US democracy under assault: Lessons for Malaysia

Trump supporters storming the US Capitol during a 'Stop the Steal' protest in Washington DC on Jan 6. — Reuters

AT 12 noon on Jan 20 (Pacific eastern time) Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States of America, taking the US into a new political era. But what happened at the US Capitol on Jan 6 will haunt the country forever.

What happened that day shook the world not by the magnitude of its violence but by the symbolism it represents.

The US has long been regarded as the bastion of modern democracy and a role model for all nascent democracies and the aspiration of people worldwide who yearns for a system of government where its citizens can freely express themselves in the political process and contribute to nation-building.

The breaching of Capitol Hill and temporary occupation of the heart of US legislature by violent pro-Trump protesters in an attempt to halt the final process of confirming the electoral college votes of the fifty federated states to confirm the election of Biden, was an assault on democracy and some consider it an attempted coup d’état instigated by the outgoing president, Donald Trump.

The question we want to ask ourselves is,"What lessons can Malaysia learn from what happened?"

Make no mistake about it, the violent assault on Capitol Hill was just the culmination of a pattern of continual assaults on the pillars of democracy by a Trump administration that came into power four years ago with the promise to "drain the swamps" of Washington DC's political establishment and restore America to her former glory, to Make America Great Again.

It was a presidency marked by internal polarisation of its citizens, xenophobia towards immigrants, and suspicion and hostility towards foreign nations, including traditional allies. It exploited the fears and insecurities of Americans in a changing America (and world) instead of inspiring them to face the challenges and embrace the change ahead.

To achieve his end, Trump sought, and in some cases succeeded, to undermine various key institutions that safeguard a democracy, beginning with free press.

Even before coming to power in 2016, he continually attacked the institution of free press by labelling them "fake news" when they reported news that was unfavourable to him. His belligerency towards most mainstream media created a deep distrust among many people to anything they reported, thereby creating a vacuum and a demand for alternative sources of information.

The rise of these pro-Trump and often times, right-wing media outlets entrenched the existing schism of American society, dividing them into right and left, evangelical Christians and others, pro-life and pro-choice, white Americans and others, citizens and migrants, and capitalists and socialists (communists). The posturing is "us versus them".

With the complicity of these alternative media sources, turbo-charged by social media algorithms, Americans are living in their own echo chambers, hearing only views aligned to their prejudices and hating all others not on their sides. They stopped talking and listening to each other, unwilling to compromise and reach consensus civilly. Lies and conspiracy theories thrived in this environment of suspicion, fear and hate.

It should be said that there are no media organisations that are totally-free from political biases but such is the nature of free press that they are permitted to have their leanings. Truth seldom emits from one purveyor of information but often found somewhere in the middle, held in tension by differing opinions and facts can be checked against each other.

But the assault on established media outlets created an invisible wall where people chose who they want to listen to only and no others. This paved the way for Trump's assaults on the other pillars of democracy, from justice institutions, electoral process to the legislature.

So, after Trump, will American democracy be safe and will it survive, or will it be continually assaulted and challenged?

Perhaps it will never be safe from challenges as long as there are politicians who are prepared to sacrifice democracy in their selfish desire to occupy the ultimate seat of power.

They will continually find ways to weaken and even dismantle key institutions that guard democracy, to make it their own kingdom instead of truly a system of government "of the people, by the people and for the people".

I believe these US institutions have been tested to the limits the last four years and it has prevailed. Yes, there have been weaknesses, but the experience gained would give these institutions the opportunity to become stronger through reforms so that they can survive future storms.

Lessons for Malaysia

Compared to the US and other western democracies, Malaysian democracy is still an adolescence in search of her footing.

From our recent history in our democratic journey, it is my view that Malaysia could not survive an all-out assault on her. Our key institutions are by legislative design, not independent enough to withstand challenges to it. The experience we went through under the previous administration from 2009 to 2018 exposed the weakness of our institutions.

What would it take to reform our key institutions so that they would be robust enough to resist the pressure from strongmen leaders who have little regard for democracy or the rights of citizens?

Firstly, their independence would have to be institutionalised. The Election Commission (EC), the Judiciary, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), the Human Rights Commission (Suhakam), the Attorney-General's Public Prosecutor role, the Civil Service and the Royal Malaysian Police, have to be freed from the direct control of the Prime Minister's Department through amendments to laws that determine their appointments, staffing and budget.

As it stands, the PM has sole prerogative in the appointment of the people heading these institutions and they are expected to be subservient to the PM of the day. While some have more security of tenure than others, all of them owe their initial appointments to the PM and the budget allotted to them are also determined by the Treasury, who again is controlled by the PM.

In a robust democracy, the allegiance of these institutions must be to uphold the Federal Constitution and to serve the people. There must be a clear separation of powers if we are to survive as a democracy.

Secondly, the institutions must be empowered to carry out their roles effectively. These institutions are pillars that acts as checks and balances to each other and to the Executive to safeguard for the public interest. It is of little consequence if these institutions are merely independent, but laws are not amended to give them wide-ranging authority and power to carry out their duties. The EC is a case in point where, though they are entrusted to conduct elections, they are not empowered to act against election offenders to ensure that the Election Offences Act 1954 is adhered to.

The same goes to all other institutions that are tasked to investigate wrongdoings. The Attorney General’s Chambers is the only body who can charge a person. As the Attorney-General (AG) is the PM's appointee, there is a clear conflict of interest when a wrongdoing is committed by the PM or people aligned to him. Thus, a separation of the Public Prosecutor's role from the office of the AG is necessary to ensure impartiality in the administration of justice and the rule of law is upheld.

Thirdly, healthy multi-party politics must be encouraged. Starting from a review of the electoral system, to political financing, equal constituency development funding, parliamentary reform to allow the opposition and backbenchers a more meaningful role to play in the law-making process and institutional recognition of a Shadow Cabinet and Opposition leader, there must be reforms that level the playing field for all political parties and elected representatives, giving them the dignity that their office deserves.

Fourthly, there must be a free media environment. The experience of the US demonstrated to us the importance of not just a free press but also a need to have high reporting standards and to call out those who peddle falsehood. We also need to be keenly aware of the role of social media platforms that tend to reinforce the pre-existing views, prejudices, and preferences of people, shaping lopsided and harmful worldviews.

Lastly, for a democracy to be robust, the role of civil society organisations and local community activists cannot be overstated. But these actors who are often not part of the official nation-building process, are nonetheless key in influencing the thinking and direction of the people, either for good or bad.

The people who came out to rampage at the Capitol building or the Black Lives Matter rallies were representation of groups that had organised themselves at the grassroot level and aligned themselves with a particular political ideology. Bilateral positive engagements are needed between these actors and the recognised political actors so that they can hold each other to account.

Democracy as a system of government is under assault globally and many are questioning its viability. It is noisy, divisive, tedious, and sometimes chaotic.

But I still believe, as Winston Churchill believed, that "democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

It is the only system that recognises the intrinsic value of a person and respect the dignity of the individual. Any other form of government would be variants of authoritarianism that would eventually demand subjugation of its subjects.

Democracy is not perfect, but it can be perfected through reforms, if we treasure it enough.

Thomas Fann is a Malaysian social activist and is the current Chairperson of The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections in Malaysia (Bersih 2.0). The views expressed here are solely his own.

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