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Towards a liberal Malaysia

LIBERALISM, or rather, what some would have us believe is liberalism, has been accused as the source of all sorts of wickedness and chicanery from sexual immorality to high treason. But what is liberalism really, especially in the Malaysian context? Can Malaysia be considered liberal at the moment? Is there such a thing as Malaysian liberalism?


Locke (left) and Rousseau (Public domain | Wiki commons)
Like their counterparts elsewhere, Malaysian liberals are heirs, spiritually if nothing else, to traditions, principles and beliefs articulated by such thinkers as Locke and Rousseau. These include the credos of economic and political freedom, as well as civil and individual liberties.

Not that liberalism is something foreign or alien to Malaysia. Let us not forget that our Rukunegara calls for Malaysia to ensure “a liberal approach to her rich and diverse cultural traditions.”

Also, Vision 2020 proposed that Malaysians might one day live in a society “that is democratic, liberal and tolerant, caring, economically just and equitable, progressive and prosperous.” It also called on us to face up to the challenge of “establishing a matured liberal and tolerant society in which Malaysians of all colours and creeds are free to practise and profess their customs, cultures and religious beliefs and yet feeling that they belong to one nation.”

And so, liberalism is not about championing one race or religion over the other. It is not the exclusive property of one political party or the other. It is not the antithesis of social democracy, or centrism, or conservatism. Indeed, liberals reject nothing in these ideologies that can uphold and enhance the individual’s dignity and liberty, although our approach may be fundamentally different and we believe, better. Liberalism is not something that is absolutely on the left or the right, but rather can be claimed by any ideology on this spectrum so long as it upholds the human race’s fundamental freedoms.

Liberalism’s detractors

Our opponents would have us believe that ordinary Malaysians cannot be trusted to think and act for themselves. They argue that we need to be kept in our ethno-religious silos indefinitely, and that the state’s continued omnipotence in our politics, economy and daily lives is the only thing standing between us and chaos.

Such voices have dominated our discourse for the last couple of decades, during which Malaysia’s economy has stagnated, and our talent continues to haemorrhage from our shores. Our civil liberties and political freedoms have been dangerously eroded, as have the credibility of our national institutions.


Many are migrating from our shores (Pic by mirofoto / sxc.hu)

We have for too long allowed an illiberal, reactionary minority — on both sides of the political fence — to dictate how our country and society should be run. They, in turn, have made an absolute hash of things. Having been called to account to this now, they react with extremist rhetoric and threats.

Working Malaysian liberalism

So how do we make liberalism work in the Malaysian context? Malaysian liberals need to recognise that the ideal of a benevolent, paternalistic state is still very strong in all sectors of our society. Attacking this head-on will not be productive, and might indeed turn many who should be our natural supporters against us.

We must also take care that our desire to differentiate our ideology from the rest does not split the larger, progressive movement to effect positive change to Malaysia. There are bigger battles to be won in Malaysia, such as removing sectarianism and authoritarianism from our public life. Liberal Malaysians must be the vanguard, and not the cause of dissension, of this movement. But we must also ensure that whatever new dispensation the current arrangement is transformed into does not end in yet another net loss to individual liberty.

I think the following clarification of what Malaysian liberals believe is vital:

The most important thing in the world today is to ensure that every individual can live up to his or her fullest potential. A society is strong when its people are free, and no individual can find true fulfilment or success if injustice and inequity prevails in his or her community.

The abovementioned can be achieved by giving the individual as much freedom as possible, coupled with responsibility to the law and his or her fellow citizens.

Although equality of outcome cannot be guaranteed, we certainly believe and pursue equality of opportunity. No one should be denied his or her rights and opportunity to obtain an education, employment and happiness on the grounds of ethnicity, religion, geography or class.

We celebrate and respect diversity in all its forms. We do not see difference, whether in ethnicity, language, culture or opinion as a problem or a threat, but an increasingly inescapable reality in each and every modern society. If properly harnessed, diversity can be a source of strength as well as cohesion in a globalised world.


Free! (Pic by createsima / sxc.hu)
We champion freedom of conscience and honour all cultures. We oppose sectarianism in all its forms and the use of race or religion in the name of limiting the autonomy and agency of any one individual of group. 

Societies are dynamic, growing and evolving entities. While a society’s traditions must be upheld and maintained, any unreasonable adherence to the status quo that becomes prejudicial to liberty and the greater good will eventually lead to that society’s destruction.

We firmly hold to the principles of the separation of powers and of checks and balances. We oppose any one branch of government becoming too powerful, as well as the arrogation of authority in the hands of any individual or group. Democracy is the best way to govern a nation, not only in holding regular elections, but also in creating an open public space, a free press and independent institutions plus a vibrant civil society,

Governments should be strong enough to function, and judicious in the use of their coercive powers and prudent in intervening in citizen’s lives.

Ideas and knowledge must be exchanged freely. Any attempt to limit the spread of these things is a form of totalitarianism.

A free market, free also from corruption, exploitation and political manipulation, is best-placed to guarantee prosperity and equity for citizens. There will of course be problems and inequalities that cannot be solved by market forces alone, and this is where the state can and should come in.

It is possible to achieve both prudent stewardship of the environment and our natural resources and economic growth.

We are furthermore internationalist in our outlook, without compromising on individual states’ sovereignty. While healthy competition in the various fields can and should be encouraged, multilateralism and cooperation should strongly be stressed.

I do not claim that this is a perfect or even accurate articulation of liberalism, nor am I under the illusion that achieving these goals will be easy in Malaysia. But even a step forward in this regard will do wonders in ameliorating our beleaguered political economy and healing our social divisions.

The challenge is for Malaysian liberals to answer sooner or later: what’s really in this for the ordinary Malaysian? Addressing this will be the first step towards a liberal Malaysia.


Keith Leong is a fellow at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.IDEAS.org.my), Malaysia’s first independent think-tank dedicated to promoting market-based solutions to public policy challenges.

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One Response to “Towards a liberal Malaysia”

  1. Wilson Wong says:

    I remarked to a colleague recently that liberalism is an overused term so obtusely defined by our politics.

    True that here in Malaysia liberalism is often seen as a leftist ruse to destroy culture and religion.


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