“We must learn from the past. If we fail to do so, history will repeat itself. Never again should our public resources be exploited for individuals’ personal benefit. Never again should institutions be blocked from performing their duties. Never again should we lose our ability to take action against those who betray public trust. I urge everybody at all levels not to waste this opportunity to improve our country.”
Those were the words of the Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan on Jan 14 during the investiture ceremony in conjunction with his 71st birthday after the pledge of loyalty by the mentri besar. His first since taking office after the general election last year, the mentri besar’s pledge identified adherence to the rule of law as an integral part of the state’s unique and historic adat perpatih (customary laws).
In many instances, attempts are indeed underway to learn from the past, including the federal government’s stated reforms to repeal draconian legislation, strengthen institutional checks and balances, and widen democratic participation by expanding freedom of expression and enabling civil society to thrive. However, there is also evidence that some of these promises are already being eroded, whether due to the realisation of previously unforeseen hurdles and hesitation to commit sufficient resources (both of a physical and political nature) or because some individuals deliberately do not wish to learn from the past.
Indeed, there seem to be leaders on both sides of the political divide who are deliberately using the same methods of the past to acquire or restore their own power. One famous quote often attributed to Albert Einstein (there isn’t definitive proof) is that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. Unfortunately, some leaders do indeed get away with it and succeed in controlling sufficient levers of power to channel public resources to themselves and their associates. They do manage to block institutions from performing their duties and prevent citizens and the relevant bodies from taking action against those who are betraying public trust (themselves).
Furthermore, they believe that they can leave a positive legacy, and that history will show them in a good light. There are public relations gurus who believe they can deliver this by combining online and offline methods. Since nothing is constant in politics, there is always the risk that such individuals who wish to acquire this extent of power can emerge or evolve from the most unexpected of places. History is replete with examples from across the centuries and continents of seemingly saintly individuals who go on to become megalomaniacs.
In a healthy democracy, politicians are of course expected to expose the weaknesses and hypocrisies of their opponents, and an impartial system of justice is supposed to act on criminal wrongdoings. A free media, too, is important to verify claims that have been made and conduct their own independent investigations. But, as I have mentioned before, it is vital that civil society space is expanded and defended.
On Feb 13, the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) will celebrate its ninth anniversary (although its seeds were planted in 2006). As usual, we will be commemorating the birth of our Father of Independence and first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj and the values that he stood for.We will also launch the second edition of Dialog: Thoughts of Tunku’s Timeless Thinking, incorporating fresh material from additional contributors.
Over the years, we have produced research and championed advocacy on a wide range of issues that are pertinent in today’s Malaysia. We have engaged with government, the opposition and civil service; exposed many Malaysians to different ways of thinking; shone light on hitherto unexplored areas of public policy and initiated two learning centres that educate the most disadvantaged young people in society. While not everyone agrees with us, we have always been transparent about our objectives and sources of funding, and I hope our detractors will at least respect us for that.
But if you’d like to be a supporter of our mission to ensure that we restore Malaysia’s founding vision so that “never again” will massive abuse of our institutions occur, then do visit www.ideas.org.my and consider celebrating our birthday with us.
First published in The Star, 25 January 2019.