Najib’s Barisan the world’s largest false democracy?

Many parts of the world, such as Korea, China, and India – basically medieval kingdoms fifty or sixty years ago — are now among the pacesetters of the modern world, both producing, and improving on, existing inventions. The Muslim world, however, often better off than these countries just half a century ago, has remained as it was, or has even, in many instances, deteriorated. This inertia in the Islamic world seems to stem not from any genetic limitations, or even religious ones, but purely from Islamic culture.

Although one can gain some insight into Islamic culture from books and other written material, if one is to really understand the Muslim world, there is no substitute for sitting in coffee or tea houses, spending time with Muslims, and asking them questions in their own surroundings and in their own languages. A result of these approaches would seem to indicate, with respect, some of the factors citizens of the Arab and Muslim world might wish to consider to use their extraordinary talents even more fully:

The Ability to Question – Western culture is predicated on questioning: inquiring of authorities how they came to the conclusions they reached — a concept from the ancient Greek word “historayn,” to learn by asking. Although in the Shiite world questioning occurs among religious authorities and the educated elite, in the Sunni world, for centuries, asking questions of those more learned or in positions of authority has been unacceptable. Until Muslims once again allow themselves to ask questions and engage in critical examination, they are disabling themselves from accomplishing as much as they otherwise might.

The Role of the Individual vs. the Role of the Group – In much of the Muslim world, people are often seen not as individuals but as members of particular families, clans, tribes, ethnic groups, or religions. In the Muslim and Arab world, a problem between two people can become a problem between two families, with the individual becoming a “soldier” in the ensuing feud. What an individual might think personally – who is right and who is wrong – becomes irrelevant, fostering a mindset that obstructs the impersonal and dispassionate analytic thinking that defines the modern world.

Encouraging Creativity – A good way to define Western intellectual creativity in the Muslim world is to use the Arabic word ijtihad, roughly meaning using one’s intellectual and reasoning capabilities to determine answers. Today’s Islamic culture seems not to encourage this ability: among the Sunni Muslims, who comprise about 85% of the approximately 1.4 billion Muslims, the “Gates of Ijtihad” were closed about a thousand years ago, apparently for political reasons: religious authorities declared that all questions had been addressed during the past four centuries, so there was therefore no more need for questioning. Since then, Muslims have been asked to accept institutionally what they learn from their authority figures – as in the word Islam, itself, meaning “submission.” Islamic culture therefore does encourage creativity as much as it might; it appears actively to discourage it – people are educated to memorize, not criticize.
Creativity requires, above all, questioning the accepted ways of doing things. What many Muslims do, therefore – and do very well – is produce things invented by others. The Turks, for example, who have had longer and closer contacts with the West than most other areas of the Muslim world have had, are superb at replicating what others have created. Although the F-16, for example, was created in the US, the only perfect one ever manufactured by the mid-1990′s was assembled in an F-16 plant in Turkey. Individual Turks would have been perfectly capable of inventing an F-16, but often feel constrained to think creatively in their own country. This might be a reason that gifted individuals in the Muslim world who feel the need to expand their abilities often abandon their native countries for the West, and do brilliantly there.

The Ability to Admit Failure and Learn from It – Although no one particularly likes to fail, people in the West expect those who have failed to examine why they have failed, and to learn from their mistakes. Some high-tech firms even try to hire people who have failed at startups in the hope of gaining insights so their companies will not pursue avenues that did not succeed. It is hard to imagine a similar approach in any Muslim country, where it is virtually impossible for anyone publicly to admit failure. The concept of personal honor (in Arabic, ‘Ayib), what others say about you – is prevalent everywhere: admitting failure means shaming yourself, a situation to be avoided at all costs. In Western culture, this concept of shame is largely alien; we are more of a “guilt” culture, in that what we think about ourselves counts more than how others view us, and largely motivates our advancement.

