Open debate is necessary if we want change to continue and if we expect to make Malaysia a fully democratic state, writes Eymar Santa.
Everybody agrees that 505 was an important date for Malaysian democracy; Malaysians went en masse to vote.
Apparently some 85 per cent of registered voters came out to cast their votes this time. Pakatan Rakyat won almost 51 per cent of the total votes, while BN captured 47 per cent. This is the simplest proof that most Malaysians wanted Ubah (Change).
During the election campaign, massive crowds of young and older voters gathered at PR rallies organised everywhere in Peninsula Malaysia. The Rakyat’s fearlessness in attending these mass rallies showed that a strong interest in Malaysia’s future was slowly growing amongst Malaysians. The consciousness of being Malaysian was stronger than any political strategies aimed at dividing Malaysians along racial lines.
However, Change (Ubah) requires us to constantly bring in new ideas that have to be discussed and implemented according to the nature of society. In relation to this, I would like to compare some issues arising in a society I am familiar with, France.
The president of an independent commission – the Commission for the Renewal of French Politics – raised these issues in 2012. The solutions proposed by the Commission are still being discussed nowadays. Not everybody agrees with the entire document.. Yet, interesting ideas can emerge from a debate on such questions arising in the Malaysian context.
Reducing official corruption
After the many corruption scandals in the French Government over the past 20 years, it has been decided that some functions were not compatible with the exercise of government administration.
The principal objective of such a measure was to prevent conflicts of interest in government. However, this measure cannot totally eliminate official corruption, but it must be said that it helps to reduce corruption.
It is not possible nowadays in France, to see a minister in office who is at the same time running a company and so on. If it happens that he owns the company, then he must put his activity in his company aside, and let the executive board make decisions.
Press freedom places responsibility on the media to publicly denounce any favour shown by some ministers to their friends whose companies benefit from public contracts. Thanks to the media, every public personality is accountable for all acts of administration. It would be interesting to push for such a limitation on those in government in Malaysia, where corruption is said to be spreading to all levels.
France has a strong tradition of centralisation. Everything used to be decided in Paris for the whole country. However, the State has decentralised its authority, mainly due to economic necessity. Local councils at different levels have begun to be set up. Today, France is under the third phase of decentralization, a process started during Mitterrand’s presidency in 1982.
Decentralisation has been proven to be economically more efficient; it also reduces so-called “transaction costs”. Democratically, it is also efficient as the people are frequently called to vote and influence the policies of their constituency.
France’s decentralisation was highly criticised with the administration being described as a “thick pill” (difficult to swallow). Even the European Union criticised this step and asked the French government to simplify its administrative organisation.
One fear that is frequently linked with decentralisation is the threat to national cohesion. But France underpins its national unity with a strong respect for the constitution. Yet some territories like New Caledonia and Corsica are pushing for more autonomy. This tends to happen only in territories that do not have geographical connection with the metropolitan territory i.e. the French mainland.
In Malaysia, the situation is quite different as the federal government slowly reduces the prerogative of its components. Power is concentrated more and more in Putrajaya. To some extent, Malaysian federalism is centralism by another name. The issue of decentralisation must be debated, including the status of Sarawak and Sabah.
The word “race” in the Constitution
Very recently France took a symbolic step which, I strongly believe, is relevant. A unanimous decision was made by the legislature to erase the word “race” from the constitution. Usage of this word is seen to be out-dated and unacceptable to current society. The term “race” was used while France still had a global colonial empire.
Even though the reality in Malaysia obliges us to talk about race or ethnicity, it must be understood that the concept of being Malaysian in Malaysia will not develop to forge unity and independence, if society is still bound by separate ethnic identities.
It is not that ethnic identity must not be taken into consideration; this would be impossible. Cultural identity exists at the sociological level and thus cannot be denied by policy makers.
What is meant here is that, it is time for Malaysia to accept the multiculturalism of its society and of its members. We all have multiple identities as the Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Sen, explains in his book “Identity and Violence”.
For instance, “I am not only Malay, I am also a woman, who likes cycling, nature and travelling.” Or, “I am not only Chinese, but I am also a man who likes driving and music.” Or, “I am not only Indian, but also a Muslim woman, a mother who loves hiking” … and so on.
Thus, to be Malaysian includes all the elements of ethnicity and culture, as a Malaysian takes on all these multiple identities at one, or different times. Open debate is necessary if we want Change to continue and if we expect to make Malaysia a fully democratic state.
Eymar Santa is the pseudonym of a keen observer of global politics.