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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Nation In Progress

A Nation In Progress

The year draws to an end.

A kaleidoscope, 2008 defies description. In the swirl of colours and sounds, chords were struck and themes developed. I imagine an orchestra tuning up, falling silent and then suddenly and majestically playing a symphony of divine beauty.

Each of us an instrument, our voices lent themselves this year to the harmonies that described and cumulatively defined us as a society and a nation. In the silence behind each echo, we felt whom it is that we could be if we wanted to: one nation, one people.

2008 was the year that transformed us. We found our voices.

We may have voted for one candidate or the other, or even for one party in preference to another. We may have regretted our choices or felt vindicated in the time since or even suffered bitter disappointment for expectations not having been fulfilled. Whatever the case, this year we reclaimed democracy and the right to choose.

It does not matter that since March this year we have seen more political bickering than we would have liked to on either side of the divide, and within the ranks on either side. Any vision that emerges from a true democracy is necessarily the product of the synthesis of varied perspectives and opinions. There never is just one side to things and the heated exchanges about key aspects of our lives is something that we should welcome rather than fear. It is only the truths that flow from this crucible that are sufficiently strong to forge the foundations of a lasting civilisation.

Equally, it does not matter that the governments of the federation or the states made decisions that we would have preferred them not to. It does not matter that this politician or that one acted in a manner that we would have preferred him or her not to have. The reality is that for the first time in a very long time we have had these governments and those who form them behave with some regard to what it is we want; such is the power of the ballot box.

Enhanced opposition presence in parliament, the establishment of Pakatan Rakyat governments in five states and a courageous civil society have also allowed us to see all concerned as they really are, warts and all. We have come face to face with the fact that politicians are not very pretty to look at just as they have had to confront the fact that their fates do really lie in our hands.

And as each of us has come to feel more involved, our sense of belonging has heightened and with it our feeling of ownership. It is your Malaysia as much as it is my Malaysia and together, it is our Malaysia. With that awareness has come the understanding that each of us is responsible for what it is that we become. This has been accompanied by a nascent evolution of attitudes and orientation.

This is the breadth and depth of what it is we achieved this year. It has not been about reformasi but rather, transformasi.

The process is however just beginning and we must continue to be vigilant. As we offer thanks for what is that was bestowed upon us this year, let us not forget that there are those who do not want change. Race politics, with its attendant religious elements, and corruption also continue to threaten us. The latter has gravely undermined us through its insidious colonizing of the wider system and the political process. Its mark is evident in every aspect of our public system, so much so that we are now held to ransom by it.

As for race politics, despite it being self-evidently divisive it sadly continues to play out in the continued politicization of race and religion at great cost. Its destructive quality is seen most clearly in the distorting of legitimate efforts to find more effective methods of affirmative action as attempts to undermine the special status of the Malays under the Constitution.

As we move forward, we must commit to taking it upon ourselves to ridding ourselves of these difficulties. It is not sufficient for us to pay lip service to ideals; we must focus and act decisively. We must develop a more rounded understanding of the sensitivities and fears involved as it only through this that we will be able to develop the necessary language to build bridges with.

The light of the new year illuminates the recently cleared footpath that may ultimately lead us to where it is we should be getting. Though the way is treacherous, our belief that we can be all that we want to be will guide us if we let it.

I believe we want it to.

(Malay Mail; 30th December 2008)


Happy New Year to all.

On Gaza

Like many others, I am outraged at the acts of aggression being committed by Israel in the name of national security. Nothing justifies violence of the nature we are reading about, the killing of innocent non-combatants cannot be justified as collateral damage.

I am not in any position to write on Gaza in a way that would do justice to the very nuanced subject. Emotions do not always guide us in the right direction. I have however been following John Hilley's commentary on the subject. Perhaps you would like to as well (start here and go to related posts).


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Through The Looking Glass

Through The Looking Glass

Living in Malaysia, one gets used to the farcical and ludicrous. Daily encounters in the media with those who claim to lead us have made many of us resign ourselves to the fact that life here in Bolehland (to borrow the delightful moniker from Martin Jalleh) is very much an acid-trip down a rabbit hole. So much so that one cannot help but wonder whether Lewis Carroll would have been bestowed a title had he wandered onto our shores; “Tan Sri” perhaps, considering how keenly he was able to visualize the Malaysia that would be.