Mackinnon failed to include one more thing on his false democrat tag. These leaders have no guts to debate with their opponents.”False democracies give the impression of being freer than they really are…”.This statement nicely sums up Malaysia and works as an excellent rebuttal to the Malaysian government’s response to Mackinnon’s truth hurts and to think all the wasted efforts and money spent on communications consultant Apco. According to Mackinnon, there are four categories of autocrats – false democrats, mad egotists, violent populists and callous capitalists, of which Najib is in the category of “false democrats”.Now we can expect organised protests at the Canadian embassy here and perhaps even the burning of several effigies?”An impressive track record by anyone’s standards,” said Foreign Ministry Information and Public Diplomacy Department undersecretary Ahmad Rozian Abdul Ghani.What track record? And who is this anyone?
anyone will take the undersecretary seriously. Yes, there was a slew of reforms, but all half hearted and they do nothing to truly advance free and fair elections, accountability and transparency.Najib, the chief of our armed forces and the inspector-general of police (IGP) not giving a public undertaking now – that they will accept Pakatan Rakyat as the new federal government if Pakatan wins the coming 13th general election?What is so difficult for them to do this now? Unless, they are not prepared to give up power. (Brother Najib), your credibility is long gone. In three short years, the world has seen through you.

Your ‘sifu’ (master) must be very proud or maybe jealous, as you have overtaken him in record time. It’s time for Malaysians to wake up and throw them out of Putrajaya.The eight so-called “reforms” sound good on paper, but if one looks at the replacement legislation, or the amendments made to Acts that have been retained, the resulting legal situation is in many instances worse than before the repeal or amendments were implemented. As for electoral reforms – surely that is the biggest joke of all. Even from thousands of kilometres away, Canadian journalist Mackinnon can see that emperor Najib does not wear any democratic clothes. Najib wears illusory garments woven from half-lies and half-truths.

Further, Najib has even told Umno and the BN to defend Putrajaya at all costs or till their last drop of blood. In view of all this, Najib is truly a false democrat.

For example, his slogan ‘1Malaysia, people first’ is but a fraud because in practice, it’s the big towkays and the Umno-BN cronies who are being given top preference by Najib.
In another words, the Canadian paper is right on the dot. Perhaps Najib is better than the others on the list, but Najib is not Umno, and Umno has a life of its own.

Umno is the de facto false democrat, whose position will not change until the electoral roll is cleaned up, media access liberalised and press licence requirement abolished, pronto.
And “This view does not tally with the fact that the opposition won an unprecedented number of seats in the last election.”

Hello, in the last election, Najib was not PM. It was Abdullah Ahmad Badawi who gave up the states which he lost. But that too after much ransacking and burning of state documents.
I wonder which category Dr Mahathir Mohamad comes under?
Some people can’t face the truth. Globe and Mail journalist Mark Mackinnon, you have got it spot on.Malaysia is a false democracy with a leader who can’t think of losing power. This is justified when he choked on the question of whether he could assure a peaceful transition of power. Till now he has no answer. Truth is a bitter pill to swallow by false democrats. PM Najib Razak portrays himself as a democrat in the international arena.

Back home anybody who speaks the truth is victimised and “sodomised”, just look at the students who speak the truth – they are hounded by the police and suspended. University lecturers are stripped of their posts. Truly a sugar-coated bullet.
Malaysia has all the democratic institutions but they have been badly compromised in the practice of democracy by people who are intellectually corrupt, greedy and worship undeserved wealth at the expense of the rakyat. It takes someone impartial from outside to see the real situation.

Several of these recent so-called ‘reform’ laws are worse than the ones they replaced if you examine the details closely. There was virtually no consultation with the rakyat.

Najib can pretend and proclaim himself a statesman but many observers are not hoodwinked by his constant empty rhetoric.
A simple complaint is taken as an act against the rulers. Like the Bersih street demonstration for clean and fair elections, which was taken as a plot to overthrow the regime.

With warped thinking arising from desperation, the regime has lost its senses. They know they are a goner come the election. Najib’s list of reforms during the last three years was nothing but only smoke and mirrors. Who could believe any of them? Not Malaysians, certainly not Canadian award-winning jounalist Mark Mackinnon.

In fact Mackinnon went further to lump him with the unsavoury grouping which included Hosni Mubarak, Slobadan Milosevic and Vladimir Putin and called them false democrats.

Najib tried to project himself as a reformist to win the election. Sadly he has failed. It is not easy to win the hearts and minds of the people by coming up with half-baked ideas of reform. It needs sincerity on the part of the government.

From the information gathered from cyberspace, such as alternative news website Malaysiakini, the rakyat now know better and can be extremely exacting in their demands for change.
“Government of the people, by the people and for the people would result in a stalemate, in no government at all, in anarchy.” — Dr Mahathir Mohamad

In the Philippines recently to accept an honorary professorship by the University of Santo Thomas, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, in his usual provocative style, drew attention to some of the weaknesses of democracy and warned that we should not put too much stock in democracy to solve our problems.

