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Taming the unelected

(Illustration by Nick Choo)

AS we celebrate the first anniversary of the historic 8 March 2008 general election, our democratic institutions are now in danger of being attacked by unelected institutions. These include the palace, the bureaucracy, the police, the judiciary, and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). 

And if the last and the most powerful of the unelected institutions, the military, steps into politics too, the country would really go to the dogs. You only need to look at neighbouring Thailand to understand the perils of military involvement in politics.

In functioning democracies, the elected political class will work together to ensure that the unelected institutions will serve — rather than be served by — a democratic government.

In contrast, the fragmented elected political class in democratising societies is usually keen to seize or hold on to power at all costs, which makes unelected institutions the ultimate power-brokers.

In the case of Perak, the unelected institutions that have attacked the elected Pakatan Rakyat (PR) state government were either co-operating with or instructed by the elected Barisan Nasional (BN) federal government. After all, those in unelected institutions might depend on the powerful federal government to sustain their livelihoods or lifestyles. Naturally, few will defend democracy at their own peril.

So, what can we do?

Machine of coercion

German political economist and sociologist
Max Weber (Public domain)
One cannot vote out unelected institutions as one could elected representatives when they err or underperform.

Remember, these institutions are supposed to provide checks and balances and be there as guardians of rule of law. However, they are now paralysing democracy by acting arbitrarily and unconstitutionally.

What can we do? The question invites us to revisit and examine the nature of the state. State, in the Weberian sense, is defined by “[the claim of] a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” In other words, the state is a machine of coercion.

Democracy moderates the “evil” nature of the state by placing it under the control of the population. This is why elected institutions must preside over unelected institutions, whose constitutional role is merely to provide checks and balances or to assist elected government.

When elected institutions can be overpowered by unelected institutions, the democratic state reneges into a barbaric machine of coercion.

In Thailand, for example, the laws allow the judiciary to easily dismiss elected governments at will. Thus, the effective way to install a new government there is no longer by winning elections, but by staging demonstrations that can hold the nation at ransom. Rational deliberation does not work because the middle ground is fast disappearing. Everyone is shouting, but no one is listening to one another.

Legitimacy as a weapon

Thailand is not the worst case, of course. Until the second half of the 20th century, most countries in the world existed as authoritarian regimes, where the ruler reigned upon the ruled on the basis of coercion.

Gandhi (Public domain)
Many states have since democratised through violent struggles, but some have attained democratisation through non-violent processes. One good is example is India, under Mahatma Gandhi’s moral leadership, which brought the British Empire to its knees.

A more recent role model would be Poland in the 1980s. The Soviet Union-backed Polish Communists conceded to Poland’s vibrant civil society after a decade of resistance organised by the Solidarity Union, which enjoyed the support of the Catholic Church.

How did the Poles do it? In one of the most heartening stories of modern civil society’s successes, the Poles simply shunned the state — which was seen as a foreign-controlled puppet — and turned to the Catholic Church as their umbrella organisation.

In a nut shell, they defeated the Polish Communist state by denying its legitimacy.

Legitimacy is indeed a necessity for all nation states. Without legitimacy, coercion needs to be carried out to enforce the state’s will. This makes ruling very costly. In this globalised age, an illegitimate government does not appeal to investors and tourists because of political risks.

To enable the use of legitimacy as a weapon for democratisation, we must develop a succinct and dispassionate understanding of the nature of the state.

We need not become anarchists, but we must find a rational basis for the love of the country and its political institutions.

We must recognise the loss of our innocence, which is the greatest lesson from Perak when the illegitimate, BN-installed menteri besar was sworn in.

It is collective consciousness that determines our concessions of legitimacy to the state; and so knowledge is action, not just running football commentary.

A coalition of middle Malaysia

English political philosopher Thomas
Hobbes (Public domain)
If 8 March can be seen as the New Year’s Day of the democratic calendar for Malaysia, then Year One would look like a honeymoon compared to Year Two.

More instability will be engineered to lure Malaysians into feeling nostalgic for the old authoritarian order. Politicians will find ways to evoke the Hobbesian in us to fear dispute and conflict, to crave unity and order at all costs.

Such fears would make a great recipe for a personal dictatorship or military junta.

How do we avoid this? The only way is to cultivate a stronger distrust of the state — whoever heads it. Malaysians must be willing to find solutions for disputes through dialogue, deliberation and debate, not through silence instilled by tear gas, water cannons and batons.

