Politics & government Society

[2929] Malaysian democracy dies and we forgot to mourn it

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.

Politics & government

[2874] The true test of this Pakatan Harapan government

Critics rushed to assign the new Pakatan Harapan government grades for its 100-day performance. MCA had the cheek to give the government a D grade. Others gave a B. If Pakatan Harapan had its own Pemandu, I am certain grade A+++ would have been announced in a pompous self-congratulatory parade.

I am unsure what grade I would give the government because of the subjective nature of the whole business. One could make it more objective by having a sheet tallying the weighted score, but I just won’t do that. Looking at my desk, I have many other things to do.

As I take a breather, all I can say is that I have my share of disappointment. Government action with respect to the recent child marriage case has been so underwhelming that I feel it is best for me not to think of it. Meanwhile, the official attitude taken against the LGBT community is not something I could defend. There are other problematic decisions, but all that points to the fact change does not happen overnight. It takes time, especially when it comes to culture.

In a democracy, changing the government alone is not enough. What is required is a change in the attitude of the people. At this moment, we need a leader who can make that happen without worrying too much about his or her approval ratings. But as I have been told, that is easy for me to say because I do not have to face the voters.

Yet, all those disappointments do not at all make me regret for doing what I did on May 9. In the days after it became clear there would be a Pakatan Harapan government, I think I understood early on how difficult it would be for change to happen and disappointment was something to be expected. Larger change needs time to happen.

And at the end of the day, before we rush to judge this government on its 101st day, I think it would be good to remind ourselves that at the very least, this government has a 5-year mandate. I would reserve my judgment until close to the end of that mandate.

This however does not mean the government should be free of criticism. Criticism is important to remind this government what is important, and to me, the most important agenda is the promised institutional reforms that will make sure the likelihood of past abuses repeating itself is low. The rest of the promises are secondary.

If we managed to set our institutions straight, then we would have a great foundation to build on in years to come beyond the 5-year period, regardless whichever side may come to power later. For me, that will be the true test of this Pakatan Harapan government.

Politics & government

[2699] If you fail the first time Egyptians, try and try again

As a liberal, Egypt offers horrible options. I am glad I am just a lay observer from across the continent where I am unlikely need to make such choices any time in the foreseeable future.

On one side, there is the democratically elected Islamist organization Muslim Brotherhood with Mohamed Morsi as the former President. While democratically elected, they are no democrats and while in government, they were ready to abuse state institutions to cement their power. Something had to be done to counter the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and quite clearly, millions of Egyptians, majority or not, agreed that something needed to be done. So they protested more after the original protest turned into a revolution which pulled the dictator Hosni Mubarak down. The new protest brought the whole country to a standstill, which led us to the current situation.

In an attempt to break the deadlock, the military launched a bloodless, pre-announced, quick coup d’état. Some liberals have celebrated the move. Deep inside me, I am truly happy for what has happened in Cairo.

Nevertheless, it is hard to say having the unelected military in power instead of the elected Islamists a better option. Supporting a coup d’état itself is one of the most illiberal things to do. It would be very odd for a liberal to cheer on the military ousting the elected power, a power with repulsive outlook or otherwise.

But things are not that simple especially for Egypt which is emerging from Mubarak autocratic years. If Egypt was a normal democracy, than it would be easy to say a coup d’état by the military was outright wrong, But Egypt is in a revolution that has not concluded. The objective of the revolution is the creation of a sustainable democracy. The logic of revolution has its own rules.

The country is a state in flux and it is struggling to create such democracy. As a liberal, I am hoping that that democracy is a liberal one with individual rights sufficiently protected, and not merely a majoritarian democracy where the majority can do whatever it wants at the expense of others. After all, how many dictators have been elected to power? Winning an election is an insufficient condition for a person to have respect for democracy.

Given that Egypt is fresh at the start, it is important to get things right before everything calcifies.

With that in mind, having the Muslim Brotherhood with its wide tentacles unchecked can corrupt state institutions, leaving the opportunity to create independent institutions crucial to a liberal democracy smaller by the day. Already the new constitution gives too much power to the President, in the crucial early days of the Egyptian republic. Not only that, the constitution is inadequate to separate powers that exist in the state. That gives too much leeway for the Muslim Brotherhood to corrupt the state.

