The Fate of Liberal Democracy in Turbulent Times
By Nazir Razak
To say that Malaysians are frustrated by never-ending political shenanigans is, quite frankly, an understatement. To have only voted once and yet had 4 different Prime Ministers in 4 years is exhausting at the best times. The fact that it happened mostly during a very deadly pandemic- and the concomitant social and economic crises – is simply tragic. There is no doubt that Malaysians suffered more from COVID-19 because of our politics, be it the initial distractions of the Sheraton move, the fragility of the government’s majority giving rise to sub-optimal appointments to important positions, the perceived double standards on enforcement of MCO rules, or the Sabah political crisis that necessitated a state election. And quite unbelievably, we are staring at the likelihood of another state election in Melaka soon. If all this isn’t enough then we can also bring in the fact that we had a period of emergency rule during which the pandemic just seemed to get worse.
We are the only country, to my knowledge, to have had a suspension of our liberal democracy as a means of better handling of the pandemic. When I first heard the announcement I felt queasy: I didn’t expect anything to change per se but just the idea that we were being ruled by decree and that parliamentary oversight over the executive was gone brought discomfort. I was immensely relieved when emergency rule ended; as Churchill once said “democracy is the worst form government except for all others that have been tried”. I subscribe to that view.
It is, however, a view that has been losing popularity in recent times. The 2017 Pew survey of 38 countries reported that 52% of respondents were not satisfied with the way democracy was working in their countries, with a substantial number willing to consider non democratic alternatives even in such countries as Canada, US, Sweden, Australia and Japan. Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Hoover Institute, coined the term “democratic recession”. He counts 25 breakdowns in democracy between 2000 and 2014, either due to military or executive coups, or persistent incremental degradation of democratic rights and procedures. This backsliding, which was already in motion in the early years of the new millennium, became more apparent when the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-8 hammered advanced economies, and left millions of ordinary people without homes, jobs, or future prospects. In the meantime, governments were in a race to the bottom to attract and retain wealth by slashing taxes and loosening regulation, while austerity measures stretched government services.
What happened next? Populism, or rather the rise of a certain noxious brand of it that has little concern for things like ‘facts’, ‘logic’, or ‘experts’. Societies became attracted to the tune of demagogic politicians whose platforms were nebulous at best, but rode people’s anger and frustrations by blaming minorities, immigrants, intellectuals and the establishment. Politics became a binary relationship: it was between ‘Us’, the majority, against ‘Them’, whoever else that was outside of that group.
The early months of the pandemic would have also tilted the balance of support in favour of authoritarian systems as they seemed to be more effective in containing the virus. In our neighbourhood, we contrasted China and Vietnam with India and Indonesia where individual rights and electoral politics seem to hinder government action.
Protecting the fundamentals of democracy in diverse societies
As we reflect on the shortcomings of liberal democracy we should remember that (a) democracy is a means to achieving good governance; that is what the people want, that is the true north not democracy itself, and (b) there are different types of democratic systems, and systems need to adapt to changing demands of the people and the environment.
The common thread for liberal democracies is that they are built on a system of elections and representation, with checks and balances to prevent abuses of power, and the tyranny of the majority. Modern liberal democratic states incorporate processes and safeguards to ensure that no single party or community has absolute authority over every aspect of power, and that the rights of all citizens are equally protected.
This all sounds ideal. Yet throughout the history of the modern nation state, we have witnessed atrocities and discrimination in countries professing to be liberal democracies. History is replete with instances in which democratic institutions and processes have paved the way for crimes against humanity, cheered on by the majority. Most famously, Hitler managed to win power in what was an ostensibly democratic system.
Political scientists debate at length as to the reasons for the recent democratic recession. Ultimately though it boils down to public frustration with the governance outcomes it has produced, especially in the “mother states” of liberal democracy, the US and UK.
One of the more interesting and for me compelling explanations has been the failure of the main political parties to deliver good leadership options. Ironically, the theory is that the democratisation of political parties – Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Labour – has placed selection mainly in the hands of party idealogues and operatives who dominate the voter base, whereas in the past the party elders tended to have the final say.
How will democracy thrive again? Western liberal democracy has proven resilient over centuries through many challenging moments, such as world wars, McCarthyism, foreign intervention and financial crises. And this time the system will have to evolve again to deliver better, more effective and inclusive governance. Perhaps when all is said and done, we will also reflect on the pandemic as a triumph of open liberal systems over closed authoritarian ones, be it because of the lack of transparent handling in Wuhan during the early weeks of the pandemic or the fact that the most effective vaccines and therapy are developed in the more open western societies.
To quote Condoleezza Rice, in her book Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom: “Every new democracy has near-death experiences, crucible moments when the institutional framework is tested and strengthened or weakened by its response. What these events and crises offer are opportunities to take stock and determine whether formal protections continue to serve their purpose and whether the different spheres of power and authority are in balance, and what can be done to improve and strengthen liberal democracies”.
