30 December 2011
THIS year, the most amazing political event to have occurred in the world could very arguably be the Arab Spring. Popular uprisings all over the Middle East have seen dictatorships fall like ten-pins in the centre of of a camel race. The process continues still.
This phenomenon demolishes stereotypes like “Arabs don’t care about democracy”. There are also lessons to be learnt for the rest of us who live in authoritarian societies. And please, do not let the recent flurry of activities from Putrajaya fool you. We live in an authoritarian society.
Attempts made by the ruling coalition to give themselves a more liberal face do not pass close examination. The Peaceful Assembly Act basically bestows upon us the “wonderful” right to gather in stadiums.
The proposed amendments to the University and University Colleges Act simply does not understand at all the concept of student autonomy and freedom. Joining a political party at the age of 21 is not the be all and end all about student autonomy. And don’t get me started about the potential horrors that the replacement for the ISA is going to bring.
However, I digress. My point is that although we may differ in degree, Malaysia, just like the Arab regimes brought down by revolution is authoritarian in nature, and there are lessons to be learnt from the Middle East as to what to expect when a transition is made from an authoritarian regime to a democratic society.
When the Arab Spring occurred, the Malaysian government and mainstream media fell over themselves to say that such a thing could not occur here. Strange as this may seem, I feel that I have to agree. But my agreement is conditional.
People only take to the streets in such numbers and with such intensity and determination when they are suffering greatly (usually from poverty), and when they feel they have no voice. As long as the election process can be trusted in this country, then people will not feel the need to change governments through methods such as those used in Egypt.
Which goes to show that it is of vital importance that our electoral system is trustworthy. As such, significant reforms had best be made before we go to the polls again.
Another major difference between Malaysia and countries like Egypt is that if the current government loses (I won’t use the word “toppled”, because it sounds so harsh), there won’t be a power vacuum. In Egypt, the military has always had tremendous political clout, and there was never a significant “government in waiting”.
Hence the problems they are facing with trying to reduce military involvement in government as they start this new phase in their country’s development.
Here, we have had the fortunate experience of seeing someone else in power, albeit at the state level. The military has kept out of politics (and hopefully will stay so), and we cannot say that there is no alternative to BN.
The last time I looked, Kedah, Penang, Selangor and Kelantan are still standing and prospering. Thus if BN loses Putrajaya, it wouldn’t be difficult to fill those well-padded seats. Likewise if Pakatan forms the next government and they lose in the future.
This brings me to the final lesson that we can learn from the Arab Spring. What matters is not who governs. What matters is the system of governance. It must be democratic, it must be just, and it must be trustworthy.
Western commentators have been wringing their hands at the prospect of an Islamist government democratically elected in Egypt. So what if they are? If they are democratically elected then the wishes of the Egyptions must be respected. The key here is that it must be possible to elect them out.
The same goes in Malaysia. Our democracy is pratically foetal in terms of maturity, and it must develop in order for us to fully enjoy the fruits of a system that respects our inherent dignity as human beings. It does not really matter who holds the reins of power as long as we the people can take those reins away from them.
It feels like that is a long way away, but it does not need to be so. Who knows what 2012 will bring?
Happy New Year.