Malaysia’s democratic deficit

Malaysia’s dysfunctional democracy is primarily caused by the ruling party as a means to remain in power.

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The reforms in the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) may be a step in the right direction. Already, there are detractors suggesting that the reforms are meaningless as corruption is entrenched in Malaysia. What is more serious is Malaysia’s democratic deficit which undermines the citizens’ basic democratic right to choose their representatives without fear.

Malaysia is a dysfunctional democracy. The opposition coalition — Pakatan Rakyat (PR Peoples/Citizens Coalition) is under siege from the ruling party — of Barisan Nasional (BN National Front) — that is recognised as corrupt. All the component parties are scandal-plagued and documented evidence or corruption is common. Yet, nothing can be done by its citizens democratically as its institutions are compromised. The flip side is that the ruling party has an excellent track record ofdestroyingany form of opposition through measures that lack scruple. BN is able to do this with impunity as it controls all arms of what is a dysfunctional democracy and Malaysians know that.

Malaysia was modelled on a Westminster style Parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy. It has the semblance of a democracy. But over the past 52 years, Malaysia’s system of government has become dysfunctional — concentrating power in the hands of a select few from the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO). The ‘Doctrine of Separation of Powers’ — the hallmark of a mature democracy began to be eroded almost immediately after independence.

The basic principle of one person one vote was compromised almost immediately after independence. The first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, found the Election Commissioner too independent for his liking and through the two thirds majority that BN’s predecessors — the Alliance — held, amended the Constitution that gave powers to the Election Commission to delimit constituencies and put it under Parliament in 1962 where the ruling party had a majority. UMNO and its cohorts have since used the Election Commission to stage manage elections giving UMNO supporters such as rural Malays disproportionate weight in the electorate compared to urban voters where the opposition tends to be focused.

A byproduct of controlling the Election Commission is the ability to maintain two thirds majority in Parliament which by Constitution is required to amend it. Having gained a two thirds majority, BN amended the Federal Constitution in its favour at will so that it ceases to represent the letter and the spirit of Malaysia’s founding fathers. The constitution has become far more repressive by concentrating power in the Executive.

The Judicial Crisis of 1988 destroyed any semblance of democracy in Malaysia when UMNO under Mahathir sacked the Lord President as a way of controlling the Judiciary — the body that is meant to interpret legislation and defends the rights of citizens – whom he thought had become ‘too independent‘. The Constitutional amendments made theJudiciary subordinate to the Executive.

Civil liberties in Malaysia have been severely curtailed to protect UMNO’s dominant position. The Internal Security Act (ISA) allows the government to hold anyone suspected of threatening ‘national security‘ without charge or trial. Together with other repressive legislation such as the Emergency Ordinance — the Official Secrets Act — which bans public discussion of most government and parliamentary affairs as it allows the government to classify documents as secret (including government tenders for public works). The Sedition Act includes vague provisions that criminalises any discussion by citizens that question the primacy afforded to Malays (Malay special rights, the Monarchy Malay language). The Societies Act limits citizens constitutional right to freely associate as it gives the government the right to refuse to register a new society (including legitimate political parties). The Police Act requires citizens to apply for a permit 14 days before a public gathering (thereby making any peaceful public demonstration illegal). The Universities and University Colleges Act disallows tertiary students from participating in political activities (unless of course you’re an UMNO supporter) and allows UMNO almost complete hegemony in Malaysia by controlling the discourse and punishing contrary views.

The media is fully controlled by the government. All the major newspapers, television and radio stations are controlled by UMNO and its cohorts. The printing Presses and Publication Act requires any publication to obtain a license from the government which needs to be renewed on an annual basis (and puts pressure on publishers to toe the government line), enabling the government to control public opinion as news is essentially government propaganda.

UMNO also controls all use of legitimate force as it controls the Police, and the armed forces (Army, Navy and Air Force) and other paramilitary units and uses it arbitrarilyagainst citizens. Torture in detention is common and opposition politicians and civil society members are routinely rounded up and beaten. A new strategy employed by BN is to use the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission to undermine opposition legislators with trumped up charges. This has also led to the death of an opposition aide from torture allegedly perpetrated by MACC officers.

UMNO’s most powerful tool is the ability to cut federal funding to regions or states or channel development projects away from opposition held areas. Conversely, it provides development projects as bribes to constituents to vote for BN. Opposition legislators and states have found themselves choked of constitutionally guaranteed federal funding.

The year since the heady days of March 8, 2008 — when Malaysians hoped that change would come — seems to be receding. UMNO’s tactics as well as its blatant abuse of democratic institutions points Malaysia to a bleak future.

This article first appeared in East Asia Forum.

Author: Greg Lopez

I write about Malaysia, Singapore, Southeast Asia and Australia’s policy towards the ASEAN region. I am also lecturer with Murdoch University’s Executive Education Centre, fellow at its Asia Research Centre, and a a member of its Centre for Responsible Citizenship and Sustainability. I am also a visiting fellow at the Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University. Trained as an economist at the University of Malaya and the Australian National University, I have worked and researched the region extensively focusing on its economic and political reforms.

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