Is Malaysia Democratic? Here's What These International NGOs And Political Experts Say

Their reasons contradict Dr Salleh's claim that Malaysia's democracy is "not dead".

Cover image via The Rakyat Post/Astro Awani (edited)

On 23 January, Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Dr Salleh Said Keruak wrote that Malaysia's democracy is not as bad as what some people might think

Image via Sabahkini

In a blog post, Dr Salleh cited scores given by international NGOs such as the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)'s Democracy Index and Freedom House's Freedom In The World rankings

In 2016's Democracy Index, Malaysia was given 6.54 (Flawed Democracy) while in the new Freedom of the World 2018, Malaysia was given a "partly free" ranking together with Singapore.

Dr Salleh argued that Malaysia's democracy is okay, and the "partly free" ranking is not a reflection of a "dead democracy" or oppression in the country

Dr Salleh claimed that the "partly free" ranking for Malaysia is a reflection of some necessary "preventive acts" for the country's safety.

However, Freedom House's 2017 report for Malaysia stated that the country has been "suppressing criticism through restrictive speech laws and politicised prosecutions of opposition leaders" despite holding regular elections.

Expert on democratisation in ASEAN countries, Dr Andreas Ufen also claimed that the democratisation of Malaysia has been blocked for a long time not only due to the prevalence of repression, but also a fragmented political opposition.

Image via Freedom House

This was also picked up by the CIRI Human Rights Project, a dataset that was created using information of 202 countries from 1981 to 2011. It includes categories such as level of political imprisonment and freedom of elections.

Take a look at the scores given to Malaysia in these tree maps. Each box represents a year.

A blue box means that the country was the freest in that category for that year, and the rest of the time it was either partly free or not free at all. 

1996 was the only year where Malaysia did not jail anyone based on political reasons. Freedom of elections was also the highest in the years 1982-1983, 1985-1986 and 1988-1989. 

There are a few areas where countries are evaluated in to check if they are full democracies

Full democracies like US and UK generally have mostly blue boxes in the CIRI categories, especially for their freedom of elections. They also score more than 8 in EIU's Democracy Index and above 80 for Freedom in the World to be considered as full democracies.

The EIU evaluates countries based on five main categories:

-      Electoral process and pluralism

-      Functioning of government

-      Political participation

-      Democratic political culture

-      Civil liberties

To be considered a full democracy, a country has to score the highest (1) in most aspects of these areas. If not, the country either receives a moderate score (0.5) or lowest (0). 

When a country is "partly free" it doesn't mean it is a democracy. In fact, there's a term for half democracy, half autocracy.

Basically, countries like Malaysia are only half a democracy because we do hold regular elections, but half autocratic because there are limited freedoms. 

Many experts created different names for countries like Malaysia, such as "repressive-responsive regime", "illiberal regime", "limited multiparty" and the most commonly used term, "electoral authoritarian regime" (EA). 

EA would be the most accurate to summarise EIU's description of Malaysia's "democracy". Some experts used to think that countries like Malaysia have a chance to transition to full democracy, until someone suggested that these countries may be using regular elections to continue autocratic practices.

Image via Astro Awani

Since then, a lot of research has been done based on that assumption because it no longer seemed like countries similar to Malaysia were actually going to become a democracy someday. They argue that elections are held while violating fairness and freedom, and they are used as a feedback mechanism.

Would you call Malaysia a democracy, autocracy or a rojak of both? Let us know in the comments below.

Wanna find out more about why Malaysia is 'flawed'? We've got you covered:

Last year, the Election Commission did a few things to the electoral system:

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