Being Human: Making democracy work is everyone’s business

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 28 - October 4, 2015.


ON Malaysia Day, Sept 16, media reports on the results of a national unity survey conducted earlier this year bore the disconcerting news that some 55% of Malaysians believe that the country is heading in the wrong direction, in terms of its economy and governance.

A few days later, on Sept 22, Pakatan Harapan, a new coalition of the main opposition parties — minus the conservative Islamic party PAS — was launched. Despite its optimistic name, the Coalition of Hope has failed to stir excitement among the general public, say observers.

So, the nation appears to be stuck in an uncomfortable spot: a strong feeling of disquiet at the status quo on the one hand, and a nagging sense of uncertainty about the alternative proposition, on the other.

Food for thought, no doubt. What will it take, one might ask, for Malaysia to rediscover its sense of mission, to determine for certain what the roots of its malaise are and to understand what its short and long-term goals should be.

To deal with the uncertainty over its political future, a culture of mature discourse is sorely needed to elicit the best options for its people. Unfortunately, the general public does not have much practice in open, dispassionate dialogue, no thanks to the communal sentiments that are ingrained in the political system.

The search for a way forward must start with the recognition that the current racial and religious-based political framework, which had appeared to ensure justice and harmony for Malaysia’s diverse communities is, in reality, a dead end.

Therefore, we need to take many baby steps towards a social and political environment that accepts egalitarianism as an integral element of modern society. This would include a progressive interpretation of special rights as enshrined in the Federal Constitution and an enabling vision that can harness the best qualities of its citizens in all their diversity for the greater glory of the nation.

It is heartening that a senior leader like Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz has recently taken to pointedly pushing for a mindset change about race relations, using the communications tool of today — social media. However, her trademark candour is especially noticeable for its virtual absence in the ranks of current government leaders.

This brings us to a sobering realisation that the road to Malaysia’s political maturity is surely going to be long and rather bumpy.

Further, it is important to recognise that an open political space can only exist if it is supported by an engaged, critically conscious and ethically grounded citizenry. It is evident that a passive, unmindful and amoral public will tend not to stand up to misfeasance, corruption or bad governance.

So, in order to take the country beyond the turmoil of a changing political landscape, much systematic work is needed to lay the foundations of a sound democratic society.

Citizens must be encouraged to think critically, speak their minds, engage with constituencies beyond their domestic walls and open their minds to a broad worldview.

All these are lifelong habits that are most effectively implanted from a young age. Therefore, the country’s political culture cannot be expected to evolve in a healthy way before a generational shift in attitudes towards citizens’ roles in a democracy has taken place.

While civil society groups can be relied upon to continue pushing for democratic freedoms to be recognised, a free society can only flourish when all other stakeholders in our nationhood infuse the principles of democracy into the lifeblood of their institutions.

Corporate citizenship, for example, could evolve beyond disaster relief, study aid and welfare assistance to include support for programmes that foster diversity. Professional institutions could sponsor projects that enhance accountability and good governance. Concerned individuals can volunteer time with groups that serve to democratise access to information, and so on.

The upshot of all this is that citizens must take ownership of making democracy work and not leave it to the political class to sway the course of the nation’s affairs.

So, while it is only natural that the public is disappointed that the political landscape appears to be hopelessly fragmented, this should only propel concerned citizens to join the collective effort to create a vibrant democracy for the future.

Only when the citizenry as a whole is determined to bring about a change in the quality of governance by pressing unceasingly for accountability, transparency and the protection of justice by those in public office can such a future materialise.

If enough Malaysians cannot find the motivation to make a difference to the country’s future, even under the current troubling circumstances, there is every likelihood that, for better or for worse, we may be stuck in the current pathway for an indefinite span of time.

This brings us squarely to the adage that the people get the leaders they deserve.

R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge Malaysia