Saying the D word

It was a hot sunny Friday morning and there I was in a booth looking down on a piece of paper trying to make a decision, there were two faces and I had to tick only one of them. Yup, I was voting in an election but the two faces weren’t Obama & Hillary but two respected elders in my village or Kampong. It was a small election to decide the next head of my village/ Ketua Kampong. And wow, never realized how populated this kampong is until virtually everyone crowded into this small hall belonging to a primary school. It was exciting and frustrating at the same time because you know, not a lot of people in my place have done it before, so it’s fun but most of them didn’t know the whats & the hows of the process. While I was there, a topic came to my head: Democracy. Yes, it’s everyone’s favourite word, Democracy with a capital ‘D’. 

In Brunei, we haven’t had a major public election since 1962.  We’re under a combination of a modern ministerial cabinet and a long held tradition of a monarchy with an addition of a recently reinstated legislative body. Political stability plus oil raised our standard of living therefore we’re happy and peaceful. Not trying to take sides but just stating the facts.

Now back to that word; Democracy – the D word. Bush made it his mission to spread the D word in the middle east. Musharaf has been criticised for not doing the D. So did the Junta at Myanmar and the ruling party at Malaysia who just lost a lot of seats in the recent election because some groups of people, especially non-malay ethnic groups, think that the ruling party did not practice the D. Everybody likes talking about this  D word.

The word Democracy comes from Greek; Demo=People & Kratos=Rule/power. Simply it’s power coming from the people. The most common and widely regarded way of displaying this concept is through election where the people vote for someone to represent his/her interest in their government; Representative Democracy.

But Democracy is really fragile. It is really good in theory but it’s proven to be flawed when put in practical use. Why is that? It had the same problem that theory of Communism, it is based on the assumption that people are predictable. We are dealing with human beings and people are highly unpredictable.

Adding to human’s unpredictability is the nature of Power (with a capital P). You vote, you are exercising Power and some groups of people are simply just not ready to for that amount of Power.

For example,  a group of people being supressed for a long time and suddenly they get a chance to vote in a big type of election like those in the US. How would they react? They would be emotionally unstable and things go chaotic. Everyone would have an opinion on what to do without thinking realistically what is really good for the community. Instead of being constructive, you have the masses fuelled by complains and grievances but without rational solutions.

Take the post-Saddam Iraq or the immediate aftermath of Suharto’s resignation in Indonesia during the financial crisis. You had three parties and then suddenly you had like hundreds of them with each one having little differences between them.  That is the greatest worst case scenario of democracy; volatile masses that acts on emotions.

I remember being dragged into a conversation about ideologies. This friend of mine was talking about various government type/ideologies. Communism, Socialism, Anarchy, Democratic, Dictatorship, etc. He was trying to impress other people by outlining the idea of each one of those ideologies and then he asked me which one I would prefer. I knew what he was doing, I’ll choose one ideology and he’ll shoot me back with the criticism of that particular ideology. Reminded me of my young self who wasted time listing down all the goods and the bads of each ideological type.

I answered his question by telling what I have learned and believed to be a best answer: there are people who are more powerful than you and then there are people who are less powerful than you. This fact can be determined by the constitution or hereditary or military force depending on whatever the ideology of the ruling group. But the simple fact is this; some people are more powerful than others and some are weaker. This basic principle is everywhere; Democratic states, Communist, Socialistic states, dictatorship but the only differences is how the men of power uses its power or how power is distributed. Therefore, it’s not as clear cut as just simply dividing the world with democratic and undemocratic countries; that is just so naive and it’s also a view of the world that seems to drive Bush’s policy.

I’m not against Democracy but just saying that it isn’t as simple as people generally think. Sure, it’s nice to say it and the word gives out this impression of championing freedom, equality, human rights and all that stuff. It’s a good concept but when it comes to putting in practice, other factors needs to be considered such as the traditions of the society, the mindset of the people, the time factor (implementing in stages).

People always point out that it works in USA so it works anywhere easily. Well, USA is different because that nation was built from scratch based on democratic principles. Other nations have long history under a different type of ruling structure. Making a transition to a full democratic system like those in the US takes a long time or impossible, which in that case, a fusion between democracy and traditions is the more likely option to take.

I think my former History teacher said it best during our discussion about Iraq, democracy is something that evolves. I say it is like a plant that needs water to grow rather than a clothing you just simply take and put on.


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