Gopal Baratham: “Orwell of the Orient”

December 18, 2017

Gopal Baratham: “Orwell of the Orient”

by David Hutt

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The Late Singaporean Novelist Dr. Gopal Baratham

The late Singaporean novelist Gopal Baratham’s A Candle or the Sun, published in 1991, is rightly regarded as one of the finest works of literature to come out of the city-state (though probably not according to its government). Politically-minded, and not afraid to amble along a storyline of repression and state-enforced victimhood, it is small wonder Baratham’s writing was often compared to George Orwell’s.

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A Time magazine’s review of A Candle or the Sun states that it “picks up where George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four left off.” In the negative, both authors’ styles are admittedly a little too heavy with caricature and requisite pathos, especially when it comes to life’s victims. Indeed, A Candle or the Sun might initially catch one’s eye as a Southeast Asian transmutation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. As Baratham would say in an interview, he wanted to complete the book by 1984 “for Orwell” but couldn’t finish it until the end of 1985. The book is set in 1983. It took another six years to find a publisher, which was Serpent’s Tail, of London.

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A more discernible reader, however, might also notice the traces of Keep the Aspidistra Flying. A bored salesman and failing amateur writer (a la Gordon Comstock), Baratham’s protagonist, Hernie Perera, gives up on his artistic dreams, though with the promise of literary success, when he accepts a job offer from an old friend to work at the Ministry of Culture producing propaganda. Both Comstock and Perera are susceptible to hypocrisy gilded in justification, mistreatment of their lovers for their own advancement, and an overestimation of their own literary merits.

Perera’s self-respect is lost (though later redeemed) when he betrays to his new employers his lover Su-May, a member of anti-government Christian sect that is printing a “street paper.” This oppressive state is ominously distant from the story, however. (The setting is clearly Singapore, despite the book’s forewarning that “any similarity of persons, places or events depicted herein to actual persons places or events is purely coincidental.”) Perera does muse on how the state wants a say in even the most minute points of life (“your masters kennel you in neat boxes, doctor your females, control litter size according to pedigree and tell you what names you can give your pups,” to give one example.) And Perera is later chided by the lover of his friend: “Did they never tell you that on this island of paradise of ours trade is a matter of security, education is a matter of security, health is a matter of security, how you wash your underwear is a matter of security.”

The Singaporean academic Ban Kah Choon apparently once described him as a “magician who stands before the unknown to decipher what has yet to be written.” Ignore the pretentiousness and incoherence of this statement; Baratham, after all, was fictionalising fact in A Candle or the Sun: specifically, Operation Spectrum, the Singaporean government’s attempt at McCarthyism. But he was certainly charting a new course in Singaporean literature. And instigators often have to be more obvious. Baratham was at his best when he was at his subtlest, though he often had the habit of repeating his understatements so often they become glaring. Indeed, re-reading A Candle or the Sun in light of the more recent politically-natured novels from Singapore (I’m thinking in particular of Jeremy Tiang’s understated State of Emergency, published in May) one gets the sense that Baratham subscribes to the hammer-to-crack-a-nut cliché.

Three years after A Candle or the Sun was published, Catherine Lim, another Singaporean writer, earned a rebuke from Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for her articles in the Straits Times. Writers on the fringe must not challenge the government, the Prime Minister said. There were suspicions, during the ‘90s, of Baratham being the city-state’s “token liberal,” an author who avoided the sort of criticism and censorship others faced. “You should criticize the faults if you care for the society,” he said in 1996. “Some people say I’m the government’s token liberal. What can I say?”

His background, perhaps, afforded him some protection. Born in 1935, decades before Singapore became an independent nation, he followed his parents’ footsteps into the medical profession. At 36, he finally graduated from the University of Edinburgh, specialising in neurosurgery, after training at the Royal London Hospital. He would later return to Singapore, eventually becoming the head of Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s neurosurgery department. In 1991, the same year A Candle or the Sun was published, he was elected president of the ASEAN Association of Neurosurgeons.

His prominence in the medical field, at least in Southeast Asia, was not quite equalled by his literary recognition. A Candle or the Sun became his first published novel, after two collections of short stories, and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1992, which he reportedly turned down because, he said, it was awarded based on the panel looking for a “Singapore style of writing” when he considered his work international (most of his work was published by British publishing house, not Singaporean ones). He attempted another novel and a non-fiction book after A Candle or the Sun but it was that work that kept his name in alive among the talking classes.

His death, in 2002, gave chance for his reappraisal as an interlocutor for free speech in Singapore. Teng Qian Xi, writing in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore at the time, offered a retrospective: “The criticism of the Singaporean ethos of conformity and rationality, as well as the questioning of memory, rhetoric and history which I often found forced in his stories became more exciting, less pedagogical in A Candle or the Sun.”

