Defend our institutions

Our founding fathers had the wisdom to choose a system that respects individual liberty, and chose liberal parliamentary democracy over illiberal autocracy.

THE existence and functioning of institutions are important for any democracy to flourish. The concept of “institutions” is an important one to understand.

In the academic circle, the definition of institutions has been debated by many scholars. One of the most commonly cited opinions belongs to Douglass North, a Nobel Laureate who published a seminal paper in the early 1990s defining institutions as “the formal and informal rules that organise social, political and economic relations”.

Since then, several other scholars have examined North’s work and provided further clarifications of the meaning of institutions. For example, Geoffrey Hodgson of the University of Hertfordshire builds on North’s definition by suggesting that institutions are “the systems of established and prevalent social rules that structure social interactions”.

Without going too much into the scholarly debates, it can be understood that when we talk about institutions, we are not necessarily just talking about physical entities. Instead, we are referring to rules and systems that may or may not be physical in nature.

For example, in a functioning democracy the institutions can include things like the Constitution, the Executive, Parliament as the legislative body, a free press, independent judiciary, consistent application of the laws, presence of check and balance mechanisms, respect for fundamental liberties, and more.

The institution can be an organisation, or it can be a concept. But regardless of its form, it structures how we deal with one another, how we deal with power, and how power deals with us.

When our country was formed, our founding fathers had the wisdom to choose a system that respects individual liberty. They chose liberal parliamentary democracy over illiberal autocracy.

A liberal parliamentary democracy is a system where the people can choose. In its simplest sense, democracy is rule by the people through elected representatives.

An illiberal autocracy is a system where people cannot choose. In its simplest sense, autocracy is dictatorship by one person or one group who holds a grip over the population.

Acknowledging that this nation has a history of autocracy in the form of absolute monarchies, when the Constitution was drafted, our Rulers had the wisdom to go for a constitutional monarchy. Our Rulers approved the vision of having a country founded upon the principles of liberty and justice, and their Royal Highnesses did not call for the return of rule by monarchs.

It is that wisdom that enabled us to gradually evolve into the modern society that we have today.

Britain has what is perhaps the most famous constitutional monarchy that exists today. It is amazing to see how the Queen functions in modern Britain. She never makes comments that can be construed as partisan in nature, she does not contradict the elected government.

Throughout her reign, the Queen has successfully adapted to the changing times, while always respecting the separation of roles between the monarch and the elected government.

More importantly, the British people too do not take steps that could destroy the separation of powers that is so important in a constitutional monarchy. They do not go to Buckingham Palace appealing for the Queen to intervene in matters that should be resolved in the parliamentary chambers.

They know that inviting the monarchy to intervene in day-to-day politics is not just a step back towards the medieval age, but is also a dangerous slippery slope. Democracy might be messy when compared to the seemingly smooth autocracy. But once democracy is eroded, getting it back is not going to be easy.

They also know that if the British monarch does take sides in a political bout, the country will be divided on how to react to the monarch’s partisanship and that may make the Queen lose the universal affection that she enjoys today.

This is why I am very worried about the calls made by some groups for our Rulers to intervene in our daily politics. Thankfully, our Rulers are wise enough not to respond.

Neither do they claim powers that can deny the right of our elected representatives to do their job. It is such wisdom, allowing the elected legislators to legislate as they are mandated, that will ensure the sustainability of the institution.

The institution of constitutional monarchy that we have today is precious. It helps keep the balance of power and prevents the Executive from being overly powerful, while at the same time guaranteeing that we do not slip back into an autocratic absolute monarchy.

We must resolve political and legislative issues within the institutional frameworks of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. To ensure the respective institutions are defended, every one should honour the meaning of these concepts and keep to the limits.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs ( The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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Opinion , Wan Saiful Wan Jan , columnist


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