A strong opposition keeps a government honest. An administration that faces no credible resistance can do what it likes without fear of being voted out of power.
Malaysia's ruling National Front coalition is struggling to come to grips with such a concept. This week, police were allowed to break up a rally celebrating the expiry of a five-year ban on the holding of political office by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. This reveals how reluctant the ruling coalition is to accept the worst election result it has suffered for many years. For the first time in four decades, it lost the two-thirds majority that had enabled it to change the constitution at will.
It is partly because of the government's unchallenged authority that it fared so poorly. Corruption remains a problem, minorities need a better deal and the system has become lazy and bloated. Malaysians wanted a change.
The government had assumed that by hijacking the state-run media, handing benefits to the majority Malay population and altering electoral boundaries it had a cast-iron hold on power. But there is only so much tolerance in a democracy for such abuses. Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is now under pressure to resign. The ruling coalition is in danger of losing members to the opposition. The media has started reporting on the opposition political parties in a favourable light.
But as seismic as the changes are, they have not fully filtered through to the government. Tactics of old greeted Mr Anwar's return to politics after spending time in prison for corruption. Police applied a much-misused tool to suppress the opposition - a law banning gatherings of more than three people without permission - to shut the rally down. Mr Anwar's wife, the president of his People's Justice Party, and three other party members, face investigation and possible charges.
Times have changed in Malaysia. Mr Abdullah and his government must wake up to the fact that the ways of old are no longer acceptable. They must allow space for opposition voices to ensure that the country can move forward.