The silence of our friends

— Dennis Ignatius
The Malaysian Insider
Jun 08, 2012

JUNE 8 — According to local media reports, US Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman, who came visiting recently, expressed their admiration for Malaysia’s democratic model and even went so far as to suggest that it might serve as a template for other Muslim countries.

There was only the barest hint of reservation during their press conference when they made vague and passing references to foreign election observers and further democratic reforms.

It may well be that they raised democracy and human rights issues with Prime Minister Najib Razak and Foreign Minister Anifah Aman when they met in private but it is their public positions that are disturbing.

First, though they must surely have learned from their meetings with the leader of the opposition and other civil society groups about the real and serious challenges to democracy in Malaysia, they chose not to reference these issues in their public comments. Their silence concerning the deeply flawed electoral system, restrictions on the media, and on public gatherings and the absence of a lot of other democracy essentials is troubling.

Unsurprisingly, the senators’ comments were immediately taken as American endorsement of both the government’s reform agenda and Malaysia’s governance model. Their comments were even absurdly stretched to suggest that Malaysia’s political system might even be superior to that of the United States.

Second, they saw the gleaming towers and shiny limousines and were understandably impressed. There is, after all, much to be impressed about Kuala Lumpur. To them it was probably a vindication of the free enterprise system at whose altar Americans love to blindly worship. Did they, however, also learn about the massive corruption, the system of crony capitalism and the exploitation and abuse of migrant labour that fester beneath the surface? If they had, they might have been more nuanced in their assessment.

Thirdly, their comment that Malaysia could serve as a democratic model for other Muslim countries is both condescending and insulting. Malaysia is, at best, a quasi-democracy. Our democratic space is already diminishing rapidly as a result of increasing limitations on press freedom, free expression and public assembly.

Is this the kind of system that should serve as a template for democracy in other Muslim countries? Are the senators suggesting that this is the best that we are capable of or that the world expects no more from Muslim countries? Why shouldn’t all governments, east or west, secular or religious, developed or developing not be expected to live up to minimum standards of freedom, human rights and good governance?

Whatever the honourable senators might think, they should know that the flawed political system that masquerades as democracy has been found wanting by the people of Malaysia; just ask the tens of thousands of people who thronged Dataran Merdeka in April. By endorsing this stunted quasi-democratic model and, indeed, promoting it as an example to the Muslim world, the senators did a great disservice to the struggle for freedom and democracy everywhere.

The problem with all too many American leaders is that they tend to view everything through the prism of their own narrow interests. For so long as foreign rulers toe the American line, buy American weapons and keep their markets open to American businessmen, they can do no wrong.

American leaders get excited about freedom and democracy when it suits them but turn away when it is inconvenient. The principles and the ideals of their own constitution apparently are not heartfelt enough to be incontrovertible always and everywhere.

At the height of the so-called war on terror, for example, US senators and congressmen regularly trooped to Putrajaya to praise the way the Mahathir administration dealt with suspected Islamic terrorists via the Internal Security Act. One senator even lamented the absence of ISA-like legislation in other Asian countries. The fact that detention without trial is contrary to the most basic principles of justice and that it was used to silence critics was conveniently ignored.

I recall, as well, a meeting with then US Secretary of State Colin Powell in mid-2001 at the State Department in Washington DC. Much to the chagrin of our foreign minister, Powell began by taking us to task on human rights and anti-Semitism. However, to our minister’s relief, Powell quickly shifted track and then excitedly went on to talk about the sale of the latest American fighter jets to Malaysia. It was immediately clear that he had raised the issue of human rights and anti-Semitism purely for the record, and without conviction.

It was, of course, business as usual for the country that Ronald Reagan, in a fit of triumphalism, called “a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.”

Martin Luther King Jr, a great and heroic American leader, once said, with reference to the struggle for civil rights in America, that “in the end we will not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

The silence of McCain and Lieberman concerning our struggle to build a better democracy in Malaysia is hugely disappointing. Worse still, their naive and ill-considered endorsement of Malaysia’s flawed and stunted governance model is a betrayal of the very ideals that America claims to champion across the world.

* Dennis Ignatius is a retired Malaysian diplomat.

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Friday, 8 June 2012 - 2:30 pm

    These people will never be able to rise to the rank of President due to their lack of an ANALYTICAL mind.

  2. #2 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Friday, 8 June 2012 - 2:53 pm

    Our political system could serve as a model for other muslim countries? Oh boy. Are we a muslim country, USA? Are you suggesting that we are a muslim country? If you are then you ought to get your facts right.

    And anyway, read the statement again carefully. Our system could serve as a model for muslim countries. As a model for only muslim countries, USA? What about, as a model for other countries as well, particularly non-muslim countries like UK, USA, India etc etc? Why extend your comment to muslim countries only and not beyond?

    The answer? Let me guess. I will be generalising of course. But anyway, my perspective is this. Muslim countries the world over are in a real mess. For these countries to adopt immediately modern day democracy is to expect too much and too soon. So our severely flawed democracy could serve as a good starting point for those messy administrations. That is what the americans were saying, actually.

    But of course they were dead wrong. Our democracy is not different from those of the muslim countries; or for that matter no better. Nonetheless we seem to fare better and that is only because of two crucial factors: (1) we malaysians by and large (umno members excluded) are law abiding, respect the constitution and the agung; and (2) our opposition political parties (umno as opposition in pakatan controlled states excluded) and leaders do not advocate nor resort to violence as a means to unseat umno.

    So america, apa you cakap? Pordah!

  3. #3 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Friday, 8 June 2012 - 3:58 pm

    McCain and Lieberman, both former presidential hopefuls, just show how great that gulf is between the real persons and the personalities media love to hype.

    It’s just as well they never did make it as presidents. Who knows what USA might have suffered for their blindness?

  4. #4 by monsterball on Friday, 8 June 2012 - 8:38 pm

    Regardless whether McCain and Lieberman are US presidential hopefuls….these two gentlemen did asked permission to send observers for our 13th GE…showing they know what’s going on in Malaysia…concerning frauds and cheating by UMNO in an election.
    These are old foxes in politics.
    They are expert diplomats.
    They will praise some…and let go what Najib does not like to hear too.
    USA Govt never trusted Mahathir and his UMNO b party at all..and they know Najib is Mahathir’s puppet.
    Powerful or not…McCain & Lieberman do care for helpless Malaysians… Albright….like AlGore.

  5. #5 by Cinapek on Monday, 11 June 2012 - 12:00 am

    “….American leaders get excited about freedom and democracy when it suits them but turn away when it is inconvenient…..”

    Lest Najib and co get too carried away by the comments of John McCain and Lieberman, they should do well to know that the American Govt also guided and armed the Talibans when they fought against the Russians in Afghanistan but later turned against them. Likewise, they were also supporting Noriega in Panama but later sent in the US Marines to topple and kidnap him to the US.

    Also both McCain and Lieberman were losers in their presedential bids.

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