The Malaysian malaise 

The Barisan Nasional government uses subsidies as a tool to make people dependent on them – a form of crass populism.  

Aerie Rahman, MMO 

Have you ever been to Brunei? I find it to be an eclectic blend between Kelantan and Putrajaya. From the airport to the city centre, Islamic billboards are many – emphasising the Islamic character of the nation.

Swanky government buildings scream of modernity, like those in Putrajaya. The government edifices appear anachronistic next to the private buildings that seem to be frozen in the 70s.

The same goes for oil rich Arab nations. Artificial cities like Doha and Abu Dhabi emerge from the middle of the desert, akin to some grandiose oasis.

These countries all share a certain commonality in the sense that they are petro-dictatorships. The same could be said about Venezuela, Iran, and Russia which have vast oil reserves. I consider them dysfunctional democracies.

Is oil a poison to democracy?

No taxation without representation

While eating at a KFC outlet in Brunei, I noticed that on the receipt there was no tax charge. Apparently in Brunei nobody pays any tax. In Qatar, citizens who are mostly Arab Qataris lead well-subsidised lives – all due to winning the geographical lottery of oil being situated under their feet.

Nevertheless, because people from petro-dictatorships hardly pay any taxes, their demands (if any) for some sort of democratic representation lacks any moral weight. The dictator can simply point to the benefits trickled down to the people to justify his legitimacy. There is enough largesse for all, even for the excesses of leaders.

When the Arab Spring gained traction, it was impoverished and oil deficient Arab countries that were badly affected. Petro-dictatorships simply poured in more oil money to silence any form of dissent.

If someone petitions to offer to pay taxes for some modicum of representation, he would look foolish. The dictator would just use the petition as toilet paper.

To appease the masses, petro-dictatorships spend tons of cash on infrastructure. The exterior of the nation is beautified to demonstrate that the money is channelled properly. Subsidies are increased in order to bribe the people.

The trade-off for this populism is, unfortunately, democratic institutions and values.

You don’t need money to have representation and accountability. All you need is the will to do so. But money funnelled to bribe citizens and quell dissent – by funding the burgeoned security apparatus – is a recipe for an enduring dictatorship.

The relationship between the ruler and the ruled is highly distorted because of oil.

Despite citizens of petro-dictatorships being able to afford education in Western liberal democracies, these values are not internalised because once back in their home nations they have no space, desire or moral authority to demand for elections.

They will be perceived as ungrateful (tak bersyukur) to the benevolent dictator if they demand for change. Sounds familiar?

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