And the Islamists are no liberal and they have an Islamist vision that in the past months have shown intolerance to others, like the Christians. So, I see Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood as an oppressive regime which believes a victory at the ballot boxes gives it a free ticket to do anything. The only thing that has prevented the Muslim Brotherhood from taking off has been the military.

Democracy, as in modern democracy which really liberal democracy, is not merely about the ballot boxes. It is about rights and institutions and a majority win during one election alone does not give the power to trample those rights and institutions. Those Islamists do not understand that.

So, letting the Muslim Brotherhood through Morsi shaping the early history of the Egyptian republic excessively without strong constitutional safeguard sounds like a bad plan to me.

What the military coup does is to till land again. That gives a chance for a democracy that is more than majoritarianism to flourish. That creation of democracy is the goal of the revolution. If you fail the first time, try and try again. To waste this revolution will be one of the worst of all outcomes. They are already there and so, let them try as hard as they can.

It is only regrettable that the till was done through military might. Ideally, it should have been done through democratic process. Or Morsi should have stepped down. But the land got tilled anyway and that is a great consolation prize. I now hope that the military is merely a caretaker for a very short period before Egypt has another run on its democratic experiment. Whether I am right to hope, whether that hope is realistic, only time will tell.

Politics & government

[2680] Undemocratic Kuala Lumpur

Life in Kuala Lumpur in the past few weeks has been a constant reminder of our flawed democracy.

If you are in the city, look all around you. You will see banners and posters of political parties almost everywhere. Superficially, the colorful show of political flags is a sign of democracy. Now, look closer at those belonging to Barisan Nasional and especially those with Raja Nong Chik Raja Zainal Abidin on it. Be mindful of their messages.

Those messages celebrate the achievements of Raja Nong Chik as a minister. It highlights what he has done over the past few years, with him heading the Ministry of Federal Territories. It appears like the all too admirable democratic judge-my-record, thank-me politics. He even thanked himself in many of his political banners and posters for stuff he did in the city.

Yet underneath this veneer is acid corroding the pillars of our democratic institution.

The campaign narrative told by BN to the voters in the city makes one think that Raja Nong Chik is the mayor of Kuala Lumpur. This is all the more so in Bangsar where he is contesting in the general election. If those messages are to be believed, it would appear that he was both the mayor of Kuala Lumpur and the Member of Parliament for Lembah Pantai, the parliamentary seat which Bangsar is a part of.

If all those achievements highlighted for electioneering purposes are truly his, then he must have directed the very public resources belonging to the city to do what he did. He takes credit for things that are the normal function of City Hall, like the maintenance of drainage around the city, which is funded by taxpayers’ money.

There is a problem with this if one views it through a democratic lens.

The truth is that Raja Nong Chik is an unelected senator appointed as the minister for the Federal Territories. He is not the elected mayor of Kuala Lumpur and he is not the elected representative for Lembah Pantai.

The 2008 general election saw BN win only one out of 11 Parliamentary seats in Kuala Lumpur. While Parliamentary seats are an inadequate proxy to the will of the majority in the city, it is the best proxy we have got since there is no local election. Based on that proxy, the majority in the city conclusively rejected BN candidates and BN itself then in March 2008.

In spite of that, BN continued to control City Hall through the Ministry of Federal Territories as if they had the moral mandate to do so. With that, the party was the one that determined the development agenda of the city. Or perhaps, more importantly, BN controlled the spending priority of City Hall.

Add in the fact that the actual mayor of the city also is unelected, voters of Kuala Lumpur are quite simply unrepresented in the very authority that governs the affairs of their home. The elected representatives are dependent on the goodwill of City Hall and the ministry to execute the normal functions of an elected representative.

It is Putrajaya with its pretentious grandiose buildings that dictate the affairs of Kuala Lumpur. The city of millions is being governed from a desolate town erected in the middle of nowhere.

That is undemocratic. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly the premise that BN’s campaign messages rest upon.

How long more will the Kuala Lumpur electorates continue to be politically unrepresented in the running of the city?

