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Monday, February 25, 2008

A Giant Step Forward

"...WHEREFORE WE, THE RAKYAT OF MALAYSIA all races and of various faiths, having now rejected the race-based political governance of the country and now making known our desire to have in its place a non race-based system of governance and making further known that we desire that the original aims of the NEP be immediately given effect to and implemented, now:-

  • declare our belief that a mandate for governance should be given to such individuals and political entities that recognize as legitimate the concerns and aspirations set out above; and
  • call upon all stakeholders to to come together for a better Malaysia..."

(for full text of the foundation documents of the Barisan Rakyat see here. More to follow)

Friday, February 15, 2008

At Face Value

I was in Perth recently and someone I met asked what I thought Tun Mahathir was up to.

This was shortly after Tun gave testimony at the Royal Commission hearing on the Lingam Video scandal. Tun had, in effect, stated that he had chosen the judges as he, and not necessarily the Chief Justice, thought fit. In doing so, he admitted that he had taken into consideration suggestions made by persons other than the Chief Justice and such suggestions could have come from persons like Tan Sri Vincent Tan. This was quite a staggering admission. It meant that everything the Bar had ever said about the appointment of judges on subjective considerations was true. It meant that the judges who were appointed or promoted were not necessarily the best persons for either.

But then, virtually in the same breath, as part of a continuing campaign against the Abdullah Badawi Administration, Tun Mahathir has leveled charges of diverse nature, from money politics to election rigging to intolerance and an undermining of Malaysia.

I am not surprised that the person I was speaking to was wondering what was prompting all of this. Being an observer from afar, he had the benefit of an objective perspective that those of us who are in the thick of things tend to lose. And after all, looking at the bigger picture, Tun Mahathir appears to have forgotten that he had put in place the foundations for many of the things that are wrong with our country at the moment.

Think about it. Tun Mahathir apparently recently suggested that the government speak to the HINDRAF leaders rather than detain them under the Internal Security Act. I find this incredible considering the way in which Tun Mahathir used the ISA for his own political ends. Those of us who remember still shudder at the mention of Operasi Lalang. And how do we ignore the initial detention of Anwar Ibrahim under the ISA? In using the ISA in this way, Tun Mahathir set a precedent for those of like mind to follow. And it appears that there are those who are of like mind.

Tun Mahathir also, in effect, dismantled the systems of checks and balances that the founders of the Constitution felt essential for democracy. He notoriously had Tun Salleh Abas and two other supreme court justices removed from office in what to date remain controversial proceedings. In doing so, he began the process of suborning the Judiciary, a process that he completed by having the constitution amended to give Parliament the power to vest, and as such remove, the jurisdiction of the Courts. That paved the way for Executive immunity and arbitrariness beyond review. More significantly, it set the foundation for a system of patronage that the Judiciary apparently still subscribes to. I know of no other way to explain the recent declaration by the Federal Court that the separation of powers has no place in the Malaysian legal system.

Tun Mahathir rendered the Judiciary virtually ineffective against Executive arbitrariness, a legacy that many a Malaysian still suffers under. This is borne out by the fact that despite having the necessary expertise, manpower and equipment to deal with the key problems this country faces, these problems have not only persisted but have become more endemic. Take corruption for example. Surely, the ACA could do more. The revelation during the ongoing Royal Commission hearings that the ACA did nothing despite having proof of judicial impropriety because there were too many persons of influence involved is shocking, not only for the fact of the ACA having done so but for the apparent complicity of the Mahathir government. These are matters that Tun Mahathir cannot deny knowledge off, all things considered.

And could civil society complain? Leave aside the chilling effect of the ISA and consider instead the more fundamental question of how it is civil society was to get access to information on crucial matters. The systems that Tun Mahathir employed did not lend themselves to transparency nor accountability. What little information that could leak out was classified as Official Secrets under a law that Tun Mahathir had caused to be amended to ensure that the loop-holes were plugged. Media was put under the thumb of Government through tightened up media laws like the Printing Presses and Publications Act. Those few who were brave enough to try and defy media bans were prosecuted with gusto. Lim Guan Eng, Irene Fernandez are Malaysian heroes for the fact of their convictions for nothing more than attempting to bring to light issues that were crucial to the workings of democracy in this country. These laws, and the willingness to use them, still plague us.

Tun Mahathir also ramped up the Islamization process, and in doing so, put in place the kind of insensitivity that has led to the heightened ethnic tensions we are facing at the moment. This has further been driven by a supremacist mindset put in place through a mismanagement of affirmative action policies that have, instead of shaping a world class Malaysian society, led to the entrenching of a third world classist and racialist mentality that the Government continues to hide behind its boasts of a first world infrastructure. This mismanagement continues to plague Malays as much as Malaysians of other ethnic communities, in many ways allowing for the perpetuation of the problems the policies were intended to address in the first place. The exclusive club of elites that Tun Mahathir’s brand of economics created continues to be as exclusive as ever, contacts and riches being the only qualifications for admission. The widening poverty gap has left more and more on the outside, even as they are told that the policies are in actual fact aimed at helping them.