If his goal was to highlight the difficulties inherent in a democracy, we will all do well to pay careful heed. If, however, his objective was to make the case that democracy, because of the weaknesses he highlighted, is not suitable for developing countries like Malaysia, which I suspect is his intent, then I must respectfully beg to disagree.

Democracy — a recipe for disaster

Dr Mahathir complained that people don’t understand that freedom must be balanced with responsibility, that they are too divided to agree on anything, too incompetent to elect good leaders and that they invite instability by constantly changing governments.

In other words, people are basically too irresponsible, too incompetent, too poor a judge of character and ability, and too fickle to govern themselves. Quite a damning judgment of the common man.

It is not a novel idea and neither is it the first time that Dr Mahathir has made the case for greater executive power and stronger government at the expense of democratic rights and institutional checks and balances, a kind of benevolent dictatorship, if you will.

To prove his point, he quoted the example of an unnamed democratic country where successive governments have been brought down by strikes and demonstrations which have resulted in paralysis, instability and economic stagnation.

He might have been referring to one of the Arab countries though his description might well fit the very country he was speaking in.

It is interesting that he should choose to rest his case against democracy on this unnamed and admittedly poor advertisement for “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Why take the worst-case scenario when there are so many good examples of successful democracies in the world? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to take a broader perspective and judge on the basis of overall results?

The thesis of Mahathirism

It is hard to escape the conclusion that at the heart of his political thesis is the notion that the Malaysian model, the model he essentially created and bequeathed to us, an illiberal democracy as he admitted, where untrammelled authority and power is basically vested in one man who knows what’s best for the nation, is far more effective than the liberal democracy that so many Malaysians are clamouring for these days.

And, he seems to be saying that the proof is in the pudding — just look at Malaysia today and the amazing transformation that took place under his leadership.

His unspoken message is that if we want to keep on growing rapidly and enjoy the good life, we ought not to press for greater freedom and minority and human rights, which he deems subversive and counterproductive.

His idea of a good democracy then seems to be one in which the people elect a leader and then get out of the way and let him do whatever he wants for as long as he wants to. Respect for fundamental human rights, accountability, transparency, constitutional checks and balances, separation of powers between the executive, the legislative and the judiciary, etc, have no place in this scheme of things. Indeed, they are a hindrance to effective and productive governance.

Are the alternatives any better?

There is no doubt that democracy has many flaws and is admittedly a difficult system to manage because it tries to balance the rights of the individual with the common good. It is true that citizens are sometimes unmindful of their responsibilities and, yes, people do not always make the right decisions and, as a consequence, straddle themselves with mediocre leaders. Dr Mahathir is also right when he points out that frequent changes in government do not make for continuity and long-term planning.

Winston Churchill famously declared that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” And really that is the issue. What are the alternatives? Is a more authoritarian governance system, the kind that Dr Mahathir seems to favour, a better alternative to liberal democracy?

I suggest, for any number of reasons, that it is not.

One has only to survey the political landscape of much of the developing world, for example, to see the utter folly of non-democratic systems of governance. Many Third World leaders have near absolute power to govern but how have they used their power? Which autocratic leader has been able to meet, on a sustainable basis, the expectations of his own people for a good and decent life?

Dr Mahathir quoted Lord Acton’s famous dictum that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If he saw its application at work in so many of the Third World countries he visited during his long tenure in office or suspected that it might have been at work even in his own backyard, he doesn’t say.

It’s true, of course, that some nascent democracies continue to struggle politically and languish economically. One Filipino commentator enthusiastically said that Dr Mahathir’s assessment of democracy was an accurate description of the situation in the Philippines and went on to lament the paralysis and ineffectiveness of democratic government there. But with a long history of dictators and quasi-dictators, is the Philippines really a good example of a working democracy? What the Philippines needs is not less democracy but more democracy.

The other thing that should be noted is that democracy, unlike tyranny, cannot be imported wholesale from abroad. It takes time to grow roots of its own, adapt and evolve. The Americans like to say that their democracy, more than 230 years in the making, is still a work in progress. It is not an argument to curtail democratic governance but rather an exhortation to keep pressing on.

The fact remains that democracies, while not perfect, are overwhelmingly better than autocracies at providing the kind of political, social and economic environment that is necessary for sustained stability, prosperity and social harmony. It is not for no reason that hundreds of thousands of migrants leave their own non-democratic societies each year and head for democratic ones. They are voting with their feet because they cannot vote with their hands.