This year, the award for most so would have to go to the Royal Malaysian Police. It outgunned all other candidates with its “Save The Children” themed efforts this past month. That and the “we detained her under the ISA to protect her” gambit in September, formulated with some assistance from the Home Minister, sealed it for me.

One has to acknowledge the sheer gumption of those who made the decisions to go with those justifications despite the obvious disparagement they would result in. Or could it be that we have misunderstood what was really a display of compassion, laughter being the best medicine for the many aches and pains we suffer from. Whatever the case, hats off to the men in blue for having out-farced all others, not an easy task looking at the range of candidates in this year of “Zero Opposition”.

Lest it be said that I am being cruel and cynical, allow me to say that I am not. I am in truth at a total loss as to how to comprehend why the force continues to position itself in the way it does when there is no need to. How the scenarios that have presented themselves this year - from journalistic expression to candle-light vigils of solidarity to road-shows aimed at promoting a fair, just and compassionate society, to name a few – could be perceived as being threatening of public order is mystifying.

I wrote an open letter in this column some time ago. In it I expressed the view that the force is not intended to police thought, the point being made in light of the way public assemblies were being regulated. It seemed to me then that senior police officers were taking the view that assemblies were not threats to public order if they were supportive of governmental positions. They however were seemingly such if they expressed viewpoints that could be perceived as being critical of the government.

Events since the letter was published, in particular the posturing over the blatant intimidation of those involved in the commendable JERIT campaign for transformation, have gone far to convince me that my surmise was in fact true. There is no other way to explain the inconsistency on the part of the force.

Which brings me to my point; the force needs to remind itself that we are allowed to think in Malaysia. The Constitution guarantees this, just as it allows us to express our thoughts and does not in any way limit us to saying things that are supportive of the government of the day. In fact, Malaysians can say what they want; if they however breach a law in saying what they do, they can be punished. That is why there is no law that prohibits speech; those laws only criminalize certain types of statements. There is as such clearly no basis for preempting expression.

This however begs the question of why the force is taking it upon itself to police thought in the way it does. Allowing access only to viewpoints that are supportive of leadership, and the half-truths this allows for, is propaganda. Is the system so far gone that the force has become a moving part in the propaganda machine of the State?

I would like to think not. The Royal Malaysian Police plays an invaluable role in the protection and promotion of democracy, in part through the fair and impartial enforcing of public order and security where this is necessary. For it to be able to fulfill its role, public confidence in the institution is essential. Sadly, justifications like those that we have been offered for unjustifiable and repressive action does not assist in this cause.

The truth is that police officers have more important things to concern themselves with than advancing petty political interests. Their jobs are difficult as it is and chasing activists, whether on bicycles or not, seems to be an unnecessary diversion of resources that are already stretched as taut as a drum skin.

Public assemblies really need little or no regulation. Malaysians have shown themselves to be capable of gathering and expressing their views peacefully and without rioting. The ceramah-ceramah that took place in the run up to March 8th and the various peaceful assemblies that have taken place since then, whether supportive of the government or pro-transformation, prove this.

And if the concern is not so much about those participating in the assemblies but rather instigators or agitators that might turn a situation ugly, then the force should be looking out for those disrupters of democracy rather than clamping down on democracy itself.

That is after all how it is supposed to be on this side of the looking glass.

(Malay Mail; 23rd December 2008)


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Gridlock

The Gridlock

Last Thursday evening, there was a horrendous gridlock in the city. The public holiday in Selangor and the rain had resulted in the usual mass of snarling and resentful drivers. There were no police officers to be seen in the Jalan Raja Chulan area and drivers were taking full advantage of this. They beat lights, cut lanes and forced their way forward to gain that extra inch that would take them closer to some perceived nirvana at the expense of the marginally smoother traffic an uncluttered yellow-boxed area of road would allow for.

