keynote address by Anwar Ibrahim at IKD Symposium on 21 November 2009.
It is a great honour to stand before you to talk about what can be described as a revolution in the collective consciousness of this nation. Last March, by the stroke of the pen, the people of Malaysia shattered all of the preconceived notions that denied the possibility of political change. In place of these old assumptions a new memory of our nation’s heritage and the self-image of its people has emerged.
Until now many of our elected representatives have failed to uphold the mantle of public office. Their interest has been an exercise in greed and avarice and not what Vaclav Havel described as a heightened responsibility for the moral state of society, and to seek out the best in that society and to develop and strengthen it. For it is only with leaders of such caliber that we can expect a government that is fair and abides by the Rules of Law, outlined in a Constitution that grants legitimacy to the very existence of that government. Anything short of this would be an injustice that approaches tyranny.
We had been weaned for many years on the notion that submissiveness and frailty were a prerequisite for the stability of the nation. Our diverse ethnic makeup, rather than an asset, was treated as a powder keg that could be ignited by the slightest spark. Economic development was not compatible with the freedoms that have been established in other democratic nations. On the contrary Malaysian democracy would be circumscribed by profoundly un-democratic rules. There was a freedom of speech but only on certain subjects. The freedom to associate was granted, but only with approved license. Due process, a fair and an impartial judiciary were granted only insofar as they did not encroach upon the vested interests of the rich and powerful. These measures were taken unscrupulously in the name of security and peace.
of democracy, there is no monopoly on the principles of political freedom and liberty. The tradition of public discussion can be found across the world such that Tocqueville in his observations on American political culture said that democracy can be seen as part of “the most continuous, ancient and permanent tendency known to history.” What Locke said in the 18th century we can find explicit precursors in the Muslim tradition. Consider the Prophet Muhammad’s Last Sermon in which he asserts the importance of property rights and the sanctity of contracts, women’s rights and racial equality. Remember this was 1400 years ago! The narrative does not stop there. al-Shatibi, the Andalusian legal scholar, articulated more completely the maqasid al-Sharia, the Higher Objectives of the Islamic Law, which sanctify the preservation of religion, life, intellect, family, and wealth; objectives that bear striking resemblance to Enlightenment ideals that would be expounded centuries later.
This is of course all theoretical. Even the Malaysian Constitution talks about equal protection under the law and proposed a system of checks and balances on power. Yet 52 years later, and after nearly 700 amendments to the original text of that document, few would argue that the original spirit of the Constitution remains intact. The upshot is that Malaysia’s experience as a pseudo democracy has been a utter disaster.
A nation blessed with vast wealth and a people with the ability to learn and excel has been left in the lurch by decades of failed policies. Hope in a brighter future has been snuffed out by the blunt instrument of state power and the cancer of corruption. Certainly the thin veneer of success has been made our country appealing to the eye. As far as developing countries go we are far ahead of the pack. But when we look under the hood, as Malaysian citizens must do on a daily basis, we are confronted with myriad contradictions – a crumbling education system, second rate health care, massive shortcomings in public transportation and crime rates which are perpetually on the rise.
It is no surprise when we see recent figures citing nearly 800,000 Malaysians professionals now working abroad.
The idea of a two party system has been talked about ad infinitum since the Spring of last year. The excitement many have expressed over the advent of this new dimension in Malaysian politics might suggest that the mere existence of a viable second party is itself the holy grail of a democratic state. Some might even draw the conclusion that once in power this alternative voice would swiftly rectify the monumental ills that have been heaped upon Malaysian society by the Barisan Nasional.
A vibrant opposition is of course synonymous with democracy itself. Yale based political scientist Ian Shapiro has contended that “democracy is an ideology of opposition as much as it is one of government”. Yet we would be in a state of self-deception, however if we pinned the hopes for healthy democracies on just one of its attributes. The same mistake has already been made with elections. The mere happening of elections says little about the condition of democracy unless we know that they are conducted fairly and freely and there is a level playing field on which all political views can compete.
In Malaysia multiple parties have existed for many years and the opposition has held seats in Parliament since the very first days of the Federation. We cannot say that the two party system was borne on March 8th for its existence coincides with the birth of the nation itself. The two party system that we recognize today is something different from the style of political participation that is already in place. The difference, simply stated, is greater space that is afforded to public deliberation, the exchange of ideas and the possibility of new choices and alternatives.
In this light, our fundamental concern is not with political parties but rather with accountability. A society, according to ibn Khaldun, must be able to combat the corrosive effects of unmitigated power, corruption and moral decadence. Otherwise it may succumb to what Thomas Jefferson time and again warned, that the abuse of unlimited powers by elected despots would lead to a time “when corruption in this, as in the country from which we derive our origin, will have seized the heads of government, and be spread by them through the body of the people; when they will purchase the voices of the people, and make them pay the price.”
