Diplomatically Speaking By Dennis IgnatiusTweet
The tumultuous events that shook Egypt are apparently causing jitters elsewhere. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak surprisingly saw the need to warn against similar moves here.
Few believe that the conditions that prompted mass demonstrations in Egypt presently exist in Malaysia. For one thing, Malaysians are vastly better off economically than the Egyptians. For the most part, Malaysians enjoy a level of comfort and consumerism that is the envy of most of the developing world.
True, Malaysians have become decidedly unhappy with rising living costs, the concentration of wealth and opportunity in the hands of a few well-connected people, and widespread corruption. For now, however, these concerns are far from the point where they could conceivably find expression in a “day of rage”.
The most important difference, however, that mitigates against an Egyptian-style revolt here is that we already have in place a democratic system that gives the people the power to effect change through the ballot box.
The lessons we must learn from Egypt are of another kind: that democracy is a precious right that people in other nations have had to fight and die for. It must never be taken for granted or allowed to wither through neglect or indifference.
And therein lies the nub of our problem: our democracy, and the key institutions associated with it, has been in slow decline for some years now.
Malaysia is increasingly viewed as a “flawed” democracy. The recent Economist Democracy Index ranked Malaysia 71 out of 167 countries, behind even Indonesia, Namibia, Thailand and Papua New Guinea.
Rescuing our democracy from the malaise that has beset it is a key challenge, and arguably our most important task.
Democracy is more than simply casting a ballot once every few years; it is a way of life, a frame of mind, an attitude of heart, where citizens actively and tangibly participate in the political life of their nation through a myriad of different ways – turning out to vote, engaging political representatives and holding them accountable, participating in dialogue and debate, staying informed on issues and making informed decisions, standing up for fundamental rights, etc.
Passivity is the great enemy of democracy. The people themselves must be the guardians of their own freedom.
Fortunately, Malaysians appear to be increasingly vocal participants in the democratic process. They have not been afraid to take to the streets to peacefully express their displeasure or to support causes they believe in.
They are speaking out and challenging long established taboos. They have shown that they are ready to take a chance on the unknown and even elect political neophytes to office if it will help to improve the overall democratic climate in the country. Civil society groups are also more active, well organised and better supported.
All this augurs well for our democracy, though we still have some way to go. Democracy is, after all, always a work in progress. If our democracy is to prosper, democratic transformation and change must become a priority.
Intrinsic to this is an end to the culture of impunity. For too long, public officials who abuse their position have managed to evade justice. There is a sense that those with privilege and good connections are above the law. This is harmful to democracy.
Citizens of a democracy also need to be on guard against demagoguery and those who pander to narrow racial or religious sentiment. There is already too much of this in Malaysia and it is detrimental to our democracy. Character, principle and dedicated service should matter far more than racial or religious considerations.
As well, citizens of a free nation must be in the forefront of defending the democratic institutions, including a free press, an independent judiciary and a responsive parliament, that give substance to their democracy.
The curtailment of press freedom, for example, has weakened our democracy. Only a free and fearless press can keep governments accountable and citizens well informed. It is not a luxury we can do without; it is necessary for the survival of our democracy.
Our justice system also needs to be overhauled. The reputation of some of our judges has been tarnished and their impartiality questioned. Our police force is plagued by corruption and seen as abusive and disrespectful of the rights of citizens.
Last but not least, our Parliament must be transformed into the true heart of our democracy instead of being little more than a rubber stamp. Many of our elected representatives appear to owe little or no allegiance to the people who voted for them. If we are to give meaning to our democracy, we must demand more of those we elect to represent us.
George Bernard Shaw once quipped that democracy ensures that we shall be governed no better than we deserve. Malaysia deserves better and it is up to the people to ensure that we get it. That is what the people at Liberation Square are discovering.
> Datuk Dennis Ignatius is a 36-year veteran of the Malaysian foreign service. He has served in London, Beijing and Washington and was ambassador to Chile and Argentina. He was twice Undersecretary for American Affairs. He retired as High Commissioner to Canada in July 2008.