“Democracy” in Malaysia – Neither Free nor Fair

The position of Barisan Nasional (BN) has always been to insist that Malaysia is a democracy on the basis that we have regular elections and that opposition politicians are elected to the legislature, be it in the federal parliament or the state legislatures. Since the 2008 general elections, BN politicians have used the example of the opposition winning control of an additional four state legislatures in Kedah, Penang, Perak and Selangor as additional ‘proof’ that Malaysia is indeed a democracy.

This kind of simplistic thinking and arguments from the BN exemplifies the root of the problem faced by our country. We set our own ‘benchmarks’ and then proceed to congratulate ourselves by giving patting ourselves on our backs when we have ‘achieved’ them.

Democracy is not ‘merely’ about elections

While we are not like North Korea or China where opposition political parties and elections are not allowed, all reasonable and rationale people would agree with the proposition that we are nowhere near being a full-fledged democracy like the United Kingdom or the United States or more recent additions to the ranks of democratic countries such as South Korea and even Indonesia.

Democracy is not merely about elections. It is much more than that. It must include the protection of civil liberties and political rights. There must be guarantees for many important freedoms which are crucial for the functioning of democracy not just in its form but more importantly, in its substance. This would include protection for the freedom of the press and freedom to assemble freely. This would include proper checks and balances in the system such as parliamentary oversight and executive accountability. This would include having an independent civil service and independent government agencies such as the Election Commission, the Attorney General’s Chamber and the Anti-Corruption Agency as well as an independent judiciary. Unfortunately, the BN have overlooked all these other crucial components of democracy. Some politicians have even remarked that if the electorate doesn’t like the ‘rules of the game’ set by the BN, they can always vote the BN out. This, of course, totally ignores the fact that the electoral playing field is grossly skewed in favor of the BN through undemocratic means that have been institutionalized in the 56 year rule of the current regime.

The view that Malaysia cannot be defined as a democracy is found in ALL of the widely accepted classifications and rankings of countries according to their level of democracy. These would include the Freedom House “Freedom In the World” Reports, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Economist’s Democracy Index” ranking and the Polity IV scores designed by political scientists, just to mention a few.

The most well-known of these rankings is the Freedom House Freedom in the World rankings which categorizes countries into “Free”,” Partly Free” and “Not Free” classifications. These rankings, which started in 1972, have listed Malaysia as a “Partly Free” country since 1972. We have not improved our ‘democratic’ scores even as many of our neighbors in South East Asia and other parts of Asia have established or starting to establish themselves as “Free” countries. South Korea achieved this distinction in 1988 and Taiwan in 1996. Mongolia, which is better known in Malaysia for other matters, was categorized as a “Free” country in 1991. Indonesia, which experienced the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, achieved the “Free” classification in 2005.

Even for those who argue that Malaysia at least holds somewhat competitive elections, Freedom House provides an instructive comparison. Out of 195 countries in the Freedom of the World Report in 2013, 117 or 60% were classified as ‘electoral democracies’. This included some countries that were in the “Partly Free” category. Malaysia was not one of them. Indeed, Malaysia did not fulfill all of the conditions to qualify as an electoral democracy including:

  1. A competitive, multiparty political system;

  2. Universal adult suffrage for all citizens (with exceptions for restrictions that states may legitimately place on citizens as sanctions for criminal offenses);

  3. Regularly contested elections conducted in conditions of ballot secrecy, reasonable ballot security, and in the absence of massive voter fraud, and that yield results that are representative of the public will;

  4. Significant public access of major political parties to the electorate through the media and through generally open political campaigning.

In other words, the BN fails even on the ONE issue – that of competitive elections – which it uses to argue the case that Malaysia is a democratic country.

In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2011 ranking of 167 countries, Malaysia was ranked 71, tied with Zambia. Under this index, Malaysia was also categorized as a “Flawed Democracy”.

However, it is not only these rankings on Democracy where Malaysia performs poorly in spite of the protestations among many BN politicians that Malaysia is indeed a democracy. Malaysia also performs poorly in other measures of important components of democracy, of which Press Freedom is a crucial characteristic.

The Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, showed that Malaysia’s 2012 ranking had fallen 23 places to 145 out of 179 countries, which is an even lower position the previous low in 2002. The Press Freedom Index reported that:

“Malaysia (145th) also presented a sorry record, falling 23 places to a position below the one it had in 2002. Despite an all-out battle by rights activists and online media outlets, a campaign of repression by the government, illustrated by the crackdown on the “Bersih 3.0” protest in April, and repeated censorship efforts, continue to undermine basic freedoms, in particular the right to information.”

