Democracy and Elitism–Tyranny of the Minority in Malaysia

November 20, 2015

Governance: Democracy and Elitism–Tyranny of the Minority in Malaysia

Syerleena Abdul Rashid*

*Syerleena Abdul Rashid is a councillor at the Majlis Bandaraya Pulau Pinang (MBPP) and a proud Malaysian who believes that deep inside we’re not that different at all.–

abd21-seatv Penang 2

One of the greatest struggles Malaysians face is the ongoing “tug-of-war” battle between democracy and elitism ( Plato’s Philosopher-Kings).

Despite the painstaking measures our founding fathers took to ensure independence, our nation never quite trusted the rakyat to govern themselves.

Interestingly enough, sometimes this mistrust reveals the complex political reasoning that acknowledges the ideologies of ancient Greek philosophers and political thinkers, which emphasises that the responsibilities of governance should only be carried out by “those who are specially educated or fit for it, or by those who claim to have a greater stake in the outcome”.

Unfortunately, this often leads to the exclusion of a majority of the rakyat from policy-making due to blatant discrimination based on gender, ethnic and religious biases.

As a result, democracy weakens and the rakyat suffers when right-wing political parties and unscrupulous individuals are driven by their great lust for power and are able to acquire this by unfair means.

In June 2015, residents in Machang Bubok (an area within the parliamentary constituency of Bukit Mertajam, Penang) took part in a decision-making workshop aimed at encouraging communities to participate in the decision-making processes involving communal development.


My Alma Mater–200 Years Old on October 21, 2016

This workshop was spearheaded by Bukit Mertajam MP Steven Sim as part of the Gender Responsive Participatory Budgeting (GRPB) initiated by the Penang Women Development Corporation (PWDC). The project saw 17 Village Security & Development Committees (JKKK) within the Machang Bubok-Bukit Mertajam constituency to come up with proposals on how each JKKK would spend RM100,000.

Sim stated that the budget was to be used as capital for various development projects and will be broken into four phases: comprising surveys among the people, focus group discussions, voting on budget and needs, and planning and presentation.

To date, various GRBP projects in Penang have been carried out at several People’s Housing Projects (PPR) located on both sides of Penang and is currently carried out in the soon to be refurbished Campbell Street Market located in the heart of the George Town Heritage Zone.

Sometime in 2012, the Penang state government launched a mobile app project, “CAT (Citizen’s Action Technology) Better Penang” – a community-owned application which facilitates interactions with the two local authorities in Penang (MPPP & MPSP).

One of the special features of this app was the creation of an “idea bank”, where users could give suggestions on how to improve or develop Penang into the intelligent, sustainable and livable city, it should be.

The idea came when Sim (who was then a councillor at the Seberang Perai Municipal Council) realised that a majority of citizens within his community were not aware of the avenues that existed for complaints and raising other issues.

The importance of “local champions” whose knowledge on local issues could be utilised to help create a more rewarding outcome drove him to design the app, hence, one of the main objectives of the project was to encourage wider citizen participation in decision-making processes to help improve their local communities.

The existing political structure in Malaysia has to an extent rendered a majority of citizens to feel somewhat powerless when faced with political issues.

“Communities expect the government to be in autopilot, leaving the decisions up to the governments.”

Sim reiterated in a recent interview: “but the point (of this project) is to return democracy to a healthy, functional level and this means participation from everyone at every level is crucial.”

An ordinary citizen’s complaint or opinion being regarded as important as those raised by elected representatives or local councillors, was something that resonated with him throughout his years working at the local council level. In fact, even as an MP, he still thinks about ways to improve participatory governance in local communities.

Although, developing a new model of leadership, one that encourages the “bottom-up” approach, will take time to grow but numerous global initiatives have already begun to develop and institutionalise new forms of participatory governance as a method of resolving pressing community-level socio-economic problems.

