Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Whither our democratic culture?

We have yet to evolve a democratic culture in Malaysia. Yes, we do take part in the election, but a democratic culture is much more than simply casting a vote once every four or five years. Apart from this hallmark of modern democracy, our political life doesn’t seem to reflect the other integral aspects of a truly or more matured democratic culture.

For instance we often hear of conflicts or feuds in political parties between factions and cliques, but, though occupying the centre stage in terms of media coverage and public consciousness, we cannot say really what are the major issues or contention between them. Is it a case of competing vision and philosophy for their parties, a significant difference in terms of policies, priorities and strategies, all in the name of the genuine interests of society and nation? Or can it be a debate on fundamental principles of leadership, devotion, commitment and idealism?

Invariable after following the news for a while, one gets bored and tired of it because it all boils down to the jostling for power and position between individuals, each backed by their hence men and supporters. A case in point would be the long drawn squabble in MCA. What are the issues really, of significance to society and nation? The same can be said of the going on in the MIC.

Of course cliques and faction would camouflage their bid for power and position by adopting the high moral ground, while stigmatizing rival groups as ‘immoral’, ‘unethical’ or any other labels that undermine their legitimacy to lead. But beyond this propagandistic idealization of personalities, and character assassination of rivals, what are the substantive issues reflecting a matured or developed democracy?

Right to this day, it would seem that the democratic spirit and tradition is still lacking in UMNO. This is clearly borne out by the last posting by Dr Mahathir Muhammad or Che Det. It would appear that far from developing a genuine democratic culture within its fold, UMNO is more inclined towards thwarting or stunting it, thus getting closer day by day to political suicide. According to Dr Mahathir, divisional leaders are blocking the entry into the party of younger, better educated, more capable people. These leaders feel more secure when they recruit instead yes men and those who condone and accept their corruption. As election candidates are normally nominated and chosen from this level of divisional leadership, it is such elements that invariably rise to prominence and national leadership in the course of time. Hence we have a vicious cycle of bad and corrupt leadership for the party, society and nation.

Can UMNO ever hope to survive, without breaking this vicious cycle? How can it ever hope to win back the mind and heart of the Malay masses without genuine democratic reforms against such self-sustaining and self-perpetuating force of corruption and decadence at the core of its power and leadership structure? I will emphatically say UMNO will perish into oblivion in no time!

I should like to note that though I have not made specific mention of the opposition parties, judging by the discussions and analysis in the media, I don't think the state of democratic culture within their folds is any different or better. Just casually survey the various commentaries on PAS, PKR and the  DAP widely circulating in the media.

Our fundamental problem is that we still need to evolve and develop a truly democratic culture. Our elite and leaders still cling on to the old and undemocratic notion of power. According to this notion, reminiscence of feudalism really, power is personal, arbitrary, conferring of position, privileges, and personal gains or interests. Power is much coveted and keenly contested for these reasons. This is poles apart from the democratic notion of power, where power is defined and closely regulated by democratic rules and institutions, limited only to legitimate functions of serving the interests of the people and the nation. In a genuine democratic culture, power and authority are conferred only to enable and empower leaders to lead and serve the people and the nation, and not for personal aggrandizement by individuals, their families, hence men and loyalists.

It seems to me if our very conception of power is undemocratic, I am not wrong in saying that our ‘democracy’ has a long way to go before achieving the status of a more matured and responsible democracy, both on the part of leaders and citizens.

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