Freedom from speech

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Singapore’s Speakers’ Corner–Hong Lim Park

I do not know how widely A Candle or the Sun is still read in Singapore. I am told anecdotally that, like Nineteen Eighty-Four is around the world, it’s known by many but read by few. I hope not. Nonetheless, it remains an easy-to-hand reference for free speech matters. Indeed, how little things seem to have changed since it was published. The People’s Action Party (PAP) is still in power, as it has been since Singapore gained its statehood. The country’s media remains closed. MediaCorp dominates television and radio, and is the only terrestrial TV broadcaster. It happens to be controlled by the government-owned investment arm, Temasek Holdings, the CEO of which is Ho Ching, the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. As for the newspapers, the Straits Times is owned by Singapore Press Holdings. Its current CEO is Alan Chan, who previously served in several government positions, and its chairman Lee Boon Yang, who served as an MP for the ruling party from 1984 until 2011, and held Cabinet positions during that time.

When Baratham was interviewed after the publication of A Candle or the Sun, he laconically defended himself: “It’s not that I want to irritate, but I just speak my mind… You should criticize the faults if you care for the society.” But this is a concept that still doesn’t find ear among the ruling elite, despite its rhetoric. In February, the Prime Minister commented: “If all you have are people who say, ‘Three bags full, sir’, then soon you start to believe them, and that is disastrous.” On the same day, as the Economist pointed out, a respected former diplomat who now runs a public-policy institute at the National University of Singapore, said Singapore needs “more naysayers [who] attack and challenge every sacred cow.”

Singapore is now a 21st century economy propped up by 20th century politics. And the Sedition Act, on the books since the late 1940s, is still brought out to slap down those naysayers, especially those who criticise the sacred cows, namely religion and race. PM Lee Hsien Loong has defended Singapore’s limits on free expression as a means to safeguard social stability. “In our society, which is multiracial and multi-religious, giving offence to another religious or ethnic group, race, language or religion, is always a very serious matter,” he said. This has been the case since Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister (and the current PM’s father), promised in 1965 to build a multiracial nation. “This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion,” he commented that year.

Today, Indeed, Singapore is a multiracial state. And a heavy dose of state-enforcement has gone into defending this idea. Singapore celebrates Racial Harmony Day—July 21, the day when the riots broke out in 1964—and schoolchildren are taught about religion and ethnicity. But the idea that by suppressing “hate-speech” one can improve society reveals hidden impulses behind those who call from restraints. It is, at the same time, utopian and nihilistic.

I’ll take a fairly positive-slanted story from the Straits Times, dated November 8, 2015, as an example. The article’s author describes Singapore as a microcosm, “which pledges to be color-blind in its meritocracy and economic growth by providing opportunities for all”. From these, and numerous other reports, one gets the sense that perhaps the government is justified in trying to silence what it considers hate speech.

But a number of commentators are quoted as saying that Singapore is “nowhere near being a race-blind society” because racist undertones are hidden under the surface of a seemingly cohesive society. They also said that “some people and groups are downright ignorant and biased, others merely tolerate, but others are proactive in understanding and being appreciative”. One sociologist opined that “bubbling beneath our civil veneer, there are prejudices and stereotypes which occasionally surface to trigger bouts of soul-searching”. Indeed, the death of a foreign worker in Little India in 2013 led to a riot of more than 300 people, during which 54 officers and eight civilians were injured.

But silencing any public discourse on race or religion doesn’t seem to have done much good (just as banning mention of food isn’t a cure for malnutrition). As seen over the decades, while tensions remain dormant most of the time, they do have the recurrent habit of bubbling up. Moreover, not talking about the issue doesn’t always mean it will go away. A 2013 survey found that almost half of Singaporeans didn’t have a close friend of another race.

At some point in A Candle or the Sun, Perera is warned: “culture is a matter of security.” So, too, is culture a matter of free speech. While “hate-speech” does exist, all too often free speech is curtailed in Singapore over claims that individuals have offended a religion or race, when what they have really done is criticise the government. A casual glance over the cases of people recently prosecuted for free speech reveals that courts tend to find some facet of religious or racial offence in the person’s comments.

Take the case of the blogger Amos Yee, who was prosecuted twice for wounding religious feeling, not for criticising the government. As Singapore’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Foo Chi Hsia, said in 2015, “Amos Yee was convicted for insulting the faith of Christians…Protection from hate speech is also a basic human right.” Indeed, from this comment one can denote the legal contortionism of the Singaporean government: its citizens have the right of freedom from speech, which, to the government, is more important than freedom of speech. Yee might have gone on a tirade against religion, but his main target for criticism was the government, specifically the death of Lee Kuan Yew, in 2015. He called the late leader “a horrible person”, an “awful leader” and a “dictator,” as the Economist reported. Indeed, the American government was clearly of opinion that Yee was persecuted for his political views when it offered him asylum this year. “This is the modus operandi for the Singapore regime – critics of the government are silenced by civil suit for defamation or criminal prosecutions,” one American immigration judge wrote during Yee’s asylum ruling. To which the Singaporean government responded that America allows “hate speech under the rubric of freedom of speech.”