Democracy in Plural Societies
The track record for democratic resilience and evolution for young and plural societies like ours, is much less well established. Indeed, in their ground breaking 1972 book, Politics in Plural Societies: A Theory in Instability, Alvin Rabuska and Kenneth Shepsle argue that (and I quote), “Most independent plural societies fail to retain, over a sustained period, stable democratic politics. Free and open competition for people’s vote is simply not viable in an environment of intense ethnic preferences. The demand-generating activity of ambitious leaders, the concomitant salience of primordial sentiments, and the politics of outbidding weaken commitment to national values.” They go on to list many new democracies that broke down, including Malaysia in the riots in 1969, just 3 years before they published their work.
Unlike many developing countries they listed, such as Sri Lanka, that went on to have intermittent breakdowns or long periods of authoritarian rule, Malaysia boldly underwent major reforms to its Westminster system and proceeded to enjoy many years of peace, stability, high economic growth and rapid poverty alleviation. The post 1970 system included affirmative action policy, which served to rebalance wealth between communities and government by grand coalition.
These reforms, brought out of necessity, were not designed to last indefinitely. In the case of the New Economic Policy (NEP), there was even a 20-year term limit. This national reset took place over 50 years ago, and even though so much has changed for Malaysia and Malaysians, the system remains substantially in place. Most concerning is the fact that the reforms and the new system had negative side effects such as heightened corruption, the hardening of identity politics, and concentration of power. These are at the heart of the systemic dysfunctions that led Malaysia to enter the pandemic with pre-existing conditions – slow economic growth, endemic corruption, high talent outflow and persistent inter-communal tensions – and ultimately to the unfortunate tale of our handling of the pandemic that I described earlier.
Malaysia has desperately needed systemic reform for many years, and it isn’t as if our leaders haven’t tried. Badawi, Najib and Mahathir 2.0 promised extensive reforms at the beginning of their administrations but all failed to achieve material change. Why? Because the system is resistant to change and vested interests tend to quickly wrap race or religious labels around change ideas. We saw this not just with Najib’s needs based affirmative action but also reforms as benign as PH’s proposal to recognise UEC and sign ICERD. Similarly, over the years I have witnessed many good people enter politics with the most noble of intentions but find themselves having to compromise their values and principles just to stay in the game.
So how then do we move forwards?
Deliberative Democracy for a Better Malaysia
I believe that we should look to our own past for the path to a better future. In 1970, a National Consultative Council was set up to deliberate on the causes of the riots and reforms to the system. The NCC comprised 67 representatives of various groups, as well as thought leaders, who met regularly, debated robustly in safe spaces and found inter group compromises that they could “sell” to their communities and constituents.
Ironically, in today’s parlance NCC was a deliberative platform, something that more and more countries have been adopting recently – OECD recently identified 289 such platforms across the world – to supplement parliamentary democracy, typically to deal with structural reforms and other matters deemed unsuited for resolution in a partisan political settings of parliaments. The Irish National Assembly, for instance, debated the issue of legalising abortion, tabled their recommendation to Parliament, which then sent it for referendum in which two thirds of the population voted in favour of the Assembly’s recommendation.
A deliberative platform is the best way forwards for liberal democracies in plural societies to evolve because every individual change is seen from the lens of race and religion and judged by its relative impact on each community, not what is best for the nation as a whole. So deliberating reforms holistically would give the best chance for changes to made; for instance vernacular schools and affirmative action should be discussed together. And indeed, IDEAS has done great work on political funding reform but how do you move forwards on that without addressing the excessive concentration of power in the PM’s office, institutional balance and role of government in business?
I am convinced that a new deliberative platform, which I have coined the “Better Malaysia Assembly” is the only way we can materially reset the trajectory of our nation. We need to gather a representative group of the great, good and ordinary to first reaffirm the principles of Malaysian nationhood and our implicit social contracts; then revisit how our democracy, institutions and socio-economy should work; before coming up with specific policy and legislative reform proposals. Its recommendations would then be tabled to parliament.
In conclusion, whilst liberal democracy as a philosophy for governance has undoubtedly suffered setbacks in recent years, I think it will prove its resilience by evolving as it has in the past. There will be many more variants of the system with innovations in electoral practices and deliberative platforms, but fundamentally liberal democracy has the best record of sustained good governance.
Malaysia’s problems lie in its version not its embrace of liberal democracy. The version we have – our 2.0 – was not meant to endure for so long, we need a 3.0. I have proposed a Better Malaysia Assembly as the best means to get there.
Originally delivered as a keynote address at IDEAS Liberalism Conference 2021
 Diamond, L., 2015. Journal of Democracy. “Facing Up to the Democratic Recession.”  Best, J., 2018. The Conversation. “How the 2008 financial crisis helped fuel today’s right-wing populism.” URL: https://theconversation.com/how-the-2008-financial-crisis-helped-fuel-todays-right-wing-populism-103979  Dryzek, J.S., Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics Contestations. 2000. Chapter 1, “Liberal Democracy and the Critical Alternative”.  Rice, Condoleezza. 2017. Democracy: Stories From the Long Road to Freedom. “Introduction: Is Democracy in Retreat?”