Malaysia be warned: Democracy must not function in a void

GHASSAN Salameh, a top scholar at Sciences Po in France, once wrote a book titled “Democracy in the Void”.  

By “void” he meant an electoral democracy where there are politicians lining up to offer themselves as prospective candidates but they are not true policymakers and intellectuals let alone leaders who can tell the story as it is without resorting to sheer spin.  

Such a democracy – or more precisely, electoral democracy – would have office bearers, popularly elected in due course, but the wheels of justice and fairness simply do not run. If anything, they might have all come undone. 

Public intellectuals are not confined to those with strings of degrees and credentials. They can be fishermen, nannies, impoverished farmers, even foreign workers who are also the ones who keep the economy chugging along.  

Malaysian democracy must not bemoan people who resign themselves from partisan politics. Rather, it should be alert and mindful of thinkers, past, present and future, who do not see themselves as part of the solution to the national and international discourse. 

No democracy and rule of law can function to make the constitutional monarchy of Malaysia healthy and resilient unless there are bellwethers of the decrepit state of the country. 

The book by Professor Dr M. Kamal Hassan on the dejected state of Malay politics is one of them. His scholarship on the importance of understanding the concept of “Wasatiyyah” – a philosophy of moderation that is guided by a strong sense of justice – is another good book to guide Malaysia. 

The late Professor Syed Hussein Alatas, together with Professor Rustam Sani, in various manners and forms, did warn Malaysia that we must have and create the space for intellectuals to speak up their minds.  

They can come in the form of poetry, petition to the editors, the Palace or to anyone; just as long as they are imbued with the spirit of reform, they must be welcomed.  

If the modus operandi is merely to sway the thoughts of His Majesty on the election date, then such petitions can still be respected but one must rely on other intellectuals – if need be, intelligentsia, the professionals with degrees and credentials – to comment on them. 

Either way, not unlike Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, intellectuals must be respected regardless of their background. When elevated to a higher position, say, the National Poet Laureate, or Professor Emeritus, then the voices of these intellectuals must be discussed and debated seriously. 

Malaysia is a state with borders, people, an economy, but ultimately a demography that can age, and grey, invariably, return to the embrace of their Lord. Such is the process that is embedded in every country, Malaysia included.  

But regardless of Malaysians’ belief system, they must keep the ideas and intellectual discourse coming, generations after generation, to ensure that Malaysia cannot become undone by corruption, an insidious act where the people of this country actually resort to using pecuniary means to get what they want while leaving millions of others to a dour fate. 

Democracy must not function in the void, emptied of ideas and merits that can move us along – and up – beyond the middle-income trap. More importantly, research all across the member states of the Association of Southeast Asia (ASEAN) has shown that Southeast Asia is the most vulnerable region to extreme weather and climate change.  

Even the fishermen in Indonesia that can once venture out to fish for 10 months in the sea cannot be certain if they should even be out in the open waters for more than one month lately. Clearly the weather has changed. 

When the Department of Meteorology affirmed that this would be the worst monsoon season ever, even their scientific expertise must be listened too.  

Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has used the last four years to think through some serious issues ailing the nation, and the final outcome of that effort is a book – one that speaks of the importance of the 4th Industrial Revolution and fourth wave of new agriculture to secure the country in a manner that is balanced and evenly-keeled. 

Malaysia must not be led by leaders who want to render the democracy and rule of law that we have long fought for into a “democracy in the void”.  

In the tabling of the latest budget by Finance Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz, for example, he said that the welfare spending has gone down even though 2023 would be one of the most challenging years for the poor.  

Feudal budget for the many, rich budget for the few. Instead of allowing these pseudo-policymakers who lead the country, one must invalidate their ideas lest they imbue the country with more policy prescriptions that are void of any democratic respect for the poor. 

Leaving Bersatu does not imply that I would abandon the ideas of progressive reforms to others who know no better yet may make the most noise.  

On the contrary, together with the likes of all intellectuals and intelligentsia, I shall speak up and speak out against anything that can bring Malaysia to the precipice of self-destruction.  

Challenging the wayward ideas of UMNO and PAS – yet another tiresome dark marriage of convenience that intend to ride roughshod over a multi-racial Malaysia with their hodgepodge of ethnocentric and shallow religious manipulation – is the place to start.  

They are trying to hold the state captive to their narrow self-interest yet God has endowed Malaysia for all to ponder and thrive as a fine example of what a country can do when different races unite in the name of “lita’arafu”: to learn and know from each other in order to better oneself and the polity that is Malaysia. 

May Allah save Malaysia. – Oct 19, 2022 


Dr Rais Hussin is President and CEO at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research. 

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia. 


Main photo credit: The World Economic Forum

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