It is often too easy to defend the freedom of speech for the likes of Baratham, a learned doctor and adroit novelist. Harder, though, to defend the uncouth ramblings of someone like Yee. As I wrote in the Diplomat at the time: “It is clear that most of [Yee’s] comments were crude and inarticulate and, befitting his age, childish. This doesn’t mean, however, he ought not be defended for merely uttering an opinion.”

Taking the candle

George Orwell once described Speakers Corner, in London’s Hyde Park, as “one of the minor wonders of the world.” On my last visit to Singapore, last year, a reposeful afternoon provided me with a moment to visit the city-state’s own attempt at a Speakers Corner, located in Hong Lim Park. Oh, how imitations are inferior. The Economist described it thusly:

[A] spot set up for Singaporeans to exercise their freedom of speech without any restriction whatsoever, beyond the obligation to apply for permission to speak and to comply with the 13 pages of terms and conditions upon which such permissions are predicated, as well as all the relevant laws and constitutional clauses.

That article was about the prosecution of blogger Han Hui Hui who, in 2014, journeyed to Speakers’ Corner to protest the management of the Central Provident Fund, the city-states compulsory social security fund. She was found guilty and fined more than $2,000 last year not for voicing her opinion, a government spokesperson said, but for “loutishly barging into a performance by a group of special-education-needs children, frightening them and denying them the right to be heard.”

But what’s surprising about Speakers’ Corner is that Singapore would even attempt a parody. But, then again, Baratham understood the importance of the masquerade. The real heft of A Candle or the Sun is not in how an oppressive state operates but how people are so ready to sacrifice (and justify sacrificing) freedom for “good housing, safe streets, schools for your children and… three square meals a day and a colour TV,” as Perera says. Indeed, principles are sacrificed with only the slightest enticement by the state, unlike in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In 2013, a survey of 4,000 Singaporeans asked whether they preferred “limits on freedom of expression to prevent social tensions” or “complete freedom of expression even at risk of social tensions.” 40% of respondents went for limits and 37% said complete freedom. The remaining 23 percent had no opinion on the matter, which perhaps says something about public participation in Singaporean society.

If Nineteen Eighty-Four is a novel that represents what Orwell described as “the dirty-handkerchief side of life” then Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, published 17 years earlier, is its saccharine facsimile. Huxley in a letter to Orwell shortly after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.

A Candle or the Sun serves somewhat as a synthesis between the censorial warning of both dystopias. Baratham understood that too much jack-booting, never the first port of call for the Singaporean repressors anyway, couldn’t last. (A Candle or the Sun happened to be published the year the Soviet Union collapsed). Equally, permissiveness, unlike in Brave New World, had to be carefully managed: provide a glimpse but never the real thing. Perera, an intelligent man, understands the cognitive dissonance one needs to survive in such a world. A noted passage in A Candle or the Sun finds him musing over whether to take the censorial job. He compares his position to that of a prostitute. “Once I’ve accepted Sam’s job,” he thinks, “I was sure I would have to do things distasteful… I suppose this loss of self-respect is what distressed me. It must be something that all whores grappled with.” But as he soliloquises, he swiftly talks himself round to a justification:

The analogy with prostitutes was a good one. There must be prostitutes who are wives and mothers, who ran families, loved their husbands. Their salvation must lie in an ability to separate in their minds acts which were physically identical.

The psychically identical act, for Perera, was to be able to write artistically and censorially at the same time. In short, selling something that one doesn’t want to, nor believes in. Indeed, from his days running a furniture store, Perera reflects that salesmanship “consisted not of providing people with what they needed, but with that was essential to their dreams.” Shortly afterwards, he comments: “The possibility of winter is essential to the happiness of people living in the tropics.” Dreams, Perera realises, are all too willingly indulged and what people really need (freedom and autonomy) sacrificed. Indeed, do people want the candle (the intimation of freedom) or the sun (the real thing)? The government’s art of salesmanship, as Singapore’s history has shown, makes sure people readily opt for the candle.

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Editor’s note: readers interesting in buying The Candle and the Sun can find copies available through Marshall Cavendish or at AbeBooks.


Hishamuddin Tun Hussein Onn: The Macho Malaysian Minister of Defense

December 18, 2017

Hishamuddin Tun Hussein Onn: The Macho Malaysian Minister of Defense

By Azmi Sharom

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The Big Talker who could be the successor to Najib Razak as 7th Malaysian Prime Minister is a Leader from the Behind. He is prepared to commit Malaysian Troops for Jerusalem to be slaughtered by the Israeli Defence Forces while he sits in the comfort and safety of his air-conditioned office in the Malaysian Ministry of Defence.

Sometimes guys get a bit emotional and they say really macho things like, I will die for such and such a cause. Well, most of the time you just shake your head and look away. Because after all, talk is cheap.

However, when you are a minister, you can’t just say macho things for the sake of it in the heat of the moment. Which is what our defence minister seemed to have done.

