The price of democracy in Malaysia

Today is a day in history for Malaysia. The Bersih 2.0 demonstrations (for clean and fair elections through electoral reforms ) brought out thousands (reportedly approx 20,000) to the streets of Kuala Lumpur, with the diaspora also united in that same spirit of hope and irrepressible freedom. This was the spirit of 1Malaysia finally trying to blossom. Fair and clean elections do not in any way result in a democratic vote that pleases everyone, but it does mean that the voice of the majority (and if it was truly democratic, the voice of the minority also) is heard. More importantly, being a united 1Malaysia does not come from being exactly the same, believing the same and thinking the same. It comes from being able to accept there are differences and do so maturely.

Unfortunately, our politicians have forgotten that and do not seem to grasp the essence of what it means to be united or to respect the freedoms enshrined in the Malaysian constitution. I cannot help but say to the Malaysian politicians:

“Shame on you. These people demonstrating today are your very own. What will it take before you recognise that you are losing legitimacy and cannot rule until you gain it back?”

And to the police:

“Why didnt you get some help from Public Relations experts. The name  ‘Operation Erase Bersih’ doesn’t give much credence to your right to maintain the rule of law. And what police force in the world has the gall to represent themselves as ‘erasing cleanliness and corruption”.

Apparently, only the Malaysian police force! Their blatant disrespect of the rule of law, human rights, constitutional rights and downright un-professionalism clearly suggests to me that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. Replace Denmark with Malaysia, and we would be right.

So what exactly is wrong in the state of Malaysia? Taking a very cursory approach, I can see three general things. Of course these are not the only issues but I set them out below for the purpose of dialogue and for us to examine how we can make Malaysia “healthier”.

1. ATTITUDES: Firstly, there is the issue of OUR attitudes. I am aware that I am a recovering racist and its no use pretending I am otherwise. I was brought up with racist thoughts that “the Malays are lazy”, “be careful, lock the car door, there is an Indian motorcyclist”, “the Chinese are the rich ones who get all the real benefits”, “don’t walk out late at night or else the Indonesian illegal migrant might come and rape you”. I am ashamed that these thoughts are not strangers to me but this is something I must deal with. There may be some truths to some sayings, but once they are taken for granted as ‘mega-truths’ then that is when it becomes a problem.

Unfortunately, these attitudes has been entrenched by our behaviours.

2. BEHAVIOURS: One cannot act rationally and graciously when our lives are guided by the thoughts mentioned above. We live in fear, thinking that someone might break into our car to rape and steal or we expect the worse out of others. I am sure many people have experienced first hand the injustices of racism. They may even point a finger at me and say that I have never really experienced the hardships of living in Malaysia. That may be true to some extent, but I think it is safe to say that everyone, EVERYONE in the world has experienced UNEARNED PRIVILEGES and DAILY INDIGNITIES. (cite Jan Sunoo).

I was born into privilege. I had a great education, a family that loves and protects me, the ability to travel anywhere in the world, a country that recognises me as a citizen, I can read and write, I have not be sold into prostitution and I have experienced grace and forgiveness countless of times. But I never earned any of these things. These are my unearned privileges.

At the same time, I experience daily indignities. As a Chinese Malaysian woman who lived in New Zealand for quite a while, I experienced first hand people calling me names in small towns. People treated me in ways that were rather offensive. In Malaysia, older men will look at me and think “who do you think you are to speak your mind. You havent lived long enough or earned your stripes to talk like that.”  Who has the right to tell anyone what to think? I am not a child anymore but even children have human rights!!!!

