MALAYSIA’S performance in the recently-released Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2019 is our best ever, ranking 43rd out of 167 countries and territories, and scoring 7.16 points out of 10, with individual scores of 9.17 for Electoral Process and Pluralism, 7.86 for Functioning of Government, 6.67 for Political Participation, 6.25 for Political Culture and 5.88 for Civil Liberties. The first edition of the index in 2006 placed us 81st with an overall score of 5.98.
Moving up from 52nd place in 2018, the upgrade ranking is significant, although we are still categorised as a ‘flawed democracy’. In a press statement, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih 2.0) congratulated “the people, the Election Commission, and the Malaysian government for achieving the highest score in the Election Process category”, before a reminder that “there is a lot to do to achieve the status of a full democracy”, and calling for including further institutional reform, ensuring freedom of speech, reintroducing local government elections, reducing the power of the Prime Minister, and increasing political participation by women. There are, of course, areas in which many civil society organisations including Ideas have worked over the years, often in partnership with each other.
Still, I could not help but notice that this Democracy Index 2019 result was not greeted with as widespread jubilation as it might have done in the past. On the contrary, some people I spoke to found it bittersweet, since it would enable the government to trumpet the achievement while not addressing ongoing shortcomings, even reversals, that afflict our democracy today. These comprise, as I have written before, the halting of some promised reforms, and mounting uncertainty about the future leadership of the country amid talk of deals between erstwhile foes and splits within parties.
No doubt there is a lag between the data being gathered and the index being published; and this is important when considering some individuals, cautiously welcomed to serve in key institutions, who have perhaps not lived up to the initial optimism surrounding their appointment. And as is inevitably the case with any country comparisons, there are intangible or country-specific aspects that the data might not be able to capture. In Malaysia’s case, the durability of reforms is difficult to assess, since a new Prime Minister and a different set of political alliances could quickly discard what was previously accomplished.
That is why it is important for civil society to work together with the relevant parts of government, parliament, and other stakeholders to ensure democratisation is not derailed. In the long-term this must include civic education, so that citizens understand the relationship between different institutions and can hold the government to account according to their promises, particularly those explicitly stated in election manifestoes.
Indeed, one of our current quagmires stems from a promise of which there is no written record. There has been no end of theories concerning possible new political configurations, the secret signing of letters and statutory declarations, and the interpretations of what political leaders say in public versus what they might be doing behind the scenes. None of this, alas, can be captured in a democracy index, and the impacts of such politicking – including promises made in secret between political elites – risks undoing what was promised to voters in public, with years before another election is due.
At the creation of our country it was openly stated that we were aiming to be “a nation of liberty and justice” with our parliament “a shining beacon of democracy”. Yet we must not forget that many Malaysians do not care for this history, and by extension, see initiatives like the Democracy Index as worthless, or worse, tools of Western propaganda and domination. In short, we must present the democratic agenda as one that belongs to us, that is right for Malaysia, and a result of our own sovereign will.
So while we might be happy to lead the rankings among OIC and Asean countries (though Timor-Leste outranks us at 41st), we should benchmark ourselves against other countries with similar attributes that dominate the top of the rankings. These include federations like Canada, Australia, Switzerland, and Germany (seventh, ninth, 10th, and 13th) while constitutional monarchies make up half of the top 20 countries (even though constitutional monarchies form a minority of countries overall).
Already, a segment of anti-reformists is enjoying gloating, claiming that they were right: that the last election was never about democracy. Yet, enough promises were secured, and enough reforms were enacted that at least one respected assessor of democracy has measured significant progress in a year when the worldwide trend was towards authoritarianism.
Let’s try doing even better for the next edition.
Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.