SEAD Header for The Principles of Democracy with PJ Thum

The Principles of Democracy

In this episode, Bonnibel Rambatan and PJ Thum will be talking about New Naratif’s upcoming Principles of Democracy project and what it takes to build a democracy.


Welcome to New Naratif’s Southeast Asia Dispatches. I’m your host, Bonnibel Rambatan, Editorial Manager for New Naratif. New Naratif is a movement to democratise democracy in Southeast Asia, and this podcast is one of the ways we attempt to do just that.

We say “democracy” a lot in this show, but what does it actually mean? Well, as a concept it’s been around for over 2,500 years. Originating from ancient Greece, it means “the power of the people”. But do we, Southeast Asians, actually feel empowered? Do our governments really represent us? Does Southeast Asia really have a good form of democracy?

When you ask these questions, people are quick to point to elections. The fact that elections are held is often taken as sufficient proof that a democracy exists. But as the history of Southeast Asia shows, democracy is more than elections. After all, elections were already taking place when it was a colony of European empires, and we were definitely not a democracy at the time. So, what else does it take to build a democracy?

New Naratif has currently outlined twelve principles of democracy. Those are:

  1. Self-Determination;
  2. Consent of the Governed;
  3. Majority Rule, Minority Rights;
  4. Free, Fair, and Regular Elections;
  5. Transparency and Accountability;
  6. Sustainable and Equitable Development;
  7. Justice and Rule of Law;
  8. Freedom of Expression;
  9. Freedom of Association;
  10. Freedom of Religion;
  11. Human Rights and Freedom from Tyranny; and finally
  12. Historical Awareness and Context.

In the upcoming months, we’ll be publishing a series of articles on those principles, illustrated through concrete examples from Southeast Asia, showing how Southeast Asians define and promote democracy in their communities. We’ll also be holding Democracy Classrooms, about once a month, online, on these principles, which you can also take part in.

But before all of that, let’s talk to the person responsible for spearheading and conducting the research on this project.


Hello everyone, I’m PJ Thum, founder and managing director of New Naratif. My pronouns are he/him, and I’m from Singapore but I live in Manilla, Philippines.

That is PJ Thum, who, if you’re familiar with New Naratif, really needs no introduction. Aside from New Naratif, though, he is also the founding director of Project Southeast Asia, an interdisciplinary research centre on Southeast Asia at the University of Oxford. He is also an award-winning writer, Rhodes Scholar, Commonwealth Scholar, Olympic athlete, and the only Singaporean to swim the English Channel.

In this episode, we’ll be talking about New Naratif’s upcoming Principles of Democracy project and what it takes to build a democracy.


Principles of Democracy Project

Today we’re going to be talking about the principles of democracy. It’s one of the projects that we are doing in your narrative, and you are spearheading it. So could you maybe tell us a bit more about what it is?

What is the Principles of Democracy Project and why is it important? Why are we doing that?

Okay, so every Southeast Asian government, right, says that they govern on behalf of the people. Basically that they are democracies. But every Southeast Asian government also then says, oh, democracy is a Western concept. We do it differently here.

So the fact that democracy is something we want to do is desirable, is not in dispute. What is in dispute in Southeast Asia appears to be what actually is Southeast Asian democracy. Because obviously, we have a very different definition of democracy from elites, right, from politicians. And I know many people listening to this will have a very different definition as well. We know activists, civil society, NGOs, opposition politicians. They have their very different definitions.

Okay, so what is Southeast Asian democracy? And that, in a nutshell, is what we’re trying to figure out, right?

So with this project, what we’re going to do is basically got four stages. We’re going to start by proposing a set of principles and a set of practices on how you determine what values on which democracy should be based upon and how you act, how you behave, how you practice democracy. Then we’re going to go out, we’re going to talk to people.

We’ll have democracy classrooms where people will discuss these principles. Maybe they’ll propose new ones, or maybe it’ll say, hey, the ones you propose aren’t really relevant. Right?

And then we will then modify. We will evolve, we will adapt the principles and practices based on what people are saying.

And then we’ll repeat that throughout Southeast Asia so that over the years, we build up this living corpus of information about democracy in Southeast Asia, how people define it, how it’s practiced, and what it actually means.

Southeast Asian Democracy

So let’s go a little bit deeper into that. What do you think is the most unique about Southeast Asian democracy?

Well, one of the things that we’re stressing, I think is really important is that we accept that democracy is universal, but that for it to be properly effectively implemented, it has to be very sensitive to local context.

