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Nurturing the fifth estate of democracy for the new Malaysia

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To nurture a robust democracy, we must continue to build our citizenry and civil society, says M Nadarajah.

Building a new Malaysia is a contested endeavour with a number of forces at work.

The ongoing differences in orientation between politicians and public intellectuals/social activists seem like something civil society needs to sit up and watch carefully.

It may not just be different readings of the foundational documents that this nation is built on. It may not be just quarrels about alternative futures that are possible. It may not even be about strategy and tactics.

Hopefully, the differences are not a symptom of difficult times ahead – for activists, public intellectuals and civil society in general – in the struggle for social justice and the right to speak up without fear or favour and for the democratic future(s) of New Malaysia.

For now it seems like we are all drunk on the removal of Barisan Nasional on one side and singing unconditional praise for the new leadership on the other. It is of course such a major relief.

Social media are filled with all kinds of references to it. It is certainly a period of national catharsis. We are sitting by the ring, clapping as BN leaders fall, jeering at the TKOs. For better or for worse, we feel delighted with ourselves.

Why we need the fifth estate

But stop for a while, reflect and start taking stock of a few matters seriously. Although we are extremely glad that we have political leaders who are sort of making the right moves in many ways, civil society is still concerned and, at times, alarmed by the moves or decisions of the politicians the rakyat have put there as our political leaders to take care of the country for all of us.

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It is a new people-oriented – not politician-centric — socio-political norm we need. We cannot effort to lapse into the old ways of our political culture in any form.

Given this background, it is time to mobilise and consolidate the ‘fifth estate of democracy’ (the components of the social ground, the citizenry and civil society – society beyond the first four estates ie the executive, legislature, judiciary and media).

We need a political environment that is stringently governed by the Constitution (hopefully with some amendments in the future), the spirit of the law and some deep sustainable and spiritual cultural ethos. We need to ensure there are dynamic and democratically constituted institutions and public processes that mediate between the citizens and those entrusted with the governance of the country ie our leaders and administrators.

As a matter of governance, we need to establish the availability of ordinary citizens to contribute to major decisions through tried and innovative institutions and processes, if and when necessary.

We need to bring citizens to the centre as subjects of governance not as objects or recipients. It is a window of opportunity to reconstitute and strengthen people’s democratic power and the window may just slowly close.

The powers of political leaders and party politicians need to be constantly kept in check. We cannot effort another round of the sort of executive supremacy we have experienced in the past, when the other two arms of the democracy were almost completely disempowered or destroyed to enable the executive to do whatever it wanted. We should not ever again have such a situation in the future.

But the political landscape and fortunes keep changing, every now and then, and preconditions may emerge to give rise to another round of executive oppression of the citizens. We need to be clear about the political risk of this arising again.

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Nurturing the fifth estate

To nurture a robust democracy, we must continue to build our citizenry and civil society. It is a mature civil society with the necessary institutional power that can keep vigilance alive at all levels.

We need a formal and informal educational culture that encourages appreciation, criticism, activism, innovation, dialogue and reconciliation. The aim should be to raise a citizenry that is appreciative, supportive and critical of whoever has been elected to govern the country.

The educational culture should raise citizens’ conscience for social justice and inclusivity – and not just focus on their capacity to earn or serve the status quo.

We need an educational process that gives birth to citizens who do not hesitate to question the system without fear, with the intention of improving the general wellbeing of the nation (and that includes us). For how else do we mature as a nation and ensure the presence and involvement of civil society, directly or indirectly, in governance?

We also need a strong civil society-oriented media. As things go, there will, of course, be a section of the media supporting the government, as there will be those supporting the opposition. There will be mainstream and alternative media. That makes up the dynamism of a democracy anyway, through the fourth estate. This is even more critical in this era of fake news and clickbaits, post-truth, astroturfing, and smokescreen distractions.

What civil society needs is media that take citizens’ voices at the grassroots and inserts them into the national narratives, from the local context to the national scene – all to build a civil force for constructive criticism, sustainable alternatives, dialogue, corrective actions or legitimate disobedience.

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We need media that offer civil society avenues to be critical, to inform, alert, educate and call for action – from simple individual domestic acts to public or street action. We also need an alternative that does not slowly become mainstream, putting the critical role of social criticism at risk.

Last but not the least is the creation of networks of formal and informal initiatives, neighbourhood associations, sectional interest groups, issue-based organisations, and inter-group dialogue hubs. These will address all needs and the new concerns of the citizens either as individuals and segments of the public.

Our new Malaysia needs ‘radical municipalism’ as much as ‘enlightened localism’. We must nurture a lively grassroots or ‘massroots’ movement of concerns for accountability, transparency, accessibility, expression, dialogue, equality, physical and spiritual wellbeing, compassion and caring, community support, sustainability and social justice.

The movement needs to flow through all sectors of society at all levels and in all forms. This humanist flowering of civil society needs to be encouraged by the government – but certainly not corporatised into one or the other of its ministries. Besides voluntary or needs-based or crowd support sources of funding, people’s tax money needs to be used to nurture a democratic civil force, the fifth estate.

So we need a mindful, robust multi-ethnic, interfaith, interdisciplinary, intergenerational fifth estate of democracy for our new Malaysia. Now is our opportunity.

Dr M Nadarajah, a sociologist by training, is an Asian Public Intellectuals (API) fellow whose work focuses on cultural and sustainability issues. An associate director with Sejahtera Leadership Initiative based in USIM, he also heads the Xavier Centre for Humanities and Compassion Studies at Xavier University in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India.

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