Categorised | Columns

Spotlight on party democracy

Is Malaysia on the way to becoming more democratic? (© flydime | Flickr)

IT has now been two full years since the historic March 2008 elections in Malaysia. But during this period, what have Malaysians actually learnt about the nature of democracy? Is Malaysia on the way to becoming more democratic?

Citizens can use several indicators to measure Malaysia’s democratisation. For example, are our public institutions getting any more independent and effective, are there more or fewer human rights violations, or is there more or less censorship of speech and ideas?

Another helpful use of indicators is to gauge how internally democratic the various political parties are. After all, if a party’s internal workings are already undemocratic, it inspires little hope that it could run the entire country democratically if elected to power.

Basic toolkit

To recap, a party’s internal democracy can be gauged by looking at three broad areas:

Does the party represent the diversity of the general
population? (© sanja gjenero |
1Participatory democracy, or the encouragement, acceptance and incorporation of party members’ full participation. Does the party respect internal freedom of expression on contentious issues? And if members do speak up against mistakes or wrongdoings, or the flaws in certain internal policies, would their views have any effect on the party’s direction?

2Representative democracy, or whether or not the party’s membership and leadership are representative of the diversity in public opinion or the general population. In another sense, it is about how the party chooses (a) office bearers, and (b) election candidates. It is thus also about how tightly the party controls its members’ votes in Parliament or in the state assemblies. For example, can members cross the floor without risking censure?

3Sharing and division of power, or how power and resources are distributed throughout the party. Is there favouritism over how certain funds and monies are disbursed, unfairly benefitting some people? Is the distribution process transparent? More importantly, does the party itself have its own check-and-balance mechanisms to avoid abuses of power?

A second taste

In part one of this series, The Nut Graph briefly analysed Umno, leader of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, and PAS and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), which also have aspirations for federal power. In part two, we have chosen to look at the smaller but pivotal parties in both the BN and the Pakatan Rakyat (PR). So of course we had to choose the MCA, BN’s second largest party, and DAP, the PR’s final and crucial partner. And we also chose BN’s Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), since it is the BN’s biggest party in Sarawak.

Again, all three parties were evaluated according to The Nut Graph‘s impromptu rating system, with one star denoting the least adherence to a particular principle and five stars indicating the most. Readers are invited to form their own conclusions, contest our ratings, and also suggest other examples and incidents to deepen the discussion.

Indicator MCA DAP PBB
Participatory democracy  Ongoing crisis has seen various leaders speaking up without fearing censure, but this could be more a reflection of the party’s internal turmoil than a genuine respect for dissent. 


Members and leaders generally refrain from publicly criticising the leadership, but in certain instances do so without being unduly penalised by the leadership. The party constitution also seems to be democratic centralist


Not much heard from internal party dissenters. However, Sarawak online news sites and blogs are increasingly reporting on internal differences of opinion. 


  2 stars

  3 stars

  1.5 stars
Representative democracy  Represents only Chinese Malaysians.

Ongoing internal crisis probably also reflects widespread dissatisfaction with selection of party leadership.


Theoretically diverse and democratic socialist, although its composition is heavily Chinese Malaysian and male.

A party congress is held every three years, in which the central executive committee is elected.

Candidate selection for the 2008 elections revealed some internal problems, as did the 2009 defection of Perak state assemblyperson Hee Yit Foong.

Represents only Sarawak bumiputera.

There are contests only for minor positions in the upcoming party elections.

The party has only ever had two elections.

President Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud has helmed the party virtually unopposed for a record 29 years.

  0.5 star

  2 stars

  0.5 star
Power-sharing and division  Connection between businesses and internal party leadership is opaque.

Ongoing crisis could also indicate dysfunctional division of power and resources.

The sacking of deputy president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek in 2009 because of video evidence of an affair was widely perceived as political persecution, rather than a genuine disciplinary matter.

As a socialist party, on paper DAP has a very clear and accountable mechanism to deal with internal discipline issues, as laid out in its constitution.

The fall of the Perak PR government, however, has been attributed in part to internal abuses of power in Perak DAP, which appear unsolved.

In 2001, three members were sacked for breaching BN discipline, but little else is made public about party disciplinary issues.

Connection between businesses and internal party leadership opaque.


  0.5 star

2 stars

  0.5 star


See also: How democratic are political parties?

The Nut Graph needs your support   
Please take our five-minute reader survey

Post to Twitter Post to Google Buzz Post to Delicious Post to Digg Post to Facebook Post to StumbleUpon

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One Response to “Spotlight on party democracy”

  1. Hang Jebat says:

    The one critical factor missing in this analysis is contestability for leadership within the parties particularly for top posts. It has been argued by some political scientists that although Malaysia’s political system is not very democratic, the one saving grace in the past was the top leadership positions within political parties, especially Umno, was open to contest – thereby ensuring that the best talent rises to the top. This was more true in the early years of the party but has fallen away particularly since Dr M instituted the no-contest policy for the top two posts in Umno and the malignant growth of money politics under his tenure as Umno president. Other BN and opposition parties also don’t rate very highly on this critical metric.

Most Read (Past 3 Months)

Most Comments (Past 3 Months)

  • None found




  • The Nut Graph


Switch to our mobile site