Let’s not take our democracy for granted.

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Photo courtesy of Sian Howells

During the summer vacation, I was lucky enough to travel to Malaysia with the Global Experiences team here at Lancaster. I didn’t really know much about the country before I arrived, but the trip gave me the chance to learn about and experience a culture extremely different from my own. Beyond the stereotypical tourist experience, I was able to find out about the contemporary political issues that the citizens of Malaysia are facing.

Malaysia’s political system is based on a parliamentary democracy, which mirrors the system of government here in Britain. When considering the meaning of ‘democracy’ we might think about the right to vote, or the right to freedom of speech; rights that we enjoy on a daily basis without a question. I assumed, perhaps naively, that Malaysia would permit the same political freedoms as the UK. After all, the systems of government are very similar. However, I soon found this not to be the case.

I was told that citizens were not allowed to voice their opposition to the government, that state sponsored media dominated the news agenda, and that social media platforms (such as Facebook) are monitored and regulated. This information frustrated me, as I believe that people should have the right to form their own opinions based upon their own research. There were so many questions that I wanted to ask about a political system that was posing as a democracy while suppressing political opposition.

Luckily, I had the opportunity to ask some of my questions upon visiting the Selangor State Assembly. Prominent local politician, Hannah Yeoh, who is a member of the opposition party, was hopeful about the future of the country; but also realistic about the challenges that her party faced when up against government propaganda. I asked her whether people took to the streets to protest, or whether they had to express their opposition to the government in private.

She told me that many people would come out to protest at night, but that there was always a fear that their actions would catch up with them. I thought about this in contrast to the freedom that we have to protest on the streets here if we disagree with government policy. Here at Lancaster, think about the recent protests that the Students Union has initiated against the rise in parking charges on campus, and the ‘Pay more, get less’ campaign that is currently underway to protest the planned increases in campus rent costs. Imagine if our right to protest as a student body was restricted, or worse- taken away completely.

I decided to do some more research into the suppression of freedom of speech, as well as the issue of voting in Malaysia. It is widely acknowledged that Malaysia’s government has cracked down on free speech in recent times, with government opposition being a key target. In a similar manner to Trump, the Prime Minister was quick to dismiss these reports as “fake news”. A report by Human Rights Watch acknowledged individuals who were facing criminal charges for their social media posts. Members of the opposition party have also given warnings of election fraud in the past. These are issues that we don’t necessarily think about, but they definitely are not exclusive to Malaysia.

This led me to question whether we take our democracy for granted here in the UK. Freedom of speech is vital in a democracy so that we can formulate our own opinions and hold our representatives to account. I couldn’t imagine not being able to openly express my own opinions on certain political issues. Within this framework of free speech, we should also be willing to listen to others and their views on certain issues.

There seems to be a reluctance to engage in dialogue with people who have different political beliefs to our own. This cognitive dissonance, where we only surround ourselves with the things that we believe, is actually hindering our understanding of ‘the other side’, and dividing us further. Instead, we should embrace freedom of speech from all political ideologies. Instead of marginalising certain opinions, we should listen to them, try to understand them, and then engage in conversation and debate to reach a common ground. We are lucky to have the ability to do this, rather than being told what to believe by government controlled media.

Using our voice can also constitute voting in our local and national elections. Many of us can view voting in an election unfavourably, as if it is just another thing on the ‘to do’ list. We all saw the viral clip of ‘Brenda from Bristol’ when the 2017 general election was announced. You might wonder if and how your vote will make a difference, especially on a national level, where the first-past-the-post system might not accurately represent the actual number of votes that each party receives.

However, the recent election has shown that if we use our vote, then we can make a difference. In the 2017 election, 66.4% of 18-24 year olds voted which was the highest turnout in this age group since 1992. Cat Smith increased her vote share by 12.8% in 2017. This was down to increased political engagement in what was perceived to be a critical election. Although this was a success for the youth vote, I believe we still have a long way to go in engaging with the political process.

For students, one way in which we can engage with democracy here at Lancaster is by voting in the upcoming JCR and part time officer elections. Better yet, if you believe that you can make a change in someway, then nominate yourself for an elected position. Talk to people and try to understand their views on different issues. Get involved with campaigns and protests that are occurring on campus. Most importantly, do your research, and appreciate that you can form your own opinions and use your voice for change. After all, this is what democracy should be about.