So I want to get that out of the way right at the beginning to make it clear that democracy is a universal value. It’s a universal ideal. That is also something every country subscribes to. There’s a universal declaration of human rights and socioeconomic rights. So it’s universal right?

Now, what is unique about Southeast Asian democracy really actually comes down to our history. And many of the principles that we’re proposing would, I think, be accepted everywhere else in the world.

But because of our history of colonialism, where every Southeast Asian country has been affected by colonialism very deeply, and I include Thailand, even though it was never formally colonised, its borders were determined by negotiations between the British and the French, and parts of its territory were occupied by the French.

So every single Southeast Asian country, because of this experience of colonialism, has had our sense of self and our sense of our sense of our own rights warped by this history.

The authoritarianism dictatorship has been normalised because we had hundreds of years of colonial governments, which then told us oh, it’s perfectly normal for a small group of people who may not even look like you, come from this place, speak your language, understand the local culture, whatever, govern, right? So because of that, we’ve had colonialism internalised and normalised.

So I think Southeast Asian democracy, then we have to really have a lot of historical awareness and fight back against these very internalised ideas, especially because post colonial Southeast Asian governments very often have adopted the same ideas in how they govern.

If you look at Singapore, for example, it explicitly draws continuity between a British colonial government and a Singaporean independent, locally elected, locally responsible government by saying, we are continuing these wonderful practices of British colonialism, which include economic development, et cetera, but of course, also include repression, the silencing of opponents, the arbitrary locking up, right?

And these sort of things have also been continued on by the Malaysian government, by the Indonesian government, which, even though actually won its independence in a violent conflict with the Dutch, practiced these things in places like Papua and previously Aceh, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, elsewhere in Indonesia, where people do not have genuine self determination, representation.

And then you have places like the Philippines, where the structure of government is very much in continuity. But more importantly, the people who hold power, right, the big land owning families, they own the land during the colonial period, and they own the land today.

So there’s just so much continuity in Southeast Asia where we haven’t had the kind of revolutions, maybe, that some European countries may have had. We haven’t had the drastic breaks of history that even other Asian countries may have had.

Very often in Southeast Asia, we’ve been lucky in that we haven’t had the sheer levels of violence that, say, India had or China had, right. For us, because of this generally peaceful continuity, we also mentally have not had these violent breaks of the past, okay? And this is chiefly Maritime Southeast Asia. Obviously, mainland Southeast Asia has had a lot of violence, right?

And in particular, Vietnam famously won its independence through defeating the French. But likewise, no sooner did the Communist Party take power than they tried to silence their opponents. They introduced land reforms that included shooting landlords and just seizing land, right?

So I think all this historical context to come back to your question,

We cannot have democracy, I think, in Southeast Asia, without being aware that how things are set up today

how we think about the world today, how we think about our societies, our countries, the fact that our country borders are arbitrary and created by colonialism, not by us, right.

All these things must go into how we think about democracy in Southeast Asia, how we govern ourselves, how we collectively decide to solve our problems, to solve questions of scarcity.

Historical Awareness

Yeah. It reminds me also of some stories not really stories, but like words I tend to hear from lots of people lots of adults when I was a kid about how the different types of colonialism and how some of them are actually good for development. That’s silly, but it’s something that we grew up with.

But, you know, speaking of to speaking of the historical context that you mentioned, there there’s hardly any kind of, like, historical honesty in Southeast Asia right now.

And you also mentioned violence. We haven’t had breaks and stuff like that, but, like, very traumatic violence that, as you mentioned, that we committed to our own governments once we committed to our own citizens, like the famous 65 incident of Indonesia. And I’m sure there are other examples.

How do we go about building this historical awareness?

As a historian, as a professional historian, I mean, I tell you, it’s very, very difficult because governments actively suppress different tellings of history, right? So if I can take a step back and explain a bit about history.

One of the things that we need to understand about history is that it’s not a narrative. People tend to think of history as just one fact after the other. Actually, history is an argument.

Because history is about the history of people. If there are no people, then there’s no history. And once you have people, everyone has a different perspective on that history, on those events, right?

So a simple, very simple example I usually give for people trying to grasp this concept is a divorce. You have two spouses, they’re getting divorced, and they may agree on the facts, okay? One spouse was not at home because they were working, and the other spouse was doing more housework whatever, right?

These very simplistic examples, but they may agree on these facts, but then they may disagree very much on the interpretation of these facts. So as people think about, okay, what’s the last argument you had with a family member, right?

