Against The Grain: The precariousness of democracy in Malaysia

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 4, 2017 - December 10, 2017.
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The Malaysian state has managed to maintain a relatively democratic regime since independence. Objections are likely to be raised as to the characterisation of the Malaysian state as democratic. Some have referred to the state in Malaysia as being authoritarian or neither democratic nor authoritarian. Therefore, it is necessary to justify the designation of Malaysia as a democratic state.

While it can be conceded that the Malaysian state does not “live up” to the standards of Western liberal democracies — nor does it aspire to — it is a system in which democratic procedures and institutions distinguish it qualitatively from many other states normally understood to be authoritarian. All regimes, whether democratic or authoritarian, are oligarchic in nature. The essence of politics is such that decisions are taken for and not by the community. Popular sovereignty should not be taken to mean that the people are directly involved in decision-making. If every regime masks an oligarchy, how are democracies distinguished from authoritarian regimes?

Important distinctions lie in the manner in which power is wielded, the rules according to which the dominant minority governs, the extent to which the ruling minority is open and the means by which it is selected. The political system is more democratic to the extent that the ruling minorities of the regime are open for entry by way of democratic procedures.

Along these lines of argument, it is fair to say that Malaysia, in comparison to liberal democracies, is corrupted by too much oligarchy, which is not to say that it is an authoritarian state. Instead, relatively free elections give power to representatives of privileged minorities.

While it may be true that democratic procedures would only be adhered to as long as the ruling elite maintains its position of power and continues to advance its ideal and material interests, the conditions under which this is so must be explained. This is to be done in comparison with the Indonesian case.

In Malaysia, since independence in 1957, general elections have been held regularly, the first in August 1959. Subsequently, elections were held in 1964, 1969, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1995, 1999, 2004, 2008 and 2013. The post-independence period of Malaysia has seen six consecutive changes of heads of government and 13 general elections. Throughout this period, civilian authority in the state has been the rule. Still, the democratic nature of the state must be understood with certain qualifications. Nevertheless, what exists in Malaysia is more than the mere form of democracy. It differs qualitatively from authoritarian states, Indonesia included. Opposition as well as government parties exist at the national as well as state levels.

Apart from an almost two-year period of “suspended democracy” following racial riots after the 1969 election, parliamentary democracy has functioned continuously. Whatever the causes of the suspension of democracy, they did not operate sufficiently long enough or were not severe enough to result in the appearance of a non-democratic state.

Nevertheless, there is a tendency for Malaysian society to undermine democracy. Take the persistence of the feudal mentality in our society. This was first discussed by Syed Hussein Alatas in an article entitled “Feudalism in Malaysian society: A study in historical continuity”, published in the journal Civilisations in 1968.

Shaharuddin Maaruf, who elaborated on the feudal mentality, has an insightful analysis that provides us with a means of understanding today’s growing authoritarian political culture, in his paper “Some Theoretical Problems Concerning Tradition and Modernisation among the Malays of Southeast Asia”, published by the Department of Malay Studies, National University of Singapore, in 2002/03.

Shaharuddin defines tradition as cultural or value systems that have been influential in moulding or shaping the world-view of a given people for a significant period in their cultural history. These cultural or value systems represent the stable core that provides the basis for society’s response to contemporary and future challenges”.

Tradition can be a negative or positive factor in the development of a society. Speaking about the Malay world, Shaharuddin draws our attention to two opposing traditions in Malay society, that is, the feudal and Islamic traditions. The conflict is rooted in the past but is still present in contemporary Malay society, even after the demise of the feudal polity.

Malay feudal values have survived the feudal system. An example is the tendency to spend lavishly on ceremonies and entertainment locally as well as abroad. It was noted by Syed Hussein in 1968 that “the mood and desire to spend on such objects have been continuous with the feudal past where the ruling power put a high premium on luxury, entertainment and recreation” (The Straits Times, Aug 9, 1968). Earlier, the University of Malaya Academic Staff Association and the Students’ Union used the term “psychological feudalism” to describe the university council due to its reluctance to seek student opinions on university matters (“Students’ union hits at varsity council”, The Straits Times, Oct 8, 1966).

Syed Hussein also referred to a certain practice of promotions as being based on feudalism. There had been numerous cases of promotions in government departments, institutions of learning, companies, political parties and public associations because the aspirants to higher positions, due to their lack of capacity and talent, resorted to winning the favour of their superiors through sycophancy or impressive subservience (“Malaysia subscribes to the conception of democracy”, Eastern Sun, Dec 30, 1966). These statements were made in the 1960s but are probably more relevant today.

According to Shaharuddin, such values include (1) a servile attitude towards authority and the acceptance of arbitrary notions of power; (2) the undermining of the positive aspects of individualism and, therefore, the lack of respect for the human personality; (3) the lack of respect for the rule of law; (4) the non-distinction between the public and personal domains of life; (5) the emphasis on grandeur and an opulent lifestyle; (6) the indifference to social justice; (7) the acceptance of unfair privileges for those in position and power; (8) the obsession with power, authority and privileges for their own sake; (9) the undervaluing of rationalism and the philosophical spirit, and the encouragement of myths that serve the interests of those in power; and (10) the emphasis on leisure and indulgence of the senses and the simultaneous undervaluing of work.

These feudal values are not only at odds with the spirit and outlook of modernisation but also clash with the fundamental values of Islam. As opposed to such feudal values, Islamic tradition emphasises (1) a more rational and egalitarian conception of authority; (2) limiting arbitrary power; (3) recognition of positive individualism and respect for the human personality; (4) the rule of law; (5) a more humanistic conception of leadership; (6) ethical integrity and honesty in public office; (7) frugality; (8) social justice; (9) effort rather than unfair privileges; (10) the ideal of excellence for life on this earth; (11) rationalism and the philosophical spirit; (12) disapproval of irrational belief and superstition; and (13) dignity of labour.

Shaharuddin’s argument is that both feudal and Islamic values exist in a conflicting relationship in Malay tradition. The question of progress in the modern era greatly depends on the outcome of such a conflict, that is, “on which value system gains the upper hand in the conflict”. Indeed, this is one of the more serious threats to democracy in Malaysia today. There has to be more awareness of this problem. Furthermore, it is necessary that intellectuals and activists in civil society work towards an intellectual movement that has as its goal the erosion of feudal values. This has to be seen as a problem as great as that of kleptocracy.

Syed Farid Alatas is Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore

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