However, despite experiencing daily indignities, we have no right to enforce further indignities on others. Yes, the state of Malaysia may be rotten, but as a Chinese, I recognise that there is poverty and growing inequalities in some parts of Malaysia and I believe what needs to be done is to channel the institutionalised privileges (that have benefited Malay elites) to the poor in general, irrespective of race. The problem with Najib’s 1Malaysian concept is that while it sounds good, it glosses over the very real institutional issues of racism, poverty, corruption and a neglect of the rule of law. It deals lip service to the fact that we are not united anymore. The policies in place are tearing Malaysians apart! How can Malaysia be united when some call for a Ketuanan Melayu despite the reality that there are millions of Chinese and Indians and indigenous groups living in Malaysia. The only way I can see Malaysia becoming a Malay Malaysia is if the current exodus of Malaysians continue….but this comes at the cost of economic growth. Overall, Najib’s ‘behaviours’ in crafting a 1Malaysia campaign does not reflect his true attitudes (which he does not hide) for Malaysia to remain disunited.

This brings me to point 3- the structural inequalities that break us apart.

3. STRUCTURAL INEQUALITIES: The Bersih movement was strictly a fight for clean and fair electoral reforms. What it has become is a movement for change. Change from what? From the structural inequalities that have existed for decades. The political discourse in all our newspapers (Utusan, the Star, New Strait times etc) are all about racial politics and the dynamics of ‘race’. What is hidden is the fact that poverty and growing economic inequalities is an underlying issue. Politicians claim that an affirmative action policy is required to bring the (Malay) poor out of poverty and into better living standards. Little work has been done to prove that these policies have succeeded in doing so, rather than maintain the elites’ (politicians) hold on power. Who is actually benefiting? Malays in kampungs or Malays in Kuala Lumpur ( forgive the generalisation- I should really say the RICH Malays, wherever they may be).

Also a hidden issue is the need for gender equity. Women groups took the opportunity to join the Bersih movement, claiming that it was also a fight for gender rights (which it originally was not as I imagine many of the main opposition party leaders were also men!). Perhaps the government’s new policy for 30% of directorships on companies to be given to women triggered the demand for women’s voices to be heard as it was very clear that the government had in no way consulted women. Even outspoken former minister Rafidah said it degraded women and implied that women who were directors did not deserve to be there but for the fact that men are required to put (female) puppet directors there. While I am not opposed to a policy that aims to empower women, such a blanket rule does, in no way, empower women but only entrenches their positions as the weaker gender.

Women don’t want hand outs, they only want to be treated fairly.

Another structural issue is the fact that the government is not ruling in accordance with supreme law of the country- the Constitution- and needs some training in the rule of law. According to a post on my facebook wall today, “Fadiah Nadwa Fikri of Lawyers for Liberty says that the police have invoked section 28A(8) of the Criminal Procedure Code – denial of access to lawyers – at Pulapol (Police Training Centre), where she says 1,000 people are being detained.  According to her, this is a violation of Article 5 of constitution.” The upholders of law appear to have forgotten the law.

While there are many systemic issues that need to be addressed, Malaysians far and wide stand proudly at the fact that many of our own braved many threats by the police and government and appeared at the Bersih demonstrations today. While there is something rotten in the state of Malaysia, the Malaysian spirit for respect, unity and freedom is being birthed. If the government took time to listen, there is a chance for a better future. If not, more violence is sure to continue. Until we recognise that our future is dependent on how we deal with our past and present, Malaysia has no chance of being 1Malaysia with the rapid economic growth that all recent Malaysian Prime Ministers crave for. Development and growth needs people- all the people Malaysia currently has- yellow, brown blue and black!

Malaysia needs Malaysians.

(please put a comment below if you have any thoughts on the above or the recent demonstrations)

3 Responses to “The price of democracy in Malaysia”
  1. whatsaysyou says:

    Reforms are what that country truly needs.

  2. harga yang harus ditebus untuk sebuah perjuangan demokrasi adalah seperti yang terjadi di Indonesia tahun 1997. penuh pergolakan, pertumpahan darah, saling bunuh, dan perusakan massal….. siapkah orang malaysia ?…. Malaysia sedang kearah reformasi……..manisnya akan terasa ketika reformasi berjalan 5 – 10 tahun kedepan…….

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