And you may agree, oh, hey, the chores weren’t done well, why? Well, one person are busy of work, the other business, I’m exhausted, whatever. So you can agree on the facts, and you can have a very different interpretation.

Now, you take a historical event, right, and you think about all the thousands of people who were either observing, participating, or impacted by the event, maybe hundreds of thousands. All of those perspectives are important.

So what historians do is then they create an argument about what happened based on as many different perspectives as they can integrate as possible, or based on saying, okay, here’s how this event impacted, say, women. So I’m going to interview out to women and get their perspective. And obviously, it’s going to be very different from how it impacted men or how it impacted people of different other genders, right? So that’s the important thing to understand about history.

Now, you look at our colonial history, and what you see is that because there are currently a group of elites in many Southeast Asian countries who benefit from a certain interpretation, a certain reading, a certain argument, a certain perspective of history. That’s the perspective they protect and privilege.

And in some countries, like Singapore, Malaysia, there is because we had peaceful transfers of power. Peaceful, generally peaceful. Of course there was violence, plenty of violence in many ways, but compared to, say, Vietnam or India, right, there’s generally peaceful. Or Indonesia, these elites then privilege a certain reading of history where colonialism was more benign, right?

Or there are certain values they wish to push forward, for example, economic development. So they push forward a reading of history where these ideas are privileged, right? Where economic development is more important than, say, the protection of rights. And so that’s the history we end up with.

So to come back to your question, Bonni, I mean, how do we fight for better history? It’s about different perspectives. How do you incorporate more diverse and different perspectives into our history?

Especially when elite perspectives are the ones that are often written down, right? They are the ones in official documents. They are the ones that then you end up with a lot of production of archives, which historians use to tell history, to understand history. So official them elites produce a lot of paper, they produce a lot of records, whereas the working class doesn’t, right?

One reason why diaries are so important is because very often these give a perspective on the everyday life of people that is very absent in official documents. And when you look at official documents, they interpret things in a very specific way. They tend to look at law and order, they tend to look at bureaucratic efficiency. They tend to look at the state from the state’s perspective.

James C. Scott has this book, Seeing Like a State, which talks about the problems with how states look at certain issues, or they interpret certain things which are very different from how people on the ground understand them. So getting all these perspectives is how we do it.

But the problem in Southeast Asia is that the perspectives of non elites are suppressed. Even if you actually work on as a professional historian, some listeners may know I’ve had a lot of run ins with Singapore’s PAP government, which has tried to discredit my work and thoroughly failed at it.

But the state has a monopoly on violence that they can exercise against you. So when you look at other countries in Southeast Asia, right? We need honesty about what happened in 1965. We need honesty in the Philippines about what happened in 1987 and the years since in Malaysia, 1968, and so on and so forth.

And you need all these different perspectives to come in and understand that just because someone has a different interpretation of the past doesn’t mean that you are wrong. It’s not a personal attack on you or your beliefs. It’s just a very different perspective that we need to then understand and incorporate and by understanding and incorporating that, then we improve our understanding of the past and then improves our understanding of the present, so to speak.

That last point, another example I give to people is if you want to improve as a person, you don’t just look at things from your own point of view. You talk to your family and friends and say, hey, how do I behave? How do I act, right?

You need different perspectives on your past and to reflect on them and think about all the ways in which you could do things better or change your behaviour. And then you grow as a person. If you just say, hey, I want to be a better person, then you stare at a mirror.

Yeah, maybe you can do some self reflection and some improvement, but ultimately you need all these other perspectives on you, some of which you may not like, but these other perspectives are crucial to you understanding yourself. And then you have to be honest, reflect on them and then you can improve as a person. So it’s the same for our countries.

Democracy is a Journey

Yeah. There’s this strong sense that of historiography and how people don’t really understand what history is.

As you mentioned, they tend to think of history as like one monolithic, one singular narrative, a series of facts. But then it’s not that, right? Framing history, like putting history as an argument, just looking at it that way just makes a lot of sense and I think that’s what people needs to understand, right.

But I want to come back to the principles of democracy, right? So we’ve been talking here about an understanding of history itself and then we also have the principles of democracy, which obviously, like, there’s lots of intersections there.

But how did you come up with like these twelve principles? Was it because of the historiographical awareness? Was it more than that?

Can you walk us through the process of thinking up of these twelve principles?

Sure. Well, it’s research, so the first step is always just looking at how other people have talked about it, right? That’s really important because democracy is a concept that’s 2500 years old and there is no shortage of writing, discussion, thought on democracy.