There is no reason for BN to change the status quo because it is the beneficiary of things as it is. If BN continues to be in the minority in the city, it is in their favor to keep the whole undemocratic structure intact. Even if BN somehow miraculously wins a majority of Kuala Lumpur Parliamentary seats and by proxy, the will of the voters of Kuala Lumpur, the moral authority BN might gain through this democratic process is only a redundant bonus.

That begs a question. If Raja Nong Chik and BN do not require a win to do what he did in the next Parliamentary term, why vote him in at all?

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malaysian Insider on April 24 2013.

ASEAN Liberty

[2668] The Sulu and the Philippine claims of Sabah are undemocratic and unlibertarian

I have a fundamental objection to the Sulu and the Philippine claims of Sabah. Calling it the claim of Sabah is somewhat inaccurate because if the Philippine claim is wholly based on the Sulu claim, then by right the claim only covers roughly the eastern half of Sabah. Nevertheless, the objection that I have is not based on nationalistic sentiment. It is based on democratic and libertarian values.

Know this. The claim by the two parties are undemocratic and certainly unlibertarian. It is both undemoractic and unlibertarian because it completely bypasses the will of the people in Sabah.

The Sulu claim especially is made by a pretender to the throne of the Sulu Sultanate, a monarchy which practically has been extinct for a long time now. The claim by the monarchy highlights how it is undemocratic and unlibertarian.

The term libertarian that I use here is almost democratic and almost committed to a liberal democracy.

Libertarians come from the tradition that the state derives its legitimacy from its people. After all, the most important component of any society is the individuals who form it. Libertarians seek to secure freedom of individuals and the best way to do so within the framework of the state is to make the state answerable to its citizens.

The Sulu claim certainly does not fit into the libertarian framework. If the claim is realized by the Sulu Sultanate, then it will be clear that it is the sultan who will be in power. The Sultan, after all, is running the show, ordering the doomed incursion into Sabah. Any political power will originate from him and that is unacceptable to any libertarian.

Of course, the new Sulu power in Sabah can institute democratic infrastructure to turn the direction of the origin of power more libertarian and that will solve the democratic and libertarian concern. But the fact remains the claim has its origin from a very autocratic nature.

If one compares the Sulu claim to Malaysia’s, it is clear that the Malaysian claim is more libertarian. This is not to mean that Malaysia is a libertarian utopia but relatively, Malaysia is far above the rung compared to the Sulu Sultanate.

The most libertarian argument for Malaysia is that the Malaysian claim is not really a Malaysian claim. It is a Sabahan claim. The people of Sabah decided to be part of the federation of Malaysia and as a federation, all states within Malaysia is responsible toward the security of Sabah. In the face of armed adventure embarked by the Sulu Sultanate, the self-defense action by the Malaysian security forces is legitimate from the libertarian perspective, especially from the libertarian concept of non-aggression axiom. The axiom can be problematic at times by in the case of Sabah, its application is straight forward.

And this brings us to the Philippines, which for all intents and purposes is the successor state to the extinct Sulu Sultanate. What makes the Philippine claim more legitimate from libertarian perspective when compared to the Sulu claim, is that the Philippines, like Malaysia, is a democracy. Both democracies may not be perfect and there are flaws in the system but principally, they are. There are democratic institutions and there are guarantees of individual rights although the guarantees do not go as far enough as a libertarian would like and there are deplorable violations of those rights.

Of course, comparing Malaysian and Philippine democratic institutions to Sulu’s, which do not exist, is unfair because they have not been given a chance to develop it. Nevertheless, the setup highlights the origin of power. For both states, the origin of the power comes from the people, not some autocrats like a sultan.

That however does not make the Philippine claim very much more agreeable from the Sulu claim. The Philippine claim still bypasses the people of Sabah. So, the only libertarian (and democratic) way of solving the claim is by going back to the people. Let us have three options. Malaysia, independence or the Philippines. I have a feeling that the first two options will be more popular to the last one.

And then finally, the Malaysian setup is far more likeable to libertarians than the Philippines. Malaysia is a federation and the Philippines is a unitary state. Sabah has considerable autonomy within Malaysia. Even then, there are accusations that Kuala Lumpur is meddling in the affairs of Sabah. Imagine the Philippines with its unitary state mentality. That would be ugly not just to libertarians, but more so to Sabahans and the Philippines.