Deliberative democracy: A potential remedy for Malaysia’s political unrest

Deliberative democracy: A potential remedy for Malaysia’s political unrest

by Simone Galimberti

Amid an increasingly polarizing campaign for crucial state-level elections, tensions are, once again, being flamed on the hot topics of the so-called 3Rs, race, religion and royalty.

The underlying reason for what appears to be not a contest for new fresh ideas but rather one characterized by insults and provocations, lies in the current animosity among the political parties, those in power and those vying for it.

It is a battle between the coalition in power, criticized as a union of self-interest and a population opposition keen to exploit ethnic divisions for short-term political gains.

As a result, Malaysians are witnessing more identity politics and populism rather than effective solutions to the country’s numerous problems that should instead be discussed through a bipartisan approach.

“The problem is not with the “3Rs” themselves, but the way we talk about them. Politicians need to shoulder much of the blame for this. Poverty and income inequality, for example, are issues that affect communities of all races”, explains Imran Ariff for Free Malaysia Today.

Yet the hope is that at the end of the elections to be conducted simultaneously on 12 August in Selangor, Kelantan, Terengganu, Negeri Sembilan, Kedah and Penang, cooler heads will prevail.

After all, as Mr Ariff explains in his piece, “We need to keep talking about the “3Rs” and their place in our country if we’re ever to move forward.”

Could the Government led by Prime Minister Anwar rediscover an interest in institutional reforms?

While any attempts at improving the overall governance of the country would be welcome, what could make the difference is the way the process is followed to achieve the goal.

Finding ways to involve and engage people, the citizens would offer the best hopes of enabling the blossoming of a national consensus on the most contentious issues affecting them.

The 3Rs, for example, instead of becoming a lightning rod those politicians interested in fomenting more divisions and polarization, could be central themes around which the foundations of a new Malaysia could be forged.

A good start would be to publish both the report prepared by the Council of Eminent Persons, CEP and the closely related report drafted by the Committee on Institutional Reforms (IRC), formally established by the CEP and reporting to it.

Both were instances of public consultations where key legal experts and civil society activists had the opportunity to carry out extensive consultations with the public.

Unfortunately, both publications were never publicly presented as then government led by former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the time leading the short-lived 1st Pakatan Harapan government, decided to wrap them under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) 1972.

An optimistic view of the matter is that we just have to wait for the end of the elections to find out some details of these reports.

While veteran DAP leader Lim Kit Siang is strongly advocating for both reports to be published at the earliest, finally, it seems that something is moving on the IRC report.

Back in March, Law and institutional reforms minister Azalina Othman had expressed the desire of the current government to formally publish the report.

The disclosure of these reports would be welcome and would constitute an important step forward for government openness and transparency.

Yet, if the country wants to emerge stronger from the current political storms, much more should be done to empower the citizens.

The best way to do so would be to promote and implement forms of deliberative democracy, an approach that provides tools for the citizens to revamp the ossified liberal concept of democracy.

Rather than just relying on the ballot box and representation, deliberative democracy is founded on public and reasoned deliberations.

It is a system where citizens have the opportunity to meet, and discuss the most pressing issues affecting them, locally but also nationally.

Ideally, and there is still quite a bit of work here, deliberations, as a form of public decision-making that is relevant and does really matter to the people, should offer binding decisions, and we are not there yet.

For now, the focus is at least for deliberations to provide meaningful engagement so the people can discuss the most intricate issues affecting their lives.

Even though it is still a concept and, at the same time, a practice still in “construction” and not a silver bullet unless scaled up and institutionalized, there is a lot that this approach could offer.

To better understand the chances that deliberative democracy could have in taking root in Malaysia, I conducted an e-mail interview with Dr Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani.

Dr Sani is an Associate Professor at Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at the School of International Studies (SOIS), Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) and he authored a chapter on Malaysian experiences on deliberative democracy in a seminal book, Deliberative Democracy in Asia, edited by Baogang He, Michael G. Breen and James S. Fishkin, who are some of the most authoritative scholars on the issue.

First of all, reading it, gives an assurance to those who are weary of deliberative democracy because they see it as primarily a western gimmick, a sort of new Western invention to change the way democracy works, which proves false.

Dr Sani explains instead that deliberation fits well with locally established concepts and traditions that are rooted in principles like musyawarah (deliberation) and muafakat (consensus) that are also found in Indonesia and Brunei.

Based on this premise, the whole point that he makes is that the “ideal concept of consensus politics in Malaysia should be generated through the process of public deliberation, not elite deliberation”.

It means that citizens, rather the politicians should be the key to solve the most contentious issues affecting the country.

Local experimentations

Interestingly Dr Sani offers the reader an overview of some deliberative experimentations that have already occurred in the country.

Besides delving into the relatively recent experiences of the CEP and IRC, he also highlighted how politicians themselves can be promoters of local deliberation practices.

Yet the lesson we can draw is that, at the end, what matters is the institutionalization of these practices, something that still did not happen in Malaysia.

The experience Dr. Sani guides the reader through is the one of the Temerloh Parliamentary Consultative Council (TPCC) set up in 2008.

It was an initiative of Saifuddin Abdullah, then Deputy Minister for Higher Education, who currently sits in the opposition.

Saifuddin, as explained by Dr Sani, called the TPCC a “people’s assembly” or “grassroots parliament,” admitting that the “TPCC was an experiment in practising deliberative democracy at the grassroots level”.

As a process, it slowly took traction.

Open to the public, all members of civil society, including village leaders, were invited. From 70 participants at the beginning of the process, the meetings’ participation grew to 150.

