Malaysia’s pace of democratisation has improved only marginally over the years and it remained a “flawed democracy” last year, the same category it occupied in 2008, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) latest findings showed.
The country placed 65th out of 167 nations and federal territories reviewed in the EIU’s Democracy Index 2014, putting it 10 spots ahead of Singapore, but far behind other South-east Asian peers such as Indonesia, which is 49th, and the Philippines in the 53rd spot.
Last year, Malaysia was categorised as a flawed democracy from its aggregate grade of 6.49 out of 10, according to scores tabulated from expert assessments and public surveys.
Flawed democracies are countries that respect basic civil liberties and generally hold free and fair elections, though they may be marred by problems such as infringements on media freedom, said the EIU.
Apart from possible irregularities in elections, a flawed democracy also suffers from other significant weaknesses such as problems in governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation, the EIU said.
Civil society movements in Malaysia have previously alleged that clandestine gerrymandering, the abuse of government machinery, strict media controls and vote-rigging in elections have allowed the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition to stay in power for more than five decades.
Despite the allegations, BN lost five states to the opposition as well as its customary parliamentary supermajority in a 2008 general election that was later described as a “political tsunami”. Allegations of unfair polls arose more strongly after the following general election in 2013, when BN lost the popular vote but remained firmly in power and whittled down the number of opposition-held states to only three.
The EIU findings put Singapore in 75th place last year, under the flawed democracy category, with a score of 6.03. That was an improvement from its “hybrid regime” ranking in 2008, when it came in 82nd place with a score of 5.89.
In its report, the EIU highlighted the notable trend of a growing level of engagement in politics in Asia, including more prominent protests in countries “ranging from supposedly apathetic Singapore through to more active democracies, such as India and Taiwan”. “In Singapore, this shift has been enough to lift the country from the status of hybrid regime to flawed democracy,” the report added.
In response, a Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said: “This index is based on a rigid, ideological position that ignores the fact that democratic governments around the world take different forms, depending on their particular history and national conditions. Singapore is a fully democratic state that pragmatically pursues policies to maximise the social and economic outcomes for our citizens.”
The index considers hybrid regimes as countries with substantial election irregularities that often prevent them from being free and fair. They also tend to see government pressure on opposition parties and candidates and “serious weaknesses” in political culture and civil society, among other factors.
The EIU said the index, a snapshot on the state of democracy worldwide, was based on ratings for 60 indicators grouped into five categories: Electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and political culture.
Based on scores within the five categories, rankings are then assigned according to four types of regimes: Full democracies (8 to 10), flawed democracies (6 to 7.9), hybrid regimes (4 to 5.9), and authoritarian regimes (below 4).
Malaysia and Singapore share their category with 51 other countries. Twenty-four nations were categorised as full democracies, 39 as hybrid regimes and 52 as authoritarian regimes.