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No time for complacency about Malaysia's democracy

  • Closing civic space is a concern of everyone, as it impacts all of us in the long-term.

By Khoo Ying Hooi

International Democracy Day was celebrated last Saturday on 15 September, where many world leaders renewed their pledge to advance the promotion and protection of democratic norms.

Since the historical Malaysian election on 9 May, all eyes are focus on the development of democratic transition in the country. Malaysia has become a country that many scholars aim at in term of finding our what has really trigger the changes in the country despite being put in the same regime for 61 years. 9 May serves a turning point to many as a moment of celebration to further democracy space in Malaysia. At the same time, it also becomes a model for the other countries around in the region and the world.

It was relatively quiet in Malaysia on 15 September on the democracy day; it is probably many were focusing on the Malaysia Day on 16 September. Whichever it is, while democratic transition seems to be taking place in the country, however, we are all should be alert and not to be too complacent with the reforms that are taking place in the country.

It is crucial that intensification of democracy should be conditioned with democratic attitudes of individuals. That's exactly why my previous column was focusing on the need for democratic education. While the leaders pledged for democratic society with participation and empowerment, it is meaningless if we do not start from education, as that is strictly link with nurturing the democratic attitudes of the people.

Linking closely with democracy is the civic space. It does not matter which part of the world you come from, the shrinking civic space is now one of the most discussed topics as it is real while it is diverse in its manifestation and severity. Nevertheless, the problem of shrinking civic space is neither new nor a short-term phenomenon.

Despite the models of governments, be it authoritarian, hybrid or even democratic, there remains risk for the closing of civic space of civil society advocacy.

In the Southeast Asia region, authoritarian rules and state repression are not new. Southeast Asia's varied historical and geopolitical circumstances created diversified political structures. It is marked by a fragmented state of democratic development, which could probably be explained by looking at the region's different political values in regards to governance systems.

How does Malaysia then successfully to bring a breakthrough despite of the pessimistic regional and international order? One explanation could be possibly that the civil society, including the people despite of repression, managed to counter the narrative and win over.

Civil society actors walk a fine line between the struggle of opening up space for effective resistance and becoming a target of repression simultaneously. The threats are two-fold. They are being seen as a direct antagonistic to a closed regime, or they can also be seen as compromised by international-driven agendas that allegedly aimed to overthrow a closed regime. Ultimately, there is a confluence of internal and external determinants that affect the sustainability of civil society advocacy under different situations.

Closing space for civil society has far-reaching implications that we could imagine, in the short- and long-term. It does not only undermines the ability of people to effectively advancing human rights, holding their governments accountable, and serving the marginalised and vulnerable communities, it also weakens the ability of civil society to provide critical services like healthcare, education, shelter and humanitarian aid that are crucial to improving the daily lives of people.

Closing civic space is not merely a concern of the people working in the human rights or social justice sectors; it is a concern of everyone as it impacts all of us in the long-term. Civic space is the ground of any open and democratic society and it belongs to all of us. While we celebrate our new-found democracy in Malaysia, it is important for all of us to keep close check and balance to the government of the day and not to be too complacent.

(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer)



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