Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The meaning of a word and the measure of a man

By Dennis Ignatius

May 28, 2012
MAY 28 — “The measure of a man is what he does with power” ~ Plato
By all counts, Prime Minister Najib Razak gave a sterling performance when he spoke to the Malaysian community in London a few weeks ago. He said all the right things about democracy and his own commitment to making Malaysia a better country. As the most articulate and erudite prime minister we have ever had, he can be impressive and inspiring.
He said, for example, that what mattered most in a democracy was the choice of the people and agreed that the people should have the choice to choose their own government. He also said his government wants to engage the people, listen to the people and do what is best for them while acknowledging that the era of “the government knows best is over.”
It’s always thrilling to hear a Malaysian prime minister articulate such powerful sentiments, sentiments that speak to our deepest hopes; not surprisingly, many cheered him on.
But what is the meaning of democracy and what is the measure of the man?
Democracy is a much abused word. Political leaders everywhere tend to bend it to their own purpose. And so we have even the North Koreans calling themselves a democratic republic.
Abraham Lincoln said that democracy is “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Such a political system is premised upon determining the true will of the people through free and fair elections. As well, it is reflected in a system of governance that is transparent and accountable and that respects the rights and dignity of the people. Such a government is not master of the people but servant.
Is this Najib’s vision of democracy?
Do we have a system of free and fair elections? Do we have an elections commission that has integrity and impartiality? Is each vote equally weighted? Are all political parties on a level playing field with fair access to the media and an equal opportunity to present their case to the people? Are there clear checks and balances to ensure political parties do not manipulate the vote through corruption and money politics?
The answer to all these questions can only be a resounding “No”! This is not the ranting of a few Malaysians living abroad or George Soros junkies or Zionist conspirators; it is the view of the overwhelming majority of the people of Malaysia as a recent Merdeka Center poll indicates. The poll found that Malaysians have no confidence in the electoral process, with nearly 92 per cent of them wanting to see the electoral rolls cleaned up before the next elections.
Simply put, the electoral system in Malaysia today is heavily slanted in favour of the government. The will of the people cannot be adequately ascertained under such a system. In fact, the system has been manipulated to thwart the will of the people instead of giving expression to it.
And, when tens of thousands of ordinary people gathered together to press for free and fair elections, they were met with razor wire, tear-gas, chemical spray and all the power of the state. And not content with that, the government subsequently demonized the demonstrators and their leaders as communists, coup plotters and hooligans bent on violence.
Bersih leaders have since been harassed and intimidated by pro-government goon squads and now face criminal charges as well. And whether or not it was appropriate for the leader of the Opposition to participate in the Bersih rally, he should not face criminal charges for doing do so.
And then we have senior Barisan National leaders warning that there would be violence and chaos if the opposition wins. Such kinds of threats and innuendo are shocking and completely incompatible with democracy. The government, however, allows such threats to stand by its failure to rebuke them and reassure the people that their choice will be respected and honoured whatever happens.
Is this the measure of Najib’s democracy?
In his London speech, Najib also made much about the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy but judging from all that we are seeing, it is clear that what the government demands is the unquestioning support and blind loyalty of the people. To differ or disagree is to be counted a traitor, an agitator, an extremist, a racist or an agent of some foreign power. The term for this is not democracy but servitude.
And that brings me to the measure of the man.
Time and again, Najib has given great speeches promising reform, transformation and change. He talked about making Malaysia the best democracy in the world, about ending the abuse of power, about reforming our national institutions, about tackling corruption and mismanagement, about confronting racial and religious intolerance.
What do we have for all the rhetoric over all these years but a bunch of meaningless acronyms, a few worthless committees and commissions, a clutch of empty gestures and Orwellian sleights of hand. What we are left with is a man who abuses the word democracy and who does not measure up to the challenges he has set for himself.
A man without the courage of his own convictions is a man with neither courage nor conviction.
Najib ended his London speech by calling on all Malaysians to speak up against those who abuse their positions, who seek to impose their views on the majority. Let us all respond to his call and send him a resounding message that enough is enough.
* Dennis Ignatius is a retired Malaysian diplomat

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