Democracy, despite its shortcomings, is the best system of governance to have, relative to other systems: Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad

Democracy, despite its shortcomings, is the best system of governance to have in relative to other systems of governance, as citizens have the power to overthrow their government “with a stroke of the pen” at the polls, in contrast to authoritarian systems in which violent revolutions involving wars and bloodshed have to occur for a change to take place, said Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

In delivering his keynote address at the inaugural FORSEA Conference and Democracy Fest at White Box, Publika in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday (16 Feb), Dr Mahathir said: “Democracy arises from the failure of previous systems of government. The absolute monarchs and the dictators … They failed to meet the needs of the people, and the people decided that there should be a change in the system of government.

“They conceived the idea that they, the people, should rule the country … It is a great idea. The people should rule themselves,” he added.

Democracy in Malaysia to some extent is successful, Dr Mahathir suggested, as evident in the end of the Barisan Nasional coalition’s 61-year rule after the 14th General Election on 9 May last year without any form of major unrest such as civil wars following the change.

However, he added that while Malaysia aspires to be democratic, it is important to recognise that that democracy has “many weaknesses” that “can be exploited”.

Dr Mahathir posited as an example that “it is physically impossible” for all of the citizens in a democracy to rule themselves, “simply because their numbers are so big that they cannot congregate in order to discuss anything, and certainly they cannot reach any acceptable conclusion”.

“Therefore, if they try to practice ruling by themselves, there is going to be chaos, and they will have no benefit from the change of the system.”

“So it is decided that it is democratic if we give power to a certain number of people to represent us, and to speak on our behalf. But who should we choose … and then came the idea that they should divide themselves into political parties based on ideologies.

“This is fine, but as you know, democracy is open to abuses, and a lot of abuses will actually deny democracy,” said Dr Mahathir, citing the example of the United Nations, in which “five countries”, through veto power, “can deny the right of 190 other countries”.

“That is why I say that democracy is not a perfect system … It is almost impossible to implement democracy as it is translated to mean: “Rule of the people, by the people, for the people”. It just cannot happen.”

“We need to find some way to ensure that the ‘losers’ will gain something. And so applies the rule of law. The law is equal for everyone.

“By assuming that the majority should rule, the majority will then have a right to rule over the minority. But because we are concerned about the minority, certain protections are given to the minority.

“In a country of 100 million people, 51 per cent rule over the people who are against them, the 49 per cent who did not support the government … The voice of the 49 per cent must also be heard, and must also be considered,” he added.

Party’s “struggle” and objectives should take precedence over unexamined loyalty to party itself

Dr Mahathir also emphasised the importance of prioritising the “struggle” or the objectives of a political party over unexamined, unquestioning loyalty to said party, stating that the moment a party begins to neglect championing reforms, members ought to “leave the party”.

“In Malaysia, we elected a government, fully believing that the elected government will serve the people. But once the power is gained … They decided that the power is for themselves, to enrich themselves, to oppress the people. And for years, they oppressed the people. There was no way to overthrow them.

“But fortunately for us, an election was held, and the people exercised their power to negate the rights of the party that has governed this country for 61 years. They have decided that now is the time for the opposition to take over power, and the opposition has made promises. Lots of promises.

“Now the nation is watching this “opposition” government, to implement these promises … Unfortunately, they find themselves quite unable to implement these promises. And so begins the next running down of the government.

“This government,” warned Dr Mahathir, “if it stays long enough, will be like the previous government”.

Citing his merge under the Pakatan Harapan coalition with his former Internal Security Act detainee Mohamad bin Sabu, who was formerly a member of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and is currently the Defence Minister, Dr Mahathir said: “We must not be loyal to institutions, but to the objective of the institutions.

“The previous parties [in the Barisan Nasional coalition] were formed to gain independence for this country and to develop this country … But over the years, it [BN] forgets its original purpose, and begins to abuse powers given to those parties.

“At that stage, it is wrong to support the party … You should leave, and you should be big-hearted enough to work with other people who are against that party.

“Once the party deviates from the struggle, it is important that you remain loyal to the struggle to the point of leaving the party, and even fighting against the party,” Dr Mahathir reiterated.