it’s good for one’s health!)
  • Organise concerts and dinners for a cause. Sing, dramatise, make music, dance, and act and eat in support of democracy, HR and governance reforms. Repeat each year.
  • Organise research on local human rights abuses and democratic violations like Tenaganita does and publicise your findings. Get help from activist researchers if need be.
  • Monitor individual politicians. Draw up an annual report card (Yes, just like the ones we got in school!) of politicians’ good deeds and misdeeds in the area of democracy, HR, rule of law and good governance. Score them accordingly. Publicise online.
  • Monitor politicians and/or cabinet ministers comparatively and issue a Top Ten List for Best Achievers and Worst Offenders. And finally, vote against any MP/Adun who does not live up to their electoral manifesto, their promises, who ignores or neglects his/her constituents, who has little integrity, who is authoritarian, who has little respect for HR and who shows little interest in strengthening the rule of law and democracy. Forget about party loyalties. Stick to the principles. Just vote out all the lazy bums, the sickos, the sexist slime-balls and the die-hard thugs whether they are from BN or PR. Even campaign against them during elections!
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These are just some ideas. It is certainly not an exhaustive list. I am sure you and others have many more ideas of your own which are much better than those listed here. The point is to JUST ACT NOW! Better still if you could ORGANISE a group of people to ACT TOGETHER NOW! After all, as Henry Commager observed, ‘if our democracy is to flourish, it must have criticism; if our government is to function it must have dissent’. And that includes all PR state governments!

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