On Liberalism

Recently the word liberalism have gotten a lot of bad press. From the public statements made by certain public figures, it’s the scourge of all social and political ills in the country. The problem here, at least for me, is they never define what is liberalism.


Liberalism, to put it simply, is a convenient whipping boy. It’s used to prevent serious thinking and debates on the real social and political problems in the public sphere. The thing is, liberalism as an idea have a long and illustrious history not only in political philosophy but also in evolution of democratic societies. More importantly, to use the word “liberalism” in a pejorative manner is to do so in bad faith.

So lets start from the beginning. What is liberalism? Liberalism is an idea found within political philosophy that proposes how a society should organise itself politically.

The basic premise of liberalism is individual matters and the liberty of an individual must be preserved as much as possible from government interference. From this basic premise, liberalism envisioned a form of government whose powers are not absolute and derived its legitimacy from its own citizens. What we commonly call today as democracy, e.g. separation of powers, periodical elections, etc.

In order to preserve individual liberty, liberalism proposes that citizens possess certain inalienable rights, e.g. freedom of speech, rule of law, etc, which the government cannot infringe upon.

Now that we got our term right. Lets judge whether liberalism deserves the bad press it received. The founding document of the nation, i.e. the Federal Constitution, declared that Malaysia is a democratic society.

It provided provisions for periodical elections and outlining the powers of each branch of the government. It also have a section that outlined the rights of every citizens.

So judging from the Constitution, this country was founded on the basis of liberalism. It’s therefore surprising when certain public figures heap terms of abuse on this idea. I would like to propose that politicians should go take a course in political philosophy before they make silly pronouncements on ideas that have shaped the nation.

And yes, ideas do matter. They are the stuff that give shape to our reality whether we are aware of it or not. Therefore it’s very important that we understand them in their own terms and judge its merit rather than letting others hijack them for their own ends.

As George Orwell once said “Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” We need to be on guard against such language. 

P.S. Its been many moons since I completed my undergraduate course on political philosophy. I’m writing this piece base on my memory so any mistakes here is mine and mine alone or that I’m a very bad student.


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