While Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad made several valid points in his speech in conjunction with World Human Rights Day last Monday, I was surprised at several conclusions he made with regard to the practice of democracy and the observation of human rights in general.
Mahathir was right to project the positive aspects of economic and social rights in Malaysia in the context of societal development. Malaysia has indeed every right to be proud of these figures by comparison to many other developing countries. Economic and social rights are an equally important aspect of human rights and these rights are perhaps more directly relevant to the average citizen in his pursuit of material progress, personal well-being and social stability.
With respect, where he got it wrong was the lack of emphasis on civil and political rights in Malaysia. He defended this by referring to the proverbial differences in cultural values between the East and the West when it comes to individual rights as opposed to the rights of the majority.
He also concluded that absolute freedom would lead to anarchy. This statement by itself is probably true. But what Mahathir failed to observe is that there isn't a single country in this world that allows its citizens absolute freedom to do as and what they wish. Not only will this lead to anarchy but to the end of civilisation as we know it.
Every society has its limits placed on individual freedoms, liberties and human rights. It's a question of degree and the extent of the restrictions placed on citizens. It is this key feature or fine line that determines if a country is either a genuine democracy or not.
Sadly, Malaysia falls under the latter category where under the disguise of practising a so-called guided form of democracy, autocratic and oppressive laws and measures are in place to preserve law and order at the expense of civil liberties and human rights. Over the years the Executive has encroached and systematically undermined or destroyed every other independent institution within the frame work of the Constitution.
A liberal democracy is indeed what we should be aspiring to in terms of civil, political and human rights. A democracy cannot function in an autocratic system that invariably serves the needs of a few who need to remain in power indefinitely to preserve their status, wealth and personal well-being and that of their cronies.
While elections are indeed a measure of a country's commitment to democracy it is not the only measure. Other essential ingredients are respect for civil liberties, the rule of law and human rights, a free press, an independent judiciary, constitutional checks and balances, independent institutions, and transparent and accountable government.
It's pointless to talk of majorities obtained in elections as a basis to defend autocratic and draconian laws and means purportedly designed to preserve law and order, and prevent anarchy. Before any person can claim to have the mandate of the majority to defend and preserve such a system, the question must be first asked if voters were indeed given the chance to make such a clear or reasoned choice.
Considering the lack of a level playing field, that is so often demanded in terms of globalisation by our government but sadly lacking in terms of the electoral process, it is virtually impossible to conclude that elections in Malaysia are free and fair in that the voter is allowed to make a reasoned choice between the competing parties and their policies.
The biased and one-sided views of the local media which is compounded by the fact that the opposition parties have almost no access to the mainstream media including even the use of billboards and placing advertisements; restrictions on raising campaign funds by the opposition; the threat to boycott or blacklist individuals or companies suspected of opposition sympathisers; the overwhelming use of government machinery for campaigning and propaganda by the ruling party; the ban on public rallies and gatherings; and indirect threats to and the usual campaign of intimidation by vague and sometimes direct allusions to anarchy, violence and destruction of our way of life if the ruling party is not returned to power with a thumping majority undermines and negates the ability of any voter, not just those who are well-read or politically aware, but the ordinary man on the street, or to use a famous legal reference as modified for my purpose, the reasonable voter on the Selangor Omnibus to make such a choice.
Yet it is this same voter and such like-minded persons who are often referred to as the majority who has supposedly condoned or supported the existing state of affairs by casting his or her vote in favour of the incumbent party! I think this is nothing but self-deception being bandied about by an elected dictatorship as a former Lord Chancellor of England, Lord Hailsham called it, to defend its less than impressive record on democracy and human rights.
A government such as ours which has ruled the country successfully since 1957 should fight an election on its record and not by stifling dissent and emasculating the legitimate opposition in an already unrepresentative electoral system.
My only conclusion is that despite all its outward confidence, assertiveness and numerous electoral successes, this government does fear a fair and free contest probably because it recognises its shortcomings and prefers not to be remindedabout them. But then again which government or political party in this world is without scandal or tainted with allegations of corruption, cronyism, nepotism and abuse of power.
It is true that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but given the fact that our ruling party has been in power for so long, the Malaysian voter is intelligent and mature enough to decide for himself or herself as to who should govern them notwithstanding the ruling party's shortcomings or inadequacies.
What I find reprehensible is that the voter is not given that freedom of choice to make a reasoned judgement and often finds himself fostered with a decision made for him or expected of him. This trend if left unchecked will eventually erode our democratic rights and the damage the country immeasurably.
The often quoted discourse between Eastern and Western values is nothing but a red herring as my understanding of the matter goes! Human rights are universal values found in every great religion and civilisation whether it is from the East or West. I have yet to come across any Eastern or Asian religion or civilisation that encourages autocratic systems of government that are open to abuse and for the benefit of a ruling elite at the expense of the ordinary subject or citizen.
Mahathir's reference to the failure of the UN to implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 is not a valid reason to deny the people of this country the benefit of the body humanitarian laws that have become part and parcel of general international law.
Not only has Malaysia failed to observe this major instrument in human rights law but has until today not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic and Social Rights as well.
There is no pride in associating ourselves with other countries that have deliberately refused to ratify these instruments or openly subvert them. It's pointless to blame the UN on this as individual member countries retain the right to accede to these instruments as Malaysia has amply demonstrated by refusing to do so.
It is sad that a country like ours which is on the threshold of developed status still wants to cling to vestiges of the Third World where blatant violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, rampant abuse of power and wide scale corruption are the order of the day.
I agree with Mahathir that economic and social progress coupled with peaceand security are essentials for the development and prosperity of any country. But a balance must be drawn. A developed economy without a civil society is not the hallmark of a progressive nation. Rather it points to a retardation in the developmental process.
I doubt that Mahathir who has tremendous ability and foresight, would have intended a vision for Malaysia in 2020 that is deficient in any way. While laws are needed to preserve law and order especially so in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country like ours, such laws must be subjected to public and cross party parliamentary scrutiny and vigilant supervision by independent judges and courts.
The police and prosecutors as investigators and advisers must be honest and impartial and, act without fear or favour in enforcing such laws. A vibrant press must be allowed to report and highlight the weaknesses, the abuses and shortcomings of the system. All in all, it is these attributes of a civil society coupled with economic and social progress that will make us a truly great and respected nation.