Fleeing soft authoritarianism
Writer: Yin Shao Loong
Published: Fri, 05 Apr 2013
ONE of the new roadside banners from Barisan Nasional declares “Malaysia is Ours”.
Perhaps the statement references the multi-hued group of children depicted thereon. But with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak looming behind them, the slogan carries a different connotation.
We know that BN is reluctant to cede power – even through the ballot box – which is why the Election Commission has been dragging its heels on meeting the reforms demanded by Bersih.
When I first saw the banner I imagined that it was BN’s collective voice that claimed, “Malaysia is Ours.”
That Malaysia is their private patrimony and no one was going to take it away from them.
I have written before that achieving peaceful and orderly regime change via elections will be a crucial democratic achievement for Malaysia.
This would help consolidate the constitutionally-enshrined right of the Malaysia electorate to evict their government out of power.
Eviction from power is what the BN fears so terribly, and they have eroded our institutions to stave off that fear.
Yet, losing power through elections is a fact that all parties engaged in democracy must accept.
You may lose, but to win again you should have to earn the voters’ favour once more.
Consolidating democracy is not the only achievement at stake.
One of the most significant issues, and oddly enough the most underplayed, is that a loss for BN will be a step out of the shadow of soft authoritarianism.
“Soft authoritarianism” is a term used by political scientists to describe a political system that softens a more rigid authoritarian system with selected democratic features.
The latter may include elections and opposition parties (though hobbled by gerrymandering, electoral fraud, threats), formal legality that is ultimately under executive dominance (rather than rule of law guaranteeing the rights of the individual against the state), limited separation of powers, and restricted human rights (such as curtailed freedoms of speech, association, and belief).
Under soft authoritarianism these democratic elements are instrumental towards creating the impression that a democracy exists when in fact it is so severely crippled that free and fair change of government is either not possible or exceedingly difficult.
However, because soft authoritarian regimes rely on elections (however skewed) to generate much of their legitimacy, it is possible to realise change through the ballot box if popular confidence in the ruling party has greatly eroded. Examples of such decline followed by electoral change include Poland, Taiwan, Mexico.
Why is it important that we exit from soft authoritarianism?
A soft authoritarian system restricts the accountability that can be exercised over a dominant party.
This becomes licence for corruption, repression, political violence and other abuses of power.
Under soft authoritarianism the ruling elite disciplines the electorate, not the other way around.
In fact, a bullying attitude becomes a feature of government.
Fear of government becomes part of the national culture as freedoms of association and speech are curbed.
A clear example is the fear imposed on parts of the business community that simply listening to opposition views will be met with reprisals from BN.
Collective well-being suffers as the unaccountable elite become more focused on their personal gain rather than inclusive national prosperity.
Change in management may be needed to bring about better governance and policy, but such change is inhibited or outright prevented.
Soft authoritarianism represents a perversion of our post-independence political institutions whereby they have become geared towards ensuring single-party dominance.
Under British colonial rule, Malaya, North Borneo and Sarawak were under forms of authoritarian rule.
Merdeka resulted in a parliamentary democratic system being transplanted, mostly wholesale, into our fledgling union.
Despite enjoying some of the privileges of founding party dominance, Umno/BN’s reluctance to cede to electoral challenges post-1969 resulted in greater authoritarian measures being installed, which reached a high point during the Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad era.
Since then, the momentum has been building for the dismantling of authoritarian elements in Malaysia.
The 2013 general elections represent a historic opportunity to do so because public confidence in the ruling coalition is at an all-time low, the opposition has been at its most organised and, crucially, because Pakatan Rakyat is committed to repealing authoritarian laws and practices should it form the next federal government.
Due to pressure from Pakatan and civil society, BN has replaced draconian laws such as the Internal Security Act with a more subtle form of detention without trial under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act.
BN has also promised to repeal the Sedition Act but is still actively using it against Pakatan politicians.
It would be a cruel twist of fate if Malaysia were to have been liberated from colonialism only to live under a regime of fear.
We have already turned yellow into a colour of courage and integrity.
We voters can and should evict bullies out of government because Malaysia is ours.
Yin Shao Loong is a research director of Institut Rakyat, www.institutrakyat.org