Constitutional Democracy in Malaysia

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Speech at the Corporate Counsel Conference Kuala Lumpur
10 April 2018

Thank you for inviting me to address this conference, especially when you know full well what my views of this country are. I will probably disappoint some of you with my treatment of the subject. I don’t see constitutional democracy as a relevant topic in this country anymore, although there are curious participants such as yourselves who are still willing to listen.

I see democracy as a remnant of our past. Of course, there are legal and institutional structures in place that make us look like a democracy, like the King opening our Parliament once a year as Queen Elizabeth II does in Britain. But that’s the only similarity. In essence, democracy in our country has been dead since 1969.

Democracy is predicated on four important principles. Without any one of these, it is not true democracy.

First is the recognition that all citizens are equal. Equality is an essential and fundamental part of democracy. That’s why everyone — man or woman, rich or poor, gay or heterosexual — has the same right under the law ; including the right to vote. In a democracy, the principle of equality is unqualified. It is sacrosanct, an ideal that is unquestionable although the practice may be less than desirable.

In a more mature democracy, parliamentary boundaries are determined as far as possible to give equal weightage to the voters; they have no laws against fake news and they uphold the rights of all citizens. That’s why an African-American can become President of the United States; a Muslim can become President of India, a woman can become Prime Minister in Britain, and a homosexual can become Prime Minister in some European countries.

But in this country, the principle of equality is only found in the Constitution and not in real life. In this country, some constituency have more than 130,000 voters and others have 14,000 . The huge disparity makes a mockery of one man one vote principle. Malays and Muslims (as defined by UMNO and JAKIM) come first. You will not see a non-Muslim as Prime Minister or a homosexual individual as Minister (unless they are in the closet). Malays have special privileges, which for all intents and purposes have become rights and entitlements. There are more places in the universities and more scholarships for Malays. They also hold top positions in the Government.

So if you are not a Malay/Muslim, your chances of becoming Prime Minister, Finance Minister, Education Minister, Chief Justice, Attorney-General, Governor of Bank Negara, Inspector-General of Police or even a District Officer are remote. Ironically, the main beneficiaries of such a policy are usually non-Malays. Jho Low, for example, is neither a Malay nor a Muslim, yet he got the bulk of the monies that were stolen from this country. We also know that many of the proxies/cronies of UMNO leaders are Chinese and Indian businessmen.

The Malay Rulers are an institution and a part of our constitutional government. Their position as constitutional monarchs is different from that of other monarchs in western parliamentary democracies. Convention and practices applicable to other constitutional monarchs do not apply to them.

Some Malay Rulers and their kins are extensively involved in big business. Naturally, that renders them more inclined to support those in power. Some of the Malay Rulers have no compunction in showing partisan support to the ruling party , which is regrettable, considering that this is an election period.

The British Queen or the Japanese emperor will not express any personal view on political leaders, as this will not be accepted by the people, as this amounts to political interference. The people in Britain will probably ask such a monarch who gets involved in politics to abdicate the throne, and contest for a Parliament seat. The British monarch will also not ask the PM for a concession, or a business deal. We have had instances when a Malay Ruler actively supported a certain political party or denigrated an Opposition politician. Separating politics from the palace will not be easy, and that is the biggest impediment to restore constitutional democracy to Malaysia.

Our Malay Rulers may not necessarily appoint a Prime Minister or Mentri Besar who has been chosen by the ruling party, whereas Britain’s Queen is duty bound to appoint the ruling party’s choice as Prime Minister. We have heard that sometimes a Ruler requires more than one name from the ruling party for the position of Mentri Besar, which makes a mockery of democracy, where the people select their political leader through the party that won the most number of seats.

Again, as was decided in Perak’s case, the Ruler may determine that a Mentri Besar has lost support of the majority of the members of the State legislature without requiring a debate and a vote in the Assembly, as is customary in other countries. The Ruler can therefore subjectively determine the matter.

The excessive powers assumed by some Malay Rulers under the guise of royal prerogatives and discretion is the greatest impediment to constitutional democracy ; and feudal culture and values will drive us further away from the people adopting democratic values and practices. of a democracy, and more of a democracy as guided by the ruling Prime Minister and the interventionist Malay Rulers

The second important component in a democracy is the acceptance that human rights are fundamental and are to be preserved and protected. Liberty and freedom of religion, expression and movement for citizens are prerequisites in a democracy. In a country that practises democracy, the rights of the individual are placed high in the ranking of needs. The individual comes first. In a religious state God comes first, and what is important to God is decided by a group of ulamak in the religious councils or the monarch of the country

Since the individual is important in a democracy, you then have freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of travel. There are limits of course, but they are generally narrow limits so as to exclude its proper use and enjoyment. Aristotle was a great believer in the rights and power of the individual. He believed in the power of human reason, and that it was only through a proper articulation and use of the intellect that Man, as a social being, could create, interact and exist in a peaceful and prosperous environment. Aristotle believed these were all best found in a democracy.

The third component that is essential for democracy is the application of the law without bias, and with the professionalism that is expected of law enforcement agencies. The law must be applied fairly to everyone. The level of independence that law enforcement agencies have reflects how much of a democracy the country is. In democratic countries, the people expect and insist that the law runs its course, and that no political leader can subvert this principle. But in Malaysia, it is the Prime Minister, Attorney-General or the Police that decide when the law is applicable.

