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Let’s empower the people through participatory democracy

Ordinary folk should have more avenues to take part in decision-making and policymaking that affects their daily lives

Merdeka, independence, loyalty, setia
Happy Independence Day, 31 August, to our readers in the peninsula and Sabah, and belated wishes to Sarawak readers who celebrated independence on 22 July - DR WONG SOAK KOON/ALIRAN

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The much-anticipated and much-analysed six state elections are over now.

Political commentators have debated if it was a referendum on the Madani (Civil Malaysia) “unity government” or a “green wave” gaining traction.

But many media outlets reported the election outcome as “status quo”.

Is it really status quo? And should we be satisfied if it is status quo?

On polling day, 12 August, some candidates and parties felt anxious when the midday voter turnout was lower than expected. Some attributed this to sheer complacency among voters.

But in many urban constituencies, it was probably much more than that. It was a manifestation of deep dissatisfaction, even anger, towards elected representatives and incumbent governments. Not a few felt the incumbents had become complacent and were not representing the voters’ wishes and interests.

The Selangor sultan accurately conveyed this discontent. He said the state could not take pride in achieving rapid economic growth and recording the highest gross domestic product (GDP) in the country if the basic needs of the people were not met.

A few days after the state elections, I bumped into a friend from my Subang Jaya neighbourhood. A longtime resident, he is conscientious and intelligent.

We talked about the election results, and I said Subang Jaya residents should be thankful that the incumbent, Selangor assembly member Michelle Ng, retained her seat with a large majority. This was totally expected: Ng is hardworking, humble, intelligent and easily contactable, like Subang Jaya MP Wong Chen.

To my utter surprise, my friend responded with so much anger and grievances about my state assembly member. It was as if we both lived in alternate universes, in different worlds altogether!

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I was flabbergasted but told him I would send him Ng’s ‘report card’ and manifesto, which she had distributed before the elections – which, surprisingly, he was not aware of.

For me, Malaysia’s first-past-the-post electoral system, which is supposed to manifest representative or indirect democracy, has grown less representative.

Even if Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s administration is able to implement much-need electoral reforms, it will not be enough. The political agenda will remain captured by those who wield the most power and those who have access to the corridors of power.

With the survival of the unity government being challenged at every turn, will the people’s agenda be given enough attention?

This was why, once the state elections were over, Aliran urged the federal and state governments to focus on civil society’s People’s Agenda.

The Pakatan Harapan-led unity government still has a two-thirds parliamentary majority. And the ‘anti-hopping’ law deters elected representatives from crossing the aisle.

But how confident are we that our elected representatives will deliver on their pre-election promises?

With most of the state governments aligned with the federal government, can we hope to see stronger federal-state relations and more meaningful development at the state level?

Will having local government elections make the state governments and local authorities more responsive to voters’ interests? Or will it just be more of the same?

Will elected local councillors nominated by political parties be constrained by party discipline? Or will they be more responsive and accountable to the ratepayers who voted for them?

Many of us realise by now that representative democracy has its limits. The elected representatives’ ability to serve their constituents is limited. They are constrained by many factors: political expediency, political survival, financial and human resources, party discipline and human limitations.

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This is true of even of the most hardworking, honest and intelligent elected representative. This is also true of representative democracy and elected representatives at all levels – federal, state and local government.

A recent public lecture in Penang, organised by Agora Society, Aliran and Penang Forum, featured Dr Fernando Casal Bertoa discussing the limitations of representative democracy.

He spoke of a global trend of people disengaging from elections because of a crisis facing traditional political parties. He also proposed some remedies for political parties to overcome this crisis of representative democracy.

But this is only part of the whole equation: the political milieu has other key actors and stakeholders besides the political parties.

So, where does this leave ordinary people? How do we remedy this ‘democratic deficit’?

No, we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water! As someone once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

One way to remedy the democratic deficit is by ‘democratising democracy’.

We can empower ordinary people through participatory democracy so they have more avenues to take part in decision-making and policymaking that affects their daily lives.

The people’s political participation should not be limited to voting every five years. There are enough ordinary people who can provide meaningful input into decision-making and policymaking that affects them.

It is not an ‘either…or’ situation; it often is a hybrid system where participatory democracy complements and supplements representative democracy.

Yes, we see an increase in some forms of participatory democracy in Malaysia now.

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We see engagement-with-stakeholders sessions and some public involvement in pre-Budget consultations.

Residents’ representatives sometimes attend local committees and town hall sessions, including with the PM.

The Ministry of Education recently announced an online review of the school curriculum. It has given everyone who is interested the opportunity to express their views. This is besides face-to-face consultations with parents, teachers, NGOs and industry representatives.

Often, this is only at a superficial level, and we do not know even if the public input and feedback is put to meaningful use. It may even be seen as a ploy by the authorities to manage dissenting voices or to hoodwink the people into thinking their voices matter.

Still, it does provide a base from which we can strengthen participatory democracy even more. There is much to be improved on, in terms of demographic inclusion, equal access, transparency and communication.

Civil society groups like Aliran and individual Aliran members can play an important role in taking advantage of existing avenues for participatory democracy. We can push for more effective platforms for the public to make their views heard and help channel those views into the decision-making process.

To achieve this, we need to immerse ourselves even more in the political milieu and engage with policymakers at the federal, state and local government levels.

Are we up for the task?

Mary Magdaline Pereira
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
30 August 2023

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
  1. Tegakkan maruah serta kualiti kehidupan rakyat
  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
  3. Raikan kerencaman dan keterangkuman
  4. Selamatkan demokrasi dan angkatkan keluhuran undang-undang
  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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