Of democracy, majorities and minorities

Is this the Penang Government’s real message to NGOs?

Although many of us live in a democracy, we often fail to understand what it truly is. Unfortunately, for some of us, including current Penang Chief Minister Chow Kong Yeow, it means majority rule, where decisions are based on choices which have a majority – having more than 50% of the votes.

This is an oversimplified understanding of democracy, and also one that leads to a ton of misconceptions. Malaysians aren’t known for their attention to detail, and have a penchant of misusing phrases, with often comical results.

One such example appears in Chow’s recent press statement rebutting the Pan Island Link 1 Highway, in which he states that “80% supported the project (PIL1), which is the silent majority”.

80 percent of what, or whom? We would assume that he meant “from the Public Forums and Townhall Sessions, presided by The Right Hon Chief Minister of Penang, all comments, feedbacks and concerns from the public has been given due weightage”.

Unfortunately, the statement did not release any details of how Chow derived the 80%, nor was there any survey conducted during any of the public forums or townhall sessions held so far. At best, the organisers provided attendees some forms to fill up as feedback.

It would be a shame to discover that Chow is guilty “plucking figures from the sky”, a crime he himself accused local NGOs of doing recently.

But we digress. The silent majority is a term made popular by US President Nixon in a 1969 speech in which he said, “And so tonight—to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support.”

The actual definition of a silent majority is still debatable, but according to Wikipedia it is “an unspecified large group of people in a country or group who do not express their opinions publicly”.

Therefore, Chow’s use of silent majority is simply political spin. He merely wanted to imply that the majority approved of the project, and those who spoke out were in the minority.

Oh, the best part is he wants everyone to be silent and let the Penang government do whatever they want. In short, keep silent and let me build PIL1!

So what is a healthy democracy?

In a healthy democracy, governments do not fear oversight and participation from civil society and NGOs. They welcome them!

In a healthy democracy, governments do not ignore differing views and various opinions. They embrace them!

In a healthy democracy, government do not try to discredit and drown out opposing voices. They listen to them!

Most importantly, in a healthy democracy, governments do not rule through tyranny of majority.

They protect the rights of the minority, no matter how LOUD and SMALL the minority is.

It is disheartening to see how Chow’s administration has misunderstood the ideas and ideals of democracy.

But then again, when you are in power, you want everyone to know you’re right. So you hate it when someone says you’re wrong.

The facts don’t matter.

Perhaps it’s as simple as that.

By: Mike Tan

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