When Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Alhaj, our first Prime Minister, proclaimed the independence of our country, he said that we “shall be for ever a sovereign democratic and independent State founded upon the principles of liberty and justice”.
The spirit of liberty is also present in our Rukun Negara, which states that Malaysia guarantees “a liberal approach towards her rich and varied cultural traditions”.
Similarly, liberalism exists in Vision 2020 too. The aspiration is that by the year 2020, Malaysia will be a society that is democratic, liberal and tolerant.
Thus, since the time of Tunku Abdul Rahman, liberalism has always been an important value for this nation. Liberalism is the founding principle of our country and it will remain our guiding principle forever.
When my colleagues and I launched the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), we chose 8 February 2010 because that was also the birth date of Tunku Abdul Rahman. IDEAS was set up with the purpose of reviving the values of vision of Tunku Abdul Rahman, to ensure that Malaysia continues to be built on the priciples of “liberty and justice”.
Unfortunately many people today misunderstand the meaning of liberalism. The word ‘liberal’ is often abused by people who do not know what it actually means.
The classical liberal school of thinking is a broad umbrella, but its core thrust is the belief in liberty. In most parts of the world, the philosophy is called classical liberalism. But in the USA, it is more commonly called libertarianism.
Classical liberalism or libertarianism is not new. The most basic belief can be traced back to the Jewish and Greek idea of a “higher law”, by which everyone, including those in power, can be judged. Those in power are not the ultimate source of authority. They too are subject to the law.
Libertarianism is therefore not a call for total lack of rules and laws, but a call for everyone to be subject to the same rules and laws, with no one above the law. This is the best safeguard that we have against dictatorship and totalitarianism. The opposite – the rule of men – gives power to the ruling elite to dictate how others should live their lives. This is closer to communism and fascism.
The rule of law calls for equality between the ruled and the ruler in the eyes of the law. Since rulers usually hold the key to coercive power – such as the ability to legislate, and control of the armed forces and the police – it is very important that their powers are limited. Otherwise, if the rulers have unlimited powers to legislate and dictate, the state will descend into the rule of men. This is why another important principle of classical liberalism is the concept of limiting the powers of government.
Government is an institution to which citizens delegate authority to rule. This delegation gives government its power. But the government is such a powerful institution that it can become dangerous, subverting the very people who bestowed upon it the authority to rule. To prevent coercion, government powers must be limited, usually through a written constitution that both enumerates and limits executive power with checks and balances. The constitution acts as the rulebook outlining the limits of government powers.
The concept of limited government implies that individuals are free to choose how they live their lives as long as they do no harm to others. Libertarians see the individual as the most basic unit of society. Society or ‘the collective’, is in reality a collection of individuals pursuing different purposes. Just as individuals are free to associate themselves with a group or a cause, they must also be free to dissociate themselves from it. They cannot be forced to remain within a collective, nor can they be forced to abide by the collective will.
Each individual must respect the dignity of other individuals regardless of race, religion or gender. This means respecting differences between people and not trying to impose uniformity. It also implies that individuals have both rights and responsibilities, such as the right to be respected by others, and the responsibility to respect others. But – perhaps most importantly – the concept of individual freedom demands that the government must not encroach into what is private to the individuals, as long as they are not harming others.
On the economic front, it is well known that libertarians support free markets. But the reason for this support is often misunderstood. Some even accuse supporters of the free markets of supporting inequality between the haves and the have-nots. This misses the point.
Libertarians support the free market as the only system that respects human dignity. Denying people choice, including in the economic system, is a denial of human dignity and their ability to self-determination.
Some, especially those in the Left, would argue that the government must ensure ‘equality’ in society. They are wrong both morally and pragmatically. Experience shows that government intervention almost always results in more inequality and at the same time immoral. Just look at the policy of race-based affirmative action. It is immoral because it classifies citizens into different classes based on their birth, and it has not worked anyway.
So in short being a libertarian to me is about respecting the rule of law, limiting the claws of government, freeing individuals from servitude to another human being, and bringing back the market economy. These were the values propagated by Tunku Abdul Rahman for our country. These are the values that we must champion today.
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