Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Coming of Age of a Democracy

Written by johnleemk on 3:46:09 am Jun 26, 2008.

A week in politics is a long time. How much longer then is 100 days? Every time a minor scandal pops up, I hear people warning of how it will come back to haunt Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat in the next election; in reality, most issues only last as long as they remain in the headlines.

The enormous impact of the March 8 elections — a political tsunami, as Lim Kit Siang termed it — is almost an afterthought these days. Peruse any newspaper and it seems as if we have always had a strong Opposition in Parliament and heterogeneity in our state governments; we easily forget what a landmark March 8, 2008 was for our country.

Years, decades from now, historians will mark March 8 as the day things changed for Malaysia forever. Democracy is fundamentally about dissent; about the right to hold opposing viewpoints. If we did not acknowledge the right of others to think differently, if we did not recognise the right to have a different opinion, we would not be holding elections, because there would only be one course of action, only one leader, open to us. Hanya satu pilihan, we might say. March 8 changed the course of our democracy and our nation forever because it finally gave meaning to our promise, enshrined in the Rukunegara, to "memelihara satu cara hidup demokratik (uphold a democratic way of life)".

Over 50 years after Tunku Abdul Rahman announced to the world the independence of "a sovereign democratic and independent State founded upon the principles of liberty and justice", we finally put our feet down and declared that no, there is not "hanya satu pilihan" — that we have a right to disagree, that we have a right to consider different views about where our country should go.

Being overseas for the past nine months brought home the reality of this change like nothing else really could. Tunkuís promise of a nation "founded upon the principles of liberty and justice" rang hollow with the news of a judiciary tainted by fixed decisions and bribery of judges, and a government imprisoning people for simply exercising their freedom to disagree.

The contrast was all the more stark for me, living in a country where people are free to "Photoshop" Supreme Court justices into various states of undress (as one popular satirist has actually done), and where the residents of one state even proudly declare on their car licence plates that they will "Live Free or Die". What in Malaysia is business as usual is abhorrent to those who live in a land where justice and liberty thrive.

For the past 100 days, then, I have been in a near-constant state of excitement about what happens in Malaysia. The political tsunami is almost as real to me today as it was on March 8 because I remained detached from it. From afar, it was exciting to witness the birth of a functioning democracy, from the baby steps of the new state governments to the arguments in Parliament.

Unlike what seems to be a vast majority of BN MPs, I donít think democracy is a "waste of time" — recognising disagreement, as the Dewan Rakyat did when it finally held a recorded vote for the first time in living memory, is the hallmark of a functioning democracy where civilised people are free to disagree with one another.

At the Northeast Malaysia Forum I helped organise at Harvard University, a bare three weeks after the elections, the excitement in the air was palpable. All of us knew that March 8 represented a huge turning point for the country — it was all anyone and everyone could talk about.

How you can change the path of your countryís future when a viable alternative government lies in wait is very different from when one party rules with a barely tolerated Opposition; central to any discussion about how we can change our country — any discussion much like many we had those two days in Boston — has to be democracy and the right to put forward a different point of view.

Like it or not, Malaysians, perhaps unconsciously, announced on March 8 that we are a democracy, and that different viewpoints have to be approached with respect rather than bullying. The days of when you could toss political opponents in jail for daring to disagree and the days of when you could demonise your opposition as traitors who "kalau tak suka boleh keluar dari Malaysia (if you don't like it, get out of Malaysia)" are over.

When almost half of the country votes for anyone that is not the ruling party, when thousands of people pour into the streets to express their disagreement with the path our country is going down, you cannot help but conclude that the country is claiming for itself the right to disagree; that we, the people, want the right to hold a variety of viewpoints, and not just adhere to one single story, one single official position. In a democratic society, the right to hold a different point of view is paramount, sacrosanct; in post-March 8 Malaysia, we are finally witnessing the fulfilment of all this promise our nation held 50 years ago.

And that is why we cannot let March 8 fade away from our memories. Too often we have a nasty habit of repressing the turning points in our nationís history. Even today, the events of May 13, 1969 are something we would rather talk about in whispers than discuss openly. That day changed our lives forever, and yet it is quickly glossed over in any standard narrative of our national history.

We cannot afford to gloss over the events of March 8 so easily, because in many ways, it is the counterpoint to May 13. One day saw people using parangs and pistols to disagree; the other saw people using speeches and ballots. One day saw incredible bitterness and arrogance in the exercise of fundamental democratic rights; the other saw incredible maturity and humility.

For 100 days, I have kept the events of March 8 alive in my mind and in my heart because, as I watched detachedly, literally 10,000 miles away from home, I saw my country living out the creed its founding father laid down at the stroke of midnight on August 31, 1957: at long last, our democracy has come of age.

First published in The Malaysian Insider.

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