He said Malaysian armed forces were ready to go to Jerusalem! For what?

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Why put these well trained warriors in harm’s way when our national security is not threatened? It is just macho posturing by a Malaysian senior ministerWhy not let Erdogan of Turkey do it?

I know that emotions are high, particularly among Muslims, about how Trump has unilaterally declared that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Something that no other governments in the world want and something which everybody knows will just be further fuel for chaos.

Also, international law has declared that the status of Jerusalem remains on hold until there are proper negotiations and agreement. But then when has Trump or the Israeli government ever cared about international law that does not serve them?

Anyway, yes, it is a disgusting move by Trump. But to say we are ready to send soldiers to Jerusalem is an emotive response more likely to show the minister’s religious credentials and not his knowledge of the law.

If you are going to send troops to another country, it has to be clearly about your own self defence from imminent threat. Or, it can be as part of a UN sanctioned peace keeping mission. Or, it can be part of a UN Security Council sanctioned invasive force (again for specific purposes like maintaining international law).

You can’t just go somewhere with your military willie nilly. So, does the minister think one of the above is going to happen? I doubt it and I am sure he does too. So, what he is saying is just macho posturing.

I am totally aghast at what Trump has done and if the government is serious about opposing it, let us first identify the culprits. The US and Israel certainly. But what about the allies of the US in the Middle East? The Saudis have been real chummy with Trump. Do they have they any involvement in this foolishness?

If the government is really serious about opposing this despicable move, they best first find out who the true enemies are so that they can take whatever logical measures. This is more sincere and useful than mere macho posturing.

(Azmi Sharom is a law lecturer at Universiti Malaya.)

The Way Between War and Diplomacy–The CIA Way

December 18, 2017

The Way Between War and Diplomacy–The CIA Way

by Sajad Abedi

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TEHRAN, Dec. 16 (MNA) – The American Presidents all asked the CIA when they arrived at the White House, “What should they do with it?” Often they underestimated the CIA’s analysis. These analyses described a complex world and they said the process of events was ambiguous.

Evaluation, hypothesis, probability. The White House never praised such literature. The White House often preferred analysis that were within the framework of its political intentions. On the other hand, the White House has been increasingly inclined to publicly disclose some of the information collected by the services, due to the persistent desire to attract people to their big decisions.

Instead, the presidents were heavily pushed by the secret power that the CIA possessed. The covert activities, as a “third way” between war and diplomacy, heavily attracted them. All of them have implemented programs in secret to stealthily influence the process. All of them were trying to keep their apps in use. Despite the scandals, the political and diplomatic problems caused by secret activities, none of them questioned the necessity and effectiveness of this instrument in foreign policy.

These covert measures began to expand slightly in the 1950s, at a time when the CIA’s invincible myth was formed. CIA officers, who found such actions as a source of prominence and privilege, did everything to cultivate them. This myth derives from a special cultural sign: Americans as a nation have a very positive image. America considers itself to be a nation that succeeds; it is a winner who challenges ahead of them through his will and technology. The CIA is responsible for this sweeping spirit in Washington.

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The slogan of the CIA has long been: “The agency can do it.” Therefore, the opponents of power would not be taken into consideration because the United States needed shadow warriors to protect the country from the Soviet threat, without anyone having much to know about it. This era of trust ended in the process of deconstruction and after disclosure of the “internal” spy activities of the CIA. So the great age of complexity began, which brought fantasies and other conspiracy theories. The CIA takes ugly signs into a dangerous, rogue and out-of-control organization. But Robert Gates states: “The CIA is nothing more than a presidential organization. Every time this organization has faced trouble, it was due to the mission that the president ordered. »

In any case, this is the image of America in a world that has suffered the most pain and suffering from this country. The fact that the United States has an agency like the CIA is necessarily a two-tail razor.

The press and the Congress, in spite of the fundamental belief in the effectiveness of the CIA, served as two powerful guardian dogs to oversee the agency in the service of the President. The dynamics of American democracy, as well as the strong attachment to the constitution and individual freedoms, have made the CIA the “most transparent” intelligence service in the world. The contradiction is that the Americans know more about the secret activities (activities that are definitely the most secret and sensitive activities) to the total CIA performance. Perhaps even more are than the overall performance of other institutions, including the State Department or the Ministry of Health.

September 11 attacks occur and shake the sense of security and invincibility that the United States has plunged into. Since then, US soil is no longer a haven, and the attack has the same effect as Pearl Harbor’s attack. The outcomes of the Iraq war are being added to the most fundamental reorganization in the US intelligence community since about sixty years ago. Information services acquire new authority, many other services are formed, and some of the old networks are weakened or even destroyed, the need to focus more on the powers of information services is felt.

These changes are so far as the United States is creating a CIA over the previous organization. The new goal is to give Americans a unique look at the services. The new organization will focus it’s analyze on the analysis. That’s why we can bet that in the future less than the CIA’s inability to anticipate important events. On the other hand, because of the new reformation of the new head of the American intelligence apparatus, and the CIA has become the agency responsible for all the secret activities, it can be assumed that the CIA will (slightly) head over the next few years will be kept.

