Malaysia’s opportunity for Asian democracy

LIBERATION and democratisation in Asia is a complex story. Our continent is geographically so vast and is home to so many different cultural and religious narratives that have given rise to multiple justifications for political legitimacy; and our myriad interactions with powers within ourselves and outside Asia, whether in imperial or diplomatic terms, has also been varied.

The terms themselves may be contested: certain geographical areas or communities may have more legitimacy than others in seeking ‘liberation’, and the means by which it is sought also matters: do violent means justify supposedly peaceful ends?

We can speak of liberation movements as those which secured independence from foreign powers, but we can also speak of liberation movements as those that ended oppressive national governments – although many such cases are highly subjective and require the benefit of hindsight. Still, in many countries we can describe episodes of transition that separated more authoritarian and more democratic periods. Some countries are undergoing that transition now.

However, liberation does not necessarily lead to immediate democratisation: some countries were liberated from an imperial power only to need liberation from its own oppressive government soon after.

Understandings of ‘democracy’ also remain mixed. While some aspects like rule of law, separation of powers, elections and freedom of expression seem obvious, there can be vast differences in policy areas such as education, health, welfare or defence in the name of democracy.

While many Asian countries began life with optimistic pronouncements and apparently solid constitutions, democratic values have frequently been assaulted: particularly by authoritarian leaders (who came to power through the ballot box) attempting to centralise power at the expense of checks and balances. Parallel to that, corruption and money politics compromise the integrity of independent institutions, and competing interpretations of the constitution – often on religious grounds – challenge the democratic origins and intentions of the founding fathers. This, in turn, threatens economic prospects.

For years such fears were expressed about Malaysia, but two months ago voters enabled a possibly new trajectory with the defeat of the governing coalition (in power since independence) for the first time. I say ‘possibly’ because there is no guarantee that all the promises of reform will actually come to fruition.

Some initial signs bode well though, such as the appointment of a highly respected and independent lawyer as Attorney General, who believes in separating his role as legal advisor from also being public prosecutor – though it seems his first task is to prosecute the former Prime Minister who has now been charged. The reorganisation of important bodies to be more independent under Parliament rather than the Prime Minister’s Department is also an excellent step forward. With more members of the cabinet being appointed last week, the priority for civil society organisations is to ensure that there is enough public pressure to ensure more manifesto pledges come true.

Since the election, Prime Minister Modi has visited Malaysia, while Dr Mahathir met Prime Minister Abe in Japan. From the latter, ‘Look East’ is a buzzword again.  If its first iteration in the 80s and 90s focused on industrial development and technical expertise, today’s changed geopolitical landscape requires the infusion of a democratic element. For example, when it comes to foreign investment, leaders should realise that open tenders and transparent bidding with the rule of law and fair contracts is superior for long-term relations and development, compared to projects perceived to be rewarded as political favours and encroaching on national sovereignty.

The other contemplation brought about by this renewed bilateral engagement is the domestic political lessons. Both Umno and the LDP have enjoyed a dominant status in their countries’ governments since 1955. But after the LDP was defeated in 2009, it managed to win again in 2012. Will Umno enjoy the same electoral rebound, and if so, will it be because of Pakatan Harapan’s failures or because of Umno’s rehabilitation? The results of its internal party elections last week suggest its members do not want to change things too much.

Still, democracy in Malaysia is very much healthier compared to many other Asian countries. But while we pride ourselves as being a multiracial, multicultural, and multi-religious country for tourism purposes, unfortunately this diversity has also been used all too often to justify authoritarian policies on purported racial or religious grounds.

However, if Malaysia can institutionalise reforms according to its original constitution written explicitly to advance the causes of liberty and justice, then we go one step closer to proving that democratic values are indeed Asian and universal values that can complement our great cultures and traditions.

From the writer’s speech at the Shared Values and Democracy symposium organised by the Japan Foundation, Vivekananda International Foundation and Nakamura Hajime Eastern Institute in Tokyo on July 5.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.

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