So just searching online and reading through a lot of different books about democracy, you end up with a lot of different ideas. And in particular, I think a lot of people have tried to talk about democracy in other contexts and over the past several hundred years, particularly of course since the American and French Revolutions. So that was the starting point.

Then you have to think about, well, okay, what is applicable and what is most important to our local context. And here you also want to think about, well, trying to make it as easy to understand as possible because you can break these things down into 100 different ways, right, so there’s that.

But of course, then there’s also the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So there are already Asian examples of Asian and Southeast Asian articulations of democracy. There is of course the Asian African Conference of Bandung in 1955, which was hugely formative on the decolonizing world, right. And a lot of speeches there, including by Soekarno about the importance of democracy.

So what is interesting is that so many of our nationalist heroes articulated very strong ideas of democracy when they were still in opposition, still trying to overthrow governments, or very early on they articulated certain ideals in how they wanted their countries to become, right?

And that includes Ho Chi Min and Lee Kuan Yew and Soekarno, Rizal and others. So those were also really helpful in trying to think about, well, what is Southeast Asian democracy?

And then it became a process of, okay, I suggested these different principles and then it became a process of discussing them with internally at New Naratif, especially the research team. It wasn’t just our researchers, but we had some fantastic interns who were really interested in this and did a lot of background research and we put together these principles and changed them here and there, merged some, split out some others.

So we ended up with the current set of twelve, which I don’t know will be the final set for this year, but it’s the current working set. And then of course, we’re going to then go and have broader dialogue with Southeast Asians over the next year, hopefully in perpetuity as we continue to evolve and think about these principles, right.

And also the practices, don’t forget, it’s not just principles, it’s practices. What is democracy, but how do we practice democracy, right? Those are important as well. That’s also something that we’re discussing and debating.

So it’s basically just as democracy itself is there’s two practices that we highlight in particular. One is that democracy is a process. So two is thinking about democracy and articulating it, that is also a process. It’s iterative right.

And it is something that you then grow and you talk to a lot of people about and you, I guess what’s the right word? Workshop. It’s ever growing, ever changing and it’s a journey, not the destination. So the other principle is that it is constantly evolving, it’s never static, right.

Democracy constantly changes. I think one of the principles we’re talking about, which is sustainable and equitable development, would have been less important or less in our consciousness 40, 50 years ago, before this current era of neoliberal capitalism. Unrestrained capitalism has really destroyed the world around us.

And 50 years ago, we probably might have talked about economic freedom instead of sustainable and equitable development because that was a period of the Cold War and we were fighting between oh, there was a conception that we were fighting state sponsored economic development via in the Soviet Union or Chinese models versus a sort of personal liberty in a Western model, right.

Today, I think that debate is over, or at least we’ve moved beyond that debate and instead we’re talking more about equality and equity. And so that is really important today. And so we’re framing that principle of democracy in that way and it wouldn’t have been that way 50 years ago. So I think these things will also change and evolve as we debate and discuss them.

12 Principles of Democracy

Do you think how are the standings of each of the principles?

Do you feel like there are some principles that are more evergreen or maybe even more important or more fundamental on a theoretical or on a more philosophical level, while others tend to change or will shift over time?

Or maybe you see some of the principles as very current, very contemporary, while the others, they’ve always been here, they’ll continue to be here. And for example, self determination. I can easily see that as something that’s it’s always been the backbone of, like democracy, right? That will hardly change, but yeah.

What are your thoughts on these?

Most of them are evergreen, I think most of them are covered in the Universal Declaration in Bandung. Most of them map closely to what our nationalist leaders talked about as early as Rizal, Cokroaminoto, 100 years ago.

I think that most of them will be I think at this point, actually, our listeners will probably want to know what are the twelve? So let me just run through them.

The current set of twelve principles:

  1. Self determination
  2. Consent of the governed
  3. Majority rule with minority rights
  4. Free and fair elections
  5. Transparency and accountability
  6. Sustainable and equitable development
  7. Justice and rule of law
  8. Freedom of expression
  9. Freedom of association
  10. Freedom of religion
  11. Human rights and freedom from tyranny
  12. Historical awareness and context

So with all of these, I think most of them will be evergreen. I think the main one that we went back and forth on a bit was sustainable and equitable development because if you look at older writings on democracy, they talked about economic freedom.

Likewise, actually the UN Declaration on Socioeconomic Rights is also about this tension between in the 40s, between the Soviet Union and China versus the US, and the Western bloc.

