In 2017, political scientist Thomas Pepinsky claimed that life in authoritarian states was mostly boring and tolerable (that is tolerated by the people). He cited Malaysia where life was quite normal, despite it being an undemocratic country and mildly authoritarian. But his audience were not Malaysians, but Americans, many of whom found themselves in opposition to Trump and his illiberalism.
Pepinsky argued authoritarian states did not necessarily mean “jackbooted thugs, all-powerful elites acting with impunity, poverty and desperate hardship for everyone else, strict controls on political expression and mobilization, and a dictator who spends his time ordering the murder or disappearance of his opponents using an effective and wholly compliant security apparatus.”
He was not defending authoritarianism. Instead he was warning that authoritarianism arrived more subtly that most people realized. It does not come with a bang. He wrote:
It is possible to read what I’ve written here as a defense of authoritarianism, or as a dismissal of democracy. But my message is the exact opposite. The fantasy of authoritarianism distracts Americans from the mundane ways in which the mechanisms of political competition and checks and balances can erode. Democracy has not survived because the alternatives are acutely horrible, and if it ends, it will not end in a bang. [Thomas Pepinsky. Life in authoritarian states is mostly boring and tolerable. Vox. January 9 2017]
Forward 4 years later, Malaysia has lost its democracy and we are now ruled by a dictator.
When Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his allies in 2020 wrested power from the victors of the 2018 Malaysian General Election without going through any election, his action arguably was still done within the gray ambit of democratic practices. Gray because of the 2009 mistake that began in Perak legitimizes an obscure process of selecting a government over the usual transparent process of letting the contenders prove their support in the Dewan Rakyat. The same untransparent process contributes to or exacerbates the political instability that we suffer today.
Muhyiddin’s government was never stable from the get-go. Now when it became clear he did not have the majority needed to remain in government, he carried out a self-coup through the declaration of emergency. The excuse was the COVID-19 pandemic but we know he was just pulling the wool over our eyes. As if giving more power to a government that mismanaged the pandemic was a good idea. More will die sadly. In a better situation, we would be replacing this incompetent Cabinet with one of better caliber.
That self-coup has firmly placed this government into the realm of authoritarianism. The Prime Minister is the Dictator of Malaysia. There is no democratic mandate to speak of anymore. There is only the will of the Dictator Muhyiddin Yassin.
And that happens without loud protestation.
The pandemic is to blame no doubt. Perhaps the economic devastation worsened by this government’s complete incompetency is sapping energy away from the population. Perhaps they are tired of the failure of the Pakatan Harapan and their allies in opposition to do what was right back in November during the tabling of the 2021 Budget. The failure and disillusion breed ambivalence. Everybody is tired of the national political chaos.
All that leads to us tolerating authoritarianism. This is more so when the Dictator defends his self-coup by stating life will go on as normal, however disingenuous that sounds. The Dictator is telling us authoritarianism is tolerable.
Such a disappointment.