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The tension between interventionism and the previous doctrine of isolationism has led Americans to redefine the intelligence system as the “last line of defense”. In some respects, this device is the beginning and end of its power; and since the CIA has seen its strength in its mission of being as close as possible to the American enemies, that’s why today it still maintains this precious position.

The CIA actually has an almost inescapable position in the imagination as well as the American political system. The organization gives all its actors the confidence that someone, something, America is intertwined with international affairs, and its influence on the four corners of the world shines.


Open Letter to Anwar Ibrahim: Restoring the Integrity of Malaysian Institutions

December 18, 2017

Open Letter to Anwar Ibrahim: Restoring the Integrity of Malaysian Institutions–Undoing the Mahathir Legacy


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Reducing the Powers of the Prime Minister

by Dr. Ronnie

Dear Anwar,

The integrity of our national institutions has been undermined because the Malaysian constitution and other legislation concentrate the power of appointment of senior officers of our national institutions in the hands of one man, the Prime Minister.

It is only to be expected that if the Prime Minister has absolute power to appoint them, these officers will be likely to serve his interest rather than act professionally in the interest of the nation.

If Pakatan Harapan really wants to restore the integrity of our national institutions and free them from political interference, then it must pledge and act, once elected, to remove the power of the Prime Minister to appoint.

Under the Constitution, the Prime Minister’s role includes advising the Yang di-Pertuan Agong on:

  • the appointment of the federal ministers (full members of cabinet);
  • the appointment of the federal deputy ministers, parliamentary secretaries (non-full members of cabinet);
  • the appointment of 44 out of 70 Senators in the Dewan Negara;
  • the summoning and adjournment of sittings of the Dewan Rakyat;
  • the appointment of judges of the superior courts (which are the High Courts, the Court of Appeal and the Federal Court);
  • the appointment of the Attorney-General and the Auditor-General;
  • the appointment of the chairmen and members of the Judicial and Legal Service Commission, Election Commission, Police Force Commission, Education Service Commission, National Finance Council and Armed Forces Council; and
  • the appointment of the Governors of Malacca, Penang, Sabah and Sarawak.


Interestingly, the constitution does not mention advice from the Prime Minister when appointing the Chief of Defence Staff (137 (3) (c)) nor members of the Electoral Commission (114 (1)). The power of the Prime Minister to appoint the Governor of Bank Negara and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) is not found in the constitution and is based on legislation.

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Professor Edmund Terence Gomez’s book, “Minister of Finance Incorporated”, details the extent of the ownership and control of the Malaysian corporate sector exerted by the finance minister through seven government-linked investment companies. Add to this the prime minister’s power to approve all Barisan Nasional (BN) candidates standing for election. His control of all the public institutions in the country is complete.

In other countries like the UK, candidates for electoral office (Parliament, etc) are selected by party members living in that electoral constituency. In the US, party candidates are selected by voters registered with the party by a process called a primary election. In this way, the party grassroots control the members of Parliament who, not being dependent on the favour of party leaders, control the prime minister and cabinet members. But we cannot legislate how political parties run their affairs, and this much-needed reform has to be left to party members.

Lessons from the UK and US experience

Details of UK and US practices in appointing senior officers of national institutions are found in the appendix below. What is clear from their experience is that there is no alternative to our elected representatives appointing these senior officers.

What is also clear is that the power of the President or Prime Minister to appoint is clearly restricted. In the case of the US President, he has to get the approval of the elected Senate for his nominee. In the case of the UK, the Prime Minister has no power to appoint. The power instead lies with the Lord Chancellor (elected politician and member of cabinet) with regard to judges, the speaker with regard to the electoral commissions, and locally elected police and crime commissioners with regard to chief police officers.

In the UK model, there is another layer between politician and person appointed. The politicians with power to appoint usually set up an independent, non-political commission to select and recommend to them the candidate for appointment.

In the US, the ideological outlook of the candidate is a factor. The President will nominate, and the senators will vote for a nominee whose outlook is close to their political ideology. In the UK, selection is entirely on merit and professional expertise. Ideological outlook is rigorously excluded from consideration.

Application to Malaysia

The US system may work in the US where senators are elected independently of the President and the attachment to professionalism strong. But in Malaysia, it will not provide any check on the Prime Minister since he approves all the candidates from his coalition standing for office, and senators are nominated.

A modified UK model is best for Malaysia. Under this model the following should happen:

It will be Parliament and not the Prime Minister who shall advise the Agong on the appointment of judges, auditor-general, inspector general of police, Electoral Commission, director of MACC, and a proposed director of public prosecutions.

Parliament shall establish a Judicial Appointments Commission to select and recommend candidates to be judges, a Police Appointments Commission to select and recommend candidates to be Inspector-General of Police and Director-General of MACC, and a Commission for Appointment to High Office to select and recommend candidates to be auditor general, members of the Electoral Commission, and other national institutions.

