Mahathir warns vs 'too much democracy'

MANILA, Philippines – Beware of “too much democracy,” former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told a Filipino audience Monday, June 11, the eve of Philippine Independence Day.

In a lecture at the University of Santo Tomas (UST), Mahathir extolled democracy as “the best system of governance ever devised by man.”

But "democracy works only when people understand the limitations of democracy” itself, warned Mahathir, who delivered the lecture after the UST conferred on him the title honorary professor.

Malaysia's longest-serving prime minister cited advances in technology that often lead to invasions of privacy. Citizens have used freedom of information, he noted, to justify the leaking of sensitive military and state secrets.

“When people think only of the freedoms of democracy, and know nothing about 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 for the people to enjoy the benefits of freedom and the rights that democracy promises,” Mahathir said.

During his lecture, he also stressed the need for “incorruptible” leaders and appropriate strategies to lift a country's economy. (Watch more in the video below.)

Mahathir was known to have curbed dissent during his term as Malaysia's prime minister from 1981 to 2003. At the same time, he led his country's rise to become one of Asia's most prosperous and modernized economies.

Punishments needed

In an interview after his lecture, Mahathir said it is up to nations to decide where to draw the line on the publication of leaked documents. “We have to respect the privacy of people,” he explained.

Asked if the leaking of secret documents ought to be penalized, he said, “When you create problems by revealing people's official secrets, I think something has to be done about it.” 

In recent years, the leaking of information became a more heated issue due to WikiLeaks, an anti-secrecy website that has released secret documents from around the world, including the United States embassy in Manila. (Read: Wiki-what?! The Cablegate Debate.) 

Like Mahathir, UST Civil Law Dean Nilo Divina said democracy will work in the Philippines only if citizens use this freedom responsibly. “Freedom doesn't mean (being able) to do anything you want. It is the ability to do what is good, to do what is right,” Divina said.

Twitter user Michael Mirasol (@flipcritic), however, called attention to Mahathir's points on democracy's limitations. “Strongmen always love to emphasize the limitations as an excuse,” he said.

Mia Casimsiman (@emmanuel42876) added, “Leaders must also learn how to discipline their family and have them live a modest life within their means.”

UST faculty member Jeremiah Opiniano, who attended Mahathir's lecture, meanwhile said Philippine democracy should be given room to grow. “The democratic episode of the Philippines is quite young, less than 30 years old. Sure, we have been hungry for immediate results, but I don’t think the results will come right away,” Opiniano said. - With reports from Buena Bernal/Rappler.com

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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