Stuck in the mess, on the way to an appointment in the city, I had ample time to observe what was going on and to wonder why it is that those of who were on the road were seemingly incapable of spontaneously organizing ourselves in a way that would allow us to steer our way through the morass, albeit slowly. Wedged at a junction, it struck me that all it would have taken was for drivers on either side of the road to allow two cars to pass through either way at a time. But then it was not to be as someone had attempted to make a u-turn where traffic had made it impossible to do so, and stuck mid-maneuver he had now blocked the passageway.

We inched forward that evening, literally, and I ultimately left my car to walk to my destination. As I did, I noticed cars jumping lanes and rushing headlong on the wrong-side of the road. At one stage, I heard a collision and soon came across angry men shouting at each other. Confronted by a lorry being driven on the correct side of the road, one of these jumpers had tried to cut in and collided with a car. The man whose car he had run into was screaming at him for not having waited in line. Remorseless, the jumper was screaming right back, accusing the other of not having had the consideration to allow him in when confronted by the lorry. All round, drivers were blaring their horns.

Walking on, I mused over why it was that those who jumped lane had done so. It was something I, and it would seem quite a few others judging by the number of drivers who had remained in their lane, would not have done. Speaking for myself, it was not that I feared being caught breaking road-traffic regulations, there were no policemen present after all, but rather that I respected the order that the law, its purpose and inherent respect for others represented. Judging by the events that were occurring before my eyes, there was clearly a very practical dimension to the regulation against driving on the wrong side of the road. Why then did the jumpers feel differently?

On-foot and free amidst the chaos, I suddenly had an insight: there are a great many of us who have lost respect for order simply because we think that there is always a way to get around the consequences of our actions. There are many in the situation of the jumpers who will attempt to bribe a policeman when caught, encouraged by the perception that the policeman concerned will in all probability receive a reasonable bribe of a relatively small amount. Armed with this awareness, the way is open for almost anything and everything.

This is not just about traffic offences; the scenario plays itself out in other situations as well. Corruption is so endemic that it has for all purposes and intents become a way of life, skewing our value systems as it has done so. Considering all that happens around us on a day-to-day basis, I shudder to think what it is that our core values as a society are.

We are also not impervious to the examples set out by those who profess to lead us and it would be self-deluding to think otherwise. When they conduct themselves in a manner that suggests that they are above the law, be it through intimidation or abuses of power, then the average Malaysian will follow suit. For if the system can be made to support that kind of conduct on the part of the former then there is no reason why it should not be the same for the latter.

The harsh reality is that as a consequence our moral compasses no longer point true.

The gridlock in the city last Thursday evening could be, for all purposes and intents, a metaphor for the state of Malaysia. We no longer run in sequence, we see no value in doing so. We instead run our own courses in any way we think best for our own personal interests without any regard to wider Malaysia. Insular, self-interested action has become the order of the day with devastating consequences.

For those who would believe that in taking advantage of the situation,they are doing no more than adapting, the implications of their actions should be kept in mind. These will have deeply entrenched consequences, as we are already seeing. We are a nation that is slowly and surely descending into the lawlessness that contempt for the law entails.

The future that portends is not just about traffic jams and road rage.

(Malay Mail; 16th December 2008)


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Defining Ideals: The JAC Bill

The tabling of the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2008 in Parliament is a momentous event for what it implies.

For far too long, civil society’s concerns about the state of the Judiciary had gone unaddressed by the Government. It seemed that that the acknowledgments this would require, and their implications, were too problematic for the Barisan Nasional to generate the political will this would require.

Consequently, rather than deal with the situation Malaysians were emphatically told instead that all was fine. In this, warnings from various quarters and mounting indications that the institution was in a tailspin went unheeded. The nature and extent of injury this has caused to the institution and our system of law is something that we may never fully recover from without radical steps.

The value of the Bill is chiefly in what it allows Malaysians to do: to move forward and to start looking at solutions.

Though the rhetoric from the Government since March 8th has been welcome, there had been neither tangible acknowledgment of the need for reform nor any concrete indications that steps were going to be taken. The tabling of the Bill has however changed that and we are now on far firmer ground to do what needs to be done. In the same vein, it is also noteworthy that in promoting the establishment of an appointments commission, the Government has also conceded that the way in which judges had been appointed in the past had compromised the independence of the Judiciary.

