Caution, autocrats at work: rebuilding a fairer Malaysia

Mahathir must clean up the mess he made in paving the way for 'democracy lite' and effect real change through the rule of law
Caution, autocrats at work: rebuilding a fairer Malaysia

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (center) and Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (inside golf cart) arrive for Friday prayers after their meeting at the presidential palace in Bogor, West Java, on June 29. (Photo by Mast Irham/AFP)

ucanews.com reporter, Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia
July 12, 2018
The first round of reform in Malaysia is taking effect. Thanks to the stunning result in the May 9 election, the press is already freer, parliament is getting more oversight, and the courts are moving towards greater independence.

There are a record number of new faces in government who are professionals and untainted by scandal, offering Malaysians a sense of confidence and great promise.

Dishonest officials have been shown the door, previous prime minister Najib Razak is facing corruption and abuse of power charges, and the new government under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has promised an end to patronage and authoritarianism and enforcement of the rule of law.

In itself, Mahathir's opening salvo, the promise to hold to account the previous regime — which his Pakatan Harapan alliance booted out in the May 9 poll — is small fry compared to the overall task that lies ahead.

The election has unleashed more than hope of political change. Malaysians, regardless of their religion or ethnicity, want an end to entrenched discrimination so that all can contribute to the country equally.

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They want the new Malaysia to be more inclusive and encourage the involvement of all who want to help rebuild the nation.

Malaysians have witnessed how the Barisan Nasional (BN) regime victimized those who dared to speak out against injustice and hatred.

The task now is to do away with its divisive "Muslims-first" system and build an inclusive society to fulfill the hopes of the majority who, regardless of race, religion or political affiliation, united on May 9 to rescue the country from slipping off the edge into a kleptocracy and, ultimately, failure.

Mahathir is in a rush to correct the misrule of his predecessor, and his new government is making the right noises about effecting change for the better.

 

Caution ahead

The United Malays National Organization (UNMO), Malaysia’s main opposition political party and a founding member of the BN coalition, has seen its grip on power loosen but it retains significant influence among Malays, who make up over 60 percent of the population.

Manipulating the voting public by exploiting agendas linked to race and religion remains the party's main tack to win back power.

Meanwhile, thuggish elements in the party are regrouping in defense of the former prime minister against the criminal charges he faces.

The oft-used ploy of racial and religious baiting can be seen in undisguised form in the confrontations between his supporters and the new regime.

But real change will require a remolding of the system itself.

The goal now is not so much democracy but democratic procedures to keep leaders at bay and, if necessary, replace them. Malaysia not only faces the daunting challenge of finding the right leaders to rule the nation but must also put the right laws in place.

Now is the time to start public discussions about the constitution and law and work together to jointly create a better social environment.

Why the distinction between "democracy" and "democratic procedures"? And what is it about democracy that makes it unsuitable for Malaysia?

Democracy, of course, is good for everyone, but in some countries it has been created artificially. Southeast Asian nations can be included in this list.

Malaysia’s unique multicultural nature makes it vulnerable to disunity after years of authoritarianism and ethnic chauvinism. The majority Muslim population, all Malay, dominate and cause occasional spikes in both racial and religious tension.

Because it is a young democracy (compared to much more established Western countries) the government, in its present form, is struggling to rule fairly.

Since that is the status quo, perhaps Malaysia can make an argument that some kind of autocratic regime must be kept in place, as the country has become accustomed to this.

The difference would be that the leader must now be granted the authority to make laws — for example, traffic regulations and new economic and social laws — but must not be given the authority to change the basic social code: namely, the constitution.

Moreover, newly elected leaders will have to face a confirmation vote every few years. If they do anything to serious challenge the constitution, an automated "emergency" vote, or referendum, will be triggered.

So we are likely to see a democratically elected autocratic government rule for a period, perhaps followed by another one in due course.

We could call this a "partial liquid democracy" or a "liquid democracy with fixed terms" for successful candidates.

Malaysia currently operates its own brand of representative democracy, whereby elected representatives effectively govern as they see fit.

Maybe now is the right time to tell 93-year-old Mahathir that the brand of democracy ushered in after he stepped down from power last time in 2002 is not working.

The leaders who came after him distorted it and it is still not working properly despite Mahathir being reinstalled to office in May.

Now he is back in the hot seat, this wise old man, and it’s time for him to clean up the mess he made.

The new government's agenda includes a pledge to consolidate democratic processes, protect human rights and untether the state from business.

The first parliament sitting under the new government on July 16 could prove decisive; many hope it will serve as an opportunity for Malaysia to finally cement the sovereignty of the people, the accountability of its leaders, the rights of the individual, and the rule of law to ensure equal justice for all.

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