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Sunday, 18 September 2011

Winds of change blowing in Malaysia; Dawn of a new era?

Winds of change blowing


THE relief that greeted the Prime Minister’s announcement that the Internal Security Act (ISA) 1960 and other repressive laws would be abolished was difficult to define for several reasons.

First, nobody expected Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak to have gone so far in throwing off decades of unjust laws. When it happened, it took time to sink in, after more than a generation of having to endure those laws.
Najib Tun RazakImage by KamalSelle via Flickr
Second, mention of two new laws to replace the ISA tempered the plaudits from critical observers. Would that mean returning to square one through a bait-and-switch?

Third, those who had banked on the Government retaining the ISA in some revised form were caught unawares. Regardless of their own views of it, they insisted there would be little change, seeking to vindicate themselves and “save face”.

All these have been efforts to adjust to a new national reality post-ISA. A fourth reaction comes from political opportunism: robbed of their thunder, the Opposition tried to diminish the significance of the Government’s move.

To others, however, the state’s abandonment of these repressive laws is both historic and definitive.
Of all the Governments that had presided over the ISA through the decades, Prime Minister Najib’s has been the one bold enough to do the decent thing of abolishing it.

It is not because this is possible only now since Malaysia no longer needs the ISA, because the country has not needed it for a long time already. Besides, some close to the seat of power still insist such preventive detention laws are needed.

It is untypical of any government to renounce a sweeping law that gives unparalleled powers to it. Dumping the ISA not only took guts, it showed a rare selflessness that placed actual national interest above perceived (by some) national security interest.

Doubts over the two new laws to replace the ISA may be natural but unwarranted. Both laws would relate to Article 149 of the Federal Constitution, which would shift more responsibility on preventive action from the Cabinet to Parliament, with emphasis on any use of these laws against a “substantial body of persons” rather than isolated individuals.

Malaysian parliamentarians have grown more alienated from the ISA than ever, even before the 2008 general election that made an unprecedented number of Opposition candidates MPs. Also, the aversion to draconian laws among Barisan Nasional MPs is far greater than any pro-ISA sentiment among Pakatan Rakyat MPs.

There is therefore no going back to anything like the ISA now. Any return to the spirit, if not the letter, of the ISA can only backfire badly on the Government and discredit it politically.

Until recently, there was the prospect of merely tweaking the ISA. But it soon dawned that simply twiddling the dials of a bad law would not make it good.

The toughest part of the journey towards abolishing the ISA is over. That was not in Parliament, the Opposition or the public, but in places closer to the Government, including some governmental agencies and NGOs.

Activists tempting ISA arrests may want credit for piling on the pressure until its final annulment. However, the opposite is more likely: raucous activism helped to make the ISA seem useful, even indispensable, while also weakening arguments for its abolition.

The authoritarian mentality sees any threat or challenge to the status quo as grounds for using greater force, not less. And such a mindset has hitherto had its hold on the levers of power such as the ISA.

For now, the case remains to be made as to why the two proposed laws are needed, what they should entail, and how their operation can respect civil liberties. Transparency would help public support for them, or at least mitigate any animosity.

The scheduled abolition of the ISA and other repressive laws has meant raised expectations of a new era of civil liberties. Law enforcement and maintenance of public order would then depend more on informed consent than submission or capitulation.

The implications place the ball in the court of key national institutions: Parliament, the judiciary and the police. They need to respond to signal assent, since they stand to benefit.

Parliament should exercise its lawful prerogatives to the fullest extent the political transformation affords. This begins and ends with every parliamentarian acting in his or her legitimate capacity.

The judiciary should assert its constitutional role by acting vigorously in concert with other major national institutions. It should no longer shy from a judicious activism that serves the national interests.

The police stand to gain the most from this push to enhance investigative norms, focus on criminal intent, seek admissible evidence and develop standard operating procedures instead of relying on non-contestable shortcuts like the ISA. Moving away from easy catch-all measures like ISA arrests and detentions can also improve the work ethic and public image of the force.

This aspect of the political transformation is an assurance that Malaysia’s development is also political and social, not just economic. It enables the country to move ahead of others in the region that may be more developed only economically.

For Malaysia itself, it is a large step towards Vision 2020, most of whose nine development objectives are not economic but political and social. No nation aiming to be fully developed can neglect them.

The small-minded may scoff at the transformation Najib announced on Friday. And only the mean-spirited would refuse to give credit for the new direction.

To say all this is mere election fluff ignores the fact that it is neither fluff nor as shortlived as an election campaign. To insist it is only a political move forgets that dismissing it is just as political.

Besides, if the ISA had been initiated and executed for political reasons, it should not be unnatural for its annulment to be so as well.

Dawn of a new era


Najib deserves credit for his move to reform some of the country’s most unpopular laws.

