Democracy for dummies

Kua Kia Soong

Modified 29 Jan 2008, 10:21 am

Democracy ranks among the most important of humankind's innovations this millennium. Yet, as we prepare to move into the new millennium, we still hear full-grown men and women arguing about whether former opposition leader Lim Kit Siang should stay on at the top leadership of the DAP as if they didn't understand the ABC of democracy.

This is a response to the DAP's appeal for public opinion on whether Lim should step down from the party leadership after the party's drastic defeat at the recent general elections, including Lim's loss of his parliamentary and state seats. This message spells out three key principles of democracy that Malaysians, whether they be in government or NGOs, ought to live by.

The historical pattern relating to Lim's "offers to resign" is not promising. In my 1995 book "Inside the DAP", I narrated how after the DAP's worst defeat in 1995, and despite public expectation that Lim would be resigning, he made it clear to DAP leaders (Lee Ban Chen, Sim Kwang Yang, Liew Ah Kim and myself) soon after that he would not be resigning. However, at the party's Central Executive Committee's meeting a few days later, Lim went through the familiar charade of "offering to resign", the DAP leaders refused to accept his resignation, the rest is familiar history

A. Democracy is about taking responsibility

The DAP stands for "Democratic Action Party". Its leaders and activists have a responsibility toward not only basic liberal democracy but also toward "democratic socialism motivated by humanist values, social scientific analyses" (The DAP's Tanjong Declaration 1992). In other words, one expects DAP leaders to be consistent and one step ahead of the masses as far as democracy is concerned.

I have argued in Inside the DAP why it was in the interest of elementary democracy that Lim should have accepted leadership responsibility for the electoral debacle by resigning from the DAP leadership.

How often have we heard in the last 30 years demands by DAP leaders, such as Lim, for Cabinet ministers to take responsibility for failures by resigning. Taking responsibility for a debacle is the expected response of political leaders. Accountability applies equally to any office, be it in the government, the Opposition or an NGO.

Thus, when the British Labour Party lost to the Conservative Party by 11.8 per cent in the general elections of 1987, the Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock felt obliged to resign to take responsibility for the party's defeat. The British Labour Party happens to be the DAP's "brother party" in the Socialist International, from which the DAP receives its inspiration if not its ideological leadership. But while on the one hand, the DAP has modelled itself on the cosmetic repackaging of Labour under Tony Blair, as far as democratic principles within the party go, it has miserably failed to do so.

The DAP conveniently ignored this very basic principle of leadership responsibility when the DAP suffered its biggest defeat at the 1995 general elections. The DAP won only nine parliamentary seats and 11 state seats compared to 20 parliamentary and 46 state seats it had won in the 1990 general elections. This was in spite of the fact that the number of parliamentary seats had been increased from 180 to 192. The party suffered a drop of 31.3 per cent in the total number of votes secured. The historic swing among the urban voters away from the DAP was indisputable.

Now that the DAP has suffered another catastrophic defeat in the 1999 general election including Lim's personal defeat, he has not stepped down but is treating us to the same familiar charade. The rest of the DAP leaders do not seem to be interested in their own dignity nor reconstructing the "New DAP" but continue to purvey the same Jurassic fare, arguing that "we still need him", "he can still contribute", ad nauseum.

Democracy is about taking responsibility. Whether a leader can "still contribute" is subsidiary. When Neil Kinnock resigned in 1987, it wasn't because the Labour Party believed he had no more to contribute. It was simply expected that he took responsibility for the defeat as leader of the party.

B. The myth of indispensability

I can still hear Karpal Singh's crystal clear message when Lee Lam Thye resigned in 1990: "Nobody is indispensable." He did not make any qualifications to that statement. How true, I remember appreciating this simple fact of political life. And yet, when it comes to Lim taking responsibility for the political defeat of the DAP, we hear the long-drawn chorus from the DAP cadres: "We still need him! He can still contribute"

If such extraneous reasons for holding onto office can have currency, then ministers do not need to resign over any political failures if their party members believe that they "still have much to contribute", do they?

The spirit of democracy is to generate capable citizens, and the more capable citizens (i.e. the greater the proportion of the inhabitants who are political equals), the better. This is what empowerment of the people is all about. Empowerment of citizens - men and women - must be given the highest priority. A democratic society is not one in which the leaders are considered the only competent people but rather, one in which they are simply the representative of other competent men and women.

If DAP leaders continue to argue the indispensability of their "Great Leader", it is a burlesque admission of their own lack of dignity, if not ability. And if Lim does not have confidence that there is someone capable to be national chairman of the party after 30 years' stewardship, it represents a grotesque failure of a social democratic leader to empower others! I would strongly recommend "The Emperor's New Clothes" as compulsory reading for all DAP leaders.

C. Democracy is about rotation in office

In a democracy, there ought to be constitutional mechanisms designed to prevent the growth of Caesarism. This is the essence of participation, another democratic principle we often hear DAP leaders spouting. Thus, we have seen it in the recent election manifesto of the Barisan Alternatif which specifies a fixed two-term office. It is well-known that the American presidency also has a fixed term of office. Even the constitutions of NGOs and Chinese Associations in this country have stipulated terms of office to ensure rotation. The Green Parties in many European countries have already instituted this rule for its office bearers and officials.

The principle of rotation in office is intended to protect ourselves against the monopolisation or corruption of office. The term of office ought not to be so short as to prevent holders of office from being accountable to their constituents. However, limiting the holding of office to two terms is to prevent Michels' "Iron law of Oligarchy" from developing, to ensure officeholders do not develop a sense of proprietorship over their office, this sense of oneness with the job (for example, "The DAP is Lim Kit Siang, Lim Kit Siang is the DAP").

In my 1995 book, I analysed how Lim controls a patronage system of candidate selection in the party which is ultimately, the source of his authority in the party. Any serious reform of the DAP must democratise this method of candidate selection. It will automatically demystify the "indispensability" of the secretary general of the DAP.

On Oct 26/27, 1991, not long after the general elections, the DAP held a leadership conference in Port Dickson to discuss reforms in the party ("Reform or Die" was the catch phrase at the time). Almost 10 years later, we have not heard about substantive and structural reforms of the party.

The fact that Lim has been the Great Helmsman of the DAP for 30 years is not a democratic feat but a failure of democracy in the DAP.

Dr. KUA KIA SOONG is a former DAP MP and author of Inside The DAP . He is presently the Vice Principal of New Era College.

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