By Marina Mahathir
IN all the past 55 years, we have been proud of being a democracy, minimalist though it may be.
We elect our Parliament like clockwork every five years or so and everyone is aware that that is the first hurdle they have to get over in order to get into power.
Of course, we have a far from perfect democracy but then there are no perfect ones anywhere.
We can do with a more inclusive and representative government and certainly can do with a more vibrant and free media and more space for alternative viewpoints to be heard.
Still, we like to describe our federation with its constitutional monarchy as a democracy – our democracy. So it rather surprises me that of late, there are voices that seem to say that democracy is a bad thing to have.
For some reason, there are people who think that an elected form of government where people have the power to choose who they want to elect is not a good thing.
Perhaps this is because they are unsure that this type of government will put them into power at all. Some are even going so far as to say that democracy is incompatible with our state religion, Islam.
That’s rather odd because I’ve just been at a conference where an Islamic scholar stated that Islam is the most democratic of religions, because everyone has equal access to God. Yet, he added, most Muslims live in undemocratic states.
This sudden turn in attitude towards democracy has had predictable results. Anyone who talks about democracy is suddenly viewed with suspicion, as if they are advocating that the Devil himself should take over the country.
People’s right to voice critical opinions is suddenly seen as traitorous. The possibility of alternative administrations is deemed taboo, a word that has connotations beyond the mundanity of voting, rather like talking about sex is considered taboo.
If the citizens of a country are not allowed to elect whom they want, then they don’t live in a democracy.
So to say that it is taboo to elect anyone other than the present government is to bring the conversation to a realm that is beyond rational argument.
Somehow nowadays, it is a sin to get our people to think democratically, as if democracy is a religion that teaches immorality.
I remember in my childhood being taught about democracy at school. My teachers would talk about how concepts like apartheid or “the colour bar” were undemocratic.
We held mock elections where we would have candidates and campaigns, including “political” rallies, so that we would understand the whole process of how our leaders are elected.
Of great importance were the issues our “candidates” put up; those who had the best solutions to our issues at school were the ones who would get elected.
Today, I hear that schools are not encouraged to have any such thing in case our children get “funny” ideas.
Instead, we are differentiating children by the way they look and dress, rather than treating all of them as equal.
We expose them to possible discrimination, even violence, even though our Federal Constitution says that every citizen has an equal right to education.
Every day, we have new restrictions on our already limited democracy. We can get arrested for comments we never made just because someone made them on our website or Facebook page.
Some of us, in an already limited job market, find ourselves charged with allegedly working against our own religion even though we are not responsible for anything other than doing our jobs.
Even though both our official religion and Constitution give us rights, these rights are now contested. And contested in such a way that those who shout loudest win, even if their numbers are small.
Yet these same folks would be the first to demand their right to speak should anyone object to what they say.
We need to ask ourselves, how did we come to this state where democracy is confused with “total freedom” and “Westernisation”?
Are Westerners the only ones allowed democracy? In that case, why are thousands of people in those autocratic Middle Eastern countries demanding to have a say in how their countries are run?
Are we somehow undeserving of democracy, of the simple right to have a say?