Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Pak Lah is Defence Minister

Pak Lah is Defence Minister. Is this a prelude to something "bigger"? Hopefully not.

When I wrote my earlier posting “Restore Political Stability” what I had in mind was leaders’ commitment to democratic stability. That those who govern or want to govern will not resort to undemocratic means in order to retain power or gain power.

In some neighboring countries, democratic stability is lost when undemocratic means is used to retain or gain power. In Thailand, mass protests and military coup d’etat had often been used to oust democratically elected leaders. In the Philippine, emergency was proclaimed in order to save the reigning President from popular uprising. In Myanmar, where democracy is dead, the ruling junta continues to use repression in order to remain in power.

Interestingly, there had been some openness in Myanmar in the mid 1990s following the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in 1995. The economy was doing well and the opposition was virtually paralyzed due to continuing state repression. This led the military regime to be confident that it would be able to retain power despite putting some measures for political openness in place. But as the opposition grew stronger with the release of Suu Kyi, the regime started to crack down on the opposition. Suu Kyi was re-arrested in 2000 and until now remained under arrest. With the adoption of new constitution recently, the military junta’s grip on power was strengthened. So far, the future of democratic transition in Myanmar looks bleak.

In all these countries, the military (and the palace in Thailand) plays significant role in national politics. Except Myanmar, the political, military and business elites in Thailand and the Philippine lack cohesion. There had been protracted struggles between different factions of the elites in the two countries, causing politics to be at times highly unstable.

Until recently, Malaysian politics has been stable and the economy was doing well. There had been no major political crisis since 1987 and the country joined the rank of Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan as the new Asian economic tigers in the 1990s. The situation started to change when cracks among the UMNO elites during the 1997/98 economic crisis led to the purge of Anwar in 1998 and withdrawal of Mahathir in 2003.

Both former UMNO elites had now become the staunchest critics of the UMNO/BN government, unleashed democratic forces within the civil society and caused further disarray among the governing elites. Political change looks possible, but political stability hinges on the balance.

Among southeast Asian countries, Singapore so far continues to enjoy the highest degree of political stability and economic progress. Singapore had successfully defied the perplexing notion of causal relationship between economic development and democracy. The Island republic managed to achieve economic success without necessarily democratizing its polity.

The unique case of Singapore is partly due to the ability of PAP government to manage (or discipline) its governing elites as well as keeping the masses quiescent. Though Singapore is not a fully democratic country, we often hear self-profess democrats singing praises for her political and economic achievement.

Where do we go from here? I hope our political elites, both in the government and the Opposition will continue to be committed to the principles of democracy and the requirements of political stability in pursuing their political goals. Though political instability presents some “windows of opportunity” for political elites - whether to gain or retain power - I believe that the majority of the rakyat would want a stable democracy to be in place.


  1. I think the irony is that we, the developing countries, especially Malaysia, and its people, are championing, or at least believing and struggling for the principle of democracy in politics; but at the same time we have not yet reached the economic freedom and success at par with the developed countries.

    In my humble opinion, the principle of democracy in its entirety does not work well in a developing country. The success in economy in a developing country still dependant very much on its political stability. This is different in the developed countries where the economy is not dependant very much on its politics. In USA, Great Britain of Japan, for instance, the ruling party, or as the case may be, the President or the Prime Minister, may change frequently, but it does not matter much because they are the capitalists and the investors, in its economic sense.

    Whereas, we as a developing country needs political stability to attract investors and capitalists to invest in our country, to ensure continuous economic competitiveness and well-being.

    As such, certain amount of autocracy is necessary to ensure continuous political stability, until we attain economic freedom and success. Therefore, in a developing country, such as Malaysia, we cannot afford to have two equally influential parties (or coalition, as the case may be), one as a ruling party and the other as opposition, with a slim different of majority in Parliament. It will cause political instability or at least a possible threat to political, and subsequently economic stability. In order to maintain political and economic stability, certain principle of democracy in its totality ought to be postponed. If the opposition leader is too strong, you either ask him to join you, or you shut him out (or in, as the case may be).

  2. Tuan,

    Benarkah wujud realiti yang dinamakan demokrasi ini?...Jika ada, apakah masih ada demokrasi di Malaysia ini?...Jika masih ada, apakah demokrasi ini punya legitimasi?...Jika benar, apakah demokrasi hanya diukur dengan bilangan majority 140 di Parlimen?...Jika benar lagi, apakah ertinya jika legitimasi demokrasi tersebut hampir bobrok?...

  3. Thanks for raising the salient point Ahmad. Anonymous, bagi saya demokrasi itu satu konsep yang ideal. Tidak semua negara demokrasi yang cukup syarat-syarat ideal itu. Malaysia tidak terkecuali. Legitimasi (keabsahan) untuk memerintah boleh jadi berkait dengan soal samada demokrasi atau tidak sesebuah negara itu atau mungkin juga soal-soal yang lain seperti kemajuan ekonomi dan keamanan.

  4. "In a democracy, imperfect though it is in Malaysia, you need two legitimacies to govern: a moral legitimacy and a political one.

    The moral legitimacy stems from your entire deportment whilst governing – transparency of conduct, rule of law, separation of powers, integrity of office bearers, and the like.

    The political legitimacy results from your effective command of the electorate and its legislators.

    The National Front of Malaysia, in power for 51 years now, has been oozing its moral legitimacy to govern for at least a decade now. The judiciary was corrupted, the police force became dysfunctional, the civil service was reduced to a rubber stamp, money politics infected political parties, and matters to do with race and religion became a minefield. The economy is sluggish, now approaching quagmire status and the government has offered no solution to the problem of widespread joblessness, rampant inflation and the decline in foreign direct investment. In sum a tragic state of affairs after 51 years of governance.

    The National Front’s political legitimacy was premised on its command of a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Once before it lost that majority — in 1969 when race riots flared in the aftermath of that loss.

    On March 8th this year, it lost that majority in the general election, the 12th in the nation’s history. A psychological threshold was breached and in its wake, there was mounting discovery that the emperor has no clothes.

    The divestment of the moral and political legitimacy to govern has brought the National Front to the current impasse. The opposition coalition wants to end this stalemate by inviting government legislators to join in our campaign of national regeneration..." - WHAT"S YOUR COMMENT ON THIS?

  5. Legitimacy exists in the minds of the people. What legitimacy means to them is guided by the values that each of them holds. But as people holds different values, visions and imaginations about the political community, what is legitimate for one may not be legitimate for others. The problem of legitimacy is multifaceted and maintaining it is a delicate balancing game.

    Yes, judging from the results of March 8 general elections, and the public opinion, the BN is facing a serious erosion of its legitimacy. But as legitimacy exists in the minds of the people, let the people make their own verdict based on the values that they hold. After all, politics is a mind game.