Mahathir questions Filipino-style democracy

by RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 11 2012 04:06 PM | Updated as of Jun 12 2012 01:22 AM

'Unbridled democracy yields mediocre leaders,' says ex-Malaysian PM

MANILA, Philippines - Malaysia’s Prime Minister of 22 years, Mahathir Mohamad today questioned Filipino-style democracy and raised the spectre of mediocre political leadership as the Philippines marks its 114th Independence Day.

Mahathir was conferred an Honorary Professor Title by the University of Santo Tomas this morning.

In his conferment speech, Mahathir said, “No doubt democracy is being practised by this country. But is it really what democracy is all about? Is democracy the end or the means? If we think that democracy is the end, then well and good. But why did we change from autocracy to democracy? Wasn’t it because autocracy had failed to deliver the good life that we wanted? We believed that since it is the people who disapproved of autocracy, then if the people were to rule the country, then surely they would rule themselves well.”

Mahathir reminded his Filipinos audience that one pitfall of unbridled democracy is a poor leadership. “The leader in particular must be incorruptible. His being so will lessen the level of corruption among those under him. There will still be corruption but the degree would be less…In every country there are great people who should lead, but seeing the filth in politics ad the fears of those who come into power they are unwilling to take the risk. And so very often the leaders are mediocre people at best, present company accepted.”

Mahathir later on added, “We cannot assume majority of the people must be intelligent. In many instances, majority is not intelligent and minority refuses to be Involved because they think politics is dirty. If you don’t manage democracy well it is not going to pay dividends.“

Later on in the open forum, Mahathir was told that his contemporary, former President Ferdiand Marcos was a dictator. His response, “Marcos was elected, he was elected after he was elected, power corrupts that’s what happens to him. your choosing him was still a democratic procedure, look what happens when you make a wrong choice.”

Unstable democracies, technological advances

Mahathir likewise pointed out that as seen in other countries, unbridled democracy is bad since it makes countries unstable.

“We are living in a tumultuous world, in a world of political turmoil, in a world of economic turmoil, in a world of social turmoil. We are seeing the collapse of moral values and of beliefs. All the things that we used to value are being questioned, scrutinised and in many cases rejected, to be replaced by what is called freedom, freedom which is enjoyed by some at the expense of others, often at the expense of the community as a whole.”

Mahathir pointed out that technology has been abused to undermine governments. “ We are seeing advances in technology, advances which bring great benefits but which are also open to abuses, negating much of the benefits. Privacy is being invaded. Secrets, including sensitive military secrets are being leaked in the name of freedom of information.  The whistle-blowers are hailed as heroes.  Nothing is sacred any more.”

Mahathir added, “When you create a problem by revealing people's official secrets, something has to be done about it.”

Demoracy and poverty

Mahathir noted that democracy was supposed to be the answer to poverty under authoritarian regimes, yet in many cases, it failed to bring progress.

“Democracy works only when the people understand the limitations of democracy. When people think only of the freedoms of democracy and know nothing of the implied responsibilities, democracy will not bring the goodness that it promises. Instead it will result only in instability and instability will not permit development to take place and the people to enjoy the benefits of freedom and the rights that democracy promises. No sooner is a Government elected when the losers would hold demonstrations and general strikes accusing the Government of malpractices.“

Mahathir argued that people cannot govern themselves on their own, since not everyone will be competent to do so. “Why has democracy not delivered the good life we expected of it? Simply put, it is impossible for the people to rule themselves. There are too many of them and they cannot agree on anything. Government of the people, by the people and for the people would result in a stalemate, in no Government at all, in anarchy.”

Mahathir used this to justify his country’s brand of democracy. “So what do we do? Do we accept the failures of democracy or de we make some adjustments and sacrifice some of the liberalism of democracy so we may extract something from the system? I will admit freely that Malaysia is not a liberal democracy. We see democracy principally as providing an “easy way” to change Governments. No revolution, no civil wars, no Arab spring. Just vote and the Government will be brought down or re-elected according to the wishes of the people.”

Corruption and power

Mahathir pointed out that those who overstay in power do so to protect themselves from being haunted by their past in government.

“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is a truism. But if one is frequently reminded that one day one will lose power and when that happens, others will hound you and make life miserable for you, that might help you overcome temptations. The more corrupt they are, the more they would want to hold the position for life.  They fear giving up power, because they know the people would rise and seek to punish them, even killing them.”

In the 2nd half of his speech, Mahathir shared lessons from his own term as Malaysia’s leader. One lesson is the need to minimize conflicts among its different races. ”This sharing and recognition of each others’ position reduced much of the tendency to friction between the races and ensured relative political stability - a necessity for economic development of the country.  Unfortunately, it makes national unity practically impossible.”

Need for industrialization, education

Mahathir also stressed the importance of industrializing.” Industrialisation became necessary because agriculture could not create enough jobs for the growing population. Jobless people threaten the stability of the country and undermine the very effort to create the jobs that they need.”

Mahathir said government must welcome more foreign direct investments, and help businesses. ”At a time when newly-independent countries were nationalising foreign-owned industries and businesses, we decided to invite foreigners, including the former colonial masters to come back and invest in industries in Malaysia.”

“Then we thought that Government must help businesses to succeed. The Japanese were condemned for doing this. But we saw no reason why Government should not help business to make profits. Twenty-eight per cent of the profits by businesses belong to the Government anyway through the corporate tax they had to pay. Basically the Government was working for its 28% of the profit. We were not just helping the businessmen to make profits.”

Mahathir said investments in education were made in this regard. “To increase the revenue of the people Government spent almost 25% of the national budget on education and training. Thus foreign as well as local investors were assured of a supply of educated and well trained staff.”

Successful ASEAN

Towards the end of his speech, Mahathir lauded the Association of SouthEast Asian nations for its help to its member-nations.

”I believe that ASEAN is the most successful of the groupings of developing countries, But in these troubled times, we need to come closer together, to cooperate more productively and to make use of our half a billion people as a market in order to gain more offsets for enlarging and diversifying our industries.  We also need to cooperate with the three dynamic Northeast Asian countries. 

" Malaysia had proposed an East Asian Economic Community to maximise the strength of our countries.  Things are finally moving in that direction.”

Mahathir added, “Really, the countries of Southeast Asia have great potentials for growth, prosperity and empowerment. All we need is people and leaders who love their country and people more than they love themselves.”

Doctors and lawyers

Mahathir also candidly answered questions from a panel of recators and the media after his speech.

Mahathir, a doctor by profession, was asked who between doctors and lawyers made better leaders. His reply: “Doctors do have certain advantage, we are methodical in the way we approach problems to cure a person … we look at the history doing physical exam and doing lab test before we conclude. He may be suffering from 3 different diseases and see which to experiment first. If the patient survives, good, If he dies, sorry. Lawyers argue too much.”

Nearly a decade after leaving office, Mahathir said he is far from retiring. “I'm still busy, I'm still much involved with the poltiics of the country.”

Asked about the one lesson he wants the next set of leaders to learn, Mahathir said, “If you want to be a leader, be a leader. If you want to think about yourself, there's no place for your own personal needs as a leader.”