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.Najib Razak inherited a strong Executive Branch and making the best use of his Office to remain in power.

It is best that politicians do not appoint senior officers of our national institutions directly because politicians will always fight to gain political advantage from any specific situation. By setting up an independent, non-political commission to appoint on their behalf, politicians make a prior commitment not to interfere, no matter which future candidate is competing for which future post.

How should Parliament establish these various commissions? Following the British model, a Speakers Committee with equal representatives from the ruling party and opposition under the chairmanship of the speaker, should select and propose candidates for commissioners for ratification by Parliament.

To ensure that these commissioners are truly non-partisan and have the confidence of both the ruling party and the opposition, a government nominee for commissioner can only be appointed if he/she is supported by at least 20% of opposition MPs present at the parliamentary vote. Similarly, an opposition nominee will require the support of 20% of government MPs.

Speaker must be fair and non-partisan

The Speaker’s Committee, and indeed parliamentary democracy as a whole, can only work if the Speaker is neutral/impartial between the ruling party and opposition.

In the UK the following rules apply:

  • candidates for speaker must be nominated by at least 12 MPs, three of whom must be from a different party;
  • voting is by secret ballot;
  • when elected, the Speaker must resign from his political party;
  • if seeking re-election, the Speaker stands in his constituency as the Speaker and the other political parties do not put up candidates against him.

To ensure that the Malaysian Speaker is fair and non-partisan, the above rules can be incorporated into Article 57 of our constitution. In fact, we can go further and stipulate that the speaker can only be elected if he or she receives at least 20% of the votes of the opposite side of the House and such votes will count double.

Malaysia’s own Judicial Appointments Commission

I was shocked to learn recently that Malaysia had its own Judicial Appointments Commission. Why has it been so quiet, especially during the controversy over the extension of the tenure of Chief Justice Md Raus Sharif, after he reached the age of 66 years and six months? Its performance should be compared with that of the UK’s Judicial Appointments Commission.

The Attorney-General

The position of the Attorney-General needs to be discussed further. His function is to act as legal advisor to the government as well as to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to start criminal proceedings in court. The government should be able to appoint whoever it likes to be its legal adviser.

On the other hand, appointment by the government may put the Attorney-General in a position of possible bias, ie the Attorney-General may be unwilling to start proceedings against the government and eager to start proceedings against the government’s critics.

Therefore, the power to prosecute should be taken away from the Attorney-General and vested in an independent director of public prosecution, who shall be appointed by the Judicial Appointments Commission.

Article 145 (3) giving the power to the Attorney-General, “exercisable at his discretion, to institute, conduct or discontinue” any criminal prosecution must be repealed. All acts of public servants including the attorney-general and his proposed replacement, the director of public prosecutions, must be open to criticism and remedy by a court of law.

Anwar, I hope you find these ideas helpful. If not, let us know your ideas. My voice is not loud enough to be heard by the people. But if you, Anwar, speak, people will listen.

To members of the public reading this, I say: The Internet is full of information of how other countries manage their institutions. Some may wish to undertake research into this information and come up with ideas applicable to Malaysia. Those who have ideas for institutional reform in Malaysia are invited to contact me at so that by banding together, we have a stronger voice.

Your old friend,
Dr Ronnie Ooi


UK and US practices in appointing senior officers of national institutions

Appointment of Judges

In the US, for the appointment of Supreme Court justices, the President nominates a candidate who is then grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee, comprising both Democrats and Republicans, on his/her past record, qualifications and suitability for the post.

The nomination then goes to the full Senate with a positive, negative or neutral report from the committee. A simple majority vote of the Senate is required to confirm or to reject a nominee. If the nominee is rejected, the president will nominate another candidate. Similar Senate hearings are required for other important appointments like head of the Federal Reserve Bank.

The Constitution Reform Act 2006 made the appointment of judges in the UK more transparent and standardised. The justice minister is called the Lord Chancellor, who sits in the cabinet and is responsible for the efficient functioning and independence of the courts. He forms a selection panel to appoint 15 members of a Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) who appoints all the judges, except for senior roles, such as lord high justice, and heads of division.

For these positions, a special selection panel is formed consisting of two or three of the most senior judges plus two or three members of the JAC, who make their recommendation to the Lord Chancellor, who may accept or reject it.

When a vacancy for a judge occurs, the JAC advertises the post so that all those who are eligible may apply. It makes its selection based entirely on merit and not on whether the candidates’ outlook matches the political ideology of the ruling party as in the US.

Appointment of Attorney-General

In the UK, the function of the Attorney-General is to give legal advice to the cabinet and to represent the government in litigation, the major part of which is prosecuting criminal offences.

The attorney-general therefore oversees the independent Crown Prosecution Service run by the director of public prosecutions. He does not interfere with decisions of the Crown Prosecution Service in individual cases. The criteria used by the UK Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether to institute proceedings is a public document.

