Social Justice and Political Change: The Malaysian Experience

16 November 2010


Pendapat Anda?

Lecture by Anwar Ibrahim at the Australian National University, Canberra, Monday, 15th November 2010

I would like to take a moment to express our joy on the release of Aung San Su Kyi. As we all know, her right to political office was denied through the most repressive of means. But driven by her conviction for freedom and democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi soldiered on from strength to strength against all odds. This long overdue freedom will nevertheless give renewed hope for the people of Burma and she will continue to inspire freedom fighters and champions of democracy and justice throughout the world.

Speaking of democracy and justice, I see a clear nexus with the topic at hand. Here in Canberra, no doubt a shining symbol of democracy in Asia, it is apt that I begin my talk on social justice with a clear statement of what democracy entails. Apart from the fundamental requirements of freedom and the rule of law, democracy is also presumed to be defined by the conditions of a free market. And this is where the founding fathers of the French Revolution with their clarion call for liberty, equality and fraternity missed their mark.

This is because a free market is based on competition, and competition, being a zero-sum game has no truck with equality. On the contrary, free market engenders inequality so much so that even the bastions of capitalism such as America and Britain no longer ask whether states ought to intervene in order to reduce these inequities.

The question is to what extent? The invisible hand has remained invisible so often that governments in the free world have not only intervened but have in some cases staked out their territory in areas which were once considered totally off-limits.

Various explanations have been given. The most defensible at least in theory is social justice. According to one view, state intervention is advocated by a “soft-hearted majority” while a “hard-boiled minority” would willingly accept or even rejoice in the inequality.1 This seems to suggest that at least for a certain segment of society, inequality is not seen to be unjust. Defenders of the French Revolution claim that equality has less to do with wealth than with equal treatment before the law. But we all know that deprived of the basic necessities of living, the law is a luxury that the poor man cannot afford. Hence, the need for social justice.

But this begs the question: is there an objective standard of social justice? Philosophers have locked horns on this and I don’t intend to reinvent the wheel here. Nevertheless, to put the issue in proper perspective, from John Locke we are told that “every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own.” We may therefore reasonably deduce that social justice is not in the equation here. John Rawls talks about ‘justice as fairness’ and advocates the notion of distributive justice. Libertarians such as Robert Nozick contend that justice can only be attained through a minimalist state. In other words, there is no room for distributive justice let alone social justice.

In Christianity, particularly under Catholic social teaching, life and dignity of the human person is predicated on the belief that the state must play a moral role to ensure social justice. This is not far from the essence of Mencius’s teachings in advocating that actions are to be judged by their moral correctness, not mere economic benefit. And Islam enjoins that while society may pursue commerce to its fullest, justice and fairness in dealings must remain the chief criterion. Social justice is enjoined in order to establish a humane economy. The point is that advocates of social justice today are in good company and need not feel that they have to be unshaven Bohemian leftists or disgruntled anti-globalization activists to show that they are genuine.

However, you can’t be calling for social justice without expecting political change. Inequalities of wealth, power and status are certainly not the privilege of nations practicing free markets though it is true that in theory socialist states have more egalitarian policies. That’s only the theory because reality bites hard and we know the enormous price that people under socialist regimes have had to pay for the so-called egalitarian lifestyle. To be equally poor is of no consolation. As Martin Luther Jr. once said: “The curse of poverty has no justification.”

Political change is therefore a condition precedent to attaining social justice if it is shown that a society is heading down the road to greater social perdition under its present government. There must be political will to change its socio-economic policies. In this regard, the Economic Transformation Program that was recently unveiled by the Najib administration bears analysis. The numbers are impressive, if not altogether mindboggling. All told, we are looking at more than RM1 trillion in so-called expansionary development and projects calculated at transforming a middle-income economy to a high-income economy.

