Participatory democracy: a Malaysian attempt

Arveent Kathirtchelvan was interviewed by BFM radio on the matters discussed in this article. Listen to the interview here.

I recently wrote an article where I picked apart the notion of parliamentary democracy as it is practiced in Malaysia and made the statement that it is not what our nation needs. The article itself was perhaps a little sensational. I didn’t reject parliamentary democracy in its entirety, rather the notion that in its current form it disempowers the common man and only empowers the elite. To understand the alternative to this we must ask at least two questions. One, what is the end-state that we want? Two, how do we achieve this end-state? In this article, I will explore the first of these questions.

What are we, then, trying to achieve? As I stated in the previous article, the problem with the current political system is the alienation of the common man from making important decisions as a collective unit with their fellow countrymen. There is no room to raise the issues faced by common Malaysians to parliament outside of expecting elected officials to do their jobs. However, this is demonstrably a huge pitfall as the people parliamentarians really listen to are their wealthy benefactors. To fish for votes, they simply tack on a veneer of identity politics, with the ethnofascist PN/BN/MN what have you seemingly fighting for Malay-Muslim supremacy and the mainstream opposition in Pakatan Harapan merely playing the “we are better than them” role without any deep reformism.

This is why a significant portion of the latter were quickly subsumed into the former last year without common Malaysians having a say. The problem of party hopping alone can show this clearly. What we need is a robust political system that encourages direct participation of common Malaysians and ensures there is enough power to hold elected officials accountable. For this, we must be much more granular than we are now and tackle the problem at the root, i.e the residential areas of the people.

At the lowest level of governance, there must be set up People’s Councils. This kind of organisation can be built from the skeleton of the Rukun Tetangga scheme where volunteers from a certain housing area get together and form a neighbourhood watch. This scheme, as all good things in life, has now eroded to be non-existent in most areas and infiltrated by fascist political parties. In the past, Rukun Tetangga was an avenue to get to know and understand one’s neighbours whilst planning events and gatherings at a local level. This should be brought back to combat the atomisation and the alienation brought on by capitalism. We must unite from the ground-up to combat the insidiousness that capital brings.

This model can allow for independent decision making at the lowest level for the community. For example, knowing the social conditions of each family, say knowing who is employed or not, can allow for organising the masses for a common cause, say fundraising to establish a cooperative owned by everyone who donated to provide for employment. Empowering this model, regular mass meetings should be organised by the People’s Councils where residents can come participate to discuss and debate pertinent issues. Local issues can be brought up, discussed and a decision can be taken as one so that demands can be sought from the relevant parties. This can be the basic unit of organisation that get the people involved with local politics.

This unit can also be used to discuss larger issues. For example, national questions like police brutality and race relations can be discussed at this level as well, forming a synthesis from a clash of different ideas. Discussing and taking decisions on economic matters, such as which sectors to focus on and what direction state-owned enterprises should move towards would link the common man to the economy much closer than before as well. We must remember that society, politics and the economy are all inter-linked. If we are to empower truly the common man, political power cannot be differentiated from economic power, both must be subject to their authority.

On the political front, we need to include the responsibility to debate and determine candidates for elections in those areas. If we take the People’s Councils, there must be officers to undertake the administrative tasks. Calling meetings, collecting feedback and feeding this to higher councils would take dedicated workers to undertake. As these become the representatives of the residents of that area, it is only right that the people get to vote on who the candidates for these positions are and eventually vote amongst them to determine which of them win.

Moving further from this, we can think about how these local area people can decide who runs for election in their constituencies. For example, a local constituency would have a few People’s Councils. Each of these councils can come up with a list of candidates to run in general elections to be voted in by all the people in that constituency. For this, a higher council, named the Local Council, from representatives of the lower council can be formed to collect each candidate-hopeful’s platform. These can be taken to the lower council to be debated pre-election and approval. Post-election, this council can be a platform at which all local issues in a constituency can be brought to be discussed and voted on to be taken actions by the candidate in the State Legislative Assembly.

Similarly, higher councils can be formed for state and federal constituencies, each made up of a few local and state constituencies respectively. For the sake of the argument let’s call these Federal Councils and State Councils. This can go up to a Supreme Council of the representatives of all Federal Councils. Additionally, any representative of the councils and any elected representative of the constituencies should be liable to be recalled from their post by the lower councils, with specific approval from the lowest relevant councils. This way, the Supreme Council members and elected officials are directly beholden to the people, with a real incentive not to go back on their word.

This model of democracy does two things. One, it involves as many people as possible with the political process from the grassroots up. Two, it puts the most power directly in the hands of the people at every level, up to the Supreme Council which can function as a mirror image of Parliament to ensure parliamentarians live up to their words. In fact, we can go one step further and abolish parliament and state legislative assemblies and just use the State and Federal councils. The members of these councils are elected anyway, and party politics distorted by the amount of capital is minimised within the council elections due to the direct involvement of the masses.

In addition to this, Workers’ Councils must be formed as unions to augment this particular brand of democracy. This is because it is the workers who know the realities of their particular sector in terms of potential output, workforce needed and resources to be used. I have argued before in a previous article that businesses must be turned into workers’ cooperatives managed by workers themselves, starting from GLCs. Along with this, these workers unions can be unified under a national umbrella that can then present their views to the Supreme Council directly. This can allow the common man a transparent look at the nation’s economy and have a say in it.

The People’s Councils and Workers Councils working together from two directions towards determining the political and economic direction of the country may be daunting, especially coming from the capitalistic norm of a few elites making these decisions. However, we should not discount the ingenuity of the masses. Workers who interact with other people in the People’s Council learn the needs of the people on the ground, methods of organisation and are more determined of their rights in the workplace. This strengthens the Workers’ Council. Similarly, people in the People’s Council interacting with the Workers’ Council learn of the intricacies in production and sentiments of the workers, thus they gain wisdom beyond their scope. Hence, everyone learns. We should not let any conception of the masses not being ready to shoulder this responsibility be the gateway by which the rich elite continue their stranglehold. This will be more detailed in the next part of this article.

Arveent Kathirtchelvan
Head of Science and Technology Bureau,
Pemuda Sosialis,
Parti Sosialis Malaysia

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