The police force’s unjustified use of violence on 7 March to put down protests against the English for Teaching Mathematics and Science (ETeMS) policy is therefore a bad sign for Year Two, post-8 March.

This is not about the ETeMS policy per se. It’s about how difference of opinion over policies is dealt with. Authoritarian governments tempt their citizens to tolerate or even support the use of “evil” means to pursue “good” policy goals — whether it is the promotion of English or the banning of forums on religious freedom.

Tear gas being used by police on protesters during the 7 March gathering
against the teaching of maths and science in English

Democracy is about the opposite. We may disagree over the ends, but we agree on the means — what is legitimate and what is not.

To protect our budding 8 March democracy, we need a real coalition of Middle Malaysia.

This Middle Malaysia would not know the final solution to the country’s many problems. It would only know that any solution must come from democratic deliberation and participatory decision-making.

It would never be tempted by the use of undemocratic means. It would therefore be the only reliable, democratic defence against mutating, mutinous and muscle-flexing unelected institutions.

Are we working towards building such a Middle Malaysia? 

An anak Perak, Wong Chin Huat believes that good sense among the public must prevail to restore the dignity of constitutional monarchy, democracy and political stability in Perak and Malaysia. Tolerating political falsehood is as dangerous as taking fake medicine. A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, he is based in Monash University Sunway Campus.

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6 Responses to “Taming the unelected”

  1. Damien says:

    The situation in Perak is a mockery to democracy. I personally believe that the decision has to be made by the people for it is the people who have the power to choose their leaders.

  2. Siew Eng says:

    I can’t help but shudder at the similarities with the so-called People’s Alliance for Democracy, whose mob tactics dislodged a democratically (if somewhat misguided) elected government, and whose intention is to have a Parliament that is largely royally appointed! Ugh.

  3. Before we even start working towards a Middle Malaysia, one question:

    “Can Malaysians of separate beliefs and ideologies actually live and let live?”

    Settle that one first, and Middle Malaysia could be a possibility.

  4. K S Ong says:

    We should put the blame on Umno’s partners as well for going along with undemocratic practices.

    GE12 had shown the possibility of isolating Umno by defeating its partners, especially in Penang, Perak and Selangor, while nationally, making Umno dependent on Sarawak and Sabah.

    If we have the opportunity of state elections again in Perak, I would think the lone MCA Adun, Dr Mah will see the end of his political career.

    Any BN authoritarian actions in the form of judicial bias, MACC’s selective prosecution and persecution, police prejudice and high-handedness, will only contribute to its losing the war in the next general elections.

    I would also agree with Jeff Ooi that Umno’s dream team would cause its own downfall.

  5. Kem says:

    “Politicians will find ways to evoke the Hobbesian in us to fear dispute and conflict, to crave unity and order at all costs”. This is standard operating procedure (SOP) in power politics. We cannot stop this.

    “It is collective consciousness that determines our concessions of legitimacy to the state; and so knowledge is action, not just running football commentary”. Continuing concerted and organised efforts to propagate collective consciousness is needed by all parties. But at the moment running football commentary echoing in unison is louder than any real garnering of collective consciousness.

    “How do we avoid this? The only way is to cultivate a stronger distrust of the state — whoever heads it”. The distrust is there and becoming more prevalent.
    E.g. last night I watched Bernama TV interviewing responses to the “mini-budget”. Five out of six respondents support the massive RM60 billion stimulus initiative but express concern and caution over “leakages” in implementation. These are guys on the street.

    Thus there is a strong and prevalent distrust of the state — whoever heads it (Pak Lah, Najib, etc.) Strong and prevalent distrust of the state and leaders in handling the nation’s wealth and coffers.

    This perception is one step beyond the “badness” of cronyism and corruption as highlighted since the 1998 Reformasi awakening. This involves feeling of distrust, particularly in handling the nation’s wealth and coffers.

    With tougher economic times and rising costs, this “badness” is more painful and frightening.

    No media spinning can cover or change this perception easily.

    Thank you.

  6. Pratamad says:

    Well said! Direct points on denying legitimacy to BN-installed menteri besar:

    (1) rakyat should avoid dealing with him at all costs, including boycotting functions attended by him and projects launched by him.

    (2) organisations and companies seen to be dealing with the illegitimate MB should be ticked off and boycotted by the rakyat.

    (3) in all occasions and writings, never accord him the respect of a MB, but qualify it as “illegitimate MB” or “BN-installed MB”, etc.

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