Malaysia in 2018: Resurrecting Islamic Democracy

by Nurul Izzah Anwar

Malaysia is at the crossroads

As the last quarter of 2018 dawns, Malaysia has hard work and hard choices ahead.
Our country has always had great potential. Indeed, it is often seen as a model for developing countries in general and Muslim-majority nation-states in particular.We have been blessed with a talented multicultural society, abundant natural resources and a strategic location in the Indo-Pacific. Despite this, we have wasted decades due to undemocratic politics, single-party rule and soft authoritarianism. It seemed as if corruption was the norm, with certain leaders invoking race and religion to justify their abuses, maladministration and outright theft of the country’s wealth.

The “miracle” of 9 May

As such, the political transition which took place after Malaysia’s 14th General Elections on 9 May 2018 was nothing short of miraculous. Malaysian voters—both Muslim and non-Muslim—chose to throw out a corrupt ruling coalition that had enjoyed nearly six decades of uninterrupted power.
I am one of the Members of Parliament (MP) of the-then opposition Pact of Hope (or PH) that was voted into power that day. Still, the events of 9th May was more than just about the fact that Malaysia had witnessed its first change of government in its history. What was more moving—and more meaningful—was that Malaysians of all walks of life finally realized that they had the power to choose their own destiny, that no leader is entitled to power.

Many challenges ahead

However, there are many challenges ahead for this “New Malaysia” that people speak of.
The bugbears of the past still remain: beneath the shiny skyscrapers, is a country that is becoming increasingly divided, indeed, in some cases behaving in ways contrary to the principles of Islamic moderation it claims to uphold. Muslim and non-Muslim Malaysians are routinely pitted against each other and between themselves over wedge issues like faith, ethnicity, mother tongues, gender and state-federal tussle over what is deemed acceptable Islamic legislation. Legacy problems such as wealth inequality and the stagnation of our education system have been distorted as communal, rather than policy issues, to be viewed as zero-sum games between the different groups.

Muslim Malaysians, ironically, are often their own worst enemies: constantly recriminating each other rather than respecting differences of opinion on questions of religion and morality. The supremacy of our Constitution, as well as the principles of the rule of law and of equality before the law are often cast aside when it is convenient for the powerful and wealthy.  This is above and beyond our need to provide genuine social mobility, security and opportunities for all Malaysians in a rapidly-globalizing world now grappling with the 4th Industrial Revolution. Moreover, Malaysia still needs to move beyond authoritarian modes of governance, of the top-down and “leaders know best” approach. So while the remarkable political events in Malaysia should be celebrated, no one should believe that our journey is complete.

Reform must continue

Nevertheless, I still believe that Malaysia can still be a country of the future. We can yet be a democratic Muslim nation of the 21st Century, a beacon for other predominantly-Muslim, multicultural states seeking to make their own democratic change. What is important is that the process of reform—whether economic, political or social—should be tackled boldly and unrelentingly. While there will be many challenges ahead, Malaysia must steadfastly uphold the principles of justice, fairness, and compassion. There can be no compromise on the rule of law, beneath which all are equal. The independence of our judiciary, civil service, media and civil society must be restored and respected by all.

Islam and democracy cannot be separated

There is no contradiction with this and our status as a Muslim-majority, multicultural nation.
I would argue, in fact, that the two cannot be separated. To be Islamic is to be democratic.
The coalition that now governs Malaysia, as was the previous government, features Muslim and non-Muslim parties alike, sharing a common goal to serve the people. Islam and Muslims must be able to coexist with our fellow citizens. This can only be achieved through equal representation in political office, of believing that all Malaysians have equal rights, responsibilities and worth, whatever their background. It is true that some reforms must be gradual or sequenced. But this must not be an excuse for inertia, of indefinite postponements in all but name, especially when it comes to correcting or preventing injustices or reducing exclusion. The people must certainly be won over to the cause of change. But this is no excuse for leaders to drag their feet or pander to the basest instincts of the mob. Doing this, time and time again is not prudence: its cowardice.