In the Freedom House Global Press Freedom Rankings 2012, Malaysia was similarly ranked at a low level coming in at 144 out of 197 countries and was categorized as “Not Free” joining luminaries such as Cambodia, Jordan, Madagascar and Pakistan.

While corruption (or the lack thereof) is not a direct measure of a country’s democratic credentials, it is an important measure nonetheless in terms of measuring the quality of institutions and the presence of strong checks and balance in a country. On this count, Malaysia has performed at an equally appalling level. Malaysia’s Transparency International Corruption Perception Index (CPI) ranking fell from 36 in 2001 to a low of 60 in 2011. It improved slightly to 54 in 2012 but is still a long way off from the ranking of 33 achieved in 2001. Even then, we fell far short of the levels of transparency in all of the developed democracies including the Nordic countries, New Zealand and Australia, just to name a few.

To reiterate, by all international measures of democracy, Malaysia cannot be understood or classified as categorized as a Democratic country. Malaysia has been classified as a ‘Partly Free country’, a ‘flawed democracy’, a ‘hybrid regime’, a ‘dominant party authoritarian regime’ or a ‘soft authoritarian regime’ and an ‘autocracy’ but no respected political scientist or international organization has ever put Malaysia among the ranks of what is commonly accepted as Democratic countries.

Has Democracy Flourished under Najib?

A few BN politicians may retort by arguing that the trajectory of the country is heading in the right direction in terms of deepening and furthering democracy under Prime Minister Najib. They would point to the Political Transformation Program (PTP) which has led to the amending and / or abolishing of various repressive bills and orders including the Internal Security Act (ISA), the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) and the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA). They would also point to the establishment of a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) on Electoral Reform under Najib’s watch.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, these so-called reforms are typical of BN’s practice of preferring form over substance. Indeed, instead of taking definitive steps towards establishing democratic norms, they instead gloss over substantive measures in favor of making cosmetic changes. Furthermore, without the necessary political will behind these reform steps, the powers that be often fail to implement even these basic legislative changes.

For example, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Bill (SOSMA) which has replaced the International Security Act (ISA) has received criticism from various sources. The Bar Council President, Lim Chee Wee, in April 2012, expressed his concern that the definition of ‘security offences’ under Section 3 of the SOSMA bill was still too broad. In addition, the Bar Council also expressed concern that under Clause 4(5) of the SOSMA bill, police officers above the rank of superintendent are empower to decide whether to detain a suspect for 28 days for investigation purposes, without having to refer the case to the court, instead of being subjected to judicial oversight.

In terms of practice, a recent detainee under SOSMA, Mohd Hilmi Haslim, who is a cafeteria assistant at the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex, was denied access to legal representation by the police even though the law only allows the police to deny such access for only 48 hours.

In the same vein, although the amendments to the UUCA now allow university students to join a political party, a student is still prevented from being involved in political party activities within a campus. These amendments also empower the board of directors of a university or the registrar general to determine if the society or organization that a student intends to join is ‘unsuitable to the interest and well-being of the students or the university”.

These restrictions is deemed by the Bar Council to be ‘unnecessarily restrictive, unreasonable and disproportionate barriers to a student’s freedom of association under Article 10(1)(c), and freedoms of speech and expression under Article 10(1)(a), of our Federal Constitution.’

We saw the lack of sincerity on the part of the BN government in even following the spirit of these amendments when the Ministry of Higher Education sent out a circular to private and public institutions of higher learning in the Klang Valley area dissuading students from attending the Himpunan Rakyat on the 12 of January, 2013.

More recently, it was reported that the International Islamic University cancelled a student organized forum on the upcoming general elections without specifying the exact reasons. One should remember that Professor Abdul Aziz Bari, a respected constitutional lawyer, was suspended by IIU in 2011 for expressing his professional opinion on a constitutional issue involving a member of the Royalty.

Instead of expanding the freedom of expression and intellectual thought of students as well as faculty, we continue to see overzealous administrators shackling the minds and voices of those within the ranks of our institutions of higher learning. What is considered as normal and even sacrosanct in all universities in democratic countries is seen as potentially destabilizing and sensitive in our own institutions of higher learning.

In terms of the amendments to the PPPA, the Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ) has expressed that these changes are not sufficient and are ‘far from adequate to ensure that the media is free to report fairly and accurately’. Furthermore, CIJ states that ‘The fact that publishing permits must still be granted and the minister has a right to revoke or suspend these permits means that the government still has effective control over the Malaysian print media’.