But today that’s not really a debate we’re having it’s more about equity rather than freedom, right? And that’s also part of the overall debate in democracy because one of the practices that we emphasise is it’s about trade offs.

With democracy, I think one of the important things to realise is no one’s ever going to be totally, completely happy.

Because democracy is about living in a society and collectively getting together and trying to solve your problems, especially problems of scarcity. And democracy is how you do that.

And as a result you’re going to always have trade offs and no one’s going to be completely happy with the trade offs that they make. But as they say, maybe it’s a bit trite to say, but good compromise is one that leaves no one happy.

So democracy is a process of trade offs, right? It’s collectively negotiated and you’re constantly giving up something to get something else. It’s never a perfect answer, but it is a constant pursuit of a perfect answer. So to come back to your question yeah, I think it’s all evergreen.

Another one that I might see changing is free and fair elections. Free and fair and regular elections if we can somehow find a better way of finding out popular consensus, right.

Because elections, I feel, focuses too much on the mechanism of how we find a popular consensus. So if we can find a way to maybe we might actually reformulate the principle into something like regular surveying or understanding of popular consensus or something like that, right.

Because elections, we get too caught up in elections. There are so many Southeast Asian governments, so indeed, governments everywhere, every government holds elections in some way and then uses that to justify the fact that they are democracies.

Even in Southeast Asia, there are governments which don’t hold elections but are supposed to. Brunei is supposed to have elections to its legislative council, but currently they are suspended during because of a state of emergency which has existed since the 1960s.

But on paper, Vietnam doesn’t have general elections, but it has party elections because it says the party represents the people. So we have elections for the party and that is how we are representative of the people, right. Of course, infamously North Korea has elections. A lot of dictatorships have elections, right.

Whether those elections are free, fair or regular is a different issue. Singapore’s elections are not free or fair and they’re not very regular because they tend to be just held with nine days notice, which is pretty insane, yeah.

So the question of elections, should we use that word or should we just say like surveying or understanding the popular will or something like that, right. Because we don’t want to get too caught up in the mechanism through which we achieve democracy, right.

Elections are not democracy. Elections are the current best solution we have for upholding this principle of democracy.

And that’s another important practice that we have to understand that democracy is norms and values, it’s not rules and institutions. You cannot hard code democracy because there will always be loopholes, there’ll always be people who are actors in bad faith.

You look at America which tries to hard code everything, they’re a very legalistic country. And the Republican Party just manipulates. Well, to be fair, I think all politicians manipulate. But it’s quite clear in America there’s one party which is manipulating the rules way, way more than the other and undermining their whole democracy, right?

So you got to understand that and behave according to a certain set of norms and values that is based on respect and trust to come back to your question. I talked about sustainable and equitable development. Maybe also we might modify free and fair elections, but again, what is the principle rather than what is the institution with the rest, I think they’re all pretty much I don’t think they’ve changed in thousands of years.

Consent of the governed, minority rights, majority rule, justice. I think these are all pretty universal and timeless.

The Practices of Democracy

Yeah, your point reminded me of this term electoral authoritarianism, which I think is really happening. I mean, there’s lots of argument for that. So definitely elections is not something, thinking of principles of democracy in terms of the set of tools instead of the set of the norms.

Thinking of them in institutions will always, as you mentioned, lead to all sorts of troubles, all sorts of manipulations and stuff like that.

I want to follow up on the point on I guess let’s talk about how people do democracy, right? We have all of these twelve principles and then we can discuss them a lot more and we will discuss them a lot more and just refine them and so on.

But you also mentioned that it’s important to think about and also the next step will be for this project is to talk about how we do democracy based on these twelve principles.

So maybe can you tell us a bit more about that?

Yeah, sure. I mean, I’ve articulated some practices of democracy, right? So I mentioned, for example, that we have to remember it’s constantly evolving, it’s never static, that it’s a process, not a destination. You need to be patient. It’s a set of norms and values, not a set of rules, not a set of laws, not a set of institutions. That it’s collectively negotiated and involves trade offs. Never a perfect answer.

I think what is also important to understand is that it requires all of us to participate. And this is where it falls down in a lot of places.

The modern global neoliberal economy is not giving people enough time or space to be citizens, but instead they’re just economic units working two, three jobs, constantly struggling to survive.

And the other thing is that democracy is complicated. I always say beware of people who give you just two options, right? Politicians love to do that. Do it my way or do it that way, which leads to chaos. The other way is chaos, right?

They’ll give you like these what’s the manichean dichotomous two extremes, right? There’s the government’s way and there’s the chaos way. Democracy is not like that. Democracy is not so simplistic. It’s complicated. There’s always lots and lots of trade offs. It requires time to think.

So when you think about how to democracy, then right there’s, I think, a set of practices. I think we’re still working on exactly what the practices are. But we emphasise these in our democracy classrooms and they involve things like, say, empathy. You need to be able to put yourself. In someone else’s shoes.

Very often we see a lack of empathy, especially online, where people aren’t interested in understanding a person’s position, they’re just interested in asserting their position. Active listening, right? You need to listen. You need to understand.

Compromise. I talked about trade offs, right? I talked about how democracy is never perfect. So you always have to have the trade offs. You pick your battles. What is most important, right? You’ll never get everything you want.

And here, I think this is a problem of those of us who are progressive, who want change. We want all the change, we want ideals, but you’re never going to get all of them. So what do you want to get? What is most important today, then fight for the next thing tomorrow, right? Yeah, compromise.

And then another one is you’ve got to be willing to speak up. Verbal self confidence. If you’re silent, people can’t hear you, literally. By definition, you have to participate. You have to speak up into a debate.

Another is to disagree. And here I’ve had interesting discussions where people are, oh, we need unity, and I disagreed. No, unity tends to occur on a certain person or group’s terms. Unity is never on everyone’s terms because it’s impossible. Even you take two people, they’re going to disagree on something. Even in your own family, you’re going to disagree. So how are you supposed to get a whole society to agree, right? So people usually say unity and they mean it on their terms.

No, I don’t think that’s right, because usually unity is imposed and it means certain people on the margins are silenced.

So disagreement is something people need to practice, because it’s so easy to get angry or hurt when people disagree, you got to practice it. So this is something we want people to practice as well in our democracy classrooms, right?

Another is having an opinion. If you don’t have an opinion, then you don’t have a voice. You need to understand the issue, you need to take a position on it. You must know what you stand for and why you stand for it, right?

There are so many different paths, but if you come to a discussion and you don’t express, you don’t have an opinion on it. And if you’re not willing to have that opinion changed, you’re not really participating. So we ask people to think and have an opinion, right?

Another is mobilisation, where we need to understand that democracy is not just about you, it’s about getting people together. So political change. In centuries, millennia of human history has followed the same basic path, which is a group of people getting together to talk about something, agreeing a common platform or agenda, and then finding and recruiting other people to the point where that group becomes so big that they are able to affect change within the polygle unit. So it’s very simple but very difficult to do, right?

And so that act of going out and finding other people and recruiting them and saying, hey, do you want to join us? This is our platform. Do you agree? And then listening to those other people and being willing to change based on what you’re hearing as well, that’s mobilisation, that’s a really important part of democracy. And then activist or activism, being an activist, right?

In some countries, being an activist is a dirty word. I don’t understand why. I remember when I was as a historian, having these run ins with the government. People would ask me, oh, PJ, do you consider yourself an activist? And I was really puzzled by the question, and then I never had a good way to answer because everyone’s definition of activist was different.

Sometimes it was a good definition, sometimes a bad definition. Sometimes it was pretty neutral, right. Sometimes they were genuinely curious, and sometimes they were trying to go, AHA, you’re an activist. It was like a gotcha moment for them. And so it was a bit frustrating.

But I think for us, the point is, if you want to be in a democracy, you have to act, right? That’s at its at most core, you can’t be passive. You can’t be just sitting back and letting other people do things. You have to participate, right? Because to be honest, let’s face it, not participating is also a political choice. It means other people make your choices for you.

Then curiosity, I think that’s important. Being willing to listen, understand, requires curiosity and taking an interest in the world, taking interest in how and why other people think. And sometimes it’s hard to understand. And curiosity helps us reach out, helps us find things.

Sometimes it’s hard to find other opinions because people are maybe they don’t have a loud voice, maybe they’re simply in the margins. Curiosity is a big part of how and why we innovate as human beings, how we do things differently.

Democracy has to evolve, and it can’t evolve without curiosity and people saying, hey, what if instead of doing it this way, we did it that way, right. And you got to be willing to try and experiment, yeah. So those are the practices. If anyone has suggestions for others or different ideas or if you feel like some are redundant and love to hear them, do, write in and let us know, yeah.

Right to Disagree

I think what listeners need to understand is that we’re not here giving answers we’re really not trying to formulate. I mean, it’s it’s it’s pretty clear here that, you know, democracy is not is never a perfect answer. It is, you know, it’s it’s the pursuit of those of those answers, the pursuit of those solutions.