Democracy and mediocrity

Dr Mahathir’s comment that democracies tend to throw up mediocre leaders is also puzzling. Seeing as how he himself was elected to office, is he proving his own point about the mediocrity of elected leaders or is he suggesting that somehow we got it right when we elected him to office?

And if citizens in Malaysia and other developing countries make poor choices, perhaps it might have something to do with the system of censorship, control and manipulation of news and information. The answer to an ill-informed citizenry is education, discussion, debate, and the dissemination of ideas and viewpoints that help citizens make informed decisions and choices. As Hubert Humphrey noted: “Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent and debate.”

Leaving that aside, the law of averages would suggest that mediocrity will be found in equal measure in both non-democratic and democratic systems; the only difference is that the citizens in one are stuck with mediocrity for a lifetime while in the other there is at least the prospect of peaceful change in the not too distant future. And that makes all the difference in the world especially if you are stuck with a Mugabe or a Mubarak, or, worse still, a Kim Jong-Un.

Even great leaders are not infallible

And even if we were so fortunate as to find a great, wise and benevolent dictator to lead us to the Promised Land, what guarantees are there that the dictators that come after will be as wise and benevolent? Greatness, unlike tyranny, cannot be inherited or passed along.

More to the point, even great leaders are not infallible and neither do they have a monopoly on wisdom.

Dr Mahathir, for one, despite his many successes and innovative ideas, left behind a nation in deep disrepair — poorly managed, corrupt, disunited and divided, and uncertain of its future.

Many Malaysians will also argue that he was a serially poor judge of character. Several of the men he handpicked or endorsed to lead national projects turned out to be either corrupt or incompetent, or both, and the nation lost billions upon billions of ringgit in the process.

Even his choices of political successors were, by his own admission, huge mistakes. He later found them to be either inept or unfit for office and felt compelled to oppose them in varying degrees of intensity. So much of the political instability that we face today is a direct consequence of the political choices he made.

What price progress?

In Asian cultures, for example, which also care deeply about “face,” a more neutral way of recognizing problems has evolved. The Japanese and the Chinese, for instance, do not say they have failed; they say that the road that had been chosen did not prove to work, so the direction should be changed. This indirect way of admitting failure has helped them advance. Such a blameless approach, however, is virtually non-existent in the Muslim world, and a major reason so much of it remains in squalor.

The results of this contrast – The Asian and Western cultures on one hand, and the Muslim culture on the other — might be described as two kinds of cakes: just looking at the cake tells you nothing about how it tastes. The Western world is like a cake covered with an uninviting khaki-colored frosting. Although it might look awful, the cake inside tastes great: its ingredients are first class and well-baked. By contrast, the Muslim world is like a cake covered with beautiful frosting, but made out of ingredients that might disappoint the people at the table.

The Learning Process – Muslim culture emphasizes memorization. Universities in Muslim lands grant degrees based on the students memorizing vast amounts of material, but not necessarily knowing how to apply them. In engineering, for instance, the Arab world graduates more than 250,000 engineers each year, but when the Arabs want to build an airport, they invariably import foreigners to do it, In the Arab world, engineering degrees often have become symbols of “personal honor” rather than knowledge to be used.

Taking Responsibility for One’s Actions – In the same vein, there is no equivalent in the Muslim world to the Western concept of taking responsibility for one’s actions. The word mas’uliya in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian is usually translated in Western dictionaries as “responsibility,” but it really has a meaning which corresponds more to the Western concept of “being held responsible for, or being blamed for something not going well.” The meaning of this word in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish has little to do with the Western concept of responsibility — defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the ability to act independently and make decisions,” and largely devoid of personal honor.

How Information Is Passed On To Others – In Western societies, information is usually passed down along a chain, based on information moved up it by subordinates. In Muslim societies, the opposite usually occurs: the job of the subordinate is to implement what superiors pass command him to do; the subordinate almost never participates in the decision-making process. The Middle Eastern subordinate fears not doing what his superior tells him to do, even if the subordinate knows that what his superior wants him to do is wrong or will not work. At best the subordinate is discouraged, on pain of being fired, from questioning the decision — true even in the most Westernized country in the Muslim world, Turkey. Most officers in the Turkish army, for example, have a sign behind their desks: “The commander wants answers, he does not want questions.” That attitude was most likely the reason senior Turkish military officials could not learn how deeply the Islamic fundamentalists had penetrated the military establishment – their subordinates knew their officers did not want to hear that their units had been penetrated by people who disagreed with Ataturk’s philosophy of separating religion from the state.

