By Keith Leong (an edited version of this article was published in The Nut Graph on 12 March 2010)

What does it mean to be a liberal in Malaysia?

The term, like so many others (for instance, “Communist”) have been much bandied-about in the press lately, more often than not as a term of abuse.

Liberalism, or rather, what some would have us believe is liberalism, has been accused of being the source of all sorts of wickedness and chicanery from sexual immorality to high treason.

But what is liberalism really, especially in a Malaysian context?

There are of course many definitions to the term. Like their counterparts elsewhere, Malaysian liberals are heirs, spiritually if nothing else, to the traditions, principles and beliefs as laid down by such thinkers as Locke and Rousseau. These include the credos that are often associated with liberalism, namely economic and political freedom, as well as civil and individual liberties.

Their writings remain the best definition of liberalism, and anyone seeking a better understanding of the ideology need go no further than their writings. But I have come to realize that the ideology can only gain widespread acceptance in Malaysia if it can be applied to our very unique circumstances.

Not that liberalism is something foreign or alien as some have claimed. I strongly and passionately believe that liberal ideas are a part of the fabric of Malaysia, its constitution and people.

I believe that it transcends the boundaries of race and religion. I also feel that its application, whether in our politics, society and rhetoric, can reverse Malaysia’s perilous slide towards mediocrity. Liberalism is the best path towards our goal of a Bangsa Malaysia and to move our country forward.

Let us not forget that our Rukunegara called for Malaysia to ensure “a liberal approach to her rich and diverse cultural traditions”. Also, that grand blueprint towards national modernity, the Vision 2020 proposed that Malaysians might one day live in a society “that is democratic, liberal and tolerant, caring, economically just and equitable, progressive and prosperous”  It also called on us to face up to the challenge of “establishing a matured liberal and tolerant society in which Malaysians of all colours and creeds are free to practise and profess their customs, cultures and religious beliefs and yet feeling that they belong to one nation.”

The voices who are assailing liberalism in Malaysia today therefore are fundamentally opposed to the ideals and goals of those documents. On the flipside, liberalism is not a dangerous idea imported from abroad that will cost us our sovereignty, nor are Malaysian liberals wild-eyed radicals bent on destabilizing the land.

Rather, we are loyal, patriotic citizens and subjects who are determined to see that our country lives up to its promise as encapsulated by these ideas, the original spirit and ideals of our founding fathers. If Malaysia is less a country than it was some forty or fifty years ago, then it is because we have been led astray from this spirit and ideals, which were fundamentally liberal at heart.

Liberalism is not about championing one race or religion over the other. It is not the exclusive property of one political party or the other. It is not the antithesis of social democracy or centrism or conservatism, and indeed liberals reject nothing in these ideologies that can uphold and enhance the dignity and liberty of the individual, although our approach may be fundamentally different and we believe, better. It is not something that is absolutely on the left or the right, but rather can be claimed by any ideology on this spectrum so long as it upholds the fundamental freedoms of the human race.

Our “enemies”, if we can call them that are those that would have us believe that ordinary Malaysians cannot be trusted to think and act for themselves. These are the people who are arguing that we need to be kept in our ethno-religious silos indefinitely, that the continued omnipotence of the state in our politics, economy and indeed daily lives are the only things standing between us and chaos.

Such voices have dominated our discourse for the last couple of decades and the results are clear for anyone to see. Malaysia’s economy has stagnated, and our talent continues to haemorrhage from our shores. Our civil liberties and political freedoms have been dangerously eroded, as have the credibility of our national institutions.

We have for too long allowed an illiberal, reactionary minority – on both sides of the political fence – to dictate how our country and society should be run, and they have made an absolute hash of things. Having been called to account to this, they have reacted with extremist rhetoric and threats. We simply cannot go on like this, down the road to perdition they have set us down for their selfish ends.

Malaysia must surely benefit if even the most basic tenants liberalism could take root here again. Indeed, the almost uniformly positive reaction to the establishment of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), of which I am proud to be associated with, is proof there is a definite market (no pun intended) for such ideas here.

The key, as I said earlier is to make it work in our Malaysian context. Malaysian liberals need to take cognizance of the fact that the ideal of a benevolent, paternalistic state is still very strong in all sectors of our society. Attacking this head-on will not be productive and indeed turn many who should be our natural supporters against us.

We must also take care that our very bold and completely understandable desire to differentiate our ideology from the rest does not split the larger, progressive movement to effect positive change to Malaysia. Simply put, I may be wrong but I feel that there are bigger battles to be won in Malaysia than over dry, economic positions or preferences.

