Monday, May 20

Malaysia’s democratic roots


IN discussing democratic transitions in the Muslim world, its intellectual justifications and today’s geopolitical realities, we should remember relevant historical experiences. For some, reclaiming the Islamic Golden Age means subjugating people by force. For others, it means creating conditions that will lead to the flowering of thinkers and philosophers, scientists and innovators, and writers and poets. What models of governance from our past might inspire us?

Malaysia’s history contains some surprising examples. No doubt, many features of our pre-modern polities were autocratic, where slavery, debt bondage and other barbaric punishments were meted out. Even so, we can find the roots of democracy as well, situated within our cultural and religious context.

On example is the Terengganu Inscription Stone of 1303, which subjects the rulers’ authority to a higher one. It requires the ruler to decide on the “right knowledge in accordance with the decrees of the Supreme God,” and those – including the ruling class – who fail to do so “shall be damned”.

In the 15th and 16th century Sulalatus Salatin (which we know as the Malay Annals or Sejarah Melayu), there is a social contract that Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have understood, when the king, Sangsapurba, wishes to marry the daughter of a chief, Demang Lebar Daun. The agreement states that Sangsapurba has to be fair to the family of Demang Lebar Daun, while the latter has to be loyal to the king. If the agreement is breached – whether by the king becoming tyrannical or by the subjects committing treason – then “divine vengeance” would result.

The story of Hang Tuah has often been used to justify authoritarian rule: although being wrongly accused himself, he is later greatly rewarded in rank and title for killing his friend Hang Kasturi or Hang Jebat, depending on the version. In the more popular version, this is the case even though Hang Jebat rebelled against the sultan for wrongfully accusing Hang Tuah in the first place: thus many cite Hang Jebat as the real hero for standing up to injustice, rather than Hang Tuah for his unquestionable loyalty to authority.

Either way, the legend of Hang Tuah belies the laws of the polity he was living in: for the Undang-undang Melaka was remarkably ahead of its time. From a 1656 copy of the text we see that this proto-constitution declares itself as the supreme law of the land, establishing rule of law even over rulers. It defines constitutional roles of specific office bearers of state such as the bendahara, temenggung and syahbandar.

Several articles emphasise property rights, commerce and a capitalist economy.  Property is so sacred that thieves can be lawfully killed on a second offence, while ‘dead land’ can be acquired by working it (akin to John Locke’s labour theory of property). Violations of standardised weights and measures are punished. Remarkably, for a sale to be valid, the parties must be adults of sound mind who must explicitly agree to buy and sell the item at an agreed price: all concepts central to contract law today. The use of proxies, punishes misrepresentation, establishes a statutory return policy are regulated and barter is forbidden.  Other clauses govern the sale of houses, land, transacting while in debt, bankruptcy, investments and trusts. All this is clear evidence that the Malay state undertook responsibilities to protect the individual rights of its members.

Many similar provisions permeated throughout the other Malay kingdoms, where new innovations also developed, such as in Johor where the kangchu system created autonomous zones in which economic development and government functions were decentralised.

Meanwhile, in Negeri Sembilan, an ancient socio-political system maintained distinct institutions that espoused its unique form of government. A former British Resident of Negeri Sembilan, RJ Wilkinson, wrote in 1914 that, “If any European student imagines that constitutional Government is alien to the Asiatic mind he may study the Minangkabau system with profit, for it is a genuine Malay creation and owes nothing to alien influence … The Negri Sembilan Malay loved his liberty, and the Yang di-Pertuan Besar is a constitutional ruler.” Many historians since have written much about the democratic, decentralised, matrilineal and individualist (especially merantau) aspects of Adat Perpatih.

Today in Malaysia – just as in so many Muslim countries around the world – the structure of government and the incentives of leaders seem a world apart from these histories. But when we consider that so much constitutional experimentation and development occurred in these explicitly Muslim polities, it does provide an alternative to the authoritarianism that so many Muslim politicians seem keen to adopt.

Indeed, we have our own narrative of democracy, and it’s no surprise the authoritarians don’t wish to be reminded.

From the writer’s speech at the ‘Democratic Transitions in the Muslim World’ conference at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS).

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is president of Ideas.