We are currently in the midst of a democratic recession, where previously liberal democratic governments have become more authoritarian. A similar tragedy had happened to Malaysia decades ago, though it is arguable whether Malaysia had ever been a liberal democracy. Aside from the Westminster system, we also inherited the draconian Sedition Act. This, along with other similarly repressive laws that have been subsequently implemented, had been misused by politicians to clamp down on critics of the government.
Fortunately, democratic movements have been picking up steam in Malaysia, as reflected by the success of Pakatan Harapan (PH) in 2018. However, recent developments and trends in politics may bring a lasting effect on Malaysian political culture and undermine any efforts in democratization, one that democratization alone cannot solve.
A worrying trend
Calls for reform for better governance, anticorruption measures, greater ethnic inclusion, and political freedoms initially started gaining widespread traction from the Reformasi movement led by Anwar Ibrahim, and subsequently by Bersih 2.0. These movements contributed to a more united coalition by the opposition against the Barisan Nasional (BN) government. But more than that, it moved the former coalition partners towards the centre to reconcile differences in the ideology of its parties.
Barisan Nasional used to occupy this centre ground, as even though it holds on to the ideology of Malay supremacy, it also espoused inter-ethnic harmony and cooperation, as reflected by its membership consisting of ethnic minority parties. Starting in the early 2000s, with the aforementioned movements gaining steam, the opposition gained more and more voters from moderates, as represented by the disappointing result in 2008, and subsequently in 2013, when Barisan Nasional lost the popular vote. Contributing to this is the shift in support of ethnic minorities from BN to the opposition.
Beset by this new challenge, some politicians from the United Malay Nasional Organisation (UMNO) changed tactics, and adopted more and more racialised rhetoric in their bid to retain support from their traditional base of support. This comes in the form of stoking up Malay anxiety over minorities gaining power: fear is always a good way to whip up support. This has the predictable effect of scaring more minority voters away from the opposition. A vicious cycle is triggered as the loss of minority voters makes some politicians use more polarised language to retain whatever support they have left.
After BN’s defeat in 2018, notably through the swing of moderate Malay voters and minority voters to Pakatan Harapan (PH), some within BN formed an informal alliance with the members of the Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) to weaponise the divide within the country. They play up ethnic and religious issues, stoking anti-reform resistance by accusing PH of being anti-Islam and controlled by the Chinese.
The trend is clear: politicians are increasingly portraying the Malay-Muslim people under siege by ethnic and religious minorities, contributing to polarisation, to the detriment of democracy and society. Dividing and conquering, like the imperial powers that once ruled Malaysia.
The death of democracy
Why bring up the trend?
The common theme of the global democratic recession is the polarization of the country’s population. That is to say, polarisation is the death of democracy.
It makes political ‘tribes’ out of pre-existing divisions within society. Causing all sides to adopt the mindset that anyone not a part of their group are traitors, corrupt, immoral, and a threat to their side or people. This demonisation of the other reflects itself in a toxic political culture.
When the other side is no longer an opponent but an enemy, democracy becomes a zero-sum game. Democratic norms are eroded or abandoned as partisanship intensifies. After all, when politics becomes a fight for survival for your side against evil, adopting authoritarian and deeply illiberal policies to oust your opponents from power becomes much more alluring, even righteous.
In short, polarisation contributes to the transformation of liberal democracy to authoritarianism.
No easy solution
To be clear, Malaysia hasn’t been polarised to such an extent. We are divided, but the major ethnicities of this country are not hostile to each other, and relations remain cordial, in spite of everthing. But this very divide could serve as the seed to polarisation and partisanship, and there are increasingly more and more politicians willing to water it.
These politicians are playing with fire, as polarisation could contribute to the end of ethnic harmony and motivated racial violence. They react carefully to numbers; if polarising language drove support away from them, they would stop it. The very fact that so many are embracing it means that it is effective. Without incentives to do so, politicians won’t take steps to mend the divide which have been so profitable for them to exploit.
Malaysia’s democratic reformers would be unlikely to find any success if the issue is not tackled. Fear and partisanship would be used to derail any attempt at democratisation. And even if Malaysia successfully adopts a liberal democracy, which is a huge if, the progress will be all for nothing as the increasing polarisation could bring it back to authoritarianism.
Thus, it should be clear that for democratisation efforts to succeed and be retained, its advocates must also tackle and mend the divide in Malaysia. Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions.
Any move for the promotion of a more pluralistic Malaysian identity by one side in electoral politics may be seen as an attack on the Malay ethnic identity, and could be easily be used as fuel for stoking up ethnic anxiety.
A ban on the use of racial politics and the separation of religion and the state may seem like solutions, but they are unlikely to gain any support. Ethnic issues are important to many of the constituents, be it economic inequality and the language of education. And with the Islamic revival and the growing Islamist movement, any efforts to take religion out of politics would likely inflame rather than diffuse the situation.
Democratization must be accompanied with a solution towards ending the polarization of Malaysian society. Else, even if democratization were to be achieved, we would be left by a democracy weighted down by hatred and anger, opening a way back into authoritarianism.
This article has portrayed a certain ‘inevitability’ regarding the course of our country. However, it was only meant to serve as a warning of what could happen, as it already happened elsewhere. While it is possible that the better nature of Malaysians will prevail, and parties will stop encouraging divisive politics for the sake of our nation, it is still better to have a concrete plan and initiative to tackle what divides us, to mend the fissures of our people, and to end the need or the profitability to use racial politics.
No country could ever be said to be ready for democracy – there will always be divisions that could lead to its undoing. What ultimately decides democracy’s fate is what its people choose to do about it.
We need to do something about it.
Written by Yap Per Hung