Building an inclusive, forward-looking democracy

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Where have we gone wrong since Merdeka?

The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih 2.0) calls on all Malaysians regardless of our ethnic, religious and social backgrounds, to come together and forge a new Malaysian identity as we celebrate the 62nd year of Malaya’s independence, which paved the way for Malaysia’s formation.

We need to look beyond our ethnic origins and celebrate our diversity as a nation if we are to build a democracy that is inclusive, robust and forward-looking.

Bersih 2.0, as a movement that unites Malaysians from all walks of life to champion free and fair elections in the past, is concerned that undue stress has been put on the fragile harmony that exists among the various ethnic communities of this country recently by political, religious, influential leaders and irresponsible social media users, through their statements and actions.

Some of the incidents that highlighted the fragility of communal relation in this country includes the introduction of khat (Jawi) as part of learning Bahasa Malaysia in the Year Four of the national school curriculum and the reaction of Dong Zong and other vernacular education groups towards it, the reference to Indian and Chinese communities by controversial preacher Zakir Naik, the assertion that the Malays should be the dominant race in this country by Perlis Mufti Mohd Asri Zainal Abidin, the unwarranted remarks about our soldiers by tycoon Koon Yew Yin and the posting of an altered Jalur Gemilang (Malaysian flag) by another tycoon Lee Kim Yew. The heated polemics around these issues have made many disillusioned about their identity as a Malaysian and the future of this country.

Bersih 2.0 wishes to remind all that in the first place, in a democracy, people must be free to express their views without being disparaged or their loyalty to the nation being called into question.

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Disagreements and dissenting views are normal and are indeed healthy and necessary for a democracy. These different viewpoints and ideologies are manifested in the many political parties we have, even from the same ethnic group – and again, that is normal and healthy if they compete civilly, truthfully and intellectually.

Discourses and disagreements should be confined to discussants – and not racialised and generalised to stoke racial animosity, which can lead to hostility and violent outcomes.

Opportunistic politicians and individuals who seek to exploit our fears and suspicions of each other must be called out and rejected by Malaysians who want to live in peace and harmony. And in some cases, appropriate action should be taken by the authorities to send a message that incitement to hate, discrimination and violence will not be tolerated.

Bersih 2.0 is of the view that one of the incentives for identity politics in this country can be attributed to the type of electoral system we use in this country and, in our case, the first-past-the-post system that we inherited from the British. This electoral system, coupled with our multi-ethnic society, encourages a winner-takes-all mentality among our political parties, producing political discourses that are extreme and divisive.

As we celebrate this Merdeka Day, we urge the government and all parties to embrace a national conversation about moving away from the first-past-the-post system towards a system with party-list proportional representation seats. This will ensure a wide representation of parties in Parliament and eliminate their need to play up communal fear over internal division to mobilise votes.

The party-list proportional representation seats can also overcome intra-coalition quarrel over constituency allocation – so common under the first-past-the-post system – by allowing component parties to compete openly and healthily against each other through party votes, instead of resorting to sabotage and scheming.

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Not only can party-list proportional representation seats enable quotas for women and other marginalised groups, the direct mandate for parties instead of candidates can also strengthen political parties and discourage party-hopping.

With a change of regime for the first time last year, Malaysia has a unique opportunity to reexamine what some of the structural factors that contribute both to our strength and weakness as a nation – and to take bold and even radical steps to address some of the institutional structures that contribute to the rise of identity politics, that is tearing our communities apart.

One of these structures is the way we elect our politicians, and we must consider adopting a system that reduces the incentive to use identity politics and encourages centrism, moderation and inclusiveness.

Bersih 2.0 wishes all Malaysians a happy Merdeka, and may we take this moment not only to reflect on the challenges that are facing us, but to also consider the opportunity before us to forge a new Malaysian identity.

While each of us should value our unique historical roots, what is more important is that we look forward to building a democracy where we can all coexist in harmony and share in its prosperity.

Bersih 2.0 steering committee

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