The Attorney-General is appointed by the Prime Minister and is normally an MP of the ruling party who is an eminent lawyer. He is not a member of the cabinet but may be called to cabinet meetings to give legal advice.

In the US, the Attorney-General is appointed by the President following a Senate hearing. He gives legal advice to the government and is a member of the cabinet but not a member of the Congress nor Senate. He is responsible for prosecuting violations of federal law.

Electoral arrangements

In the UK, arrangements for polling day, including the counting of votes, and voter registration are the responsibility of local councils. Until 2015, it was the responsibility of the head of household to register eligible voters residing in his or her household, by returning a yearly registration form to the local council. The system has now changed so that each individual voter must register individually.

The Electoral Commission is a watchdog which supports and monitors the efficiency of local councils in running elections and registering voters. It also registers political parties and regulates political donations according to the law. It periodically carries out checks on the completeness and accuracy of electoral rolls.

Any vacancy for commissioner is advertised and the selection and appointment made by the speaker’s committee comprising the speaker as chair, three ex-officio members and five others appointed by the speaker.

Delineation of electoral constituencies are made by the separate Boundaries Commission. The chair is nominally the speaker but by convention he or she takes no part in the work of the commission, which is effectively led by the deputy chair.

The deputy chair must be a serving judge of the High Court, and is selected and appointed by the lord chancellor. The deputy chair is supported by two other commissioners, whose appointments are made following an open public appointments selection process. The commission submits its recommendations to Parliament, which may accept or reject them.

Appointment of Chief Constable

The UK is divided into several Police Authority areas, each headed by a Chief Constable. Prior to 2012, members of the Police Authority, who were responsible for appointing the chief constable, were representatives of local councils and magistrates.

From 2012 onwards, the residents of each Police Authority area elect a police and crime commissioner, who may be from a political party or is independent. The commissioner holds the chief constable to account for the policing of the area and is also responsible for the appointment, suspension and dismissal of the chief constable.

Above the Commissioner is the Police and Crime Panel, which is responsible for scrutinising the commissioner’s decisions and ensuring this information is available to the public. This panel has the power to veto a commissioner’s proposed candidate for Chief Constable by a two-thirds majority.

*Dr. Ronnie Ooi is a former politician and medical practitioner based in Penang.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.


Najib Razak’s Muddled Mid-East Policy–Sheer Hypocrisy

December 16, 2017

Najib Razak’s Muddled Mid-East Policy–Sheer Hypocrisy

by Mat

Related image


COMMENT | On December 13, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, in his own words, dropped everything on his lap, including a meeting with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, to attend the extraordinary summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul, Turkey.

The goal was to register the Muslim world’s urgency and protest against the recognition of Jerusalem as the “eternal capital of Israel.” The OIC meeting was hopeless for several reasons.

First, Najib had already affirmed to the rest of the world, that US President Donald Trump is his golfing buddy and his friend.

In his trip to Washington in September 2017, Najib even boasted that Trump personally sent him to his official car, of all places in the basement of the White House.

The above is not hearsay. It came right from the horse’s mouth: Najib. It was Najib who showcased his tight bond with Trump.



Secondly, directly or indirectly, this has strengthened Trump’s resolve to gift Jerusalem to Israel. The false step by Najib is no less damning than the mistakes of King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia.

Both the father and son praised Trump as a world-class leader when Trump made a trip to Saudi Arabia. Emboldened by his relationship with King Salman and MBS, Trump went one step ahead of the duo.

He immediately flew to Israel, and promised a radical change in the US policy on the Middle East. Such a radical change was, of course, the gift of Jerusalem to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo), whose popularity was not only sagging in Israel, but is also widely considered a dishonest and ineffective Israeli leader.


Second, Najib flew to Istanbul to join a chorus of leaders to admonish and reprimand Trump. But was that really the case?

The US Ambassador to Malaysia was not summoned to the Prime Minister’s Office nor Wisma Putra for a thorough dressing down. Even when the UMNO Assembly was ongoing, little attention was granted to the injustice of Trump.

Third, in a press release by Wisma Putra, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs merely affirmed that Trump should “reconsider his decision.” Wisma Putra did not express its vehemence against Trump.

Fourth, instead, it was the opposition front that raised a huge outcry on Trump’s utter betrayal to the Palestinians.

To the credit of Lembah Pantai MP Nurul Izzah Anwar, she saw the betrayal as sufficiently serious to call for the possible boycott of US goods and services in Malaysia.


Fifth, Pakatan Harapan chairperson Dr Mahathir Mohamad (photo),  together with Amanah and Bersatu, challenged the whole treasonous act of giving Jerusalem to Israel when there are 86 countries, be they Muslim or non-Muslim, that do not agree with Trump. Even Pope Francis of the Vatican Council was against Trump wholesale.

