Deterioration of Democracy

It is mainly because UMNO has lost support among the Malays that Mahathir has decided to clip the wings of the opposition

by Dr Chandra Muzaffar

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Chandra: The Mahathir leadership suffers no pangs of conscience over its unfair treatment of the opposition

It is ironical that the Sedition Act should be part of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s arsenal against the political opposition in his country. For the law is an archaic colonial relic — which is why it should be utterly repugnant to the arch anti-colonial nationalist. The British had introduced it in 1948 to curb growing nationalist movements seeking to free the then Malaya (later Malaysia) from the colonial yoke. Of course, the militant Malayan Communist Party (MCP) was one of the targets just as the law was aimed at the Malay Nationalist Party (MNP).

The British had a similar law in their prize colony, India, and used it generously against illustrious freedom fighters such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawarhalal Nehru. In fact, in their famous trials for sedition, they were accused by the colonial government of ‘bringing into hatred or contempt’, of ‘exciting disaffection against the Government’, of ‘raising discontent or disaffection amongst the subjects’—phrases which appear in the Malaysian government’s Sedition Act!

It is this Act modified in 1971 which was the basis of the arrest of the well-known human rights lawyer cum politician, Karpal Singh, together with the Vice-President of the National Justice Party, Marina Yusoff, and the editor and printer of Harakah, the immensely popular biweekly newspaper of the Islamic Party (PAS), on Wednesday 12 January 2000. Since then they have all been charged in court and will be put on trial in the course of the next few months.

In the case of Karpal who is defence counsel for deposed Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in his sodomy trial, slamming him with a sedition charge for words uttered in Court raises a fundamental question about the immunity of lawyers carrying out their duties. In a sense, this unprecedented action against a lawyer for a statement made in Court is a challenge to the system of justice itself.

The speech allegedly made by Marina and the article that appeared in Harakah last year come within the ambit of issues which are discussed and debated in any vibrant democracy. It is true that they call into question the integrity of Mahathir’s ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), in one instance, and the probity of certain current leaders, in another. But how can that be against the law in a democracy?

No Notion of Democracy

Indeed, the Sedition Act and the manner in which challenges to the government of the day are dealt with, reveal in stark reality the attitude of Dr. Mahathir and the ruling elite to democracy and politics in the country. They fail to appreciate the simple fact that in a democracy opposition parties are expected to harness disaffection with the government to their advantage. In democratic politics, mobilising popular discontent is integral to the agenda of any contestant for power. Of course, one would expect the contestants for power to be honest and ethical in their approach to issues of public concern. But this is a standard that should apply with equal force to both sides: the government and the opposition.

Even after the General Election it is obvious that the Mahathir government is not prepared to grant some latitude to the opposition. It has forced Harakah for instance to adhere strictly to a condition imposed in its publishing permit: to confine sales to PAS members. Such a condition is absurd since the raison d’etre for a political party to produce a newspaper is to influence the general public to support its struggle. This is the essence of political competition in a democracy.

No Pangs of Conscience

While denying PAS access to the people through its newspaper, Mahathir’s UMNO has no compunctions at all about using both public and private television channels to beam the proceedings of the annual UMNO General Assembly to the sitting-rooms of millions of non-UMNO members. Even some of the mainstream newspapers in the different languages which are owned by companies aligned to UMNO and its coalition allies unabashedly pedal party propaganda to the general public.

The Mahathir leadership suffers no pangs of conscience over its unfair treatment of the opposition. It is not embarrassed by the blatant double standards it practises vis-a-vis the Alternative Front which — it is important to emphasise — secured no less than forty-four per cent of the popular vote in the recently concluded General Election. It regards its monopoly over the public media and state institutions as the privilege and prerogative of power.

In fact, for Mahathir, electoral competition is little more than a process by which the ruling elite confirms its power. Since that power has been overwhelming in the last four decades — the UMNO-led ruling coalition has won every parliamentary election since Independence with more than two-thirds majority —the ruling elite has come to believe that its dominance and control over the entire system is normal and natural. Any erosion of support would be regarded as a diminution of its power. When that erosion is really severe especially within the community which is the power-base of UMNO, one can expect the party’s leadership and membership to react with shock and dismay.

It is mainly because UMNO has lost support among the Malays that Mahathir has decided to clip the wings of the opposition. The targeting of Harakah and some other minor Malay journals and the four arrests under the Sedition Act should be read in that light. The arrest of the Justice Party’s national Youth leader, Mr. Ezam Mohd. Nor, under the Official Secrets Act (OSA), is also part of the same game plan. The ruling elite hopes that through these moves the opposition will get weaker and the ruling coalition stronger.

Credibility Chasm Widens

This may not happen. Because UMNO’s electoral decline stems, to some extent, from a crisis of confidence in Mahathir’s leadership, any move on his part, whatever his intention maybe, is suspect from the word ‘go’. The credibility chasm is so wide that any attempt to narrow it at this stage seems futile. Besides, Mahathir’s actions against opposition leaders and the opposition media seem to have backfired. A significant segment of the public perceives them as ‘vindictive’ and ‘authoritarian’. A lot of people had hoped that after retaining his two-third majority in Parliament, Mahathir would be a little less antagonistic towards the opposition and try to accommodate them within the political process.

If anything, his authoritarian image in the post-Election period has been reinforced by the UMNO Supreme Council advice to the party rank-and-file to return unopposed Mahathir and Deputy Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, as UMNO President and Deputy President respectively at the party polls in May 2000. Discouraging contests for the two top posts, whatever the justification, is seen as an attempt by the Supreme Council to impose its will upon the membership. This is why the membership has reacted so strongly to the ‘no-contest’ proposal.

Having witnessed the emasculation of vital institutions of democratic governance in the last few years such as the judiciary and the media, some UMNO members are concerned that democracy within UMNO which has declined considerably will soon sound its death-knell. For UMNO had, for a long while, retained a semblance of internal democracy with ordinary members exercising some influence over the leadership at various levels within the party. To deny members the right to elect their own President and Deputy President would be a mortal blow to that tradition.

But there is a saving grace though. Within UMNO, and more so, outside UMNO, within the larger Malay and Malaysian community, there is an unprecedented awareness of the injustice of authoritarian politics and a yearning for a society which is genuinely democratic in form as well as in substance. In such a society, there will be no place for relics of the past such as the Sedition Act.

Chandra, an Aliran member, is the deputy president of the National Justice Party (keADILan)