The utility of the Bill must however be measured against its declared objectives. That the genesis of the Bill lies in the unfortunate events underlying the Lingam Video Enquiry cannot be ignored. These centered largely on the perceived absolute discretion of the Prime Minister to unilaterally determine the appointment and promotion of judges. I say perceived because there had been a time when the constitutional provision concerned had been understood to mean that the Prime Minister would defer to the choices of the leaders of the Judiciary whose advice would have been shaped through consultation with the leaders of the Bar. In this way, care had been taken to ensure that one person did not shape the Judiciary, even if that person was the Prime Minister. As the evidence that came to light during the Lingam Video Enquiry however showed, this had become the case over time.

In this context, for the proposed law to be effective it must substantially minimize, if not wholly extinguish, the risk of this reoccurring. In doing so, one would reasonably expect the Prime Minister’s role to be circumscribed in such a way so as to impede autocratic decision making on his part.

Regrettably, the Bill does not achieve this and instead goes a long way to preserve the absolute discretion of the Prime Minister. It does this in several ways. Firstly, it is not clearly stated that the Prime Minister can only recommend for appointment those persons whose names have been put forward by the proposed JAC. This suggests that the Prime Minister is not bound to do so and can make his own recommendations.

Secondly, the composition of the proposed JAC is worrying for not only involving the leaders of the Judiciary who, as experience has shown us, are not entirely immune from being beholden to their appointing authority, but also a Federal Court justice who might suffer from the same sense of obligation as his or her peers. Four other individuals who are appointed and can be removed at the sole discretion of the Prime Minister complete the JAC. It is evident that this scheme will not inspire much confidence, given our history.

There are other aspects that are equally indicative of a concentration of power in the Prime Minister over the make-up and functions of the proposed JAC. This is worrying for they collectively undermine the stated aim of the exercise for promoting rather than minimizing the role of the Prime Minister. The scheme of the Bill is not easily reconciled with the independence that the proposed JAC would require in order to function effectively.

There are some laudable aspects of the Bill. These include the creation of a duty on the Prime Minister to promote and protect the independence of the Judiciary as well as the characterization of potential conflicts of interests on the part of members of the proposed JAC. These are however of no real value if the core of the Bill is not crystallized correctly.

As other more notable personalities have expressed, all indications point to a need for more comprehensive study and extensive debate. In attempting to give meaning to the independence of the Judiciary, a cornerstone of our system, we are defining an ideal. This is a process that allows for no compromises.

(This comment was written for The Malaysian Insider where it was published under the caption "In current form, JAC falls short of inspiring confidence")


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Shaping Policy

I have said elsewhere that decisions of the Federal Court do not only determine the issues in the particular case the court decides on. Being the apex court and empowered to only hear appeals that involve questions of novelty or public importance, decisions of the court in many ways define the policy of the law. These decisions set precedents and are binding on all other courts.

In an ideal context – in which decisions are made impartially, correctly and with regard to all relevant considerations – this is a good thing. Decisions of the apex court would guide the administration of the law so as to ensure uniformity of decision making by the High Court and the Court of Appeal. This would allow for certainty in the law, a vital feature of a functioning system of law.

It follows then that in less than ideal situations, where decisions are made incorrectly or by reference to considerations that are not relevant to the issues being adjudicated, decisions of the apex court become problematic for setting bad precedents. As a lawyer, I have seen how judges struggle with getting around these bad decisions in attempting to do justice.

These less than ideal decisions are particularly problematic where they involve matters of governance, either at the level of government or lower down the chain of administration. Decisions of the apex court here would not only define the policy of the law, they would also shape administrative policy. In most cases involving the government or other administrative bodies, it is more usual that these entities would have been sued for alleged wrongdoing. By upholding or dismissing claims, the apex court would be setting down parameters and sending signals, one way or the other, to these entities.

Put another way, bad or shortsighted decision-making could, and most probably would, result in bad administrative policy.

