PM Badawi's op-ed piece in Wall Street Journal Asia

Malaysia’s Democracy Is Strong
By Abdullah Ahmad Badawi

7 December 2007 

This year, Malaysia celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence, what we Malaysians term “merdeka.” In this short period, we have achieved much as a nation. Poverty has been reduced tenfold, a thriving middle class created, and the foundations for a competitive 21st century economy put in place. But our most striking accomplishment is that we have managed all this while maintaining harmony within an ethnically diverse society.
In recent weeks, however, a series of public rallies have attracted international attention, leading some to question our nation’s commitment to democratic freedoms. As Prime Minister and as a Malaysian, I am proud of our nation’s democratic heritage and our continuing respect for free speech, pluralism and fair elections.
Many of the protestors are demanding democratic reforms. All democracies can, of course, be improved upon. That is why our electoral commission recently announced that at the next election, transparent voting boxes will replace the traditional black boxes, indelible ink will be introduced, and observers of all major political parties will be allowed to monitor voting in military bases. The electoral commission is also taking a number of other steps, including updating the voter database.
In all democracies, the right to protest is fundamental, but it is a right that must be matched by a responsibility to respect general public safety. Malaysian law stipulates that marches or rallies must be agreed with the police in advance. If protestors have not sought authorization, then the police are bound by duty to enforce the law and ensure public safety. In exercising this duty, the police must balance the protestors’ rights with the safety and security of normal Malaysians. This is not always an easy balance to strike.
In all multicultural societies, tensions will inevitably surface; Malaysia is no exception. Our common challenge is to ensure that our response to the concerns and grievances of our fellow citizens is compassionate, measured, fair and respectful of the rule of law. In return, we ask that those with grievances display a similar degree of respect and consideration to the government and the society at large.
In this vein, I welcome the recent decision of the Malaysian Bar Council to cancel their planned march on Sunday. But there are others who are far more opportunistic and irresponsible. In the case of two recent demonstrations, the Malaysian police had offered the chance for the organizers to hold their protests in stadiums or other alternative venues. Instead, they chose to take to the streets, disrupting people’s lives and putting themselves and others in harm’s way.
As Prime Minister I am willing to listen to all points of view and concerns that are honestly and reasonably presented. However, we cannot and shall not tolerate those who seek to incite or provoke violence for their own personal gain.
How we address the challenges that have arisen today, in our 50th anniversary of independence, will not only determine the economic future of our great nation, but will become the bedrock that defines our character for generations to come. It is my sincere hope that in Malaysia’s 100th anniversary year, our heirs can be proud that reason, moderation and, most importantly, democracy prevailed. If so, the combination of political stability and our rich cultural and ethnic diversity will ensure that our continuing high levels of economic growth can provide new opportunities for all. This is a goal around which all Malaysians can unite.
Mr. Abdullah is Prime Minister of Malaysia.
* Read BERSIH’s rebuttal to the PM published in AWSJ on 19 Dec 2007.