The Western Concept of Compromise  – In the West, the precept of “win-win” forms the basis of how we negotiate. To reach an agreement, each side gives in to some of the demands of the other side; doing so entails no loss of personal honor. In the Arab, Turkish, and Persian worlds, however, giving in to the other side’s demands involves enormous amounts of shame and the loss of honor – which is why the culture in these Islamic lands requires negotiations only after victory. Asking to negotiate before one has won indicates weakness – or why else would one be reaching out to end a conflict? — and another loss of personal honor to be avoided at all costs. After one side has decisively won, and has then imposed a solution on the vanquished party, then one begins to negotiate: the vanquished party licks his wounds and looks for the opportunity to redress his loss. This is known in Arabic assulh, somewhat like the Western concept of a truce, by definition temporary. In such circumstances, there cannot be a win-win situation. This is, unsurprisingly, why conflicts in the Middle East are never permanently resolved, and why life in the Muslim world, unlike the West, seethes in a constant state of tension.

The Western Concept of Peace – In Western culture, making peace boils down to putting the past behind one, letting bygones be bygones, and moving on from there. This mindset already existed in ancient Hebrew culture, in which the word shalom, from the root sh-l-m, meaning completeness, involved leaving past disagreements behind. But in the Arabic, Turkish, and Persian cultures, such a concept does not exist. The Arabic word salam – used in all three languages – derives from the same Semitic root, but instead means “the special joy that one gets by submitting to Allah’s will through Islam.” The word Islam, from the same root, means submission; not exactly the same as peace. If bygones can never be bygones, conflicts can never be resolved. In these Muslim lands, when one side is stronger, it attempts to subdue its ancient enemies. The culture does not permit Muslims to put the past behind them: the internet, for example, is filled with discussions among Muslims about how they must and will reconquer Spain, which they lost to the West 520 years ago. In the Muslim culture, individuals — both the leadership and the common man — spend so much time looking for ways to right perceived wrongs, that they might find it disconcerting to focus their energy on looking what we might think of as more productive and positive activities.

Book Publishing – The subject of most of the books sold in the Arab world, except for Lebanon and Iraq, concern either to Islam or hatred of the West – more specifically, they are either anti-America or anti-Israel. The number of books translated annually into Arabic is about the same as those translated into Finnish. There are, however, about 365 million Arabs, compared to 5.5 million Finns. How are Arabs to acquire the knowledge necessary to propel them into the modern world if they do not have access to modern scientific and intellectual thought, easily available in their own languages? Sadly, there does not seem to be a market in the Arab world for these types of books. Is this because there is little desire for that knowledge? If so, this inertia guarantees that as the outside world gallops into the future, the Arabo-Muslim world will find it harder and harder to catch up to Asia and the West. Arabs leaders can, of course, buy modern technology, but this solution, although instant, only guarantees a permanent dependence on outsiders.

The Status of Women  – The great 19th century Ottoman historian, Namik Kemal, argued that the Muslim world was in danger of being left behind because of its oppression of women. He asked how a country could advance if it oppressed and failed to educate half its population — the equivalent of intentionally paralyzing half of one’s body. Further, this paralyzed part of society is the one responsible for raising the next generation of males. Much of the Muslim world continues to place great obstacles in the paths of its women. In Iran under the Shah, for example, the marital age for women was 16; under the Islamic republic, this age was lowered to nine lunar years, meaning that an 8-1/2 year old girl can legally be married off by her family. In the Arab, Turkish, and Persian worlds, women can be murdered, often without definitive proof, if the male members of their families believe that they may have done something that could have put a stain on the family honor; if a woman is regarded as contaminated, the entire clan can be held in disrepute and cast out by the community.

In some parts of the Muslim world, females are pressured to undergo various forms of “female circumcision,” a cutting of their genitals presumably intended to prevent women from having sexual pleasure — a practice that often takes place in unsanitary conditions that can cause significant health problems, if not death. This practice, however, has nothing to do with Islam; it is tribal, it pre-dates Islam, and it has everything to do with Islamic culture and a seeming male terror of being tempted by women’s sexual allure.

The Oil Curse – Since Muslims in the oil-rich states can now afford to have others do everything for them, they are not compelled to use the one renewable resource available to everyone: the human brain — if exercised to think creatively, capable of amazing feats. But given the cultural realities and financial wealth available in so much of the Muslim world, there seem to be few incentives, if any, to be productive in ways other than gaining, conserving, or enjoying wealth.

