The term comes from the Greek word dēmokratía which means “rule of the people” which was coined from demos or “people” and kratos meaning “power”, in the middle of the 5th-4th century BC to denote the political systems then existing in some Greek city-states, notably Athens following a popular uprising in 508 BC overthrowing the Roman monarchy.
Hence, the “rule of the people” and “people power” are nothing new. These were words in ancient Greek and were practised 2,500 years ago.
It is, however, interesting to note that the concept and principles of democracy was continuously evolving, as a reaction to the concentration and abuse of power by the rulers and government.
It is evolving because, even though it is often said that the theory of modern democracy was not formulated until the Age of Enlightment (17th/18th centuries), the American Revolution and the French Revolution when philosophers defined the essential elements of democracy, it has always been central to democratic principle and concept: the separation of powers, basic civil / human rights and fundamental liberty.
This is what it was like in Athen, 2500 years ago:
The assembly was composed of men over the age of 30 and met about three times a month. They made important decisions for Athens, such as whether or not ostracism was justified. Decisions made by the assembly were the final word. The assembly could be made up of as many as 6,000 men.
The Executive Council
The executive council, or boule, was in charge of preparing the agenda for the assembly. To make up the council 50 citizens from each area were chosen by lot each year. The executive council was also in charge of the everyday running of the state including finances, authority issues, and foreign relations among other things.
The Judicial System
Part of Athenian democracy was a court system with an appeals court and a body of jurors whose decision was final. A jury could consist of anywhere from 200 to 1000 men and trials were conducted under the supervision of magistrates. The juries were selected at the last minute from the 10 precincts, which helped to avoid bribery.
Courts saw two types of cases: cases brought by a private party against another private party and public cases brought by a private party for the people of the state. Court cases ran similar to modern courts. Each party was allowed to speak for an equal length of time and then witnesses were called. Witnesses could not include women, children, and slaves. Then the jury would deliberate and vote using ballots (items placed in urns). Their decision of either conviction or acquittal was usually final.
Under this system, the citizens of Athen had an amazing amount of power.
However, democratic political structures have not been stable and they are not perfect. It breeds authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, as in the case of Julius Caesar, who refused to take instructions from the Senate. He was considered a threat to democracy and he was murdered by 60 senators.
Indeed, “democracy” is a funny being.
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) who used his democratic power to free slavery and brought the democratic principles of liberty and equality for all to its height then, had thought that democracy is the best, that a “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Yet, Winston Churchill (1874-1965), the famous UK Prime Minister, have thought that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”. Obviously, he believed that there is another form of government that is better than democracy but we have yet to find it.
Then, why should we find another form of government when democracy promises us the “rule of the people” and “people power”.
If it is the people who rules, if the power is vested with the people, are we not saying that the “People is the Boss”?If it is the people who rules, if the power is vested with the people, no reason for the people to compromise it with another form of government.
Tan Sri Dr James Masing has a different understanding of democracy. He said that it is essence of democratic principle that the people “Jangan lawan tauke” (Don’t fight with the Boss or “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”) and “The rakyat (people) are the boss on polling day, they elect who should be the Boss of their lives for the next 5 years”.
Boss For A Day
In my opinion, the understanding of democracy as a form of governance as a mere electoral exercise is shallow.
How can the people be boss only for a day and elected officials be the boss for 5 years? That makes the people-as-boss principle of democracy rather shaky, even farcical.
Tan Sri Dr James Masing knows it. He obtained his PhD doctorate degree in anthropology studies and he is an intelligent man. He twisted and distorted the ideals of democracy for a purpose, to defend Datuk Mong Dagang, the Assistant Minister of Modernization of Agriculture.
But, is Datuk Mong Dagang, or rather what he had done, defensible?