It is my respectful view that the decision of the Federal Court in the Highland Towers case (MPAJ v Steven Phoa [2006]) is a problematic decision for having immunized the State Government and local authorities from liability. It must be recalled that in its said decision, the Federal Court found that the MPAJ was not liable for its negligent acts or omissions for being protected under the Street, Drainage and Building Act (s.95(2)). In so concluding, the Federal Court had effectively told the MPAJ, and other administrative bodies protected under that provision or provisions similar to it, that they could act with impunity. One can only imagine how this has shaped attitudes of local councils throughout the nation.

There are two ways that the decision could be considered. The first is supportive of the decision for the court having applied the law as written. After all, the section does provide “…shall not be subject to any action, claim, liability or demand whatsoever…” and courts cannot rewrite the law.

The second is not supportive. Though the Court is obliged to apply the law, it is nonetheless obliged to apply it purposively with due regard to the intention of legislature. It cannot have been the intention of legislature to immunize all actions or inactions. The provision was obviously aimed at protecting the parties identified for acting (or not acting) within the scope of what could be reasonably expected of such parties, seen in the phrase “ accordance with the Act..”. There are situations, such as where the parties have acted in bad faith or in a manner not countenanced by the law, that legislature could not reasonably have intended to give immunity for.

I favour the second view not because my sense of social justice is appeased by it but because that view is more consistent with the guarantee of access to justice and equality before the law under the Constitution. These are features of the core of the Rule of Law; no person is above the law. This approach is also consistent with jurisprudence across the common law world on the subject. Significantly, the Court of Appeal in the Highland Towers case took the view that the MPAJ was not immunized from liability.

There are very real and practical implications of the decision of the Federal Court. Consider its impact on the state of affairs in Bukit Antarabanga. Going by the said decision, individuals who have lost everything have no recourse even if it could be shown that the local council acted with complete disregard to their interests. That cannot be right.

The decision in Highland Towers appeared to have triggered the start of a trend of protectionist decision making on the part of the court. In October this year, the apex court held in Government of Malaysia & 3 Others v Lay Kee Tee & 183 Others that such provisions rendered parties concerned immune from suit as a consequence of which such claims could be struck out without going to trial. The claimants there were denied their day in court unlike the claimants in Highland Towers.

The court in Lay Kee Tee raised another barrier to claims against governments by laying down a pre-condition to actions against governments (State or Federal) as follows: if one wants to sue the government for wrongs done by an agent of the government, then one must not only identify the agent, one must also make the agent a party (or defendant) to the action failing which the claim is struck off without going to trial. The court came to this conclusion through an interpretation of the relevant legislative provisions (Government Proceedings Act) that runs counter to established practice through the years both in the country and elsewhere in the common law world.

One sues the government for what is called vicarious liability. The Government not being a person, it cannot act other than through its agents. In law, where an agent is negligent, his principal is vicariously liable. There has never been any need to sue the agent in order to make the principal liable. One had merely to establish the wrongdoing of the agent to make the Government liable.

All that changed with the decision in Lay Kee Tee, which drastically altered the ground rules. Consider a situation like that in a pending action against the police and the government for inaction on the part of the police during the Kampung Medan riots. The claimant there claims that police officers stood by while he was being attacked. He now has to identify the police officers he says did not take steps and make them parties. How he does that is anyone’s guess especially since the police force is not about the volunteer the identities of those involved (this is fair considering that the burden of proof is on the claimant). Suing the government has always been difficult; it has become virtually impossible.

These decisions and others that have been too accommodating of unfettered discretion on the part of the authorities are worrying as they signal an unduly narrow view of fundamental liberties. They also indicate a misapprehension on the part of the Judiciary as to its role. The institution is not intended to blindly apply the law; it must infuse the law with those elements that mark this nation as a democracy founded on the Rule of Law.

Citizens must be allowed to seek redress for wrongs done to them by the State or its agencies; their right to do so cannot be rendered illusory. As emphasized above, this is not just a matter of one person’s wrongs being addressed and compensation. The decisions handed down have shaped policy and attitudes, and will continued to do so. If public officers are allowed to feel that they are beyond the reach of the law as they have been, they will act as they please and not necessarily in the way they are expected.

