Fix Malaysia’s democracy now!

HEARTBREAK, frustration, despair.

Malaysians experienced all this and more this last week, but above all, we experienced powerlessness.

Where were we in deciding who our new Prime Minister would be? Where were we in influencing the decisions of our MPs? Where were we in deciding who would be our government?

Our democratic rights were being stolen from under our noses, with alliances shifting back and forth in a tragic farce of a merry-go-round, and there was absolutely nothing we could do about any of it.

How is this a functioning democracy?

This last week has proven beyond doubt that our democracy, like so many others around the world, has long been broken and dysfunctional.

The most fundamental, core concept of democracy is the notion of self-determination: our power to determine our own fate, and to be a meaningful part of the decisions that affect us. Over decades, or centuries even, this ability to play that meaningful role in decision making has been eroded consistently, until all we have left of “democracy” is basically reduced to ticking one out of a handful of boxes every five years.

Is that democracy? Is that self-determination? Is that participating in decisions that impact us?

What it is is a farce. A mockery of what democracy is supposed to be. In fact, these elections once every five years have devolved into mudslinging contests dominated by fevered and irrational partisanship that do little beyond dividing the nation along tribalist sentiment.

Where elections today incentivise tearing your opponents down, painting them as devils, and instigating hate between one another, genuine democracy should be about deliberation in good faith and consensus building for the common good.

When you think about it, choosing only 222 individuals to represent the entire spectrum of evolving political views held by 32 million Malaysians is mind-bogglingly illogical. The smaller the number of decision makers meanwhile, the larger the opening for money politics.

Worse yet, these 222 are invested exclusively with the power to choose the most powerful individual (by far) in the nation, and our current laws have no capability whatsoever to effectively deal with what happens when these 222 people cannot make a decisive choice.

Long story short, our democracy is dysfunctional, and it is broken – what we have seen this last week is irrefutable proof of this, as clear as day.

In the middle of this crisis, “interim” Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad made a bold suggestion that caught the imagination of some: he suggested the formation of a unity government.

The next day, I published an article about why this was in theory a step in the right direction, but one suggested at the wrong time, in the wrong context, for the wrong reasons. That Mahathir dared to suggest it at all is proof that there is a strong underlying discontent with our system of democracy today.

Mahathir floated the idea of a cabinet that was not chosen based on partisanship or party positions, but chosen from a wide pool of Malaysians based purely on merit and suitability. The ideology behind this approach is absolutely correct. But if we are to move in this direction, we must start the journey on the right foot, from the right departure point, and for the right reasons.

I wrote earlier that Mahathir cannot suggest this system, and then ask us to trust him – a man who at the time had clearly lost the majority of support in Parliament – to be the sole decider of who was qualified to lead the country and who was not. That would be a dictatorship.

There was far too much baggage, and the political climate at that time created an unsurpassable deficit in trust and legitimacy for Mahathir to lead any change in that direction. To move correctly and legitimately towards this democratic innovation that we need, the movement needs to be grassroots driven from the bottom up, and led in a non-partisan way by the rakyat and civil society. The democratic overhaul we need is not limited to the question of who is appointed to the cabinet. The journey to a functional, accountable democracy that truly reflects our aspirations as Malaysians must begin from the ground up.

Indeed it begins with instituting a democratic process in our most basic demographic and residential units – by electing leaders and representatives for our housing areas, apartment complexes, villages and so on.

There must be a clear line from these communities and their elected leaders to our local councils, state governments, and federal government. The baseline constituency at the base of our democratic pyramid should consist of thousands or at most the lower tens of thousands of people, not the hundreds of thousands per elected representative we presently have.

These baseline constituencies should be afforded a large measure of self governance, and anyone they elect to represent them at higher levels of governance should be someone they actually know personally on a face to face basis.

A functional democracy should separate somewhat the notion of administration and sociopolitical ideology. Questions of the latter, such as those involving race and religion or other ideological matters should be distanced from simpler questions of transparent, accountable, and competent administration.

Issues that stir emotion should not be mixed with simple questions such as who can best ensure our garbage is cleared and our potholes fixed, or who can manage our economy best to produce sustainable, equitable growth in a corruption-free way.

Ministries should not be led by someone appointed at the sole discretion of a chief executive, but should be run by a mix of technocrats, stakeholders, and elected representatives. Why should some unqualified career politician be put in charge of say education, health, or defence, when these ministries can be managed by a team of teachers and parents, doctors and health professionals, or military and defense experts respectively. Elected representatives can also be appointed to management teams in charge of ministries to provide oversight, checks and balances, and input that represents the public interest.

Indeed, this decentralisation of power should go all the way from the bottom to the top, where management by committee is the norm, instead of investing everything into single individuals.

These committees should always consist of a mix of individuals – some elected, and some chosen at random from professional bodies or elected representatives from the baseline constituencies described above.

Random selection, management by committee, and having a very large chamber of elected representatives to approve major budgetary decisions will go a long way in solving the problem of money politics.

In every level of decision making, the system must be designed so that leaders are consistently incentivised to always try their hardest to build consensus, and make decisions to maximise the common good.

This should replace the current system where every decision and position is made by prioritising only what will either maximise a candidate’s chances of winning their next election, or earning that candidate the most profit.

Malaysia’s democratic system has failed us all completely, and brought the country to a grinding halt amidst ongoing national crises.

The way we do business, communicate, and live our lives has changed unrecognisably in a few decades, but our political systems are recognisable from almost centuries ago. Isn’t it time to innovate our democracy to reflect new realities?

No matter who gets appointed as Prime Minister, a failure on our part to do a complete overhaul and recalibration of our democracy will leave us vulnerable to exactly the same types of problems we saw this last week again, and again, and again.

Malaysians from all walks of life need to come together, seize this opportunity, and start building a new, functional democracy from the ground up – one that reflects our true aspirations, our great potential as our nation, and the true common good for all Malaysians.

Nathaniel Tan wrote this before announcements were made regarding the PM. He is working with other Malaysians on this project, and hopes you’ll join the effort soon. Updates will come and in the meantime, he can be reached at The views expressed here are solely his own.

By Nathaniel Tan.

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