We refer to the 2 letters, one he wrote as an assistant minister instructing the withdrawal of government assistance to a needy farmer, the other he wrote as an state assemblyman claiming to represent all the village folks to dispose off their NCR land and seeking enormous kickbacks in return. (see annexures)
When the 2 letters were exposed, the minister and the deputy minister had made no effort to apologize for the wrongful acts. The physically challenged farmer was instead blamed for campaigning for the opposition and seemingly, for not understanding that the government is actually the boss who can legislate and demanded that the people should walk backwards for as long as they are in power.
The “Sarawak Report” has in-depth investigative reports and detailed exposé to show that the relegation of democracy to a form of governance merely allowing the people to participate in electoral exercise serves the interests of the Barisan Nasional leaders, their family members and their cronies.
That explains why we are unrivalled, in producing politicians who are billionaires and multi millionaires.
People As The Boss
Malaysians have come to the political crossroad. Our country is rich with natural resources, yet we are heading towards national economic melt-down.
Our federal government debts have ballooned since 2000 (RM100 billion) and it has escalated sharply since 2005 and is expected to reach RM495 billion by the end of this year, with each Malaysian young and old having an all time high per capita debt of RM17,000.00 each.
The government says that this is alright because the figure represents 54% of our GDP, still below the 55% which is allowed by our laws.
However, it has been revealed that there is another RM97 billion loans guaranteed as public debts which are unaccounted by the federal government. To add this RM97 billion would have pushed our national debts to 62% of our GDP, well above the 55% which is allowed by our laws. And our actual per capita debt should have been more than RM20,000.00.
It will only get worse should the BN rule the country for another 5 years. The BN’s records show that it is not capable of bringing changes which are necessary to bring the country into the new era.
The Prime Minister was elected into Parliament when he was in his twenties. Having served in numerous capacities in the BN government for almost 40 years, the BN culture and practice are so entrenched that it is futile to hope that he has the courage and leadership quality to lift the country out of its caldron.
Hence, his preparation for the coming general election is to continue to dish out more sweets and goodies, hoping that the people will again entrust them with the mandate to rule the country for the next 5 years.
Under the BN, the people will be boss for a day and they will be governed for the next 5 years.
It is therefore opportune, at this juncture, that we remind ourselves the basic principles of democracy, that the “People are the Boss”.
2,500 years ago, when democracy was found, the citizen of Athen made all the decisions at the Assembly, the Executive Councils and the Courts. There was “people power” and “rule of the people”.
There was good citizenship when citizens accept the responsibility and accountability of participating in governance, in the management of the country.
Today, our citizens are not given the chance to make decisions in the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. The voices of elected opposition representatives are often muted and ignored too.
However, I strongly believe that democracy being vesting the power with the people purports the determination and participation of the citizens in governance only to be limited by themselves.
We can and should have our say in formulation and changes in the policies, we can and should have our say in the legislatures and we can and should have a say to right the wrongs, the injustices, the corruption, the abuses and wastages occasioned by the government.
We are the Boss, unless we allowed others to be boss.
Therefore, to ensure that there is democracy, we must therefore strengthen good citizenship amongst the civil society to shoulder the responsibility of participating in governance everyday.
In fact, we have seen the people demanding to have their say in governance. The most popularly civil movement referred to are the Hindraf and Bersih rallies in 2007. And lately, Bersih 2.0, Lynas, the Women’s Day Himpunan Ungu, the gatherings to demand for native land rights, mother tongue language, freedom of assembly, the independence of judiciary and others.
When the people rise up to voice their concerns and to make their stance, positive changes in governance will result. The abolishing of ISA, the institution of Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reform, the withholding of operation permit to Lynas are the positive outcome that we have witnessed.
The principle of people-as-boss should always retain its authority and primacy over governance. If people are the boss, then the boss is served, not governed.
Good citizenship reflects the people as boss. Beyond that, good citizenship places in the hands of the people responsibility and accountability in the management of the country. Democracy’s “for the people, by the people, of the people” principle becomes alive only when citizens accept the responsibility and accountability of participating in governance.