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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

Towards Substantive Democracy

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Penang Monthly
Editor’s Column — March 5, 2015

Democracy is a big word, and like all big words it is given to controversy and misuse.

Since the magazine’s cover story this month and in April will be about local elections and local governments, it may be suitable to discuss what Democracy is. I have no definite suggestion for what it should be – no one does, I would venture – but a discussion about this most popular political concept of our times is never a waste of time.

Broadly, it is “rule of the people, for the people and by the people”, to quote Abraham Lincoln. But where one lays the stress makes all the difference. In ancient China, the idea of “Tianming” – The Heavenly Mandate – signified rule for the people, but as we know its political systems were hardly democratic in any modern sense of the word.

Looking from below, the main problem is the word “people”. No ruler can really be of the people chosen by all the people, and govern for all the people – not all the time, not some of the time, not ever. So this leaves us always with divisions based on ethnicity, class, gender, religion, age and a string of other factors.

Looking from above, it is the sustainability of the system, along with its efficacy in facilitating growth and development, which tends to be the top priority. State building does not have the same agenda or discourse as Nation building.

Let’s consider alternative systems of political organisation, and see if that provides some insights. Firstly, we have the Monarchy, the system where one family runs a country. This is closely tied to the Aristocracy in that it is in effect rule by a network of families with the royal family in the middle. This feudal setup has become very rare and such kingdoms are quaintly tiny nowadays. If not tiny, kingdoms tend nowadays to be parliamentary monarchies.

Secondly, we have the Theocracy – rule by a religious elite whose claim to legitimacy rests on some holy book or some spiritual order and on the population being believers or captives of the religious teaching involved. There are not that many theocracies left in the world today. Islamic Iran and the transnational edifice of the Catholic Church come to mind.

These systems are undoubtedly archaic, and the only real modern alternative to universal suffrage systems is the oneparty construction that communism has left behind. But even communism was an ideology that sought to represent “the people”, or at least a historical segment of the people as defined by it, be it the proletarian class or progressive peasants.

Underlying this discussion is the political unit that is today’s basis for human society, namely the Nation State. Understood as Nation, a country negotiates between ethnocentrism and ethnic pluralism; while understood as State, it seeks credible national defence and sustained economic growth, and provides a relatively peaceful mechanism for picking competent leaders and for transfer of power.

In the final analysis, what governments are to deliver varies so much that one necessary conclusion is that Democracy has to be tiered. Representation at the local level concerns issues that are obviously different from those found at the provincial or state level, which in turn are different from those found at the central or federal level.

And so, the more centralised a system is, the weaker its ability to represent local and lower-level concerns.



About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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