In practice, the Home Ministry still refuses to grant Malaysiakini a printing permit even though the Kuala Lumpur High Court has ruled that the Ministry’s decision not to grant Malaysiakini a printing license and ‘improper and irrational’ as well as ‘unreasonable’.

The abysmal lack of real progress in terms of political reform by PM Najib is borne out not only by these concrete examples but also in international reports.

Since Najib assumed the premiership in 2009, Malaysia’s Civil Liberties and Political Rights Scores in the Freedom in the World reports published by Freedom House has remained stuck at 4 out of 7 (1 meaning the most free, 7 meaning the least free).

In terms of human rights, the Human Rights Watch World Report 2013 states that Malaysia is ‘backsliding on rights’. The government’s use of various agencies in order to investigate Suaram, one of Malaysia’s leading human rights organizations, ostensibly on the grounds of ‘accepting foreign donations to undermine the Malaysian government’ was highlighted. This report also stated that the investigations into Suaram were ‘prompted by Suaram’s decision in 2010 to become involved in a French judicial investigation examining alleged corruption in Malaysia’s purchase of submarines from a French defence company’.

In terms of media freedom, the EIU’s Democracy Index 2011 report notes that Malaysia is one of the 40 countries where there has been deterioration in the scores for media freedom since 2008. In addition, Malaysia continues to be ranked as “Not Free” by the Freedom House Freedom of the Press index and by the Reporters Without Border’s Press Freedom Index during Najib’s 4 year premiership.

Perhaps a greatest blemish on Najib’s political reform record is the heavy handed crackdown by the police on the Bersih 3.0 gathering of peaceful protestors on the streets of Kuala Lumpur on the 28th of April, 2012. The heavy handed and disproportionate response by the police in reaction to the breach of one of the police barricades at Dataran Merdeka received widespread condemnation both domestically and internationally. The irony of this disproportionate response was that it happened just weeks after the introduction and passing of many of these so-called political reform bills in a history setting parliamentary session where the clock was ‘frozen’ at 12 midnight in order to rush through these bills.

What sort of political reform can this be if they are half hearted in its intent and substance and worse of all, not backed by the sufficient political will to make sure that they are implemented?

If Najib’s Political Transformation Program (PTP) were to be given a KPI score, like the ones issued by the Government Transformation Program (GTP) and the Economic Transformation Program (ETP), the score should be an undisputed FAIL.

How can genuine democracy thrive in Malaysia?

The evidence presented thus far suggests that the BN government has failed to live up to its Vision of a Malaysia ‘fostering and developing a mature democratic society’, set out by former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir, who, of late, seems to have forgotten his own Vision 2020.

Najib has lacked the political will and courage to implement genuine political reform that will lead the country on the path to a genuine democracy. The superficial and cosmetic legislative measures have not been backed up by concrete action. Most worryingly, Najib refused to and still refuses to answer the question on whether he will guarantee that there will be a peaceful transition of power in Putrajaya if Pakatan Rakyat were to capture a majority of parliamentary seats in the upcoming general election. If Najib is not willing to guarantee one of the basic and fundamental guarantees of a functioning democracy – a peaceful transition of power from one government to another – how then can we expect a genuine democracy to be established, much less thrive, under a BN government?

The only way forward, it seems to me, is that we must replace the current BN government in the 13th general election as the first step towards firmly establishing Malaysia as a democratic country. Once in power, Pakatan Rakyat will have the burden of delivering on its promises including the promises of genuine legislative reform so that the components and characteristics of democracy can be institutionalized, in form as well as in substance.

We have made such promises in the Buku Jingga and most recently, in our first ever Pakatan Raykat Manifesto.

If we do not deliver on these promises, then the people of Malaysia will do what voters in other democratic countries have done with regularity – which is to replace one government with another. This is what genuine democracy will look and feel like.

But this will not happen until the current BN government is kicked out of power with a resounding mandate from the people.

The 2008 general elections opened the door for many possibilities which Malaysians could not have imagined happening in their lifetimes. The 2013 general elections will be the historic opportunity for Malaysians to throw open the floodgates for a genuine democracy to thrive in our country. Then only can we safely say that our country has achieved the ranks of a truly democratic country with a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

[Paper presented on “An appraisal of the electoral democracy in Malaysia” at the International Conference on Malaysia 13th General Elections at Lake Club, Kuala Lumpur on March 4-5, 2013 at 11 am]

  1. No comments yet.

You must be logged in to post a comment.