Monday, November 23, 2009

Anwar Ibrahim on the Spirit of Liberty

Anwar: We need substantive change

Terence Netto
November 22, 2009

Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim told a Pakatan Rakyat seminar yesterday on the two-party system that Malaysia must move from the forms of representation to the substance of democratic experience to give validity to the nation's founding constitution.

Speaking to several score leaders from PKR, PAS and DAP, the component parties of Pakatan, at the seminar in Kuala Lumpur organised to infuse them with a sense of mission, Anwar held that the country's democratic beginnings were not sustained because of servile subscription to certain shibboleths.

One was that its racial diversity was potentially explosive and the other was that the need for rapid economic progress was touted as incompatible with democracy.

pic courtesy of

"Our diverse ethnic make-up, rather than an asset, was treated as a powder keg that could be ignited by the slightest spark," he said.

He said this manipulated fear of the country's social fragility was compounded by the perception that "economic development was not compatible with the freedoms that have been established in other democratic nations."

He said delusive beliefs led politicians to give free rein to "greed and avarice and not what Vaclav Havel (right) described as a heightened responsibility for the moral state of society."

Havel was the Czech playwright who figured prominently in his country's break with its communist past in 1989 and became president shortly afterwards, a modern epitome of Plato's ideal of the 'philosopher-king' that held philosophers as best equipped to rule a country because of their passion for truth and justice.

Of course, these notions are scoffed at by the hardnosed, realist school of leaders who think of politics as offering success only to those skilled at deploying the wiles of a fox and the strength of a lion.

That period is over

Anwar said the period was over when the notion held sway that Asians had a cultural predisposition to such values as social order, deferred gratification, and respect for hierarchy, in preference to the cacophony of democratic dissent.

He said this was the pet theory of a cadre of Asian authoritarians whose influence had waned. In any case their theory has been deflated by Asian intellectuals like Nobel laureate Amartya Sen (left) who has cogently argued that there was nothing intrinsically Asian about a preference for social conformity over democratic individualism.

Sen posited the contrary view that freedom and democracy are vital factors in wealth creation and social advancement in Asian societies.

Once again Anwar aired his opinion that while the Western world had established strong institutions of democracy, they held no monopoly on its underlying principles.

He reiterated that the theories of liberal democracy's progenitor John Locke were adumbrated by the principles laid down in Prophet Muhammad's Last Sermon, to wit, the sanctity of contracts and property rights, racial equality and women's rights.

These principles were upheld as the higher objectives of Islamic Law by the Andalusian legal scholar, al-Shatibi, in his treatise, maqasid al-Sharia, which sanctify the preservation of religion, life, family and wealth.

Anwar again claimed that the philosophic antecedents of the Enlightenment principles of Locke and Montesquieu that seeded the flowering of democratic government in the West could be found in the the Last sermon and the maqasid al-Sharia.

He said there was a discontinuity between Malaysia's beginnings as a constitutional democracy and its subsequent experience as a nation as its rulers deviated from the original spirit of the Constitution.

"The upshot is that Malaysia's experience as a pseudo democracy has been an utter disaster. A nation blessed with vast wealth and a people with the ability to learn and excel have been left in the lurch by decades of failed policies. Hope in a brighter future has been snuffed out by the blunt instrument of state power and the cancer of corruption," claimed Anwar.

Pakatan has a special responsibility

He said the impetus given to the two-party system by the results of the general elections of March 8, 2008, would be lost if the main values of the democratic societies are not fortified. These were liberty, social pluralism and political constitutionalism.

"The intent of these values and the institutions that mediate the relationship between the citizen and the government is to guard against the exercise of tyranny," he said.

Anwar said an independent and free judiciary, a free press and a legislature that applied moral precepts to its output, are vital to the mediation of the relationship between government and the citizen.

He proposed the concept of democracy articulated by the political scientist Ian Shapiro - that it is "an ideology of opposition as much as it is one of government" - as an animating principle for the two-party system.

"Yet we would be in a state of self-deception, however, if we pinned the hopes for healthy democracies on just one of its attributes," said Anwar.

He said free and fair elections in which all parties are allowed to compete on a level playing field and unobstructed governance by those elected by voters were the other attributes of a vibrant two-party system.

Anwar said all these features were envisaged by the country's founding constitution but the sum of subsequent deviations – 700 amendments to be sure – eventuated in the contorted construct Malaysians are faced with today.

He said the Pakatan coalition had a special responsibility to nurture the new consciousness that has emerged in Malaysian society after March 8, 2008, to "retrieve, revive and reinvigorate the spirit of liberty, individualism, humanism and tolerance" that was the underlying spirit of the founding constitution.

[Read the complete transcript of Anwar's excellent speech here.]