Malaysia must empower its women

One thing that Malaysia—like all nations, Muslim or not—must work extra hard on is to empower women at all levels in society. With a female Deputy Prime Minister in Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Malaysia hopes to make a case for the greater participation of women, not only in the corridors of power, but also the boardrooms, workplaces, lecture halls, data centres and laboratories of the world. A nation cannot hope to progress if it women are not emancipated and allowed to take their rightful place in society. There’s also no use in the latter if women are constantly hobbled by archaic cultural beliefs and norms, or treated like passive objects rather than human beings by the mass media and popular culture.  Women must be seen and they must be heard. Girls and young women should be in schools, colleges, universities and internships, not brides.

Debate must continue

Debate and discussion over the role of religion in our society must continue. Again, no one should not be silenced on this matter simply because of who they are. It may perhaps take time before we can move away from harsh punishments done in the name of Islam towards a more equitable and understanding society. But we must make a start and we must not back down from exposing as well as confronting those who would manipulate these questions for partisan political gain. Compassion in Islam is and should always be a cornerstone of our policies, acting as a foundation to build consensus and influence partners in society. Freedom of speech and thought must be respected—and so should the need for civility. This applies to between Muslims and non-Muslims, but also within those groups.

An economy that works for all

The events of the past decade have also shown that unbridled capitalism not only fails to serve the greater good, but often engenders authoritarian, narrow-minded and xenophobic populism.
Neither command economics or free-for-all market forces can—by themselves—truly, in the long-run, better the lives of people nor give them dignity and a sense of belonging. I believe that the principles of Islam, with its focus on ethics, equity and social cohesion, offers Malaysia and the wider world a middle-path between these extremes.
Economic development should never become synonymous with, or conditional upon, human degradation. The turmoil we see in the developed world today is arguably a direct result of their leaders’ failure and unwillingness to decouple the two. Although every country is different, the focus of the great and the good should always be on lifting everyone up, rather than enriching the few.
On our part, Malaysia must move beyond its “addiction” to extractive resources and foreign labour.

Our economy must meet 21st Century realities and be responsive to the massive technological changes that seem to occur on a daily basis. Our government should support innovation as well as ensure that the law is upheld and the environment protected, rather than become everyone’s boss.
There is also a great need for us to improve our Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET) system, to produce workers who can compete in the evolving global economy.  TVET should never be seen as the second-best choice, but a respected life path through which men and women can better themselves, their families and societies.
Artisans and craftsmen in Muslim civilizations once commanded the admiration of the world with their work—Malaysia hopes to be at the forefront of reviving this noble tradition. We must give young Malaysians opportunities to choose diverse careers and interests. Work-life balance is paramount: men and women have a right to have both. The elderly, differently-abled and vulnerable need social security and safety nets while still contributing in their own ways. Our diaspora—you will find determined, talented, and hardworking Malaysians all over the globe—should also be made to feel welcome and able contribute to the exciting changes back home.

The pursuit of peace and justice in the world

Further afield, Malaysia must continue to stand up for peace and justice everywhere.
We must continue to speak out for the oppressed, including the Palestinians and closer to home, the Rohingya and Uighur peoples, as well as long suffering Syrians and in defence of innocent Yemeni civilians. Equitable and peaceful solutions to issues like the South China Sea dispute must be pursued. Malaysia, I am sure, will continue to actively contribute to these and other processes, through multilateral bodies like the UN, ASEAN, the OIC and NAM as well as on a bilateral basis.

The road ahead

I believe that this is the best way forward for Malaysia: to adopt wise policies that increase our liberties and at the same time pursue a fairer, more equitable socio-economic system. Of course, the way ahead will not be easy and success will not be immediate. There will be setbacks. There will be times when Malaysians will ask whether this change has truly meant anything, whether it is old politics masquerading as something new. There will be times when expectations are not met, when it feels like we’re only going backwards. It is our responsibility now to ensure that the great enthusiasm that came after the last elections does not give way to apathy, that expectations are both managed and met. It is fundamentally a question of political will: what kind of future do we want for our country? For the global ummah? And are we willing to work together to achieve it?
The road ahead is long, but if we remain resolute in our vision for the country, there’s no reason why we cannot realise a truly progressive, Islamic democracy in Malaysia.

Nurul Izzah binti Anwar is the Vice-President of the People’s Justice Party. She is the current Member of Parliament for Permatang Pauh. She is the daughter of Anwar Ibrahim, Prime Minister in waiting, and Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the current Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia.