Why classical liberalism will not prosper in Malaysian soil

This piece is a reply to a note of one of my FB friend who gave a very clear and succinct explanation and critique of classical liberalism with particular reference to its impact to Malaysian society. More specifically, my friend’s dialogue partner was the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), the think tank that is propagating classical liberalism. For more on what is classical liberalism, click here. Below is my reply:

I read your piece on classical liberalism with a sense of gratitude for explaining what it is and how it applies to Malaysia. I just wanted to add some thoughts to your piece.

Firstly, I appreciate IDEAS, even if I disagree with their political and economic philosophy. If for nothing else, we are finally getting an outfit which spells out what their philosophy (dare I say ideology?) and their intention to spread it to the wider Malaysian society.

Secondly, I would argue that classical liberalism is already dead even before it hit our shores. The reason is manifold and complex and I do not want to be bogged down with trying to explain the rise and fall of classical liberalism. Suffice to say, the financial meltdown of 2008 has put to rest any lingering (if there was) influence it might had in the place of its birth.

Thirdly, coming back to Malaysia. Classical liberalism is not the real ideological opponent which we should pay our attention to. Our real opponent is its descendant, i.e. neoliberalism – the Asian variant.

Why do I say this? Historically speaking, the Asian economic miracle from Japan to its latest inductee China, the state has played a vital role in ensuring that modernization via the capitalist route took place. The state ensured that no social grouping (particularly labour) can challenge the nascent state nurtured capitalist class in its aim to industralize and modernize its society.

The state was responsible for repressing not just opponents to its economic policy but also those who seek to challenge its political hegemony (read the liberals and other political opponents).

So, what we have here is a free-market (or at least market friendly) state that is authoritarian. Perhaps, the label for this kind of economic and political development recipe is best called “Democracy, Asian style” (as termed by Lee Kuan Yew).

The emphasis here is economic development at the expense of democratic institutions and habits. My greatest fear is that we are witnessing an historic alternative to the trajectory of Western liberal/capitalist society. In its place, we have a capitalism without democracy (as defined by the raft of rights and democratic institutions understood by classical liberalism).

I believe the real ideological battle is not with the classical liberal thinkers such as Locke & co but rather the doyen of the modernization school, i.e. Samuel P. Huntington (in particular his book “Political order in Changing Society”).

Space does not permit me to give concrete Malaysian examples of the points of I made above but the Mahathir era is definitely a very clear example of this type of political development.

I will end here after giving such a long rambling of my unsystematic thoughts. Looking forward to reading your thoughts.

Your FB friend,

~ Christopher Chong


About Chris

See my "About me" page.

Posted on August 4, 2011, in Malaysia, Philosophy, Politics. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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