Democracy in Malaysia and the Importance of the Second-Best

In an earlier post we had made the point that the alternative to unadulterated democracy was not dictatorship and more efforts at creating imaginative constitutional arrangements for transitional countries might yield better outcomes.

We have already discussed the tragic consequences of attempts to introduce unadulterated democracy in British India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Now we can turn to see the outcomes of variations from pure democracy in some other former British colonies. The first interesting case is that of Malaysia – we focus on the variation itself and not on whether it was really a conscious attempt at imaginative adaptation. In this we rely on the chapter by Shamsul A.B. (Development and Democracy in Malaysia: A Comment on its Socio-Historical Roots) in the book that we have been using in the last three posts.

The starting point was remarkably similar to the situation in India and Sri Lanka. In a polity divided by ethnicity (Malays, Chinese and Indians), the colonial government introduced in 1946 the Malayan Union, a constitutional plan for the Malay Peninsula (excluding Singapore) that proposed to confer a common citizenship on her peoples, irrespective of race or origin.

It was perceived by the indigenous peoples as a programme which would mainly benefit the immigrant population. The scheme provoked an immediate and impassioned constitutional controversy which threatened to undermine the very basis of British rule in Malaya. There were widespread political protests by the Malays opposing the introduction of this new system of government…. So, barely three months later, the decision was taken to abort the Malayan Union scheme, and in February 1948 the Union was replaced by the Federation of Malaya. 

The introduction of this new scheme made the immigrant population rather unhappy because, despite being given citizenship almost immediately, they had to accept the special rights and privileges awarded to the indigenous peoples. From then on, the issue of special rights and privileges became one of the central contentious issues in inter-ethnic relations in Malaysia.

The important question to ask is why the decision was taken to reverse the Malayan Union? And why did the British not adopt the alternative of communal electorates as they had done in India? And further, how was the reversal made to stick in the face of the discontent of the minorities?

Amongst the main reasons must have been the fact that the British were not in a hurry to leave in 1946 – in fact they did not do so till 1957. In the meantime Malaya was their richest colony contributing significantly to the British government even in the war-torn situation. Therefore there was a significant motivation for the British to make political stability the main objective and to make any agreement stick. This they did under an emergency ordinance.

In parallel, the British continued the search for an ‘ethnic bargain,’ a formula to ensure stable inter-ethnic relationships within the country to secure the economic benefits. As a result of the brief experiment with the Malayan Union a number of ethnic-based political parties had come into existence. These parties were allowed to operate in the Federation of Malaya and the members of the Federal Council within the colonial government and its executive arm were recruited from these political parties.

The introduction of modern electoral politics, mainly through local council elections in the urban areas of Malaya… also provided the opportunity for political parties… to form a coalition…. Since then ‘coalition politics’ has remained the main feature of modern Malaysian electoral politics… It is through such coalitions that the process of ‘ethnic bargaining’ became institutionalized in Malaysian politics…. A special feature of the ‘ethnic bargain’ was that it was a bargain or negotiation conducted by the elite of each group on behalf of the rest. Often the elite, who were all English educated and people of high position or from well-to-do families, were selected by the British themselves. 

The ethnic bargain was at its height when the constitution for an independent Malaya was drawn up…. In a way the Malaysian constitution is not only a legal document, like any other constitution, but also a sort of ‘social contract’ between the ethnic groups in which the interests of each of the ethnic group were guaranteed, protected and written into the constitution.

Malaysia today is not a republic but a federal constitutional elective monarchy. In this bare-bones sketch we have skipped over details of how the indigenous rulers who were guarantors of social stability in their areas were accommodated and how the King of Malaysia is elected to a five-year term among the nine hereditary Sultans of the Malay states; the executive head of the government being an elected Prime Minister. (We would urge interested readers to read the entire chapter to pick up the details.)

Malaysia is a middle-income country now so the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Variously labeled as a semi- or quasi- or half-breed democracy, it has had its hiccups but nowhere near the same level of internal conflict as India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka. And, it has delivered much more to those at the bottom of its social hierarchy.

This does suggest that ‘building democracy’ is more than borrowing a formula or a model; it is an art that often involves fairly messy bargaining and adaptations that account for the realities that exist on the ground. And, of course, it needs a fair bit of luck. But luck alone is not enough where the participants are rigidly sold on a first-best solution that may be impossible to obtain and may actually undermine society itself.

We had made this point earlier in another post on the importance of second-best institutions.

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