The last characteristic of a democracy is the separation of religion from public affairs and the administration of the state. The democracies of the US and Europe work hard to ensure that their laws and policies do not absorb religious rules. Religion is separated from the affairs of the state to ensure that the country is administered based on what the people want, and not want the ulamak think God wants.

For example, if doctors prove that vaccination is necessary for the health of our children, then governments have to implement vaccination programmes, regardless of what the religious quarters say. If the people demand equal opportunities for women in the work place, then government should implement such a policy , regardless of what the ulamak say. It must not be prohibited just because some people from the Majlis Agama dislike the idea of women doing certain type of jobs or holding certain position . Once religion creeps into the public space, there are no individual rights and no democracy.

The British Government will not ban same-sex marriage because all the reasons put forth for forbidding it are irrelevant. In a democracy, it does not matter what religion says. The only determining factors are if the activity is what the people want and whether it causes harm to society.

Now why did I say at the beginning of my speech that in Malaysia, democracy died in 1969? When we negotiated our independence, it was the British in London working together with our political elites and aristocracy who decided to make Malaya and—and later Malaysia—a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch as its head of state. The people of Malaya had no particular interest in any form of government. They were just tired of the war, the Japanese Occupation and the general poverty in the country.

When we were offered independence, we took it wholesale along with the Federal Constitution and the house of Parliament, without fully understanding the basic rudiments of democracy. We also did not care about the responsibilities that go with being a democracy. Then we had several small racial riots in the 1960s and then the big one of 1969, where so many innocent people were killed in the streets. Even after all this time, we have never quite recovered.

The resulting New Economic Policy was more than just a piece of socioeconomic engineering that was implemented to bridge the gap between Malays and others. The privileges and idea behind Article 153 was to help Malays in business and education, but it soon became an economic policy to give preference to whomever the ruling party wanted. Implementation of the policy became subjective and non transparent. It brought about some good, but it also created some destructive attitudes and results.

In other words, the years after 1969 was when UMNO Malays took the opportunity to reconstruct our nation. They altered the fundamental provisions in the Constitution, changed the way Parliament worked, turned the civil service into an overwhelmingly Malay workforce, brought more Muslims into Sabah and put only Malays in the top levels of the judiciary.

It was not just the character of our economy that changed; major aspects of our identity as a country were overhauled. Our education system became more nationalistic, and Islam under the Islamisation policy became a central force in the government. This is where we are now, and this is where we will remain for a long time.

Will Malaysia ever be a democracy? Time changes many things, and it is possible that one day, maybe in 100 years, the Malays and Muslims of this country may decide that yes, they want to live in a democracy. Actually, I have always believed that the only place in the world where Malays can prosper and actualize their full potential is in a democracy.

That’s why when we were a democracy, we had brilliant and truly towering Malays like educationists Ungku Omar and Ungku Aziz, writers and poets like Usman Awan and Shahnon Ahmad, economists like Tun Ismail Ali, Raja Mohar and Rastam Hadi, legal luminaries like Tun Suffian and Eusoffe Abdoolcader, and many others. They represented the best of Malays in terms of their education, fortitude and integrity. In comparison, look at Malays living today without democracy. They have titles, lots of money and sit on many company boards—but they contribute very little to posterity.

Will Malays choose democracy again? It depends on the Malay elites and aristocrats, because Malays would rather be led than take the initiative on their own. Perhaps they will, but not in my lifetime. Fundamental changes to our education system are sine qua non to making Malaysia a democracy again. The kind of education that we require has been adopted by many advanced countries. Will Malays want a radical change in our education system?

Many of them are more comfortable with a government that promises them more religion and more rituals in their schools. They do not want a government that is willing to implement an education system that is biased towards science and technology. They do not want science to override their understanding of the universe, as explained by the tok guru in their mosque.

They would rather have more knowledge about religion and the afterlife than about the world we live in. They would rather continue to be suspicious of non-Muslims and oppose any attempt to grant equality and human rights to Malaysians generally. Their lack of knowledge in science and technology and the type of education they are exposed to means they have less technical know-how. Culturally, they are not willing to change, resulting in them pursuing activities that do not bring much wealth and knowledge creation. They are more interested in listening to religious talks by the likes of Hadi Awang or Zakir Naik. That’s what I worry about Malays, although the other communities will adapt and will not suffer as much in the present system.

Muslims want an Islamic system to govern their lives, but there is no live model for them to follow. They only rely on vague notions of the past. In such an environment they will definitely continue to be dependent on government and become less competitive. They will be increasingly less involved in many economic activities, partly because they will exclude themselves from those that are not “shariah-compliant”, to borrow the term that Najib uses. They will not be an economic force in the country .

Will Malaysians suffer economically without democracy? Not necessarily, as many countries prosper economically without democracy, such as China, Vietnam and Russia. However, I feel that Malays/Muslims in the new global world will be marginalized. They will not be competitive if they prefer to continue living in a world of privilege and entitlement. They may use government companies to venture into bigger businesses , but we know that the benefit of such ventures do not always trickle down to the people on the ground.

Perhaps their world view will change and democracy will return to the country

Thank you.

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