We should not take our democracy for granted. The right to vote is the essence of a democratic country.
I WAS having breakfast with my Chinese friend the other day in a coffee shop. We talked about current affairs and then we went down this rabbit hole: Why do
people keep voting for the same political party?
Now, let me set it clear, the whole intent of this story and our conversation was not about which political party and who are in the political parties or why this party over that.
The whole point of our conversation was, why do we have people who want democracy and yet vote for the same party over and over again? That is the question. It is about these people, their beliefs and understanding about democracy as opposed to who they vote for. We were curious about their psyche and I wish to postulate here.
We dissected the psyche of these people who voted in all past by-elections that the Barisan Nasional coalition won, after 2018, over our cups of tea and as normal Malaysians, we made the following observations:
1. They do not understand the meaning of democracy;
2. They do not want to venture into uncharted waters with leaders without any track records; or
3. They were very happy with the way the government and our country was governed since 1957.
We discussed the first point.
The very essence of a democracy is to allow voters to vote in different political parties as and when they see fit. The added privileges packaged with a democracy would usually include freedom to express oneself, freedom to have any belief including political beliefs, freedom to livelihood, so on and so forth.
Democracy is a structure of governance when compared to other structures, gives more opportunities and bandwidth to ensure transparency and accountability. A new government from a different party or coalition taking over from another party or coalition is useful to check, keep a balance and right any wrongs the previous ruling coalition or party had committed.
A democracy gives us these privileges. Other privileges include keeping kleptocracy at bay and promoting transparency. These privileges are available to any democratic country, including our beloved Malaysia.
What are the other benefits of a democracy at a personal level? Well, loads, in addition to the above, citizens of democracies get to enjoy freedom to possessions and freedom to movement. Meaning, we can own as many businesses or houses that we can afford. As for movement, we can drive to, reside at or visit any place in the whole of Malaysia. These simple freedoms have been enjoyed by us, the citizens for many, many years, and I am sure we do not want to lose these rights by changing to a different type of governance style which is non-democratic.
Now, voters who voted for Barisan in the recent by-elections were in effect voting for a government that was in power for 60 plus years before 2018. In a gist, these voters are saying, they prefer Barisan and are happy to have this coalition in power over a long period of time. In effect, these voters are utilising their democratic right to express their opinion that a single coalition should be in power since Merdeka. Their actions show that they probably operated from points 2 and 3 as well.
Our question is not a moral one. It is not about whether these people were right or wrong when they voted. Our question is about the understanding of these voters as to what is, a democracy and the benefits this system brings.
Perhaps these voters are saying:
1. They do not wish to observe and bring about a change in governing manifestos;
2. They do not wish to have at least a heightened check and balance by a new government upon the old government; and
3. They do not wish to have people without any track record of governance at a national level, to govern them.
Allow me to postulate further:
So, what do these types of voters want? Would they prefer a totalitarian government? One where they do not have to vote?
Why waste the country’s resources to set up voting booths and voting centers if they are going to vote for the same people every five years? We can do away with it.
So if we do away with the voting, we do away with democracy. If we do away with democracy, then, we have to do away with the privileges as mentioned above. Privileges such as check and balance, improved transparency, etc..
If we are not democratic, then, what governing model should we adopt? Non-democratic models are totalitarian and autocratic models. One good example of a totalitarian model would be the one adopted by all Communist countries – only having a single party system.
Communist countries usually curtail freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to own properties, freedom of movement and even freedom to access the Internet. An example is China in the late 50s to 80s. They have their reasons for it. Let us not go into that and judge others. I prefer we stick our own nose into our own country.
Other examples of a totalitarian style of governance would include monarchies of old, such as the Qing dynasty in China and the kingdom of Henry the Eighth. A monarchy gives the governing monarch of the day, the greatest power and influence of the land to decide matters ranging from economic policies to beheading someone. Monarchies as explained above, tend to be autocratic.
Other examples of autocracy can be found in history. Hitler’s Nazi Germany was an autocratic government and so was Mussolini’s Italy. At one point, both leaders had absolute power over the governance of their countries. They had little opposition from within and outside of their government. A common thread was the amount of fear that their citizens had towards the government and towards these two leaders.
Totalitarian and autocratic governments are similar. They tend to have a single party political system or a weak opposition. They also usually have a network of laws providing for detention without trial and surveillance upon the private lives of their citizens.
Modern governments with these tendencies would set up departments or divisions within governmental organisations to monitor and survey all Internet activities of their citizens. Some even employ cybertroopers to spread their party’s propaganda.
When I was in law school, we used to read about this guy called John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, 13th Marquess of Groppoli – Lord Acton in short. He is most famous for a quote taken from a letter that he wrote to an Anglican Bishop. Every law school student could quote this by heart: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
This quote could simply mean, the longer one stays in power, the more likely one will be corrupted by the power that one has and enjoys. This quote can be used in any context. I strongly suggest that this quote be memorised by everyone, not just law students.
History shows us in the form of Hitler, Mussolini and Napoleon, how foolish we will be if we ignore this wisdom.
One of the beauties of a democracy is to put into place this nugget of wisdom. A democracy allows criticism, it allows a divergence of views and it allows a check and balance. All these are allowed in a democracy because not a single party or person can stay long in office. Every five years they are either voted in again or out. When they are in office, they are scrutinised upside down and inside out. A democracy allows the people to scrutinise their leaders. The main point is to curb corruption, improve governance, a check and balance system for the previous and current government and to increase transparency in governance.
In addition to the above, it allows so many things that we take for granted in modern Malaysia – from freedom to dial into the internet, freedom to own a house and will it to our descendants, and freedom to move about to any part of our country and so on.
Now, we are quite sure as Malaysians, being a multiracial and multi-religious nation, that nobody would want to have access to all the freedoms as stated above denied, taken away or curtailed. Neither do they want to be thought of as having communistic tendencies.
But voting for the same party or coalition for the last 60 years means the preference to have a single party or a single coalition in government the whole time. I think people can answer this question better themselves.
Having a healthy democracy would mean that we vote out the bad and vote in the good once every five years. We should not be afraid to vote for a change, vote for uncharted waters and vote for new minds, even if it is to only protect our right to have a democratic country and our democratic rights.
We should not be shy in exercising our right to vote. To me, voting without putting any thoughts to the result of my vote is only putting half of this right into use. When we vote, we should vote knowing full well the results of our vote and the effects of the same.
This right to vote is the essence of a democratic country. It is the very essence that brings about freedom to expression, freedom to access information, freedom to own properties, freedom to movement and so on. All of us should be aware that the one vote that we are entitled to have is the earmark of our many rights that are given to us through our constitution. Take this right away from us and the rest of such rights may disappear too, in due time as is shown in history.
We should therefore frequently exercise this right and exercise it wisely. Not exercise it to the effect that we are exercising it to defeat the very purpose why we have this right in the first place.
Now, Alice took the risk and ate a piece of cake after she followed the rabbit into the rabbit hole. She grew into a gigantic size after that and got to see the world in a totally new perspective. Maybe we should do the same too. Food for thought. After all, we were at the coffee shop.
Activist lawyer Siti Kasim is the founder of the Malaysian Action for Justice and Unity Foundation (Maju). The views expressed here are solely her own.