Liberalism – a convenient whipping boy

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Perlembagaan Persekutuan

Despite its illustrious history, liberalism is used hereto prevent serious thinking and debates on the real social and political problems of our time, writes Christopher Chong Eu Choong.

Judging from the Constitution, this country was founded on the basis of liberalism.
Judging from the Constitution, this country was founded on the basis of liberalism.

Recently the word liberalism has drawn a lot of bad press.

From the public statements made by certain public figures, it would seem that it is the scourge of all social and political ills in the country. The problem here, at least for me, is they never define liberalism.

Liberalism, to put it simply, is a convenient whipping boy. It is used to prevent serious thinking and debates on the real social and political problems in the public sphere.

The thing is, liberalism as an idea has a long and illustrious history not only in political philosophy but also in the evolution of democratic societies. More importantly, to use the word “liberalism” in a pejorative manner is to do so in bad faith.

So let’s start from the beginning. What is liberalism? Liberalism is an idea found within political philosophy that proposes how a society should organise itself politically.

The basic premise of liberalism is that individual matters and the liberty of an individual must be preserved as much as possible from government interference. From this basic premise, liberalism envisions a form of government whose powers are not absolute and derives its legitimacy from its own citizens – what we commonly refer to today as democracy, e.g. the separation of powers and periodic elections.

To preserve individual liberty, liberalism proposes that citizens possess certain inalienable rights, e.g. freedom of speech and the rule of law, which the government cannot infringe upon.

Now that we got our term right. Let’s judge whether liberalism deserves the bad press it has received.

The founding document of the nation, i.e. the Federal Constitution, declares that Malaysia is a democratic society.
It provides provisions for periodic elections and outlines the powers of each branch of government. It also has a section that outlines the rights of every citizens.

So, judging from the Constitution, this country was founded on the basis of liberalism. It is therefore surprising when certain public figures heap abuse on this idea. Perhaps, politicians should take a course in political philosophy before they make silly pronouncements on ideas that have shaped the nation.

And yes, ideas do matter. They gives shape to our reality whether we are aware of it or not. So we must understand them on their own terms and judge their merit rather than letting others hijack them for their own ends.

As George Orwell once said, “Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

We need to be on guard against such language.

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