Thus, what is the point of flying to Istanbul to block the proverbial horses that have been let out of the stable? Trump has betrayed the Muslim world not once, but from the very beginning of his presidency. He has passed the Middle East policy to Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, who is a known Zionist.

Sixth, it shocking that UMNO and PAS still support Trump by not voicing out more openly, and by coming up with a series of measures to put a stop to this madness.

Fortunately, the 14th general election is just months away. Christians and Muslims, indeed all groups and races that are anti-Israel, can set things right: by voting out Najib, PAS and, indeed, UMNO, for coddling the Zionist conspiracy.

Malaysian foreign policy has never seen such a disaster until now. It is time to correct it with a new government that is not beholden to US Zionist policy.

MOHAMAD SABU is president of Amanah. The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

The Glory of Democracy

December 16, 2017


Image result for the fall of the berlin wall

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Communism fell with it. Liberal democracy seemed triumphant. Democracies sprouted in Central Europe. Apartheid fell in South Africa. The Oslo process seemed to herald peace in the Middle East.

Then it all went bad. Tribalism and authoritarianism are now on the march while the number of democracies declines. Far worse has been the degradation of democracies, especially in our own country. The Congress barely functions. We have a president who ignores facts and violates basic decency. On college campuses, according to a Brookings/UCLA survey, 50 percent of students believe that “offensive” speech should be shouted down and 20 percent believe it should be violently crushed.

In short, we used to have a certain framework of decency within which we held our debates, and somehow we’ve lost our framework. We took our liberal democratic values for granted for so long, we’ve forgotten how to defend them. We have become democrats by habit and no longer defend our system with a fervent faith.

So over the next few months I’m going to use this column, from time to time, to go back to first principles, to go over the canon of liberal democracy — the thinkers who explained our system and why it is great.

Image result for Thomas Mann on Democracy

I’m going to start with Thomas Mann’s “The Coming Victory of Democracy.” Mann, possibly the greatest novelist of his era, fled the Nazis and came to America. In 1938, he gave a series of lectures against fascism, Communism and the America Firsters

Democracy begins with one great truth, he argued: the infinite dignity of individual men and women. Man is made in God’s image. Unlike other animals, humans are morally responsible. Yes, humans do beastly things — Mann had just escaped the Nazis — but humans are the only creatures who can understand and seek justice, freedom and truth. This trinity “is a complex of an indivisible kind, freighted with spirituality and elementary dynamic force.”

“Man is nature’s fall from grace, only it is not a fall, but just as positively an elevation as conscience is higher than innocence,” he writes. Original sin “is the deep feeling of man as a spiritual being for his natural infirmities and limitations, above which he raises himself through spirit.”

Democracy, Mann continues, is the only system built on respect for the infinite dignity of each individual man and woman, on each person’s moral striving for freedom, justice and truth. It would be a great error to think of and teach democracy as a procedural or political system, or as the principle of majority rule.

It is a “spiritual and moral possession.” It is not just rules; it is a way of life. It encourages everybody to make the best of their capacities — holds that we have a moral responsibility to do so. It encourages the artist to seek beauty, the neighbor to seek community, the psychologist to seek perception, the scientist to seek truth.

Monarchies produce great paintings, but democracy teaches citizens to put their art into action, to take their creative impulses and build a world around them. “Democracy is thought; but it is thought related to life and action.” Democratic citizens are not just dreaming; they are thinkers who sit on the town council. He quotes the philosopher Bergson’s dictum: “Act as men of thought, think as men of action.”

In his day, as in ours, democracy had enemies and the prospects could look grim. Mann argued that the enemies of democracy aren’t just fascists with guns. They are anybody who willfully degrades the public square — the propagandists and demagogues. “They despise the masses … while they make themselves the mouthpiece of vulgar opinion.” They offer bread and circuses, tweets and insults, but have nothing but a “rabbit horizon” — all they see is the grubby striving for money and power and attention.

Image result for Thomas Mann’s “The Coming Victory of Democracy.

The authoritarians and the demagogues subjugate action through bullying and they subjugate thought by arousing mob psychology. “This is the contempt of pure reason, the denial and violation of truth in favor of power and the interests of the state, the appeal to the lower instincts, to so-called ‘feeling,’ the release of stupidity and evil from the discipline of reason and intelligence.”

They possess the “kind of contempt which strives with all its might to degrade and corrupt humanity in order to force the people to do its will.”

Mann has confidence in democracy’s ultimate victory because he has confidence in democracy’s ability to renew itself, to “put aside the habit of taking itself for granted.”

Renewal means reform. He calls for economic and political reform that, quoting a French deputy, “will create a true hierarchy of values, put money in the service of production, production in the service of humanity, and humanity itself in the service of an ideal which gives meaning to life.”

Mann’s great contribution is to remind us that democracy is not just about politics; it’s about the individual’s daily struggle to be better and nobler and to resist the cheap and the superficial. Democrats like Mann hold up a lofty image of human flourishing. They inspire a great yearning to live up to it.