Both local councils, Penang Island City Council (Majlis Bandaraya Pulau Pinang, MBPP) and Seberang Perai Municipal Council (Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Perai, MPSP) already have set up social media sites, Facebook and additionally, Sim’s mobile app project, to enable citizens to lodge complaints and highlight any council related matters with ease.

The core hypothesis is simply this: better citizen engagement isn’t only about addressing poverty and social justice; it is about dealing with the mounting democratic shortfalls that have befallen “mature” and “emerging” democratic nations, in a way that can benefit every single citizen regardless of economic status or background.

It is about taking ownership and getting rid of the “middle men”. It is about listening to the people, the voters, and carving out people-centric policies based on their needs.


20 thoughts on “Democracy and Elitism–Tyranny of the Minority in Malaysia

  1. This is what a democracy supposed to be, having a social mechanism that permits population to influence public policy. Well done, Penang. Hope the rest of the country will catch up with this.

  2. Dr. Phua,

    Tyrants do not last. History is littered with examples, among recent ones being Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Yugoslavia and Sudan. People cannot pushed into the wall because they will fight back. Malaysian leaders can ignore the lessons of history only at their own peril. Read Karl Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies. Book 1 is a damning critique of Greek Philosopher Plato.–Din Merican

  3. Quote:- “One of the greatest struggles Malaysians face is the ongoing “tug-of-war” battle between democracy and elitism ( Plato’s Philosopher-Kings)”

    In present day Malaysia we are really not that complicated.

    Just a simple matter of between cash and everything else.

    At the moment cash is winning.

  4. Let them eat cake?

    No, we won’t !

    Mother Jones, Emma Goldman, Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Rosa Luxemburg, Corazon Aquino, Aung San Suu Kyi ……

  5. Dear looes74

    I saw Josip Broz Tito’s summer villa at Lake Bled, Slovenia. It looks quite simple from the outside. Tito managed to keep the Croatian Ustasha and the Serbian Chetniks and their ultranationalist descendants in check until his death and the ensuing murderous civil wars begun by Slobodan Milosevich and Franjo Tudjman.

  6. How can anyone in all honesty say that Tito was a good dictator. He put in place a system that brought about the worst ethnic conflict in modern times and split his country into five countries. You cannot try to understand history with an eraser.

  7. President Tito left a system in his mode that devastated his beloved land and gave birth to five new nations. He ruled with an iron fist and left little room for the views of the other republics. The Serbs were left in control of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and as they say the rest is history.

  8. Dr Phua,
    His form of communism is vastly different than Stalin. In fact, he was one of the founder of non aligned movement. Another fella is Sukarno

    Sukarno speaking in dutch.

    Ah……..the good old days. Hisham Rais should have used Tito as his ideal model but then Tito is kinda like LKY.

  9. Talking and learning from my Slovene guide, my feeling is that most of the older people of former Yugoslavia have mixed (but generally positive) views of the Tito years. Tito had a Croatian father and a Slovene mother and his wife was a Serb. His “market socialism” meant that Yugoslavia had a higher standard of living than the rest of the Communist-ruled nations of Central and Eastern Europe.

    Perhaps he is more of a Ho Chi Minh-type figure i.e. generally loved/respected by their respective peoples but who also allowed terrible things to happen during the early years after coming to power.

    P.S. Yugoslavia broke up into at least 7 nations – Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo.

  10. TL,
    It’s nationalistic fervour that caused the devastating effect to Yugoslavia. I don’t think it’s entirely Tito. By the way, Tito is a croat, not Serb. Tito was not as brutal as Franco (Spain) or Pinochet (Chile).

