MYSay: Democracy a verb and not just a noun

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 7, 2020 - December 13, 2020.
MYSay: Democracy a verb and not just a noun
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In November 2013, I wrote an essay in The Edge called, “Give GST a chance”. In it, I wrote, “… the most substantive argument against the effectiveness of Goods and Services Tax implementation in Malaysia is neither economic nor moral; it is political. Will there be sufficient political will to see it through and to properly enforce the GST implementation? Will there be ongoing commitment to ensure that the GST system is implemented fairly and without misappropriation and abuse vis-à-vis dealings with the rakyat?”

A combination of former US president Donald Trump and Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel made me reflect on that particular essay. Not so much on my view on the GST — I still think the GST is a tax that the government should absolutely consider reintroducing — but the way in which I framed my point. I separated arguments for the effectiveness of the GST in three ways — economic, moral, political. I realise that when it comes to matters of public policy, those arguments should not be considered as separate; they are inseparable.

In Sandel’s latest book called The Ty­ranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, he argues that present-day attitudes towards success and failure — typically imbued with high conceptions of meritocracy — have generated hubris among the “winners” and harsh judgments on those left behind, the “losers”. This has given rise to a sense of anger and discontent, which has prevailed in recent times with a heightened prominence of authoritarian-type regimes globally and so-called “populist” movements.

Yet, Sandel argues, “Construing populist protest as either malevolent or misdirected absolves governing elites of responsibility for creating the conditions that have eroded the dignity of work and left many feeling disrespected and disempowered.” In other words, those of us who believe that the supporters of populist movements in Malaysia and in other countries — such as supporters of Trump — were, at best, misinformed and, at worst, “deplorable” as Hillary Clinton called a segment of Trump supporters, have failed to take the anger, worries and concerns of those people seriously. We think, “Oh, only if they were informed — like we are — then they would see the light, like us”.

But that is precisely the type of condescension that just enrages everyone else. By essentially boxing those who have views completely opposite to ours as a group of misinformed miscreants, we are thereby discounting not just those individuals in and of themselves but as participants in our shared democracy.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Many of us, myself included, who live in urban areas in Kuala Lumpur (for example, those from the Bangsar Bubble) have been critical of our fellow citizens for not seeing what we see — “How can people think 1MDB was anything other than corruption?! How do we make them see it?!”

A big reason for my failure is that I tend to view public policy and, particularly, economic policy as a matter of technocratic expertise. We know what the textbooks say, we know what the experts say; therefore, we should try to apply it as best we can, taking into account some contextualisation to the Malaysian environment.

Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, I saw the arguments for GST in segmented economic, moral and political lenses. Yet, when it comes to public policy and the very real mission of us living together and moving forward as a nation, they cannot be separate. Public policy — however much there is a first-best solution technically — is political and is moral.

When it comes to making public policy decisions in a democracy, what we are really trying to make decisions on is, “How do we agree to live together as a shared imagined community?” Taking the GST as an example, I argued that my considerations were that GST is a far more efficient tax system, and, morally, I’d rather be taxed for my consumption than for my income. Looking back, even my moral argument was technocratic. But those were not answers to the democratic question.

The main sentiments against the GST were along the following lines — “How dare you increase taxes on us again when we’re already suffering?”, “Are you making us pay higher taxes to sort out the mess you’ve made elsewhere?”. These are not just economic concerns; they are moral and political concerns and are just as valid as any economic concern when it comes to the democratic question.

Sandel puts it nicely, “… the technocratic approach to governance treated many public questions as matters of technical expertise beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. This narrowed the scope of democratic argument, hollowed out the terms of public discourse, and produced a growing sense of disempowerment.” As a fun aside, he adds, ‘This can be seen in the growing role of economists as policy advisors…” The criticism is fair.

Even in the Malaysian policy space, many economists, myself included, have criticised public policy on highly technical terms, failing to address the moral and political considerations built into those policies. We, at best, fail to appreciate that others may have different moral considerations than we do and, at worst, we are smug about our self-perceived higher moral ground. No one likes smug sanctimony.

Where Trump comes into this is in the recent US elections where, despite losing to President-elect Joe Biden, Trump managed to garner nearly 74 million votes (as at Nov 30), more than any presidential candidate before him. Biden has more than 80 million votes at this time. Therefore, despite all of the controversies — political, moral, economic — that surround Trump and his closest advisers, 74 million Americans still chose to vote for him and, indeed, many more chose to turn out to vote for him than before.

Naturally, this has launched a tonne of op-eds and think pieces, many of which repeat the themes of the op-eds and think pieces from 2016, after Trump won the presidency. These themes include perceived displacement from globalisation and immigration, identity crises, a continued opposition to elites in government that continue to rig the system, very real racial prejudices and much more.

I have no doubt that all of these themes play a role, but I suspect that a part of it is also a middle finger to the Democratic Party which, as Sandel puts it, “… had become a party of technocratic liberalism more congenial to the professional classes than to the blue-collar and middle-class voters who once constituted its base”.

I think there is truth in the idea that, in certain circumstances, when we discuss public policy, we have deviated away from the bigger question of, “How do we live together?” towards a much deeper focus on the technocratic aspects of those policies. And, in doing so, we can sometimes be dismissive of those who want to analyse those questions from a moral or political lens, but this should not be the case.

Democracy should be a verb, not a mere noun, and a big part of democracy and, therefore, answering the question of “How do we live together?” requires more humility in our thoughts and actions, and to take seriously those who are taking non-technical viewpoints even to a technical policy question.


Nicholas Khaw is an economist with the Khazanah Research and Investment Strategy division

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