A New Social Democratic Contract for Asia
Keynote speech by Lim Guan Eng
SocDem Asia 10th Anniversary “Breaking Through: A Decade of Social Democratic Struggles and Victories”
29-31 August 2019 / Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Dear friends, or more affectionately in Malay, rakan-rakan seperjuangan,
I want to thank SocDem Asia for bringing us together under the auspices of celebrating democracy in Asia.
It is remarkable that in this room we have so much linguistic diversity and cultural differences, but the democratic spirit is still our common denominator and our shared language of struggle. Your attendance today proves that it cuts across any language, cultural and geographical barriers.
Our SocDem alliance is now a decade-old. In addition to the public faces of SocDem Asia, the people who have laboured silently behind the scenes to maintain our alliance deserve to be recognised: Marlon, Nando, Ana, Shenna, Carlo, Ranee and Mian. Let’s give them a round of applause.
Since we first decided to come together in 2009 in a show of solidarity, we have grown from an initial nine member-parties to fourteen currently, with many more eager to join. Let us work hand-in-hand to keep this momentum going.
Prior to the founding of this movement, it hasn’t been a smooth-sailing journey for some of us. Throughout the 1990s into the mid-2000s, DAP was an embattled party on many fronts. I myself was jailed in 1998 on false charges that is possible only when an authoritarian state has access to unchecked power.
Between the years 1990 to 2004, DAP’s parliamentary strength was slowly chipped away. For a while, it seemed like the dreams of democracy was losing its life in Malaysia. But suddenly, decades of grassroots organising, and our steadfast belief in our principles was noticed by the people. After 2008, when we first won state power, we doubled down on our beliefs, working immediately to correct the unspeakable horrors of authoritarianism. In the last decade, although it was an uphill battle to unseat a 52 year-old regime that was suffocating my country, we managed to pull off the seemingly impossible.
I am recounting these experiences not because I am contented with looking towards the past on a job well done. While we certainly have made the successful transition into democracy, we have only just begun the critical work of rebuilding it. My party’s past struggles are historical footnotes compared to the work that we have to do to secure a socially just world for generations to come.
In today’s infinitely more complex world, we need to kickstart an honest conversation on how to make democracy relevant to the socio-political challenges of today.
After all, the young democrats of tomorrow will inherit a world that is more polarised, where work is precarious, and where the routes to middle-class status is diminishing. All of these have reduced people’s faith in democracy. In its place, people have turned to populist visions that offer no real political alternatives, except a convenient avenue for scapegoating, for anger to be vented but not resolved. The result is deepening social divisions while the urgent problems we have to confront remain intact.
How do we work against this rising tide of fringe forces tearing apart our social fabric? These challenges call for leaders who can offer political alternatives to the status quo. It is time to put what we have discussed in the past ten years into action. Only a social democratic agenda that emphasises social justice, sustainable development and progressive ideas at its core can heal our divided societies. In short, a new social democratic contract for the people is needed.
This renewed social democratic contract will have to respond first and foremost to the governance gap we have in the area of work. By this, I am referring to the increasing role that technology has to play in the workplace. The future of work need not be a fatalistic vision of technology overtaking human labour. As long as we take active steps to prepare our workforce for these technological disruptions, as well as ensure that opportunities for lifelong learning are accessible to all, technology can be easily be harnessed for good.
But world leaders must come to a reckoning that technology’s benefits will not be evenly distributed, no matter how much we prepare our people for the rise of the digital economy. The tech utopia is a myth we can ill-afford. They are those bound to be left behind in a world where digital growth is concentrated in a segment of society. For this, only the traditional instruments of taxation and redistribution can reduce the digital divide. I am very proud to say that Malaysia will be a pioneer country when we plan to introduce a digital taxation plan in 2020. In this way, the taxes will spread the benefits of growth across our society, supporting old economic functions while encouraging them to upgrade. Digital taxes must sustain part of the old economy so that we can engineer a gentler, softer and kinder landing for those left behind.
What I have outlined thus far is what I like to call putting the people’s economy back into the growth agenda. This new social democratic contract that we offer as an alternative to populism will enshrine a more humanistic vision of development at the core of our governance philosophy. Increasingly we must recognise that populist sentiments have roots in the growing job insecurity of the people as traditional patterns of work are disrupted. This restructuring of the economy is compounded by the fact that globally economic recovery has primarily been concentrated in the hands of a select few, leaving many working people behind. Our social democratic vision must work hard to broaden the terms of social inclusion and put people’s wellbeing at the heart of the policies we formulate.
I am proud to announce that one of the signature measures the Harapan coalition implemented once in power was to introduce a free insurance scheme. Through this programme, we offer protection for critical illnesses for the less privileged. We recognise the people’s hardship and we will work towards improving the working people’s living conditions.
The ‘people’s economy’ will not be complete without the broad participation of all segments of society. What I am offering as a new social democratic alternative is not just piecemeal measures to make the lives of the working people more bearable. These are mere ‘band-aid’ policies that will not correct the worst effects of unchecked growth. Though this might seem far-fetched now, I hope that all segments of society will work together to put in place a more humane social system.
What does this mean? This means that the private sector will have to put its people’s wellbeing and skills first. For example, employers have to make its workplace friendly to women and prioritise its own people’s talent development. Afterall, a well cared-for workforce is a productive workforce. It also means that the government will play a guiding role, ensuring that healthy economic growth is equitably distributed to all. No longer can the state take a backseat in these developments. Rather, as representatives of the people, we play an important role in making sure the interests of the people prevail at the end.
The final piece of the puzzle in this social democratic alternative is better communication between government and its people. Increasingly, all democracies face the problem of a perceived democratic deficit. Populists have concentrated their critiques on the supposed neglect of political elites for the common people. Such negative perceptions have only made governing harder, as each positive legislation we introduce for the people is drowned out by a distracting chorus of anger and divisive sentiments. There is no denying that in the face of a proliferating number of new and traditional media, we face new problems of communicating to the people.
Social democrats have to re-energise the traditional institutions of democratic representation, ensuring that these channels of communication between government and the people are constantly open. Only then can the government continually function as an effective mediator of the people’s interests. At the same time, we have to keep up with the times, investing in new digital media that reduces the distance between government and the people we serve. At all times, we will have to communicate a message of hope and solidarity in order to drown out the vitriol and hatred of extremist forces.
I am confident that at the end of the day, our social democratic agenda is the most feasible and just plan for our citizens. Finally, before I end my speech, I would like to congratulate all for making SocDem Asia a success for the past ten years. Together, we will make it relevant for ten and twenty years more. Thank you so much.
Lim Guan Eng,
Secretary-General, DAP Malaysia
Minister for Finance