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Looking back at Adenan Satem’s form six essay “Democracy”

Affectionately known as ‘Tok Nan’, Tan Sri Pehin Sri Adenan Satem (1944-2017) was the fifth Chief Minister of Sarawak.

When he was young, Adenan went to St. Joseph’s Primary School before continuing his studies at St. Joseph’s Secondary School.

As a sixth form student, he was part of the committee for Ad Astra, the school’s magazine catered to the senior students.

The school periodically sent some of the students’ articles to publish in The Sarawak Gazette including one of Adenan’s on Oct 31, 1964.

In his short bio, this was what the gazette published about Adenan.

“Adenan Satem is at present studying in Upper Six Arts. He is Sales Manager for the Magazine and also Secretary of the School’s Literary and Debating Society. He was one of the the founder members of the Magazine and has always taken a very keen interest in its progress not only in Committee work but also in contributions in writing. He hopes to do an Arts Degree in University.”

Eventually, he did pursue his studies in law at the University of Adelaide, Australia.

Read the whole article written by the late chief minister Adenan Satem entitled “Democracy”:

Different people define Democracy differently but to my mind a democracy is a country which can vote its rulers into power and, even more important, vote them out of power should they prove to be inefficient, corrupt or power-hungry. In short the central characteristic of Democracy is that venerable institution called ‘representative government’.

Now I must admit that this is a very crude definition of a democracy but at the same time I believe it is a practical one. I am no sophisticated political theorist. I am only one who seeks to understand Democracy as it works and it applies to our everyday lives. If you want to know from the first whether I am for or against Democracy I would like to quote, if I may Sir Winston Churchill. When he as asked for his opinion on Democracy he said: “Democracy is the worst system of government in the world-except the others.”

I maintain therefore that Democracy is not the most perfect system of government but it is thre bes system so far. We have not yet devised a system of government which may prove to be better than Democracy.

Democracy has numerous faults. It is cumbersome, sluggish, often mistaken and prejudiced in its decisions and polices and at its worst it can develop into disconcerting force but political experiences down the ages when Democracy was first conceived have that all other ways of governing complex modern societies are far, far worse.

Of course the sole right of choosing a government and then chucking it out if it dissatisfies us is not the whole concept of Democracy. On the other hand, there are many rights and institutions which revolve round the central nucleus of representative government. For a democracy to work the people must be free to express themselves, they must be allowed to air their views in public, they must be allowed to say what kind of government they want and who their leaders should be, and they must be allowed to criticize the powers that be. Secondly, the people must have the right of assembly. This is to say that people must be allowed to group themselves into various associations so that their views may be appreciated all the more and to allow no one group to dominate all the other groups and also to protect the individual from being victimized by stronger and concerted forces. It goes without saying that these associations, like political parties, trade unions and employer’s associations, must be allowed a relatively and reasonably free hand in its organization, polices and procedures. If the internal affairs of these associations are interfered with unnecessarily by, say the government, then the whole democratic concept of free associations is simply meaningless. And thirdly there must be independent law courts. The “rule of law” must be the watchword because this is the one principle which protects the individual in society from the whims and fancies of would-be tyrants and demagogues. It establishes the superiority of law, which must have its origin in the sovereign people, over mere arbitrariness or caprice, and goes on to state that “no person may be deprived of life, liberty or property except in consequence of an infraction of the law proved in open court, and that no man stands above the law, and that therefore everyone is liable, in case of such infraction, to punishment or exaction of reparation on lines laid down by law, regardless of his station or connections.” Again it goes without saying that judges and juries must be completely independent and not give verdicts according to what has not been proved in open court. The position and appointment of judges must never be based on political loyalties, and judges must never be involved in politics during the tenure of their office.

All this of course is part of the worn-out, classical definition of Democracy. But developing in our own time is another very important element which has more or less identified itself with the Democratic concept. I am speaking of political parties. Democracy essentially means choice and we can choose only if there is an alternative or are alternatives. A country which has only political party is not democracy because the people have no choice. However much people who are assured of the above ‘inalienable rights’ they will not be able to practice them effectively unless there are in existence at one and the same time at least two rival political parties between which the electorate has a choice and which stand on entirely different platforms. One may for example stand for socialism and planning, and the other ‘laissez-faire’ capitalism but their polices must be different or else there will be no real choice. This then is the importance of political party system. It offers a choice.

If all these then are the dominant features of Democracy what is it worth? There is no need for me here to relate the sad tale of the decline of Democracy and the rise of nations which seek to undermine all that it stands for. Suffice it to say that much of the fault can be traced to ourselves, of our losing faith in Democracy amidst poverty and backwardness, ignorance and fear.

Democracy essentially means choice and we can choose only if there is an alternative or are alternatives,” Adenan Satem. Credit: Pixabay
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Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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