Malaysia has taken top spot in the Asean region on the 2019 Global Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Malaysia shares 43rd spot with Trinidad and Tobago with a score of 7.16 against the best score of 9.87 achieved by Norway in the global ranking of 167 political entities. Timor Leste is ranked the highest in South-east Asia, scoring 7.19 while achieving the 41st global position for democracy.
This is not an evaluation or ranking that most countries give much credence to especially if they are not ranked highly. The socialist and authoritarian countries would be particularly disdainful and dismissive of the ranking attempted.
Korea and Japan ahead
It is significant that in Asia the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan are ranked the highest at 23rd and 24th position respectively at the top of the “Flawed Democracy” category. These two East Asian countries are ranked above the United States, which is slotted at 25th position.
This is somewhat of an irony when it is recalled how the famous US General Douglas MacArthur virtually dictated Japan’s postwar Constitution and saved the ROK from a deep crucible and firmly set both countries on a path of stabilisation, free enterprise and peaceful progress from the late 1940s.
The most unsurprising element in the latest ranking exercise was India, which fell 10 places to position 51 from 41. India has slid back in many ways under its current government which came into power with much promise. It shows how the world’s largest democracy has receded into a narrow, negative path marshalling majoritarian religious sentiment to bear on its immigration and citizenship regulations. It is, however, heartening that the people of India, belonging to every religious faith, and most intellectuals including prominent writers, have protested and are continuing to protest over this discriminatory piece of legislation.
Malaysia has steadily moved up the scale from position 59 in 2017 and 52 in 2018. It is an impressive climb but it does not do justice to Malaysia as it does not capture the difficult situation that the current government has had to navigate in upholding democratic values. In May 2018 the current government inherited a deeply flawed and faulty system from the previous government.
For a whole decade before May 10, 2018, the country had been slowly sinking under the weight of corruption, inefficiency, repressive laws, a huge debt servicing bill, a massive overdose of religion in schools with its concomitant impact of dividing the people and a steadily growing wage and pension bill that exceeded a third of the country’s Budget.
In Malaysia’s multicultural society the highest priority is the laying of a solid foundation for national unity but that again is conditioned by the reality of a plural system of education where different schools can provide instruction in Bahasa Malaysia, English, Mandarin and Tamil.
The effect of these varying systems of teaching is that the cultures of minority groups are well safeguarded and enhanced and ultimately the country has the innate and impressive capacity to communicate and interact with different parts of the world. In recent years Malaysia has also promoted itself as a centre of education and has been able to attract more than 170,000 students from other Asian countries, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. There is a truly cosmopolitan environment in the country on account of these factors.
Malaysia’s well-known tourism advertisement that “Malaysia Is Truly Asia” is not an empty slogan.
Given Malaysia’s central location in South-east Asia, its porous borders and its relative prosperity in relation to some of its neighbours, the country has attracted several million foreigners who have mainly sought employment and easier living conditions.
There are perhaps six million foreigners, more than half of them illegal or undocumented. The undocumented ones could not be expelled as that would have caused a major humanitarian crisis and affect relations with the country’s closest neighbours. Given this situation, Malaysia is in a somewhat awkward position although this government has attempted to fully subscribe to the ideals of democracy, good governance, transparency and accountability.
The current Malaysian government abandoned efforts to ratify the International Convention Against All Forms of Racial Discrimination(ICERD) and the Rome Statute following strong opposition and protests by certain conservative groups. Such agitation, largely race-based was mainly orchestrated by the country’s opposition parties which, while preaching rather liberal policies, were actually practising oppression and restricting freedom of expression. The Malaysian government is unable to proceed with other democratic reforms as it does not enjoy the two-thirds majority required to approve amendments to its Constitution.
In examining the EIU methodology for rating Malaysia it is found that Malaysia achieved a score of 9.17 in the category for electoral process and pluralism and a relatively low score of 5.88 for civil liberties. The other scores were 7.86 for the functioning of government, 6.67 for political participation and 6.25 for political culture. The current government has to endeavour to improve the situation with civil liberties in the country. One strong feature in the current situation is a strong, impartial and fair National Election Commission.
Interestingly the Opposition, given the level playing field, has fared generally well in some of the by-elections held since May 2018. There is scope to further improve on civil liberties, wider political participation and the country’s political culture given a rather proactive Human Rights Commission, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, strong NGOs with good, committed leadership, the role of the press and media especially social media and the space provided by the current government for all these agencies and media to operate in.
The police authorities are largely perceived to be impartial although somewhat underfunded and undermanned. The country’s judiciary remains a strong and stable independent pillar but the ease with which its most senior retiring judges move into the private sector and para-statals is a matter of concern. There should be a reasonable cooling-off period of at least six months between these positions.
There is, however, still widespread concern over at least four missing (allegedly forced disappearances) persons, some unresolved cases of excesses by the security authorities and the politicisation of education.
In Malaysia’s current situation greater attention has to be paid to education provision which is STEM-based (i.e. science, technology, engineering and mathematics), neutral in respect of religion and focused on creating a united, vibrant, harmonious and forward-looking society which transcends race, religion and region.
More significantly the results of the last general election on May 9, 2018, seem to have crystallised a situation where the majority Malay-Muslim community feels that they have lost political power. Najib Razak, the former Prime Minister has thrown in his lot rather irresponsibly with this seemingly disenfranchised lot and is proving to be menacingly threatening to a sane and sober government. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad seems to be acutely aware of this fault line and has attempted to fashion policies to address the matter.
It is imperative that this matter is handled delicately and the government’s narrative that it represents 99 per cent of the population is more widely known and appreciated. Malaysia has aspired to be not only more democratic but decent to its diverse population.
Dato’ M Santhananaban is a retired Malaysian ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Independent Singapore. /TISG