Resisting the return of authoritarianism in Malaysia

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Muhyiddin Yassin's coalition - Photograph: Bernama/Malay Mail

We must turn the tables and resist these anti-democratic interlopers, Azmil Tayeb writes. 

Democratisation is never a linear process.

When a country transitions from authoritarianism or any of its variants to a functioning democracy, there are bound to be fits and starts. Just because the authoritarian regime has been toppled and power returned to the people does not mean democracy will instantly flourish.

Before the 2018 general election, Malaysia was never ruled by a full-throttled authoritarian regime like in North Korea or China. But it is also incorrect to say that Malaysia was a functioning democracy then. It was what democracy scholars call “competitive authoritarianism” or an “illiberal democracy.” These terms basically describe Malaysia then as practising authoritarianism with a democratic facade – or a superficial democracy imbued with authoritarian elements.  

When a country democratises, such as what took place in Malaysia after the last general election, remnants of authoritarianism still lurk around, often openly, to reconstitute themselves in the new political constellation, biding their time to restore the old status quo.

There are ways these authoritarian holdovers can adapt and reposition themselves in a new democratic setting. They can rebrand themselves as “democrats” by joining existing political parties or by establishing new ones and use these parties as their political vehicle to subvert democracy from within. They can also work with illiberal opposition groups to destabilise the new democratic government. In fact, these two strategies normally work hand in hand.

This was what happened in Malaysia after the 2018 general election. The people finally voted out the kleptocratic Barisan Nasional-Umno regime and ushered in a democratic phase never experienced before in Malaysian history. But alas, the democratic phase proved short-lived.

The electoral defeat of the BN-Umno regime did not result in its complete loss of power and influence. After recovering from brief shell shock, former BN-Umno elites began to reorient themselves in the new political landscape.

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Some defected to the Pakatan Harapan coalition, namely the Bersatu party, which shares the same DNA as Umno. These ‘frogs’ might have waved their new party flag and sung democratic platitudes as if they were top 40 hits, but their authoritarian tendencies remained intact. They were not in it for the reforms. They only sought to shape the new democratic government from within into a form that was familiar to them, ie authoritarianism veiled behind a democratic facade.

This entailed blocking reform efforts while maintaining as much as possible the legacy of the authoritarian past. This was one reason efforts to repeal draconian laws, revamp the electoral system, reform the police – anything that involved shaking up the old status quo – were met with fierce resistance, foot-dragging, and dead ends.

The other strategy, as mentioned above, was to mobilise anti-democratic elements within civil society with the sole aim of destabilising the fledgling democratic government. Many in Umno and Pas, along with their allies in the (un)civil society, did not waste much time in putting ethno-religious issues – seen as the Achilles heel of the then PH government.

This strategy was obvious to everyone, as we witnessed an exponential rise in ethno-religious controversies such as the protests against the ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the outcry against the Rome Statute (of the International Criminal Court), the Seafield temple riot and reactions to drunk driving accidents. These incidents happened with such frequency that we could almost expect a fresh one to flare up every month!

To be fair, the idea of Malay supremacy at the core of these ethno-religious grievances remains constant, regardless of which government is in power. During the PH era, these incidents were used as a tool against the political ascendancy of the non-Malays, seen as a dire challenge against Malay supremacy. During the BN and now Perikatan Nasional eras, these same grievances have been used as a means to project Malay supremacy over minority groups and put them in their proper stations.

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The latest brouhaha over a book cover that apparently depicts a parody of the national emblem (jatanegara) is an example of this naked exercise of ethno-religious power. It is doubtful that the authorities and the public would have unleashed similar opprobrium had the editor been a Malay person and the book written in the national language instead.    

This strategy, used by the BN-Umno-Pas and their supporters to exploit ethno-religious issues, served two interlinked purposes: to distract the then-PH government from focusing on actual governing and to trigger a fracture within the PH government that would lead to its collapse, which happened eventually. From the posh Sheraton Hotel in late February this year, elements of authoritarianism, working from within and outside the government, finally succeeded in ending Malaysia’s 22-month experiment with democratisation.            

This is not to say that the then-PH government was not without fault. A lack of clear common ideology and agenda, governing inexperience, broken promises, punitive austerity policies, incessant politicking and the need to play a similar ethno-religious game with the opposition led to its break-up and its current inability to get its act together.

But let us not cry over spilled milk. For those of us who care about the democratic health of this country, it is a clarion call to action. One silver lining from the Sheraton Move and the subsequent installation of the PN government is that most of the authoritarian elements within PH have been purged, as they fled from the sinking ship. The sinking ship that is PH is still salvageable only if its crew stops bickering with each other and focuses instead on righting the listing ship, ie confronting the return of authoritarianism as a single cohesive unit.

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We are barely over 100 days into PN government rule, and the oppressive iron-fisted character of the old BN-Umno regime is now back with a vengeance. Several recent incidents such as the muzzling of critics through intimidation and censorship look familiar and reek of the pre-2018 era. The PN government is now slowly chipping away at whatever small democratic gains made during the 22-month PH rule.

So it is incumbent upon us to stem the tide of democratic regression we are now witnessing in Malaysia. We must stop the PN government from riding roughshod over our democratic rights and dragging us back to the dark authoritarian days of old.

Gone are the times when democracy was undone by a violent coup. These days democracy dies from a thousand small cuts that manifest themselves in rampant cronyism, illiberal policies, unchecked populism, a rigged electoral system, spineless media, expansion of the executive office and corruption of the judicial branch, among others. To paraphrase the poet TS Eliot, this is the way democracy ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.

We must turn the tables and resist these authoritarian interlopers. Let the whimper instead be the sound of them licking their wounds, again defeated at the polls, as we snatch Malaysia back from the clutches of authoritarianism.

Salam perjuangan!  

Azmil Tayeb
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
2 July 2020
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Dr.Suranthiran Naidu
Dr.Suranthiran Naidu
6 Jul 2020 11.18am

We pray for our youth,posterity.People and ‘leaders’ NEED TO start working from their souls.The Covid lessons r staring us at our faces.Nature and humanity need to intently work together.We can learn from Finland, NZealand, Singapore, Switzerland,now.Rukun Neg nationhood values can be infused into our education system.This can be helped to evolve.Citizens need to uphold a strong sense of patience and a drive for uprightness, for all Malaysians.Clearly, the minorities need to be aided alotmore as per Constitution.Bersih,BarC, Suhakam, the joint Msn religious orgn,.. could help urgentland committedly now. We hope all these don’t just don’t end as word gymnastics, coming to no avail, to put food and dignity on the table for the Rakyat.

Teo Chuen Tick
7 Jul 2020 8.42am

Yes, Dr Suranthiran, it is to the youth of our country we turn to, to bring about the change required to ‘heal’ our nation.
Are they up to the task?
Only time will tell.

Teo Chuen Tick
4 Jul 2020 7.31am

Very true, Azmil and I find that even Malaysiakini getting very cold feet, afraid of their own shadows and engage in self – censorship of their perceived fears of getting into trouble with the authorities.

I have cancelled my subscription with immediate effect.
Their editors/moderators are afraid of words like ‘moron’ ‘eunuchs”as*min’ in comments to describe the political operatives in our nation now.

Sharyn
Sharyn
2 Jul 2020 10.44pm

Thank you for the words. Very much needed.
do not go gentle into that darkness!