I am in no way denigrating the importance of this aspect of political ideology, but they for the time being pale in comparison to the larger, greater cause of removing sectarianism and authoritarianism from our public life. Liberal Malaysians must be the vanguard, and not the cause of dissension of this movement. At the same time, we must be vigilant in ensuring that whatever new dispensation the current arrangement is transformed into does not end in yet another net loss to individual liberty.

Which brings me back to my original question of what defines liberalism in Malaysia? I personally think that the following is vital.

Malaysian liberals believe in the individual, that the most important thing in the world today is to ensure that every man, woman and child can live up to his or her fullest potential. We reject as false the idea that there is some sort of zero-sum game between an individual and his or her society. A society is strong when its people are free, and no individual can find true fulfilment or success if injustice and inequity prevails in his or her community.

We believe that the abovementioned can be achieved by giving the individual as much freedom as possible, but also responsibility to the law and his or her fellow citizens. Both liberty and responsibility are two sides of the same coin: one cannot exist without the other.

Although equality of outcome cannot and indeed should not be guaranteed, we certainly believe and pursue equality of opportunity. We believe that no one should be denied his or her rights and opportunity to obtain an education, employment and happiness on the grounds of ethnicity, religion, geography or class.

We celebrate and respect diversity in all its forms. We do not see difference, whether in ethnicity, language, culture or opinion as a problem or a threat, but an increasingly inescapable reality in each and every modern society that if properly harnessed, can be a source of strength as well as cohesion in a globalised world.

We champion freedom of conscience and honour all cultures. We oppose sectarianism in all its forms and the use of race or religion in the name of limiting the autonomy and agency of any one individual of group. We believe that such actions are an insidious perversion of the principles of faith or culture.

We believe that societies and indeed all forms of social contract are dynamic, growing and evolving entities. While the traditions of a society must be upheld and maintained, any unreasonable adherence to the status quo should it ever become prejudicial to liberty and the greater good will eventually lead to the destruction of that society.

We firmly hold to the principles of the separation of powers and of checks and balances. We oppose any one branch of government becoming too powerful, as well as the arrogation of authority in the hands of any individual or group. We believe that democracy, not only in holding regular elections, but also in creating an open public space, a free press and independent institutions plus a vibrant civil society, is the best way to govern a nation.

We believe that governments should be just strong enough to function, but that it should be judicious in the use of its coercive power and prudent in intervening in its citizen’s lives. As the economist John Keynes once wrote (I know, I know, it’s an article about liberalism!): “The important thing for Government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little worse; but to do things which at present are not done at all”. Liberals would argue that there are more things that individuals are capable of doing rather than the Government, and this can also be true for Malaysia.

We believe in the free exchange of ideas and knowledge. We believe that any attempt to limit the spread of these things is a form of totalitarianism. While copyrights and intellectual property should be respected, the best and freest societies are those in which information is widely available.

We believe that a free market, free also from corruption, exploitation and political manipulation, is best-placed to guarantee prosperity and equity for our citizens. There will of course, be problems and inequalities that cannot be solved by market forces alone and this is where the state can and should come in. No one is suggesting that government should do nothing, but they cannot be doing everything.

We also believe that it is possible to achieve both prudent stewardship of the environment and our natural resources and economic growth.

We are furthermore internationalist in our outlook, without ever compromising on the sovereignty of individual states. While we believe healthy competition in the various fields can and should be encouraged, we also strongly stress on multilateralism and cooperation, particularly in the spread of liberal ideas. We reject chauvinism, xenophobia and extreme nationalism in all its forms.

I do not claim that this is a perfect or even accurate articulation of liberalism, nor am I under the illusion that achieving these goals will be easy in Malaysia. But as I wrote earlier, even a step forward in this regard will do wonders in ameliorating our beleaguered political economy and healing our social divisions.

The challenge is for Malaysian liberals to demonstrate how these ideas can be of service and benefit to political parties, policymakers and most importantly of all, ordinary Malaysians. We are often fond of talking of self-interest or incentives. Here’s a question liberals need to answer sooner or later: what’s really in it for the ordinary Malaysian?

Doing so will be the first step towards a liberal Malaysia.

——

Keith Leong is Fellow at Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.IDEAS.org.my), Malaysia’s first independent think-tank dedicated to promoting market-based solutions to public policy challenges.

An edited version of this article was published in The Nut Graph on 12 March 2010

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