On closer analysis, however, we are unable to connect the dots to see that critical mass in poverty reduction programs that would be needed to narrow the current gap between the rich and the poor. To seriously address the growing GINI coefficient, general and vague expressions of targeting for higher per capita income simply won’t do. We don’t see concrete plans to address the housing problems of the poor and a blue print for universal free education. We don’t see any comprehensive health care for those who can’t afford private medication and hospitals.

What we see is a frenzied conviction to outdo the megalomaniacal visions of the Mahathir era. We see grandiose designs, humongous structures, buildings taller than the KLCC Twin Towers and other mega projects that are destined to make crony companies outperform others in the share market and the rich and powerful, richer and more powerful. On balance, we see monumental wastage at the expense of the people and the environment. We see the future of our children and the generations to come being sacrificed on the altar of greed and the illegitimate amassing of wealth.

The rent-seeking culture will continue with the manner in which multi-million ringgit contracts are doled out. The issues of governance, transparency and accountability are not addressed even as the indices on transparency and corruption continue to drive investors away. Transforming an economy cannot be done through mere theory –the litmus test is implementation. The condition precedent to passing this test is to put an end to the culture of corruption, rent-seeking, and power abuse.

Now, at this juncture one may well accuse me of being a socialist advocating a welfare state. The answer to that is simple: I make no apology for calling for a more equitable distribution of wealth in as much as I make no apology for maintaining that the safeguarding of fundamental liberties is also one of the main ends of political and social justice. These liberties are of paramount importance but as Amartya Sen has argued, other considerations including that of economic needs are just as vital.

To my mind, he has posed a stunningly simple but compelling question: “Why should the status of intense economic needs, which can be matters of life and death, be lower than that of personal liberties?”2

In my humble view, some basic formulations for the attainment of social justice may be advanced. Governments must be committed to the principle that a more equitable distribution of income is a fundamental precept for the realization of social justice. It is on this platform that I urge my government to undertake integrated plans for poverty reduction in the long run while ensuring a comprehensive support system for the poor and economically marginalized. Economic power must be checked by the principles of governance and accountability. Are we supposed to sit idly by as politicians in public office continue to renege on their promises of social justice while scandalizing the institutions of power with abuse and corrupt practices?

Finally, the discourse on social justice and political change in the context of Malaysia must also be seen in the light of our multi-cultural make up where communal tensions run the risk of being exploited by “sectarian demagoguery”.3 We must therefore reject ideological rigidity and the politics of hate and exclusiveness in all its forms. Politics of this kind engenders divisive barriers whether they are founded on ethnicity, language or religion.

When communal violence erupts and innocent lives are lost, a nation is jolted into the realization that peace and harmony among the people is always a transient phenomenon. One day, it’s there and the next day, it may just come tumbling down under the weight of sectarian strife, or religious conflict or class wars arising from social inequities and economic deprivation.

It is often only after the fact, when events of a cataclysmic nature unfold, that the policy makers and social pundits get jolted to the reality that freedom could be meaningless without food on the table or that the rule of law may still discriminate on grounds of caste, wealth and status.

This is the caveat, the mental construct we should bear in mind when we talk about social justice and political change in Malaysia. It is a stark reminder that peace in our time must be more important than just material progress. In a multi-cultural society like Malaysia’s it is therefore incumbent on leaders to shoulder the responsibility as protectors of this fragility.

In this regard we must condemn in the strongest terms the racist chanting of modern day demagogues. Playing to the gallery is well and good if all we’re looking for is just a good round of applause. But when you have at your disposal the organs of state power and the entire state controlled electronic and print media, the propagation of supremacist doctrines backed by the threat of violence is not only immoral and utterly irresponsible but blatantly criminal.

At the very least, we would expect such leaders to urge for inclusiveness and greater understanding and respect among the communities and not to stoke the fire of racial discord.

To paraphrase Macbeth, they should against the murderer shut the door, not bear the knife themselves.

Thank you.

Pendapat Anda

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