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Malaysia’s fragile democracy: Three reasons why there is still hope

The emergence of a plurality of political forces, including youth involvement, could lead to a more vibrant future


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It has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, and that public opinion expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters. (Winston Churchill, 1947)

When one cites fully that oft-quoted speech of the British Tory leader of World War Two and post-war years, it is not a criticism of democracy as it is usually thought but an affirmation.

Oddly enough, Malaysia today seems to be in the predicament that Churchill portrayed of Britain in 1947 – that in a democracy, whatever the circumstances, the people should rule through constitutional means.

Some in Malaysia may be forgiven for believing that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other forms”.

Malaysian democracy today seems to be tearing at the seams and the promise of a ‘new dawn’ has apparently all but dissipated. It may have witnessed a renaissance in the 2018 general election which saw the end of 60 years of single-coalition rule, but many would say that within three short years that dawn has now morphed into a dark night. According to a well-known critic, contemporary politics has been a “paradise lost”.

However, I take a slightly contrarian view. The gloomy future envisaged by many political analysts and pundits is rather overstated and unnecessarily pessimistic. The glass can be seen to be half full, not half empty.

There are at least three good reasons for my view, and I will present this alternative narrative for the reader.

1. No repeat of May 13

Let’s start with the most compelling reason for the alternative view that Malaysian democracy may well be wounded but perhaps not mortally:

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Malaysia has not descended into political chaos or political instability with racial riots such as was experienced during the May 13 episode in 1969.

Those were truly dark days that my generation lived through. Ethnic relations have over the years no doubt been strained but never as severely as in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The greater worry these days seems to be intra-racial strife rather than inter-ethnic conflict.

But our highly ethnically diverse East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak have helped to dilute and ease the Malay-non-Malay divide.

A Malaysian multi-ethnic middle class today also has no inclination or desire for street violence, seemingly prevalent even in some Western democracies today.

Interestingly, the primary issues of the day are constitutional rather than ethnic.

All and sundry (including Asean politicians) were perturbed that Parliament was suspended even for a short spell when the King declared an emergency on account of the pandemic.

But Parliament was restored to everyone’s relief on 1 August 2021.  

Constitutional expert Shad Saleem Faruqi felt that any unwarranted suspension of Parliament would be harmful as a representative legislature is the central pillar of democratic practice.

But even he felt that there was a silver lining in that suspension of Parliament for the implementation of important reforms.

Malaysia witnessed an actual confidence-and-supply agreement between the Ismail Sabri government and the opposition through a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) inked by both sides. This is a ‘first’ in parliamentary practice for the country. The MoU facilitated the passage of 12th Malaysia Plan and Budget 2022 in October 2021.

Perhaps more parliamentary reform may come – ironically, given the present state where we have a weak central government. We await the tabling of the all-important anti-‘party hopping’ bill [a bill to curb political defections] although my guess is this will not happen too soon.

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2. Elections amid a pandemic

Electoral democracy remains on track despite the pandemic.

We have witnessed two state-level elections since the 2018 general election. Another one, which had been postponed, will be held soon. I am referring to the Sabah state election of 26 September 2020, the Malacca state poll of 20 November 2021 and the coming Sarawak state election on 18 December 2021.

The holding of elections during a pandemic is no mean feat. If proper measures are taken, it should never be an issue. The Mahiaddin Yasin government was rightly upbraided for holding the Sabah election without proper precautionary measures, triggering a massive spike in Covid cases.

The holding of elections shows that an essential component of democratic politics is largely being followed, and procedural democracy in Malaysia has not been derailed.

That said, the election watchdog Bersih noted some 35 breaches of electoral procedures in the Malacca polls. Bersih has called for Sarawakians to be given absentee voting rights and the activation of Undi 18, ie lowering the minimum voting age to 18.

However, de facto law minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, a member of the incumbent Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) group, announced that voters aged 18 to 20 would not be able to vote in the Sarawak election, even though the Undi 18 constitutional amendments also will kick in on 15 December.  

Malaysian democracy is clearly still a work-in-progress and, thankfully, vigilant groups and institutions like Bersih and Aliran continue to push for reforms and to monitor whether key procedural requirements are in place.

Electoral reform remains high on the agenda of changes necessary for Malaysian democracy to grow. Listen to this podcast.

3. Plural political landscape

Barisan Nasional’s defeat in 2018 dramatically changed Malaysia’s political landscape.

Malaysia was already on a path-dependent track of political reform, which ultimately led to the electoral outcome of 2018.

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Political reforms did take place after 2018, including changes to the Election Commission and voter registration procedures, the lowering of the minimum voting age to 18, and the important proposals for electoral system reform, which was stalled after the Sheraton Move in 2020.

There is a false narrative that Malaysia is returning to its old politics after the results of the Malacca election. Although the outcome suggests a revival of  BN, which won 21 out of 28 seats, the politics on the ground has not shifted much: BN won by a popular vote margin of just 2.6%.

The combined popular vote of BN was 38.4% – well below the 50% threshold. But given our distorted first-past-the-post electoral system, the Umno-led coalition won a super majority of the seats.

In the ‘good ol’ days’, BN could win something like 60-65% of the popular vote in elections. Those days are gone.

The Malaysian political landscape has seen a major shift since the heyday of one-coalition BN rule. Today, the Malaysian political landscape empowers a plurality of forces as major political players.

The coming Sarawak election is likely to see a return of the GPS at the helm, but it will not be unchallenged. With a greater plurality of political forces emerging on the Malaysian political landscape, the vision of only two major contending forces dominating politics at the federal and state levels is now a thing of the past.

This means that multi-party and multi-coalition politics has become the order of the day. The emergence of new political parties, such as the Malaysian Democratic Alliance (Muda), also introduces the dimension of youth activism and participation in electoral politics.

These political developments do not augur for a gloomy political future but one that can become more vibrant, novel and progressive.

Johan Saravanamuttu
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
7 December 2021
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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Phua Kai Lit
Phua Kai Lit
8 Dec 2021 7.51pm

Populist fascism has emerged and even taken power in various countries around the world — Hungary and Poland in Europe, India and the Philippines in Asia, Brazil in Latin America. We need to be on our guard in Malaysia too — especially of the clerico-fascist variety.

The antidote to populist fascism is some kind of progressive social democracy (and rejection of neoliberalism).

Benedict Lopez
7 Dec 2021 6.04pm

Hope will only come when we have an electoral system based on proportional representation.

Anthony Dason
Anthony Dason
11 Dec 2021 1.42am
Reply to  Benedict Lopez

And when race and religion based membered political parties, are banned.

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