I just had a conversation with Delphine Alles, a PhD student at Sciences Po today. She is researching about libertarianism in Southeast Asia. I thought it was an interesting conversation because it forced me to straighten up my own thoughts on the history of libertarian movement in Malaysia.

One question: how did it happen? How did libertarianism spread in Malaysia?

I struggled with that. Here is my opinion nonetheless.

The spread of libertarianism — the free market kind obviously — is a recent phenomenon in Malaysia. I thought it seeped into Malaysian consciousness through Malaysian graduates from the US and UK universities. I admit that there might have been individual libertarians much, much earlier from other sources but as far as popular discourse is concerned, it is a recent phenomenon.

That is primarily thanks to the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. IDEAS despite being a small grouping of libertarians has certainly punched above its weight. What made IDEAS a revolutionary force was that before them, libertarianism was confined almost exclusively to the blogoshere. Today, libertarian ideas are everywhere. Switch on the TV and there is a good chance you will see a libertarian speaking. Ditto for popular printed and electronic newspapers.

Did any tradition underpin the spread? Was a particular school of thought responsible for the spread?

I think not. If Malaysian libertarianism was spread by any particular tradition, then it was only through those engaged in popular discourse. Their understanding of libertarianism may be traced to certain traditions, but I think it is such a hodge-podge collectively that in the end, it is hard to see which tradition prevails. So, it is easier to say that it is due to these individuals. In some ways, these libertarians are the first generation libertarians in Malaysia.

Libertarianism has been popularly spread through issues. To put it another way, popular libertarianism in Malaysia is issue-based libertarianism. Delphine reframed it as pragmatic libertarianism. I have trouble with the term pragmatic because it alludes to cafeteria libertarians (ersatz libertarians to put it politely). Yet in a limited sense within local context, it is pragmatic libertarianism.

When I said issue-based, I meant libertarianism in the popular sphere. In the media, it is very rare if at all there is a case where libertarianism is written or explained explicitly by citing big names like Mises, Hayek, Rothbard and Friedman, or done axiomatically in the way Nozick did in Anarchy, State and Utopia.

Rather, it is the application of the first principles that made the spread of libertarianism possible. When issues arise, libertarian solution is offered. For instance, in the case of fuel subsidy, the virtue of free market is put forward. In case of religious conflict, freedom of conscience is offered as justification for a more liberal treatment of the issue. In education where the quality of public education is hotly debated, private initiatives are suggested as the solution to improve education outcome.

Because of this, popular libertarianism tend to be deficient compared to pure libertarianism. Questions that do not arise frequently in Malaysian society do not get answered. Malaysian libertarians in the popular arena are silent when it comes to right to arms for instance. Or a libertarian foreign policy.

Delphine asked about self-determination, i.e. what would local libertarians think about Pattani, Mindanao and the likes. A proper libertarian would have strong position on the matter but popular libertarianism gives it a shrug because it is not a concern to Malaysians, never mind a local libertarian consensus is likely hard to achieve, making a summary impossible. Whatever it is, the shrug leaves the general public unaware of the systematic view of libertarianism, which at the individual libertarian level is possibly well-argued.

In fact, it can only be well-argued and understood in intimate sessions, like in small discussion groups and such. Any full-blown discussion about libertarian in the public sphere would quickly bore laypersons, who are more interested in issues, not first principles.

The deficiency is not a problem by itself because popular libertarianism is meant for public consumption. It is meant to increase public aware of the libertarian alternatives. What is satisfying about this is when some strangers speak of an issue, he or she uses libertarian argument without realizing that argument is a libertarian implication.

That of course may create ersatz libertarians, but for a philosophy that began with a penny in its pocket here in Malaysia, it is a start.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

p/s — there were some self-proclaimed classical liberals earlier but I think I have come to discount them because I distrust them from one reason or another. I have concluded that they are liberal only in superlative sense. In a conservative society like Malaysia, it does not take much to be a liberal superlatively.

2 Responses to “[2379] The spread of libertarianism in Malaysia”

  1. on 21 Jun 2011 at 10:03 seeker

    What purpose does liberalism serve?
    Does it put food on the table? Does it protect our safety from exploitation and oppression? Does it bring us closer to God? Does it stir compassion among us? Does it bring equity to everyone? I wonder…

    Anyway, I chanced upon your blog while googling Karen Armstrong. I like what you wrote.

  2. on 22 Jun 2011 at 22:35 Hafiz Noor Shams

    The first question is hard to answer in this space.

    The second question, well, it prevents people from stealing the food you put on your table, or your effort.

    Third question, yes.

    Fourth question, irrelevant. Is that important? I guess, that depends on one’s preference. Whatever it is, it doesn’t force religion down your throat. You are free to have any religious belief that doesn’t negate others’ rights.

    Fifth, yes. World history is full of such proofs. The French Revolution, for instance. The American War of Independence is another example.

    Sixth, depends on how you define equity. In terms of rights, yes. In terms of wealth, well, liberalism doesn’t believe in equality of wealth.

    All of those answers require elaboration. But with such limited space and time, I’ll leave it to your own device.

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