One cannot be a democrat yet remain a racist

Democracy is for all, while the marginalising, segregating and dehumanising force of racism clearly stands as the antithesis of it, asserts Nicholas Chan

Upon Malaya/Malaysia’s Independence, it was clear that we were a democracy (modeled after the Westminster parliamentary system) with obvious secularist underpinnings.

The government-forming and state decision-making processes are largely – directly and indirectly – based on an electoral system that is established to promote universal suffrage, although the weightage of each vote under the present system is under contention due to geographical and territorial disproportionality and major concerns of gerrymandering.

That said, it is safe to assume the Constitution and government system we inherited demands (and expects) our citizens to be democrats, but herein lie the problems. What if our people don’t even know it means to be democrats? How do we uphold and upkeep a democracy if democracy is equated with only the casting of ballots? What is there to prevent a tyranny of the majority and the complete upheaval of constitutionally guaranteed and universally protected human rights and dignity from occurring?

Whilst the normative precepts and structures of democracy in the form of elections and procedural parliamentarism is maintained (thankfully, even after bouts of Emergency rule), one can’t help but frown at the current state of democracy in Malaysia, or the state of being of its professed “democrats”.

On the surface, it would seem that the greatest threat towards democracy in Malaysia comes from those walking the corridors of powers who seek to stifle dissent through oppression and the manipulation of freedom and democratic rights. Deeper examination, however, would reveal that Malaysia’s democracy is actually facing a mounting existential threat.

This is because, despite elections forming the nexus of political activities in the country, most of Malaysia’s democrats, be they political or non-political actors, aren’t very democratic at all. The system might appear to be kept alive by the cyclical occurrence of elections with its profligacy of electoral paraphernalia; the ethos of it is actually impoverished to the core.

Our indifferent, calculative and fatalistic attitude towards democracy is a result of taking the system too much for granted and stretching it to the point of dysfunctionality and deformity. Political empowerment and liberalisation is not a happenstance that comes bundled in with the inception of a new nation.

The lack of a discursive economy that emphasises political and democratic education will diminish the essence of democracy. This will culminate in aberrations of government, which seemingly thrives on democracy (because the ruling parties win elections) but is also perpetually cynical of democratic rights (because it can’t handle the inevitability of political transitions, which is a corollary of adopting a democracy).

With a system like that in motion for more than 50 years, one can’t help but notice the overall cynicism and detachment towards politics that has befallen many average Malaysians. This outcome is expected as the brand of democracy Malaysians practise has only led to increasing statism in all domains of life – culturally, economically, socially, and even intellectually.

When empowerment is lacking and recognition of individual rights is minimal and non-diffusive, active outsourcing of political activism, ambitions and intellectualism occurs. This makes the realm of politics (with the exception of voting) seem like a detachment from reality and an exercise in futility to the common people.

The beguiling normalisation and rationalisation processes that allows this to happen is due to the erosion of one of the fundamental tenets of democracy: equality. Equality not just in terms of state-people relations (some would say class relations), but also inter-citizen relations, which is defined sadly in Malaysia by broad and simplistic strokes of race, skin colour and increasingly belief systems. Cynicism towards democracy arises because there is cynicism towards equality.

Communitarian politics takes place in its most vile and damaging fashion because a substantial portion of the population thinks that their rights (and the rights of others) are demarcated by their ethnicity and faith and that group interests are important poker chips in the horse-trading game of politics, all in the name of “democracy”.

In other words, democracy is only as good as it protects mainly self-interests and by extension, the interests of certain segments of society; hence, the palpable impatience towards democracy by some quarters as they feel their “interests” are not being taken care of. The political vocabulary is always about interests instead of rights, reducing democracy to empty rhetoric.

Malaysians need to realise and be educated that in order to live in a democracy and thrive under its protection, there is no room for racism. Racism cannot be reconciled to the system of forming a government based on the “one person, one vote” system as it maintains that certain groups of people enjoy greater rights than others due to anthropological and cultural reasons. Thinking so would not only reduce the legitimacy of the government being chosen but also undermines the legitimacy of the democracy we enjoy.

The situation that we are experiencing now – where any discussion of the post of the Prime Minister being potentially held by a certain individual of a particular minority race or religion (and sadly, even gender) is considered heretical by some – is an affront to democracy.

If the condition of having a democracy means that a certain group must enjoy absolute prevalence in electoral outcomes, then there is no condition for democracy at all. While political representation should be guaranteed by a healthy democracy, the right of choosing such representation should uphold individual liberties and transcend the boundaries of race, religion and creed. No one should be demeaned, denied and punished for their choice of political representation, as in the case of the vulgar treatment subjected to a purdah-wearing Malay woman joining DAP.

To preserve and salvage Malaysia’s democracy, Malaysians need to understand that racism is wrong, be it normatively, religiously or morally. Anyone professing to be a democrat with the belief or intention that some groups should enjoy greater rights than the others must be cast off, because not only is that anti-Constitutional, it also defiles the guiding principle of democracy, which is the equality of rights.

As the education blueprint seeks to tackle the grand ambition of high learning outcomes and foster greater national integration, has the government ever considered the importance of inculcating anti-racist values in our children? Is our education syllabus still preoccupied with teaching us about the precariousness situation of our diversity and the need for wariness of each other’s existence to maintain a façade of peace and harmony?

By implying that differences have to be managed, are we not putting a mental imprint on our children – that differences are something we should be deferential to or at best accommodative of, but not something that has an inherent, rightful place under the sun? Why are we not teaching our children that it is only by the preservation of democracy that we preserve our right to peaceful and dignified co-existence?

As the saying goes, you can either be pregnant or not, you cannot be half pregnant; the same goes for democracy too. There is no half-democracy. To think that our brand of blatant, unrefined communal politics is a form of democracy just because it is sustained by elections is wishful thinking. The incompatibility of both cannot be more glaring. Democracy is for all, while the marginalising, segregating and dehumanising force of racism clearly stands as the antithesis of it.

Nicholas Chan is a socio-political research analyst at Penang Institute. A forensic scientist by education, he believes there is a truth in everything and it all depends on whether we want to see it or not.