To understand these concepts better it may be wise to map out the province of liberal democracy and reiterate the role of the opposition, lest we place the cart before the horse. The main pillars on which democratic societies are built are liberty, social pluralism and political constitutionalism. The intent of these values and the institutions that mediate the relationship between the citizen and government is to guard against the exercise of tyranny. Lord Acton was right when he spoke of the corrupting influence of power.
When bestowing upon a political entity the power to make laws and to coerce citizens to obey those laws, safeguards must be put in place. Herein we look at Constitutions to delineate the extent of the government’s power to impose laws, and also at the edifice built around the exercise of that power so that there is adequate protection from its abuse.
Constitutions define for us the Rule of Law and the parameters within which government can operate. Dicey stipulates that it is the Rule of Law which would ensure that “powers of officials, and official bodies of persons entrusted with government, are not exceeded and are not abused, and that the rights of citizens are determined in accordance with the law enacted and unenacted.” The Rule of Law is therefore a two way street – defining for us the limitations of government and the rights of the citizen.
With these fundamentals in place we would then look at the branches of government which are created not only to carry out the business of the state but also to act as further restraints on its power. In the case of the Executive, we are all well acquainted with the phenomenon of power run amok.
Countries that masquerade as democracies often pay lip service to freedom and justice, while power is consolidated in the hands of a few elites who plunder the country’s wealth at the expense of the masses. They are able to quash opposition by invoking draconian laws and have made frequent use of preventative detentions to muzzle dissident voices. Herein lies a pivotal role of the opposition in a liberal democracy which is to be the voice of public reason and ensure that the “exercise of public political power is fully proper” and it can only be so if and “when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution the principles and ideals of which are endorsed by common human reason”.
A strong legislature is a sword that can cut both ways as well. It was Tocqueville who said, “the concentration of power [in the legislature] is at once very prejudicial to a well conducted administration and favorable to the despotism of the majority.” Once again Malaysia offers sundry examples of a legislature which, despite allowing for some semblance of multi-party participation, acts as a rubber stamp on legislation presented by the majority. Despite the rules and traditions of the Westminster system, common sense and precedent dictate that even with a clear majority in the legislature there should be a meaningful debate on issues. The Parliament should be used effectively as a constant critique of policy, executive power and the institutions of governance.
Where the legislature may exceed its bounds in passing into law edicts that transgress the bounds of the constitution, it is the role of the judiciary to interpret redress mistakes that may have been made by legislators. For this to happen the judiciary must be independent of influence from the other branches and from vested interests in the society at large. In resolving disputes between the people and the government, judges must act impartially. They must administer justice according to law, not according to the dictates of political masters.
A strong opposition must demand these prerequisites from the executive and legislative branches until such time as they are implemented.
Another crucial criterion for constitutional government is that the discretion of law enforcement agencies must not be allowed to pervert the cause of justice. The office of the Public Prosecutor, the police and the anti-corruption agency, all these bodies, play essential roles in the preservation of the rule of law, failing which they are easily used to pervert the law. As absolute power corrupts absolutely, the arrogance of power left unchecked renders these agencies absolutely impermeable to public opinion and criticism.
While there has been a sea change in the political landscape, Malaysia has not changed overnight. Despite the euphoria of last March, and the clear progress that is being made in the Pakatan states, we still face a federal government mired in corruption. The media is shackled and unfree – incapable of fulfilling the sacred and solemn mandate bestowed upon the noble profession of journalism.
The work is clearly unfinished. For the two party system to survive, let alone thrive, certain constraints must be lifted such as the limited access granted to the information held tightly by government ministries. We know that under the guise of national security many a scandal and abuse has gone unreported and this is contrary to the spirit of public disclosure and accountability. The institutions are in desperate need of reform so that they serve the common good and not the parochial interests of political and corporate elites.
The renewal in consciousness that has given hope to generations both old and new must be made a reality through action. At a very fundamental level this would require fuller and more profound political participation. Voting, as it turns out, does matter. The millions of currently unregistered voters in this country, by most estimations, will play a key role in the next general election. But, they can only do so if they exercise that right.
There is space now for the governments in power in the Pakatan states to carry forward this spirit renewal and renovation. Our governments must adhere strictly to the Rule of Law. We should strive to exceed the daily routine of dispute resolution and the issuance of licenses but govern with enlightenment. Our policies must emphasise good governance, the sanctity of the family, tolerance towards diversity, compassion for the weak and the unfortunate and the safeguarding of our environment and natural resources.
In between elections the new consciousness that has emerged must be nurtured. Civil society has space to grow and new associations can form and take part in the process of educating and empowering the public. In these states we must demonstrate that the pursuit of excellence and the cultivation of innovation and creativity across all sectors will yield enormous benefit for the society. And for this to happen we must retrieve, revive and reinvigorate the spirit of liberty, individualism, humanism and tolerance.