Today, politicians need to adapt to a new game, and to new rules.
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri recently declined Anwar Ibrahim’s invitation to debate with other party leaders. Ismail justified his stance by claiming that “debate is not in our culture”.
The prime minister is right: Malaysian politicians do not debate unless they are in the Parliament arena. However, if debate is absent from Malaysia’s political culture, it is in fact a pillar of every religious tradition represented in the country and a routine exercise in other parts of the region.
The prime minister’s statement is highly problematic and illustrates the contradictions existing within the political system and how these contradictions contribute to maintaining an illiberal democratic system.
The debate between Anwar and Najib Razak earlier this year was one of a kind as it brought together two political titans from opposing parties. The importance of this debate resided less in its content than its symbolic value. It showed that politicians were finally considering the new expectations and political awareness of Malaysians voters, and acknowledging the necessity to up their game, at least in appearance.
The 2018 election that saw the end of 61 years of Umno monopoly created a rupture in Malaysian political history and showed that an alternative was possible. The multiple crises triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic contributed to increasing the fluidity of the political scene that further fragmented over the past two years.
While this fluidity may be perceived as chaotic, it is rather one of the few healthy signs of transition towards a more balanced political system. Today, politicians need to adapt to a new game, and to new rules.
Discarding debate for cultural reasons is both inaccurate and ineffective. Religion, particularly Islam, is at the core of Malaysian culture (though not limited to). Every religious tradition represented in Malaysia encourages reasoning and debate; controversies have shaped the history of religious traditions and practices.
One striking historical example is the Council of Lhasa, a two-year monastic debate conducted from 792 to 794 by Indian and Chinese Buddhists teachers. Also, scholars of Islamic thought have written extensively on the question of disagreement (ikhtilaaf), from divergence of opinion to social discord.
In “The Ethics of Disagreement”, Taha Jabir al Alwani offers a guide to debate, highlighting that “(…) differences could generate intellectual vitality and a cross-fertilisation of ideas”. While surely no one wishes to attend a two-year debate between Ismail and Anwar, it seems that indeed the absence of debate in Malaysia cannot be explained by a cultural rationale, but rather a total absence of “intellectual vitality”.
Malaysia’s political culture is entrenched in a feudal system of power characterised by a patron-client relationship between politicians and voters where the former buys support from the latter, added to a “lordship rule” in which power is to be accepted unquestioningly by voters.
This feudal system was shaken by the rupture of allegiance to exclusive Umno politics in 2018. Malaysia can be seen as a democratic system; however, the country retains an illiberal character in the political culture and practices – the general abuse of constitutional principles.
While the country is on a slow democratic path, the rather aging political class has yet to revise its practices. The tradition is indeed the suppression of discordant voices and the avoidance of any form of intellectual challenge for fear of ego bruising, and a general lack of intellectual and rhetorical capacity. The questions of the few daring journalists or citizens are usually brushed aside by politicians whose avoidance strategy resides in humiliating their challengers with racial and/or misogynist remarks.
Many would remember the video of Ku Li insulting an English-speaking Chinese journalist, reproaching her for not being able to speak Malay, or the famous “When I speak, you listen” by Sharifah Zorha, trying to shut down the questions of Biwani, an outspoken student, during a public talk at UUM.
Why is political debate essential?
The prime minister’s attempt to escape any form of confrontation is a clear reflection of the need for change in political culture. Debate is, in fact, an essential feature of a healthy democracy as it adds “sobriety to campaigns, grounds political discourse, makes candidates introspective, and restrains political overstatements”.
On the eve of the 15th general election, the media regularly reports feuds between party leaders and within parties, and games of alliance while ideas are in the air and the announcement of reforms is cosmetic – far, far, far from “sobriety”, “grounding” and “restraint”.
Liberal democracy is defined as “a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property”. In 2018, Andrew Harding explained how recent legal cases reaffirmed the separation of powers although the constitutional framework remained largely abused.
Once characterised as a competitive or semi-authoritarian regime, a regime where elections are organised but where freedoms are limited, the 2018 election brought the country to a new path. While Malaysia continues to slowly move away from authoritarianism, it remains a hybrid regime featuring democratic institutions and illiberal practices. As such, the term illiberal democracy, used both for backsliding democracy and for transitional regimes, is adequate.
Debate is at the very core of the ideal of democracy, and solidly entrenched in the traditions and cultures that have shaped the Malay world and the entire Southeast Asian region. Elections in Indonesia and the Philippines are marked by political candidates debating on all matters.