The Federal Court must appreciate more fully that its decisions are not handed down in vacuum. They shape society, sometimes drastically.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Forcing Accountability

The reoccurrence of landslides in Ulu Klang, Ampang, capped by the tragedy of Bukit Antarabangsa, is a compelling reason for the reintroduction of local government elections.

Amidst all the finger-pointing, justifying and spin-doctoring, one thing remains clear: that something is very wrong with the way the overseeing of hillside developments in that area, perhaps even other areas, is being managed. If it were otherwise, we would have not been seeing the scenarios we have since 1993 when Block 1, Highland Towers toppled.

Let me expand on why I have assigned blame in the way I have. Let us assume for a moment that the landslides are exclusively caused by soil-conditions, as some might have us believe. If that is the case then one must assume that the area is unsafe for occupation. That begs the question of why is it that housing estates were permitted to be developed in the area and people allowed to take up occupation there.

If, on the other hand, it is not just about soil-conditions but about the way in which housing estates are to be developed, then that points to a human factor and raises the question in turn of what is it that was done wrongly. Was it the case that policies were inadequate to address the situation or that translation of those policies into action was lacking? Or was it that poor judgment calls were made or even insufficient consideration given to compelling factors?

One would have thought that the enquiry conducted after the Highland Towers incident would have shed sufficient light on the matter to put things into focus and the numerous landslides since help keep them in focus. Apparently not, judging by claims of some residents of Bukit Antarabangsa that their complaints had gone unheeded, echoing assertions made by those who had suffered before.

The situation is made more complex by ambiguity. It cannot be said that all that needs to be know is known, except perhaps by a small group of persons who may not feel the need to make the full and frank disclosure required for a firmer understanding of what happened and what needs to be done. This is not surprising as it mirrors the way in which much of the public system is administered.

Put another way, there is shocking lack of transparency and accountability in the public system. a state of affairs possibly encouraged by recent short-sighted decisions of the Federal Court virtually immunizing governments and local councils from liability. This opaqueness not only keeps us blind to what needs to be seen, perhaps those who chose to live in Bukit Antarabangsa would not have done so if they had been adequately warned of the risks, but also what we need to do.

Which takes me to my point. Accountability and transparency needs to be forced on the system and a surefire method of doing this is by making administrators accountable through elections.
If the Pakatan Rakyat needs a reason to crank up its efforts to deliver on the election promise it made to reintroduce local council elections, here it is.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Respecting Change

Respecting Change

A friend of mine told me recently that he was considering home-schooling his two sons. A battle with the private international school where his sons are enrolled and fruitless encounters with Ministry officials who were either incapable of seeing his point of view or could not empathise nor appreciate his lack of options had brought him to that point. It could be that to many a civil servant, private schooling is an elitist luxury that one purchases at the expense of its ills and pains. If so, this overlooks the reality that for many in this country private schooling is not about snob appeal but rather a necessity in an increasingly competitive world.

Many a parent is caught in a conflict between wanting to avail themselves of public services, be they education, medical or otherwise, on the one hand, and doing the right thing for those they love on the other. They, like many others here in Malaysia, have been forced into these positions of conflict by a public system that has been increasingly undermined by political and vested interests despite the obvious consequences.

It is evident that for a nation to progress sustainably into the future, the pillars of the nation must be protected and continuously strengthened. Of these, much has been said of the Judiciary and the Legislature. We should however not underrate the significance of the civil service. It is crucial for being the engine that impels the nation in the direction it should. Civil servants serving in a diverse range of capacities from teachers, administrators, lawyers, doctors, engineers, surveyors, geologists and so on provide invaluable input and service. They reach far into this nation’s heart, its people, and provide the nurturing and guidance that keeps it safe and beating.

Civil servants oversee every aspect of the system from schools to hospitals to hill developments. It is therefore crucial that those who take on the responsibility of administration be suitably qualified for their jobs. This is both a matter of competence and integrity. There is no excuse for not having the best possible persons for such positions, be they teachers or director generals of Ministries.

Even a cursory glance at modern Malaysia would show that this is sadly not the case. If it were otherwise, we would not be stuck in the rut that we are. The nation lacks sparkle, energy and drive. Hamster like, we run on the spot in our wheels of misfortune as the system, such as it is, wears itself down at the expense of the future we could have. Can we really say that we have the best people for the job in the various ministries, departments and agencies that we rely on to make sure this country runs at the optimum level in all respects? I think not.