While not fully inclusive as targeting local leaders and civil society members and with the public only able to observe the proceedings, it was nevertheless a major exercise in consultations.

It acted as “direct communication or debate in terms of policies, information and demands engaging all sorts of interests” explains Dr. Sani in his chapter.

“District officers received information, suggestions, feedback and complaints from the local people. The communication line between the MP and district officers with the people is also open and inclusive. Sometimes the business communities and NGOs acted as mediators between the local officers and the people” he further explains.

The TPCC, as interesting as it was in terms of offering key members of the community a platform to talk and interact, was, in the end, an instrument at the disposal of a prominent politician to interact and help solve local issues while also serving his own interests.

Its short life span proved this conclusion as the council was disbanded when Saifuddin lost the next election in May 2013.

Though useful, there are several risks with forums or citizens’ assemblies depending exclusively on a politician’s will, and the risk of collapse is not the only one.

Without institutionalization, such mechanisms can overlap with local bodies and even bypass them, in short weakening rather than strengthening local governance mechanisms.

The TPCC was not the only attempt at deliberations.

More recently, there has been at least another major attempt at using deliberation for the national interest as a means to solve the major problems faced by Malaysia.

The Making A Malaysia Better exercise tried to do so, revamp the idea of deliberative democracy in the country.

It was an initiative of Datuk Dr Anis Yusal Yusoff, former Deputy Director General of the National Centre for Governance, Integrity and Anti-Corruption (GIACC), now a Principal Fellow at the Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA), UKM in partnership with Dato’ Sri Nazir Razak, a former banker and ex Visiting Fellow at the Blavatnik School Government in Oxford.

They championed a series of consultations across the country starting in September 2020 around some key questions on how democracy in the country can be improved and how deliberations can help Malaysians in building a more equal, harmonious and prosperous nation.

The whole effort culminated on 29 October 2021 when 55 prominent citizens wrote a formal letter to the King of Malaysia, calling for the establishment of a Better Malaysia Assembly.

This is supposed to be a consultative body aimed at providing “deliberations and recommendations on how our democracy, institutions and economy should function, including but not limited to issues of electoral system, political funding”.

Apparently, after the submission, not much has happened to further promote the idea of this assembly but the attempt was important because it came from some of the most prominent citizens Malaysia can offer.

The Way Forward

What could be done to revamp the flame of deliberative democracy in Malaysia?

A combination of approaches might be needed.

MPs could still champion the idea no matter the limitations of the approach used for the TPCC experience.

Civil society must continue to play a big role as well.

For example, a conference was organized by Bersih, the Kofi Annan Foundation and Global Bersih in May on ways to strengthen democracy should not be an isolated case.

The real issue is how to make a real effort to reach out to the people and go beyond meetings led and attended by intellectuals and civil society advocates.

This is probably the most important step to ensure that deliberations get rooted at the local level, a sine qua non-condition before formal institutionalization that must happen with the state’s buy-in.

Dr Sani makes an important point in the interview: the role that learning centers, especially universities, can play in promoting deliberative democracy.

“I think that the academics and civil societies should play their roles and propagate and demand the government to have more public deliberations in order for the people to participate in decision-making processes” he explains.

“My university organized many townhall meetings in order to reach many important decisions such as on issues of staff promotion and student affairs” he further added.

Dr Sani is also of the idea that “universities can also promote public deliberation in out campus activities particularly in state, district and village levels through community engagement programmes”.

If this idea is taken seriously, universities could really become engines for the promotion of civic engagement, creating localized forums of discussions, and helping locals share their voices and concerns.

If the current coalition government is serious about reforms and not only from the top, then it should seriously consider deliberations and invest some political capital in it, possibly by also involving the opposition parties in their design.

All in all, Dr Sani still believes that the current coalition government could be interested in promoting reforms.

“I think the current government is still keen to accept the approach of deliberative democracy. For instance, the Ministry of Health organized a town hall session with doctors discussing healthcare issue in 22 February 2023”.

Another area where citizens ‘deliberations could be extremely useful is fighting entrenched inequalities.

But could decisions around such complex and sensitive topic also get more legitimacy by involving and engaging the public?

In his essay for Deliberative Democracy in Asia, Dr Sani even goes to the extent that “public deliberation should be the way of dealing with the issue of interethnic relations”

Yet as he elaborates, we need to be careful as race-related issues are a taboo, an area where people do not feel comfortable talking about.

Still, all the precaution does not mean, according to him, that we should not talk about them if this is done in the proper way, according to the best standards and principles in deliberations.

I am referring to transparency, inclusiveness, representativeness, accountability, access to quality and unbiased information to help the deliberations.

These are some of the key features that should mark any attempt at institutionalizing deliberations locally as explained by the OECD.

In short, we can start with simple but well-prepared initiatives locally but then, if the goal is to scale deliberative democracy up, then we need to follow a rigorous process in the way they are designed and implemented.

To explain his reasoning, he quotes John Dryzek, one of the most prominent scholars on deliberative democracy.

“Deliberative democracy can yield positive results on contentious issues in which the fundamental values and beliefs that the participants bring to the table are diametrically opposed or contradictory”.

Dr Sani’s last point offers a template for a way forward to promote deliberations in Malaysia.

“My point is that they are many opportunities to have public deliberations. It depends on anyone either government, civil society or university to take up the methods of public deliberation and apply them in the community.”

Simone Galimberti writes on democracy, social inclusion, youth development, regional integration, SDGs and human rights in the context of Asia Pacific.

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