We need to reform the judicial system to make it independent and to strengthen religious pluralism before we can lay claim to being the best democracy, asserts Ronald Benjamin.
Prime Minister Najib Razak’s statement that the objective of scrapping the ISA is to make Malaysia the best democracy is an ideal statement but devoid of reality.
Although the scrapping of this draconian law is a welcome sign for democracy, it is inadequate if the political and judicial conditions necessary for the proper functioning of democracy are not taken into consideration, bearing in mind the political and judicial actors in Malaysia.
A few factors still impinge on the democratic rights of Malaysians even with the scrapping of this draconian law. First, Malaysian politics is very much conditioned by an ethno-religious environment. The state, even though in essence it supposed to be a functional democracy, still gives religious bodies absolute powers to intrude into the private initiative and conscience of individuals. The moral policing of citizens and the the raid on a church in Damansara based on an unproven allegation of trying to convert Muslims are examples of the state’s power to intrude into the private though transparent activities of citizens. This goes against the very grain of freedom and democracy.
This ethno-religious ideology that demonstrates itself through coercive powers without proper checks and balances signifies religous totalitarianism. The detention of Shiite followers is evidence of this fact. The contest between Umno and Pas on who best protects Islam would basically see more intrusion by the state into the private lives and activities of citizens in years to come. Religious ideology in Malaysia is identity-oriented instead of substance-oriented and this is the reason there is a lack of appreciation for pluralism and critical reasoning, which is a prerequisite for a vibrant democracy.
Some would argue that Malaysia’s democracy advocates should accept the country’s ethno-religous roots, and they may have a point. But where does it say that there should not be checks and balances on the powers of religious autocracy? Is it not trying to impose a mind-set on a diverse population going against the grain of reason, which is critical for a proper analysis of ideas and issues in a democracy?
Secondly, the execution of law over the years has been selective especially those which are considered to be high-profiles cases. For example, DAP chairman Karpal Singh was charged with sedition for commenting on the constitutional crisis in Perak while statements made by certain NGOs and individuals such as ‘war on Christians’ have never been deemed to be seditious. Was the Sedition Act merely formulated to protect the powerful? The inaction by the Attorney General on the Lingam video episode is another example of how public confidence in the checks and balances of democratic institutions has been compromised.. The professional execution of laws is a prerequisite to a vibrant democracy.
The office of the Attorney General has to be reformed before any meaningful transformation of the Malaysian political landscape can be realized. The same goes with the police force. These is a tendency to merely follow the orders of the ruling regime without a sense of impartiality and respect for the constitutional rights of citizen. This can only be changed through a paradigm shift of thinking and by doing away with the culture of subservience. The scrapping of tough laws alone will not be adequate.
Third, until we have judges who are able to show allegiance to the substance of the Constitution by protecting the democratic rights of citizens, Malaysia will still be a long way away from a vibrant democracy. The perception is that some judges tend to interpret laws according to Parliament while ignoring the supreme principles of the Constitution.
Although in theory there is a separation of powers, in reality when it comes to politically sensitive cases such as the Perak constitutional crisis, the judiciary has basically created a precedent for what many consider to be immorality and deception to rule the day. Ethical considerations have taken a back seat. For example, the process – such as obtaining a vote of confidence in the Perak State Assembly or going to the rakyat for a mandate – was sidelined.
The Prime Minister’s view that the scrapping of the ISA would make Malaysia the best democracy is merely a political statement rather than an intellectually thought out statement. Malaysia is still a long way away from embracing inclusive democracy due to the absence of conducive political and judicial conditions for democracy to flourish.
The initiative to scrap draconian security laws should be followed by reforms to the judicial system to make it independent and accountable while respect for religious pluralism should be strengthened before we can lay claim to be the best democracy.
Ronald Benjamin is an Aliran member based in Ipoh