The Role of Opposition Parties in Malaysia

Speech by Parliamentary Opposition Leader, DAP Secretary-General and MP for Kota Melaka, Lim Kit Siang, to the Armed Forces Defence College, Ministry of Defence, Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, 17th July 1984 at 10.35 a.m.

The Role of Opposition Parties in Malaysia

It has been said that in countries as in Africa where there has been no traditional concept of an opposition in their systems, an Opposition leader is not only automatically equated as anti-government, but also as an enemy of the country and people, and must either be incarcerated or put before the firing squad.

Although in Malaysia opposition leaders have not been placed before the firing squad, some of them had been made guests of His Majesty’s Government under the Internal Security Act, and had to bear their share of governmental oppression and repression.

This is because in Malaysia there are also those with this ‘African’ mentality who are hostile to the concept of an Opposition as evinced in a pronouncement by a senior Barisan Nasional leader that “opposition is not a necessary evil, it is both evil and unnecessary.”

There is also no lack of people in Malaysia who equates opposition with treachery and confuses loyalty to the nation with loyalty to the government of the day. I have for instance been told several times in Parliament to leave Malaysia if I did not like the various government policies, when it is the fundamental right of every Malaysian to air his disagreement with any government policy or measure, a litmust test as to whether there is meaningful parliamentary democracy in Malaysia.

When we are talking about the role and effectiveness of opposition political parties, we are in effect talking about the health of the system of parliamentary democracy in the country, based on the principle of government by consent of the people, through Parliament.

Where the principle of parliamentary democracy is given only lip-service, homage given to the crappings rather than the essence of parliamentary democracy (as in having a very impressive Parliament Building but very undemocratic practices and procedures) which has been marked by the growing trend towards authoritarianism with the ever-concentration of political powers in the hands of the Executive at the expense of the Legislature as well as the Judiciary, the role of the Opposition in the Parliamentary system has come under severe onslaught.

I would say that the primary role of the Opposition Parties is to give meaning and to keep alive the system of Parliamentary democracy, to provide greater national stability and long-term security for the nation. I do not have to tell Army officers about the armed struggle of the Malaysian Communist Party to achieve power by revolutionary ^ . This battle is finally a political battle, and in its struggle to keep up the people’s faith in the parliamentary democratic system, the Opposition in Malaysia have played an indispensable role in for which it has never been given credit.

In discharging this role, the Opposition puts forward to the people alternative vision of the Malaysian nation from that of the government, and also acts as a guardian of the people to check the abuses and misuses of power, malpractices, corruption, and insensitivities of the Government to the basic needs and legitimate aspirations of the people.
By working within the system, the Opposition are in fact mobilising national and popular support to have confidence in the system, for if the people loses confidence in the system of parliamentary government, the only winners will be those who want to destroy the parliamentary system of government and replace it with a completely different system of government.

This is why if the people lose confidence in the Opposition, it because it has become ineffective, either because of the Opposition’s own failings or weaknesses or as a result of the deliberate government policy to emasculate the Opposition through undemocratic means, the higher interests of the nation are not being served.

Not being a government, with the power to disburse funds and carry out development programmes, it will not be possible to list out the achievements and contributions of the Opposition in Malaysian nation-building in dollars and cents. The Opposition contribution must be seen in the more intangible, but no less important, achievement of harnessing popular support for the parliamentary system of government, the beneficial and deterrent effects of having an articulate Opposition which is prepared to speak out in Parliament and the State Assemblies as well as outside against all forms of malpractices, abuses of power and injustices.

Without an Opposition, the Government would have found it easier to hush up scandals like the $2,500 Bumiputra Malaysia Finance scandal, the STPM examination papers leakage scandal last year, the high-handed and insensitive government handling of issues like the Papan radioactive waste dump issue in Perak, the College-General issue in Penang, and the Bukit China issue in Malacca.

Without an Opposition, there would be very little government accountability to the public for their stewardship of public finances as well as the ship of state.

Unfortunately, no top government leader has been able to realise that a strong Opposition is not imcompatible with good government. In fact, I would state that a strong Opposition is a pre-condition to good government in a parliamentary democracy, as it would put the Government on its toes.

As a result of this myopic partisan political attitude, these in power has sought by all possible means to render the Opposition ineffective, firstly, by denying to the Opposition the opportunity to secure public support, by imposing undemocratic bans grossly infringing the freedom of speech, expression, assembly and association, as in the ban on public rallies since 1974, the press control to black out Opposition views and news, the use of Radio and Television as propaganda stations for the ruling parties, not to mention Internal Security Act powers; the denial of information to allow the Opposition to know and understand issues of national importance; and finally, the denial of opportunities for the Opposition to operate freely and effectively, as in the steady erosion of the privileges and freedom of MPs in Parliament to represent the people’s views and concerns and to disseminate its stands and views to the general public.

Parliamentary democracy is based on the principle of government by popular consent. This presupposes that the people can freely exercise their right to choose, implying that they have the necessary information to enable them to make an active and intelligent decision of choice of the political, economic, educational, social, cultural issues confronting the nation. This is why although communist systems also have election systems, they are not recognised as democratic, as there is no real freedom of choice for the voters.

In any properly functioning democracy, the mass media plays a distinct role in the machinery of checks and balances, not only in terms of government administration and excesses of power, but also in providing the people with the various visions of society and options of policy, to allow the citizenry to have the conditions whereby they could actually and freely exercise their free democratic choice.

This is not the case in Malaysia, where the mass media have fallen not only into the control but also ownership of the ruling parties.

In these circumstances, the contribution of pressure groups like ALIRAN, Institute of Social Analysis, CAP, EPSM, play a useful role to ensure a more democratic condition to allow the system of parliamentary democracy to operate and succeed. Any attack on these groups or on the institution of the Opposition is no less than an attack on the system and principle of Parliamentary Democracy itself.

I wish to conclude by emphasing that the survival and strengthening of the Opposition is also the survival and strengthening of the system of Parliamentary Democracy itself. It is to the long-term national interest that more Malaysians understand and accept this premise and contribute to its realisation.