But what we’re outlining here is not how to do things, and we don’t expect unity and we don’t expect agreement on everything, obviously, because that is at the core of democracy, like disagreements and all of those things.

Bonni, I think one of the things I get as a Singaporean who is a dissident and considered by the government enemy, right. People don’t understand what I actually want. They ascribe a lot of different things to me. And probably you’ve had the same experience.

But fundamentally, what I tell people is that all I want is the right to disagree, to peacefully disagree and not be oppressed for my views. Let’s start with that.

I think very often people just impose on us a lot of different ideas about what activists, human rights defenders, pro democracy advocates want. But I think the very first step is simply the right to peacefully disagree.

And we don’t expect unity. We don’t expect everyone to do things our way. We don’t expect a perfect world. Let’s just start with in Southeast Asia,

Can we just have the right to express our opinion and not get arrested, shot, raided by the police, disappeared, just that. Let’s just start with that.

What can the Listeners Do?

Yeah, and even in the, in the twelve principles, it’s, it’s there’s like, plenty of space for disagreements. For example, like, you know, for sustainable equitable equitable development, like, you know, are we going because there there are lots of views like degrowth and then universal basic income and then subsidies.

There’s lots of things to be discussed and like justice and the rule of law, for example, what is the role of incarceration and what is our perspective on punitive justice and stuff like that in Southeast Asia?

So definitely these principles are more of a groundwork for disagreements, right? For all of those discussions and yeah, for all of that to happen without getting shot, without getting incarcerated ourselves.

So I guess more concretely speaking for the listeners, how can the listeners take part in all of these discussions? What is coming up on this project? And principles of democracy, maybe the democracy classrooms, what they can expect and how they can voice their own opinions and stuff like that. Yeah, maybe we can talk more about that.

Okay, so we’ll be releasing the principles basically one at a time over the next year. And then every time we release one, we’ll have a Democracy classroom online to discuss it. So when we release one, greet it, think about it and share it with your friends, have a discussion, and then come to our Democracy Classroom where you’ll have the opportunity to discuss the principle and tell us what you think.

Of course, at the very beginning, there’ll be a launch event also, and there’ll be the opportunity to have an overview at the beginning. So, yeah, just come to our events. Number one, come to our events. Definitely. Join New Naratif, Join, become a member, become a part of our community to talk about these things.

But how our Democracy Classrooms are designed is not just that you have an opportunity at the event with our Democracy Classrooms, the idea is that you can then take the handout, take the reading and just hold your own, right? Just gather your family members around the dinner table, ask them, hey, read this, and let’s run through these questions and talk about these issues and have a discussion.

Get your friends, go to wherever coffee shop, bar, wherever you’re comfortable, wherever you want, and have a discussion. And that, at the very core, is a very basic element of democracy, right? Being able to freely discuss these ideas and listen to different points of view. Those are your basic steps.

So I encourage people who are listening, read our article and share it and then talk about it. That’s the third step, right? One of the reasons New Naratif does what we do while we found it, is that third step.

We found that there’s plenty of good information out there, but is it accessible? And then when people read it, then what happens? They like, they share, they retweet, but then what happens, right?

It’s that next step, taking action. Action is important. So after you share, you talk about it, you discuss it, right? Reach out to people. And that is, I think, the single most important thing being willing to reach out to other people and having these discussions rather than being silent. So that’s what I’d urge everyone to do.

Normalise the Idea of Democracy

Okay? So maybe for the last question, I guess, because lots of people also think that, okay, we can talk about and discuss about these twelve principles. I can talk about it to my friend. But we both know in your narrative, it’s like these are very crucial in understanding these principles are very crucial if we are to organise and mobilise and demand new, demand change.

But what is your personal hope? Or aspiration I suppose, after these discussions have taken place, after a year or after a couple of years that we’ve been discussing these twelve principles, after more and more people have an understanding of these principles, of democracy, of democracy itself, as a set of norms instead of institutions.

What is your hope there?

Well, the first is that these ideas are normalised, right? As a historian, what is very interesting are these moments in history where ideas take hold. One example is nation, state, nationalism. Before World War I, you always had nationalism, right?

We are a nation of the Jews, for example. We are a nation of Syrians or something. And you had that concept. But what happened after World War I is you had this interesting idea, just take hold about a nation must also have a state. So you then see the creation of states which are meant to house one nation, right?

