Malaysia has a representative democracy, where voters get to choose their leaders once in five years, but needs a participative democracy for the people to truly exercise their power over matters that affect their lives, said human rights lawyer Edmund Bon.
“The ballot won’t change anything if all that voters get to do is to choose the 5% of the country’s elite who decide on all the important issues for the next five years,” Bon told a forum on Wednesday night.
The event was held to mark the first anniversary of the detention of Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) leaders ahead of the Bersih 2.0 rally for clean and fair elections last year.
The forum, organised by Parti Sosialis Malaysia, had the theme Revisiting the EO6 Saga: Has the democratic space improved after one year? Bon said a wide range of reforms are needed to put the people back in charge because at present there is an over-concentration of powers in the hands of the elite.
These include reducing the powers of politicians, barring their involvement in business, introducing referendums, making town hall meetings compulsory and reinstating local government elections.
Other changes needed are a greater devolution of power to the states, proportional representation in parliament, removing the parliamentary whip to allow MPs to vote according to their conscience and restoring the separation of powers.
“The reformists are ready to push this forward, as seen in movements such as Occupy Dataran Merdeka,” said Bon. Lembah Pantai MP Nurul Izzah Anwar said it is frustrating to operate in an imperfect democracy as there is “no fair access to the media, no room to air grievances and difficult to compete with the government of the day.”
“Although it is imperfect, however, we have succeeded in changing the narrative,” she said. “We have a vested interest in this, because we will be the first to be arrested and we face the brunt of flawed legislation.”
The impetus for change, said Nurul Izzah, who is a vice-president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, must come from voters. “Don’t take this lightly,” she said. “Remind the governments of Selangor and Penang about their promise to hold local government elections.”
The now repealed Emergency Ordinance, she said, had led to the deterioration of police operations because they could use a low standard of evidence to arrest people.
“This is the result of years of having bad laws,” she said. Sungai Siput MP Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj, who was one of six PSM leaders detained last year ahead of the Bersih 2.0 rally, said although there appeared to be changes to unpopular laws, they were substituted by worse legislation.
For example, he said, the Peaceful Assembly Act allows the police to arrest anyone who violates the conditions imposed by the police for holding a gathering, with a fine of RM10,000 for those found guilty.
Also, the police can tell the people to disperse, and a fine of RM20,000 could be imposed on those who do not.
However, some gains have been achieved, and the communist bogey that was being used by the government is no longer working, said Devaraj. “We would not have been freed if the people did not rally to our cause and demanded our release,” he said.
“If Pakatan Rakyat comes to power, don’t give them a honeymoon period,” said Devaraj, “otherwise they will become too comfortable, because power corrupts.”
He urged the people not to wait for the general election to develop a wish list of demands for democratic reforms, but to put together their demands now. Civil rights activist Hishamuddin Rais said Malaysia has a procedural democracy, but this was not the essence of democratic space.
“It is an illusion, a magic show that is put up ever five years,” he said, urging structural changes to democratic institutions. “Class interests will be protected because the working class does not have institutions to represent its interests,” he said.
This article appeared in The Edge Financial Daily on July 27, 2012.