By Khairul Syakirin Zulkifli, Research Analyst, Institut Masa Depan Malaysia
DEMOCRACY is a dominant ideology in the modern world, but receives much criticism regarding its efficiency as a system to represent people’s needs.
The popular modern term for this is democratic decay. The hallmark of democracy in the 21st century is the rise of populism. The trend is global and regional.
In Europe, it was the rise of Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and French far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Meanwhile, the Economist described the road to democracy in Asia as full of twists and turns.
Malaysia, too? The International Republican Institute’s (IRI) study on Malaysian politics conducted in March this year, indicated that 38 per cent of respondents were dissatisfied with the development of democracy here.
The percentage increased by 12 points against the findings in 2020, the highest was among those aged 51 to 65. In addition, the 2021 Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index highlighted that Malaysia’s score in political culture was 6.25 out of 10, indicating a low level of trust toward democracy as a functioning system to represent people’s demands and leadership efficiency.
Social and economic issues such as the high cost of living with slow salary growth, inefficient transportation system, soaring food prices, environmental degradation, quality of education and social security net, demand a solution from democracy.
So, what exactly needs to be done to improve our democracy? Our decision-making must change as it is mostly reactionary rather than visionary.
Our electoral system should be critically assessed, taking into consideration communal anxiety and socio-economic efficiency.
A proposal by the Election Commission (EC) for a party-list proportional representation or retaining the first-past-the-post electoral system (FPTP) demands greater analysis.
The EC must be visionary to enhance political education by devising official and compulsory sessions between the public and representatives.
Greater engagement between the two will enhance political education and promote corruption-free and good governance.
The delineation exercise needs to be critically addressed in terms of the sizes of constituencies for better representation of leaders and people.
Before the implementation of Under18 vote and automatic registration, unequal constituency sizes within a state compared to countries that apply FPTP saw Malaysia’s position lower than India, Philippines, Singapore, Canada, the UK, Australia, and the United States.
Currently, the malapportionment level in Malaysia has increased, except in Pahang, enhancing the current inequality in voting values or the principle of one person-one vote.
What this entails is that partisan delineation based on ethnic voting encourages boundaries among Malaysian and ethnic groups.
It is the opposite of what democracy preaches.
It has been long overdue to establish a fixed election date. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob is being pushed to hold the 15th General Election (GE) as soon as possible by some factions in Umno.
Even if the PM received enough support in Parliament, his party “rivals” are set to dominate the party candidate list in the coming GE, which will see Ismail’s loyalists possibly replaced, according to Wong Chin Huat, political scientist of Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.
The tugs of power in Umno may affect the nation’s direction and people’s opinion of democracy.
In a fast-changing environment, the ground-breaking mechanisms of policy implementation and intervention are desperately needed, but all these require strong and adamant political will for changes.
There is still hope. The report by IRI highlighted that 50 per cent of respondents expressed that they would like to see new political parties competing in the coming GE.
This only goes to say that Malaysians’ faith in democracy is still alive.
And with the influx of youth in activisms, politics and non-governmental organisations, we hope to see partisan politics or ethnopopulism fade.
In the end, what the people want are clean and competent individuals to represent them.
Wawasan 2020 and our Rukun Negara already highlighted the need to develop a mature democratic society.
Democracy in this country needs reforms. If we keep protecting our traditional operational practices of democracy, then we are limiting ourselves with only available solutions.
Democracy’s stability depends on people’s faith in it. It only can be achieved through social and economic empowerment of all Malaysians.