Ideas: Healing our democracy

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 12, 2021 - July 18, 2021.
Ideas: Healing our democracy
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The Covid-19 pandemic of the past 1½ years have filled Malaysians with confusion and anxiety. Seeking a way out of this calamity, frustrated netizens have brought those feelings out onto social media.

However, social media content is largely contaminated by toxicity made worse by two groups — career politicians using racial and religious rhetoric as well as local celebrities spreading “viral” unproductive entertainment and flaunting their wealth.

Unfortunately, within our communities, many have been pushed to the brink, resulting in shocking suicide rates, the ongoing bendera putih campaign and an increasing number of domestic abuse cases being reported. Another fear is the emergence of a “lost generation”, currently unable to attend regular schooling and who may later struggle in an even harsher employment market.

The rising cost of living, unaffordable housing and stagnant wages further erode the quality of life, especially for youths. The sizeable middle class created during the 1980s and 1990s is now at risk of falling into poverty, whereas the marginalised low-income earners are falling further between the cracks of social safety nets. Politically, a landscape that once had clear demarcating lines is now blurred by fuzzy logic, contradictory values, competing interests and dubious deals.

Issue of competency

There were simply too many pre-existing issues to tackle in Malaysia prior to the pandemic, and our already fragile institutions are suffering badly as good governance takes a backseat. Crisis management requires both astute leadership and resilient democratic institutions. There is no greater test for Malaysia’s institutions than a worldwide crisis like Covid-19, and we are now seeing these very institutions being tested and the appropriate role of the state being questioned.

Public health and welfare measures such as contact tracing, vaccine rollout, adhering to standard operating procedures (SOPs) and stimulus packages have not been adequately coordinated between the federal, state and local governments, despite the tireless efforts of our frontliners.

A large number of executive decisions and attempts at undermining democracy have backfired spectacularly, which further worsens the trust deficit of the government. Dua darjat or double standards for privileged elites with the right connections and average citizens trying to survive exacerbate the inequalities across societal classes and also the urban-rural divide.

Blaming the public for not following SOPs rings hollow when daily reports of one-sided law enforcement in the media increase dissatisfaction towards the authorities and the establishment.

Big bully syndrome

Why do influential personalities and politicians ultimately shift blame back to the public when they sense they are losing control? For example, Tajuddin Abdul Rahman’s recent sacking as Prasarana chairman is one of numerous cases when leaders fail under pressure and go on a condescending outburst to inflict pressure elsewhere. “Bullies”, including politicians, dislike experts or factual media.

A noticeable mismatch in communication occurs too when voters still expect far too much, while governments arrogantly assume immunity from criticism. Haunted still by dominant race-based political parties and hierarchical structures, we have a decades-long legacy that inculcates a culture of dependence on patronage, a feudal mindset and corrupt practices that insulate the status quo and isolate the change makers.

Narratives are layered with party loyalties and personality biases to urge conflicts that can amplify fears. These escalations weaken rational exchanges and encourage the quest for identity supremacy during uncertainties.

Democracies and progressive reformers around the globe are also on the defensive as the rise of authoritarian populism and pro-protectionist policies dominate public discourse. Such signs of desperation for stability have seen an increase in ill treatment towards dissenting voices, minorities, foreigners and the poor as governments become intolerant and some exploit the pandemic to increase their grip on power.

During situations of crisis, it is convenient for narrowed fundamentalism, xenophobic sentiments and identity politics to come to the forefront while ecosystems for freedom, accountability, transparency and rule of law that function as checks and balances are put into cold storage. Populists thrive on dissatisfaction with democracy and will drastically dismantle political constraints after seizing power.

Institutional reform must continue

A task that has stalled recently in our country is the decentralisation of political influences and strengthening of democracy via institutional reforms that monitor public office bearers, especially on matters of bribery or abuse of power.

Another aspect that requires attention is the nurturing of the important role of the younger generation to collectively visualise a Bangsa Malaysia that tones down manufactured tensions, notably on racial and religious issues set by political provocateurs. Above all, Covid-19 has exposed the fact that our economic system has failed the most vulnerable in our society for far too long. It is evident now that a just economy is imperative if we seek a healthier democracy, which in turn contributes to genuine social unity.

Here at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), conscious efforts are being made to engage with various stakeholders to provide safe spaces for gathering insights and spark conversations on a new political culture. The strategic aim is to regain public trust, debunk ethnic stereotypes and inculcate a sense of optimism in order to build mature consensus.

Nation building is a difficult process filled with disputes and compromises. It is not just a decision made by a minister with the stroke of a pen at the advice of the top civil servants, as many think it is.

Halmie Azrie is a research executive at IDEAS and one of the representatives in Dewan Muda Malaysia, an initiative by Undi18

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