And somehow they become synonymous, a nation and a state, a nationality becomes also citizenship or statehood, membership of a state. And today, that’s how the world is organised. The idea that all nations, every nation, should have a corresponding state.

The problem is, of course, that then states, artificially created states, have gone about trying to create nations to justify their existence. And that has led to a lot of oppression for people who don’t fit their definition of the nation, right?

You see genocide, we’ve seen it throughout the last hundred years of people who don’t fit. And I mean, you see it right now in in Myanmar, right? The Rohingya do not fit the elites, the military’s definition of the Burma state. So they’re being excluded, let’s say, right? To put it mildly. Okay.

So my point is, certain ideas, when their time has come, they will enter common circulation, they’ll become common currency. Capitalism is another one. Socialism had its moment and seems to be coming back, right? So I’d like these ideas to become more commonplace. I’d like people to be a lot more fluent.

You look at the pandemic. The pandemic turned all of us into experts on virology and immunology all of a sudden, right? Suddenly everyone understood the concept of viruses, where before maybe we didn’t, everyone became an expert on vaccines, right? You never know.

So I want to put it out there, and in the future, I’d love to see more informed conversations where right now, I think if we go around the world, a lot of people don’t really think about what is democracy, how to practice it.

They say, oh, we have elections, I guess. But then they’ll also say, I’m very frustrated because politicians, they don’t represent me, right?

And when I go to vote, it’s just two choices, three choices, I hate all of them. And then they’ll say things like, oh, politicians are all the same. No, politicians are very, very different. But you got to understand how the process works and how the systems are designed and what the values underpinning the systems are.

So I’d like to see people become a lot more informed when they talk about democracy

about the trade offs, about how it’s designed. I did two episodes of the show, PJ Thum, explaining that how you design an election actually has a huge impact on its outcome. And the same election can return a lot of different outcomes with the same people and the same voters and the same candidates, depending on how you design it. So democracy is part of discussing, well, how do we design it, right?

What are the principles on which we design elections, for example? More broadly? And I think in the long term, if you want change, you need to shift people.

And because all governments more or less have accepted the principle that they govern on behalf of the people, I think that it has become easier today to shift and change and make governments more progressive.

If you can bring a majority of the population with you, and many times not even a majority, just a strong minority, because, again, democracy, there’s a lot of people who aren’t going to be really interested in a specific issue.

But if you can bring there’s that study that you only need 3% of the population in active opposition to a government to bring it down, right? So just to change the government’s mind on an important issue, how much fewer people do you need?

I think you just need enough people to be passionate and then you shift. There’s the concept of the overturn window. What is acceptable? I think it’s a bit like that, right? You just need to shift enough people that it becomes normalised. It’s 2023 in my lifetime.

Gay marriage went from being something that was overwhelmingly no to now. You see, many countries are introducing it. I think there’s like a third of all countries in the world have it legal or something and concepts of just gender discrimination, right. It’s changed so much in my lifetime. It was so growing up, it was so normal to discriminate against women. And now it’s not something you can do anywhere, right?

That every government in one lifetime, you can just change. It’s so normalised today. You can’t, in polite company, express certain views that you could when I was growing up as a kid. And I’m only 43. It’s not like I’m that old. So the the world can change very rapidly, it feels like very rapidly.

But you need to campaign for it. You need to fight for it. And democracy, the principles of democracy themselves are no different. I think if we slowly campaign and fight for it, we can change. We can shift the public, we can shift people. And through that, shift governments.

Because ultimately, governments are made up of people and they listen to people. Even if they’re not really free or fair or very democratic, they still have to listen to their siblings and their parents and their children and their friends, right? And if all of those people around them are saying, look, this is not right, then they will change too. And eventually we can slowly build a better world step by step.

Thank you so much, PJ. I think that’s a great note to end on.

Thanks. Thank you very much, Bonni. Thank you for having me on the podcast. It’s always fun to talk to you and be on the show.


And that wraps up our discussion with PJ Thum. Democracy is a constantly evolving process, collectively negotiated, never claiming to provide a perfect solution. It’s a set of norms and values, not a set of institutions nor any hard-coded rules. Most importantly, it requires all of us to participate and play a role.

We want you to play a role in helping us shape and refine our Principles of Democracy series. Join us and become a member at, stay updated, and take part in our upcoming Democracy Classrooms. You’ll also get all our membership perks, which are pretty cool, if I do say so myself. Anyway,

My name is Bonnibel Rambatan, and this has been Southeast Asia Dispatches. Brought to you by New Naratif, and produced by Dania Joedo. I’ll see you around.

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