by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published as “How liberals become illiberal” in The Star 5 January 2015
It is heartening to see more liberals speaking up these days. Every time an illiberal idea is put to the public, you can almost rest assured that someone will fight back to defend their freedom and liberty to seek happiness in their own ways.
Liberty is the principle that founded this nation.
In fact, our Bapa Malaysia Tunku Abdul Rahman announced proudly in the Proclamation of Independence and Proclamation of Malaysia that this nation shall “be forever a sovereign democratic and independent State founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of its people”.
Liberalism is indeed about liberty and freedom. But when we at Ideas hosted “The Liberalism 2015 Conference” back in September, the confusion about what liberalism actually means was obvious.
We intentionally designed the conference to be a platform for stakeholders to discuss with each other what they thought about the philosophy.
By stakeholders I mean anyone with an interest in the topic, regardless of whether or not you agree with it.
We saw a beautiful interaction between the proponents and opponents of liberal ideas and, of course, we also saw how confused some people were about the topic.
One of the speakers made a succinct point about the confusion. Khalid Jaafar, a member of the Ideas Council, said that it was apparent some speakers were talking about anarchism, despite using the label liberalism.
They thought liberalism meant not having any laws, when that is actually anarchism. On the contrary, liberalism is about upholding the rule of law.
One way to understand the meaning of freedom in its classical sense is by using philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s description of positive and negative freedom.
It is impossible to give a full description of these two types of liberties in this short article. But to simplify, positive freedom is “freedom to” while negative freedom is “freedom from”.
If you take, for example, the fact that I cannot afford to send all my children to quality private schools, a government that believes in positive freedom will want to ensure I have the freedom to send my child to that school.
The government may tax everybody else and pass the money to me so that I can pay the fees. Or the government could put a cap on the school fees, coercing the school to reduce their fees for me.
On the other hand, if a government that believes in negative freedom wants to ensure I can afford that school, it will do so by removing the hurdles preventing me from being able to pay.
The fees might be expensive because the number of private schools is small and setting up more is too bureaucratic.
So the government will remove the bureaucracy and give more licences to create competition, which will in turn reduce the cost. It gives me the freedom to choose that school by removing the barriers that prevent me from going there, not by coercing others to help me.
These two concepts are important to understand when talking about liberty because they can be competing ideas that are incompatible with one another.
Positive freedom coerces people into doing something they don’t want. You are coerced to pay tax to help me even though you might need the money more than me.
Negative freedom frees up the supply and avoids coercion, for example by giving more licences and reducing bureaucracy so that you are free from the limitations that held you back.
Those who believe in liberty in its classical sense believe in negative freedom and not positive freedom. Negative freedom is the true way to respect choice while positive freedom brings you closer to an illiberal coercive environment.
If we apply this to the hot issues that exist today, we will actually come to some very interesting policy challenges.
Take the desire to practise one’s religion. Let us take the desire by some Muslims to have hudud.
This is a challenging situation and I myself am still researching for the most acceptable policy solution.
But a liberal would respect the right of a person to practise his religion, including to have hudud imposed on him.
The challenge, however, is how to ensure the person can fulfil his religious obligations while at the same time ensure there is no coercion on others.
In this case, while I understand the concerns of those who oppose hudud, I also fear that the opponents may have become illiberals themselves by denying the right to have hudud.
Similarly, there is an increasing number of people these days who jump when they see signs of an “Islamised” society.
A liberal would respect and indeed defend the choices made by those who want to live life in what they deem as “Islamic”. Islamophobia is not at all liberal.
The policy problem, however, is when government coercive powers are used to impose a set of values on those who prefer not to live their lives according to those values.
How to decouple personal beliefs from illiberal government coercion in a country like Malaysia is one thing that I am still trying to figure out because it has to be done delicately.
But one thing I do know is that liberals respect choices. To paraphrase a popular saying, I may not agree with your belief but I will defend to death your right to believe in them.
If we are liberals, we should look for ways to accommodate the different beliefs and choices made by individuals for themselves.
We should not become illiberals ourselves by stopping others from living their lives the way they choose.
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Wan Saiful Wan Jan is the Chief Executive of IDEAS