How democratic are we?

IN life, continuous learning and reminders of history is important. Continuous learning is important so that ignorance does not blind us nor do we keep using antiquated methods to manage today’s life. History can make us understand and appreciate our current circumstances. History reminds us that once upon a time, nations were ruled by Kings, Queens and the few aristocrats. Monarchies were not necessarily bad but it involved little or no involvement of ordinary citizens in the governance and management of the country.

As if global political evolution, monarchies gave way to greater citizen’s involvement. Among the more popular political system that arose is one called democracy. There are many different types and “degrees” of democracies in the world today. However, one thing they all have in common is the participation of citizens in shaping the destiny of the nation. The degree of citizen participation differs. If democracy is about the citizens’ constructive and productive participation, then the greater the opportunities for citizen participation, the greater is the degree of democracy. It is important for us to understand the concept of citizen participation in shaping the destiny of the nation. It means that we have a shared active responsibility towards nation building.

It is only possible for us to exercise our responsibilities as a citizen if we are given the opportunities to do so. Hence, the first step is to move away from the myth that our democratic duty ends with voting at the polls once in every five years as the politicians would like us to believe. Electing the members of Parliament and the State Assemblies is only one of the many democratic duties that we have. The mandate that is given to the so-called elected people’s representatives is not a blank cheque to do as they please and to run the country in any manner they like. They are subject to due processes, the rule of law and the Federal Constitution.

Secondly, the nature of the laws that are passed by Parliament (the politicians) affect to a large extent the level of democracy that is available to the citizens. Laws which are unduly restrictive of civil liberties, or draconian will limit the opportunities for productive involvement of citizens. We need laws that allow for constructive criticisms of government policies and counter suggestions by responsible citizens or stakeholders. We need a legal environment that allows for thinking citizens and not one that suppresses legitimate expressions under the dubious guise of sensitivity. We must be careful not to systematically encourage mass stupidity through oppressive laws. The citizens therefore must forever be vigilant that their elected representatives protect the democratic rights of citizens through just and liberal laws. Hence, monitor what your members of Parliament are doing to the laws in Parliament.

Thirdly, the more equitable and “just” the distribution of resources and wealth in the country, the higher the level of democracy. If our socioeconomic system is designed to ensure that the majority of the citizens are always trapped in trying to survive, then they will not have the time or inclination to participate in nation building. If you keep the people in poverty (or mere sustenance levels like most middle class), the few political elites and their cronies will do whatever they want with the country’s resources without being noticed by the average citizen. Daylight robbery of the nation’s wealth may occur. Oppressive laws may be passed and the weakened citizen cannot do anything about it. Hence, the practice of full democracy will depend on how the government’s policies will impact on the distribution of the nation’s resources, and the existence of economic opportunities to the citizens.

Fourthly, for responsible democratic involvement of the citizens in nation building, accountability of the government to the citizens is paramount. Accountability however is not possible if the citizens do not have access to information or the government is allowed to arbitrarily conceal information from the citizens. We need to design a system where citizens have access to information that would ensure effective government accountability. This is a big area that requires thinking by the academics, legal experts, government officials, stakeholders and ordinary citizens. Politicians and little Napoleons in the government will not welcome reforms in the area of access to information because it would necessarily impinge on their arbitrary powers. Access to information will enhance accountability by governments which in turn may reduce corrupt practices.

Fifthly, the existence of true unity among the citizens so that the general interests of all Malaysians can be advanced. When we speak of the interests of the nation, we are referring to the collective happiness of Malaysians and not merely of one ethnic or religious group to the exclusion of the others. Division and disunity among citizens are often caused by conflicts. Many times, these conflicts are not natural but created and exaggerated by irresponsible quarters. Disunity created by racism or religious bigotry, for instance, wastes valuable time, energy and scarce resources of the nation. It also distracts us from empowering the democratic process to build the nation. In this regard, responsible citizens must strenuously object to racism, religious bigotry and fascism including any form of extremism.

I am sure there are many more factors that influences the level and quality of democracy in our country such as continuous education. It is about time the citizens recognise that the quality and nature of the socioeconomic, educational, and legal environment will determine the nature and quality of democracy in our country. If we want greater citizen participation in nation building, we must ensure that democracy flourishes and does not subtly get replaced with authoritarianism. Let us start talking about it.

Senior lawyer Datuk Seri Dr Jahaberdeen Mohamed Yunoos is the founder and chairman of Yayasan Rapera, an NGO that promotes community-based learning activities and compassionate thinking among Malaysians. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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