It seems that the only employer that does not complain about poor levels of competence, at least publicly, is the government. This is understandable. The civil service has always been potentially useful as an employment bank, a direct means of furthering agendas, for control and, for all these reasons, winning votes. Somewhere along the way, that potential was harnessed, and welfare and privilege elements exploited to justify abuse.

The notion that employment in the civil service is an aspect of welfare or privilege is self-serving and dangerous. The civil service is so inextricably linked with our future, giving meaning to the adage “we reap what we sow”. This is not just about the alarming number of unemployable local graduates and school leavers, as worrying as that is, it is also about bad decision making with sometimes catastrophic results, tangible and intangible, and other equally significant aspects.

Things are definitely not as they should be in this nation. We are slipping far behind as we drown in a dizzying cocktail of lackadaisical attitudes, a total lack of imagination, mind-numbing incompetence and corruption. Mediocrity has become our standard. And though we rush to justify and distract from failings, be it for having allowed our tertiary institutions to slip into the “not worth bothering” section of the rankings or the increase in corruption, this is not addressing the problems.

Change became a catchword this year with even UMNO elites claiming it for their banner. If we are sincere about transforming Malaysia, the alarming state of the civil service must be addressed.

For this, ground-rules must be set and respected. Politicians must learn to respect the intent underlying civil service regulations that restrict political involvement: civil servants must be left alone to do what needs to be done. They do not serve political parties; they serve the government of the day. Additionally, key sectors of the civil service must be made impermeable to appointments based on race quotas and be defined only by appointments based on of high levels of competence and integrity.

Above all, politicians must learn to respect the civil service for the fundamental role it plays in nation building. Change is in its hands.

(Malay Mail; 9th December 2008)


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

What Is The Pakatan Doing?

(Update, 6:48 pm: Anwar Ibrahim has apparently denied that an offer was made to Arif Shah. See here)

I am travelling today for a symposium overseas and had much to do and deal with before I left. Time constraints prevented me from writing an opinion piece for Disquiet in print. My apologies.

If I had had the time, I would have written on what I think and how I feel about the Pakatan Rakyat, more particularly PKR, offering a Deputy Chief Minister’s position to Datuk Arif Shah Omar Shah (if reports are true).

I do not think this is the kind of example that the Pakatan wants to set and I am wondering how it is that those who lead the coalition could have even thought of making such an offer (if true). There has already been intense debate about whether cross-overs should be accepted as a point of principle, with the DAP having been very clear about its disagreement. Accepting a cross-over and offering him a plum position in the administration is something that far more extreme.

There are several ways this can be looked at. What does Arif Shah offer that so many of those who have struggled for so long in the pursuit of change-for-the-better cannot? His UMNO credentials? His network of UMNO supporters? The insult his defection would amount to?

Even if the defection of UMNO were to be the result of his defection, and I do not necessarily think that would be the case, is that worth the message it sends out about the Pakatan: that the Pakatan is a coalition that is prepared to pay whatever it takes to get where it wants to. Because if a deal has in fact been struck with Arif Shah, that is what the Pakatan is doing.

And it would seem that that is what the Pakatan has become.

What happened to the adherence to principle that underlay the Pakatan’s election campaign? Has the value of principle lessened since? Have we forgotten the kind of campaign that Arif Shah was associated with in Permatang Pauh, the obscenities, the racial slurs and incitement, the entire circus? Are we overlooking the fact that Arif Shah wants to leave UMNO for the way his has been treated (according to media reports) rather than for his rejection of UMNO’s ideology?

And above all, has Anwar Ibrahim forgotten what it is that motivated the rakyat on March 8th? It was not blind ambition, it was the pursuit of a better Malaysia.

How Arif Shah becoming a Deputy Chief Minister of Penang takes us closer to that objective is something beyond my comprehension. Even if it leads to the taking of Federal Government, I am certain that must have something to do with the offer, I question whether a Federal Government achieved on the back of personal interests is a government I want.