    To me why Hisham Rais refuses to honour Tito because he thinks Tito is like LKY. His hero, Josef Stalin is even worse!
    BBC has a very good documentary what really happened to the demise of yugoslavia. it’s definitely not Jose Tito

    Guys and Gals,
    Another good tyrant would be Ian Smith of Rhodesia (Now Zimbabwe)

    Rhodesians fought among commonwealth troops against communist in Malaysia

  11. >Karl Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies. Book 1 is a damning critique of Greek Philosopher Plato.–Din Merican<

    Years ago I pointed this out in a blog that praised Plato to the skies. Like that Confusing fella from China, the main flaw remained who were doing the selection of the "philosopher kings" or "junzi" (virtuous men – hard for the Con man to envision virtuous women, probably because his wife ran away). Another book worth reading is "The Trial of Socrates" by Irving Stone (Plato often used Socrates to convey his own views).

  12. One last comment:

    Most of the top level evil people in the Yugoslav wars met their retribution

    1. Serbia President Slobodan Milosevich died in prison while on trial at the International Court of Justice at the Hague, Netherlands

    2. Serbian General Ratko Mladic is still on trial at the Hague for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes

    3. Bosnian Croat leader the evil psychiatrist Dr Radovan Karadzic is also on trial at the Hague

    4. Another Dr Evil – the sociologist professor Mirjana Markovic (wife of Slobodan Milosevich, and also his close political advisor and de facto co-president of Serbia) – living in political exile in Russia

    5. Croatia President Franjo Tudjman died peacefully. There’s a statue honouring him in Split. I’m not sure what most Croats today actually think of him. Probably not very popular in sophisticated cities like Zagreb but may be popular in rural areas where the Croatian Serbs have been “ethnically cleansed”. (My Slovene guide pointed out the ruined and abandoned houses of the Croatian Serbs).

    Moral of the story: evil political people will generally pay for their crimes (even if many, many years later)

  13. This is all about the story of the man who said that he stopped complaining that he had no shoes because he saw a man with one foot. I can point to dictators worst than Stalin. But that is not the issue.
    Talking about the UK we must remember that they delayed the U.S. from taking military action against the Serbs. Why? Britain was still indebted to Tito and the Partizans for their help during World War II.
    Today non interference in the internal affairs is the Mantra. We all abide by it even if we know for a fact that the leader worst than us it doing things worst than us because it makes us look better.

  14. Modern democracy are REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY, not true greek democracy of citizen rule – power, responsibility and benefit. As such the feudal representation that prevails in Malaysia is as far away from true greek democracy as can get. Call it feudal democracy – the representation is only pretend, more a hostage-taking than representation..Its why the politicians (and their cronies) can get so obcenely wealthy and successful.

    The fact is abusing the representation is completely natural for our leaders – the people, especially Malays and other bumiputera dependencies are naturally full of assumptions about their representation.. That they have not raised the bar of representation, their back-up plan is religion, is just badly has been thought out their representation.

    As it stands, the entrenched fedual representation will not change itself and unless the Malays and other bumiputera is willing to accept cathatic change, count themselves lucky there are those willing to lead it for them, it can only end badly..

  15. @bigjoe99
    I think even this feudal democracy you are talking about is not restricted to just Malays but quite widespread among all races.Just look at what happened in Penang State Assembly yesterday when one DAP state assemblyman supported a motion by UMNO and five PKR aduns abstained from voting against the motion.LGE flew into a rage for the actions of the aduns though the motion from the UMNO regardless of their actual intention was good and of public interest.Every issue raised by concerned people was deflected on the basis of what BN did before or what PAS did in Kelantan without directly answering the queries though Penang is supposed to practice the CAT system.The same kind of attitude can be seen with the DAP supporters who attack first and think later.I used to believe that Pakatan will bring refreshing change but now I am not so sure anymore .

  16. The Greeks had kept slaves and practiced democracy at the same time. Yes, they could practice participatory democracy because their “nations’ were more like city states – small in size (land mass) and population. The American founding fathers noted this, and knew that as the US expands it would become increasingly difficult not to adopt a representative system. Also, denser populations plus far-flung regions often resulted in factionalism, something that George Washington feared most. Jefferson too thought that participatory democracy would work largely in less-densely populated and arcadian (rural) societies.

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