And of course we should not overlook Tun Mahathir’s reworking of the UMNO constitution to allow for non reviewable entrenching of leadership not only of the party but also, in effect, by reason of the nature of the power sharing arrangement within the Barisan Nasional, of the nation. What UMNO wants becomes a reality. And whoever is at the top of UMNO decides what UMNO wants. Tun Mahathir allowed reform and progress to be held to ransom by politics.

They still are, the politicized system a juggernaut that Malaysians desperate to institute reform measures in the face of mounting global competition and a wanton, uncaring depletion of national resources, from oil to state funds, are confronted by. This system, having allowed politics to be prioritized above all other considerations, has seriously undermined any genuine and comprehensive efforts to address wrongs effectively and efficiently. It has further allowed for a demonizing of those who have had to pit themselves against the system in their wish for a better Malaysia. It has also engendered a recklessness on the part of the Executive that is deeply worrying, not least for the emphasis it has placed on individuals and their vested interests.

I could go on but I think we all know the story. So, as much as there may be substance to some of the criticism of the current administration, the truth is that the current administration inherited the structure, the apparatus and the problems they created from Tun Mahathir. I cannot help but wonder whether it is timely for Tun Mahathir to admit the mistakes he made and point the way, objectively and constructively, the way forward for the nation.

If there is any blame on the part of the Adbullah Badawi Administration, it is its apparent willingness to take on, even embrace enthusiastically, the legacy that was left to it by the Mahathir Administration. The question that should be posed to the Abdullah Administration, and must be answered, is what has it done to address the very serious problems it inherited. Looking at the landscape, this is the question that will be at the core of the next General Elections and rightly so, in my view.

It sometimes seem that such steps as have been taken by the current administration are negligible in the face of the pressing need for major institutional reform. The nation needs a decisiveness and a firmness of vision that we are regrettably not seeing enough of. And for all of this and more, one cannot be faulted for concluding that the current administration is content with leaving things as they are.

And as for Tun Mahathir, as my Australian friend put it, what exactly is he up to.

Respectfully, the positions he has taken recently smacks of a political positioning. The criticisms leveled only rarely come across as the constructive and objective views of an elder statesman. The political nature of his criticism is curious for, at face value, one would have expected Tun Mahathir Mohamad to withdraw from politics when he stepped down as Prime Minister.

The decision to step down appears to have been a considered one. At the time, he was in relatively good health, was under no apparent pressure from UMNO to retire nor was the state of play in the wider context such that his resignation was required. It appears that Tun Mahathir had come to a view that the decision to hand over the reigns could not be deferred anymore. I would like to think that he believed that taking the decision then, rather than later, would allow him to assist in the transition process so that the hand over was smooth and did not impact on the nation’s interests.

As things eventuated, the transition did proceed smoothly and Tun Mahathir gracefully withdrew to the role of elder statesman. This was a role he was, and is, eminently suited for, the breadth of his experience being an invaluable resource on how to govern the nation and, perhaps more significantly, how not to.

His having retired left no reason for Tun Mahathir to involve himself in party politics. Such continued involvement would only be necessary if Tun Mahathir found it necessary to rely on the politics of his party as a means to a political end. His decision to retire as Prime Minister would seemingly have rendered the question of a political end wholly irrelevant. Moreover, the role of elder statesman would demand of him a detachment from political interests, not least for the fact that the most effective elder statesmen are those that are perceived as being objective, non-partisan and having no vested interest.

Seen from this perspective, the expectation that Tun Mahathir would withdraw from politics was the only reasonable one to have in the circumstances.

So, why the political positioning then? The situation is such that one possible inference is that he may be fronting for those who do not wish to fight their own political fights directly, preferring instead to stay in the shadows. If this is the case, and I am hoping it is not, it does not bode well. It marks a perpetuation of the systems of patronage that Mahathir allowed for, systems that have self-evidently led to the erosion of all the things that we value as Malaysians. If in fact there are those who wish to challenge Abdullah Badawi, then let them do so openly. I for one believe that challenges are good as it is only in the clash of ideas and opinions that we see the synthesis of true democratic value.

There may be other inferences that can be drawn. Mahathir is after all a true and true politician and that is something that does not fade away. However, even if untrue, Tun Mahathir should be concerned at possibility of his being seen as political. This is an impression that undermines Tun Mahathir’s stature and his value as an elder statesman. A perception of his being partisan would result in his opinions being seen as subjective, to be viewed with caution and perhaps even ignored. This would be a real loss for Malaysia.