Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

There Really is no Democracy in Malaysia

Written by johnleemk on 6:02:49 am May 9, 2007.
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For a few, the title's conclusion is obvious. For others, its meaning eludes them. But I'm willing to bet that almost nobody fully understands why there is no democracy here.

It's quite obvious that we have the trappings of democracy. But is democracy just about casting a vote once every five years, and remaining totally uninvolved in the political process the rest of the time?

Of course not. A democracy is about transparency and accountability. But that is just one aspect of democracy, and one I've already dealt with before.

The fact is, at its heart, democracy is about the people making their own decisions and choices. As far as possible, we should be trying to give power to the people, as Switzerland has successfully done for at least two centuries.

Who makes the choices in almost any political Malaysian election? Hint: It's not the people. The true decisionmakers are those at the top, whose decisions are basically ratified by "elections" of the people.

How can it be called a democratic election if there are no open nominations? When the party leaders pick candidates, the result is that they are denying the people the right to vote for whom they like.

In short, elections become meaningless because they force voters to pick between candidates they may not even want. Elections exist as farcical means of providing validity and ratification to whoever holds power.

This is a problem that plagues even the opposition parties. They claim to be grassroots-driven, but in reality, these parties are more about their leaders than anything else. They have no unifying ideology, they have no unified message, and they can't even lay claim to providing real democracy when even their internal elections are so easily manipulated by the party leadership.

This might not be as big an issue if there was room at the bottom of the political pyramid for people to have a voice for their frustrations. In many democracies, elected local authorities provide such a voice — which is why Britain, despite having a similar political structure as our country and its political parties, does not suffer so badly when it comes to democracy.

In Malaysia, where we don't even elect the people who collect our garbage and keep the roads paved, who represents the people and lends their grievances a voice? It's rare to see candidates and politicians who can easily relate to the people — and ironically, local governments are often the most detached from the people they serve, since they are unelected.

If every post in Malaysian politics was open to an election, how many incumbents do you think would be returned? There are a few mavericks out there — I imagine several opposition politicians, and a few from Barisan Nasional, would win re-election despite competition. But far too many people are in power only because they derived their power from those who already have it.

I have heard it remarked before that if we operated under a presidential system, only Tunku Abdul Rahman would have been elected to head the government, because only the Tunku was truly loved and respected by the people. Tun Abdul Razak became Prime Minister only because the Tunku appointed him as his deputy. Same goes for Tun Hussein Onn, Mahathir Mohamad, and Abdullah Badawi.

All these men got where they are because they appealed to the right powerful people. This is the complete antithesis of democracy — in a democracy, power is derived from the people. You are accountable to the electorate you serve, not to your political superiors.

And the opposition parties have this problem too. Because they too appoint candidates for elections based on decisions of the party leadership, rather than first letting party members vote for the candidate they desire, the general election thus becomes nothing more than ratifying the decision of one party — government or opposition — and rejecting the other.

This is not democracy. The question now is, how do we get from this authoritarian farce of a democracy to a real political system for the people and by the people?

It is impossible for us to immediately set up local government elections again, though some political scientists have suggested that state governments could do this on their own initiative (after all, local governments are appointed by the states, not the federal government).

Converting ourselves into a presidential system is virtually impossible, and in any case, not too wise, I would say.

What we can do is make internal elections more democratic. Because of our huge deficiencies in other areas of democracy, the onus is now on the political parties to make their own election processes more open, and imbue them with accountability.

I see no reason why we cannot have primary elections for voters from individual constituencies to choose which candidate they would like to represent them in the general election. The only obstacle is cost — I don't know how much it would cost for the parties to run their own primary elections. There's no reason to summarily dismiss the proposal, however.

We need a real democracy in Malaysia. But how can we have a real democracy when even our own political parties are undemocratic? There are many steps left for us on the long road to real democracy, but the very first must be to make our political parties bastions of democracy, and not authoritarianism.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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