Our democratic roots


Tunku Abidin Muhriz, The Malay Mail

Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is founding president of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas).

While there are well-publicised groups that deliberately provoke racial and religious emotions, it is still possible to hear a khutbah that invokes religion and history to condemn racism and promote harmony, as I did at the state mosque in Seremban on Chinese New Year.

The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) is four years old, but this is only the third time we’re celebrating our birthday — last year we were too busy monitoring the thirteenth general election.  In Lembah Pantai, someone asked if I was going to become a candidate, but in today’s Malaysia, you do not need a party political platform to contribute to public policy, as civil society has grown since the premiership of Tun Abdullah Badawi. Some of Ideas’ activities are summarised in our Four Year Report that is available at ideas.org.my, and I am glad to say that policy makers in government and political parties increasingly ask us for inputs.

We have discovered that among politicians, the civil service and special advisers, there are many who understand that reform or transformation is needed in our country, this must be properly justified to the public, and criticism and rallies are normal features of a democracy (and where if there are constraints, they should be applied equally).

Policy-making can still be improved (by strengthening backbenchers for example), yet there are those who still exude arrogance in treating voters and institutions. They demand that people comply with their world view, abhor debate and disregard the law.

Sadly, many institutions are too deferential: universities will cancel forums and publishers will self-censor.  And ignorance means that many unsustainable policies continue unquestioned. But the biggest ignorance is that of our own history, which is why at our events we invite political veterans or retirees to recall the legacy of Merdeka and Tunku Abdul Rahman.

Distorted history largely explains why our institutions do not function as they should. Retired civil servants, ambassadors and generals lament how their organisations lack an institutional memory, leaving them vulnerable to reinterpretation and subversion. Over time, corruption has taken root and the returns to the rakyat have diminished. There are too many little Napoleons, and we need to augment the political will to remedy this.

A strong grounding in history and critical thinking can help strengthen national unity and create better citizens, too. The writings of the Tunku are full of lessons on patriotism and discipline, but so much from our past illuminates our classical liberal roots. The Batu Bersurat Terengganu restrained absolutist authority; Demang Lebar Daun and Sri Tri Buana established limited government; Srivijaya and Malacca pioneered free trade and low taxes; the Iban bejalai and Minangkabau merantau encouraged individual liberty and entrepreneurship; the formation of Negri Sembilan inspired later federations; the legal codes of Malacca and Kedah and the constitutions of Johor and Terengganu promoted rule of law; and after independence our armed forces fought communists to keep their homeland free.

This narrative of native liberalism was understood in our proclamation of independence, the Rukun Negara and the objectives of Vision 2020, but due to fear-mongering, ‘liberal’ is now a dirty word. So instead, synonyms like hadhari, moderation, wasatiyyah and 1Everything are used — but even these are under attack, with little reaction from meek political leaders.

Some authoritarian, condescending traitors think that their fellow citizens are too stupid to make the ‘right choices’, but despite the loud minority, I believe the vast majority of Malaysians can view competing policies and choose what they prefer. If political leaders fail to fight this ugly extremism, civil society will take the lead.

Ideas’ strategy in the coming years will focus on education, governance and outreach. But of course we will do what we can to strengthen institutions, and we look forward to working with partners in academia and civil society.  This is possible because we do not covet political office nor do we seek approval of politicians. We are trying to serve the country free from the constraints of party politics.

This is especially important when people lose their objectivity once they join a political party. I have huge arguments with activists-turned-apparatchiks who excuse the flaws of their ‘dear leader’ and argue that the ends justify the means. For them I recall a quote from the Tunku:

“Most politicians think only of the present moment, and the advantage which can come to their party at the immediate expense of other parties.  Statesmen, however, always consider what they do, what they say, in the national interest; they think well ahead, weigh the long-term consequences of their actions.”

Perhaps one day, a Malaysian prime minister can once again claim to be the happiest in the world.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.