IT was the best gift for Malaysians on a special day. It is also a reminder that the nation has grown up and that we should move forward, leaving our baggage behind.

In a nutshell, the Prime Minister has stepped out of the shadows of his predecessors. It is a major step into the future. Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak couldn’t have chosen a better day to make the announcement to do away with some of the country’s most unpopular laws.

It surely has not been easy. When bits of news filtered out about his Malaysia Day speech, there were doubts as to how far he would go.

Those who were privy to inner-circle discussions on how the speech would be crafted crossed their fingers and hoped there would be no last minute changes.

After all, as a politician, the Prime Minister has to balance the needs of the conservatives, right wingers and liberals within his party and also the Barisan Nasional coalition.

The PM understands fully how much the world has changed. The global political landscape has been altered drastically and the lessons to learn are that if leaders cannot change, the people will change them. There is plenty to learn from history, some very recent too.

The more conservative in Umno are still grappling with the changes, preferring to hold on to something which they are familiar and comfortable with. They are trying hard to understand where Najib is taking Malaysia to.

The younger ones, while looking apprehensively at the lack of changes in Umno, have tried hard to push, worried that the country’s ruling party could be losing its connection with the Twitter and Facebook generation. It’s not wrong to say that the PM has been watching, listening and feeling it all over the last three years.

On Aug 28, this scribe wrote that Najib’s call for greater democratic space, including doing away with censorship laws and setting up a Parliamentary Select Committee to review electoral laws, was just a prelude to his address on Sept 16.

I wrote that “it is almost certain that he will expand on democratic reforms with an outline of the changes he wants to implement in Malaysia. It won’t be promises but changes that would be set out in black and white.

“The fresh democratic reforms will surprise even his critics, particularly those who are pushing for a greater civil society.

“In short, the new democracy that he wants to see would recognise the calls by Malaysians. It is the Middle Malaysia that he wants to address. He will say that yes, he hears these voices.”

But even this writer was surprised at how far he was prepared to push. I dared not commit myself to put into words that he would repeal the Internal Security Act, but Najib has proven his doubters and critics wrong. He proved that he walked the talk.

As expected, everyone is trying to claim credit for the changes. The Opposition, still reeling from the shock, has said these would not have happened without their pressure and protests.

Then there are the usual cynics.

I think the point is this: It does not matter who is right, but what is right. It does not matter who did it, so long as the right thing gets done. Malaysians cannot be partisan on issues that affect us all.

Najib deserves credit for having the courage to take the bold steps. His New Democracy thrust is certain to continue.

The ISA will be repealed, no one should even doubt it anymore. An Anti-Terrorism Act – specifically for terrorists and not for political opponents, as in Britain and the United States – is likely to take over.

The Police Act would be redefined and possibly the right to assemble, which could be made clearer by designating places, time and how gatherings should be done.

An example to look at is Hong Kong, where night protests are directed to specific roads that would have little impact on businesses. Even then, gatherings are allowed on only one side of the road so that traffic can continue to flow on the other side.

In New York, there is a designated spot not far from the United Nations building for protest gatherings. A spot could be set up not far from the Parliament for similar purposes.

As in football matches in Britain, where police resources are used to safeguard public safety, organisers of protest gatherings in stadiums could be asked to put up deposits for police security and possible damages.

But the Printing Presses and Publications Act is still a thorn on the side for the media. Najib has taken the first step to abolishing this much hated law by allowing a one-off permit without the requirement for annual renewal. The Government must commit itself to a total abolishment, however.

An independent media council to be run by editors will finally be formed after 54 years of independence, and repealing the law would certainly be on the agenda of journalists. After all, no one needs a permit to start a blog or an online news portal, so why impose a permit for print?

The reforms have left a feel-good feeling but the Prime Minister has to follow up with an equally impactful Budget speech. All these reforms are good but they won’t put food on our tables.

Ordinary Malaysians are worried about the rising cost of living and middle income Malaysians are hit the most by monthly tax deductions.

In the rural areas of Sabah and Sarawak, where food and fuel need to be transported into the interior, the costs are even more enormous.

Malaysians want to hear how the Government intends to help them face the economic uncertainties, the spiralling cost of food and how to be confident about the future.

Malaysians are not expecting their Government to adopt a populist approach of promising the sun and the moon, which will bankrupt the nation. But they want the Government to be equally responsible in sharing the burden by cutting out excessive financial waste and leaks.

Najib’s challenge would be to balance the budget in the face of a slowing economy and at the same time appease the people ahead of a general election.

The Budget Speech is on Oct 7. Can Malaysians expect the Big Day to be soon after the PM has announced his economic plans for the country?

Related posts:
Towards a brave new Malaysia, keep lobbying and pushing for change!
Changes in Malaysia's horizon; Keep the momentum up!

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