Palestinians, as well, are easily capable of accomplishing what anyone else does, if only their education, governance and cultural incentives were changed from destroying their neighbor, Israel, to building a felicitous society. Palestinian political leaders, however, seem to have decided that the rewards from the international community, at least for them, will be greater if they are seen as victims receiving perpetual handouts, rather than as leaders receiving rewards linked to accomplishments. The economic system seems to have evolved into bribes in exchange for promises that are never kept, followed later by the request for still more bribes.
Ironically, all genetic analyses of the many ancient Muslim Palestinian families indicate that they are largely from the same genetic stock as Ashkenazi Jewry. So what is the difference here? The Jewish culture encourages questioning and thinking from an early age, whereas the Palestinian Muslim culture does not. What is encouraged instead is the unexamined acceptance of whatever is set before one, whether on government-run television or in government-written textbooks. Religion has nothing to do with this situation; Islam therefore is not the problem: Islamic culture is. Only when Muslims address their culture head-on can there be any real hope for their world to overcome its self-imposed limitations and start fully contributing to the wonders of the 21st century.

Sure, we made huge strides economically, but at what price? In the process of Malaysia’s own “Great Leap Forward” corners were cut, corruption flourished, national institutions were weakened and checks and balances on executive power diluted. And now the chickens have come home to roost. We might be better off economically but we are certainly poorer in the things that make a nation truly great.

And besides, what might have we been able to achieve if not for all the corruption, mismanagement, the abuse of power and the stifling of different viewpoints and ideas? My guess is that we would, today, be one of the most dynamic and prosperous nations in the world — strong, stable, more democratic and at peace with itself.

Lessons of the Arab Spring

The reality is that non-democratic regimes, because they are unaccountable, have little or no checks and balances, and are essentially closed systems, tend to quickly degenerate into corrupt, abusive and inefficient governance systems that are simply unsustainable.

Take the case of Egypt, which is so much in the news today. President Hosni Mubarak took power at a chaotic and difficult time in his country’s history. He promised reform and offered hope to his people but his government succumbed to the corruption of power, and Egypt soon became synonymous with instability, stagnation and oppression. While the people struggled to make a living, he and his cronies lived in pharaonic splendour.

As Robert Heinlein noted: “A managed democracy is a wonderful thing… for the managers.”

In the end, with nothing to lose, desperate people rose up and overthrew him. And who can blame them?

The Arab Spring has certainly been disruptive and people are arguably no better off today than they were before, at least in economic terms. Those who favour the status quo are quick to play up this aspect of the Arab Spring and rail against street demonstrations.

Of course, evolutionary peaceful change is always preferable to revolutionary upheaval. It would have been nice if leaders like Mubarak and Ben Ali, and their foreign backers, had had the common sense to see that their regimes were unsustainable and worked to effect peaceful transformation and change but dictators rarely do so. Don’t blame the people of Egypt or Tunisia for the messy situation they are in today as a result of revolution; blame the dictators who gave them no other option.

In the wake of the Bersih demonstration last April, accusations have been made that opposition and other civil society groups are conspiring to overthrow the government through Arab-style protests. That is a gross misrepresentation of the situation. The tens of thousands of people who turned out to demand free and fair elections were not trying to foment an Arab Spring in Malaysia but were trying to avoid one through democratic reform and peaceful change.

Not great men but great institutions

In the end, when it comes to governance, the lessons of history over the last few centuries are simply these:

● First, people are, on the whole, better off governing themselves; when they surrender this right to the wise men who claim to know what’s best for the rest, they invite disaster upon themselves and their nation.

● Second, universal values of freedom, equality and justice are an important prerequisite for progress and prosperity. It is also morally right and reflects our highest and noblest aspirations. We can argue about details but we must never compromise on the principles.

● Third, our best hope rests not in the infallibility of great leaders but in the sanctity of great institutions — a fairly and freely elected Parliament, an independent judiciary, an accountable and non-political police force and civil service, and a free press — rightly founded upon just laws.

Though the challenges ahead of us are many, there is no doubt, not any more, that we the people of Malaysia have it in us to rise above our differences, to overcome misunderstanding and prejudice, to marshal the talents and skills of all our people to build a better nation and a better democracy.

* Dennis Ignatius is a retired diplomat. He was with the Malaysian foreign service for 36 years. This included postings to Beijing, London and Washington. He also served as Malaysia’s ambassador to Chile and Argentina, and High Commissioner to Canada.


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