Time to create a culture of critical consciousness for citizens wishing to speak truth to power

January 19,2 019

Time to create a culture of critical consciousness for citizens wishing to speak truth to power

by Dr. Azly Rahman


COMMENT | When the Multimedia Super Corridor was created in the mid-1990s, during Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s first tenure as Prime Minister, the rakyat was promised that the internet would not be censored. Thirty years later, it is still largely uncensored, nor is any grand governmental filter like China’s Green Dam firewall put in place.

Pakatan Harapan cannot always hide behind security laws in the age of greater and more massive free speech as practised by its citizens, especially those who voted for change – real, radical change – and not for some new regime that lies through its teeth.”– Azly Rahman

I was a keen observer of the impact of digital communications technologies on the degree of how nation-states are deconstructed by the power of the technologies that shrink time and space and put distance to death. I wrote a dissertation on this topic, with the birth of Cyberjaya as a case study of hegemony and utopianism in an emerging ‘cybernetic Malaysia’.

Today, the internet in Malaysia is king, the monarch of misinformation but also messenger of good things, delivered instantaneously. What kind of messiah the internet – the most personalising and democratising tool ever invented – will turn out to be we do not know.

How then is a new government – that promised clean, efficient and trustworthy governance – deal with the inherent contradiction of wanting to allow citizens to tell the truth on the one hand, but refusing to be voted out by the tsunami of critiques on anything, on the other?

In cyberspace, on a daily basis, criticisms are mounted as if a great war is brewing. As if a prelude to the yet another storming of our Bastille.

In other words, Pakatan Harapan cannot always hide behind security laws in the age of greater and more massive free speech as practised by its citizens, especially those who voted for change – real, radical change – and not for some new regime that lies through its teeth.

Critical mass

How do we then critique the monarchy, kleptocracy, theology, and ideology – at a time when the powers-that-be seem to be increasingly panicky with the speed by which things are going?

This is a Habermasian question of public space, of “defeudalisation”, and of the way we educate citizen internet vigilantes to exercise free speech in an increasingly authoritarian world.

Consider the scenario the last few weeks. Netizens are getting hauled to the police station for passing comment on the king who abdicated. Not very nice things were said to the monarch.

Pro-monarchy netizens are in an informational war with those angry and dissatisfied with the king who did not tell the country why he went on leave for a few weeks, only to find out later that he was allegedly attending to his own wedding. A racial-antagonistic dimension of this can be discerned.

The Seafield Temple riots in November were made known to the public almost instantaneously with devastating effect, not only on how it got worse, but how the government and the people were trying to deal with the aftermath.

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Sadly, a firefighter died and this tragedy is, in fact, another example of how the internet is a tool of production of both the truth and fake news. In cyberspace, comments take on a troubling racial and religious dimension.

Most of the promises broken by the new regime were leaked at lightning speed, with widespread implications. From the government’s reluctance to recognise the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC), the news of the new car project being public-funded to some degree, members flocking into Bersatu like locusts from Umno and now the Special Affairs Department (Jasa) to the confusing and annoying statements coming from the Education Ministry, the political appointments to GLCs – all these and many more point to the idea that citizens are using the internet to exercise their rights as voters and citizens.

They are speaking up and able to again decide if a new government that can deliver promises better ought to be voted into power in the next election. The internet is king.

You can think of more examples of how this technology is a double-edged sword both for the ruler and the ruled. And now we see the Sedition Act 1948 about to be used to compel the rakyat to not speak up.

Those having their voice as internet vigilantes against power abusers continue to play their role. It will take a keen anthropologist to catalogue the thousands of comments that exemplify disgust towards the powers-that-be – produced, reproduced, and made viral – as compared to the few that caught the attention of the authorities.

How to critique

The internet is a virgin forest of information with a life of its own. From it emanates the phenomena of the evolution of truth, multiple truths, alternative truths, and post-truths.

It is a very exciting time for philosophers to study the postmodern thinking activities of the human species. And the internet is the location or space of the battlefields of truths fighting against each other, something those in the US military would call the dromological nature of things, or the speed by which politics moves and removes things, and makes or breaks or multiplies whole truths and half-baked truths.

Is the government looking into this phenomenon? Is it looking into how to educate the rakyat not to say nasty things out of anger and ‘cyber-amok’ conditions – even if what is said is the truth – but to teach them how to say the truth with sound reasoning, using the tools of the critique of power and ideology?

Can the Education Ministry or the Communications and Multimedia Ministry at least provide guidelines on how to critique the monarchy, kleptocracy, ideology, and theology, using sound cultural, philosophical, ideological and liberatory means? This will save netizens from writing things that are true, yet unsubstantiated, and end up in jail.

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The government of any day owes the citizens the promise of education for critical consciousness, so that democracy can evolve nicely, and regimes can come and go if it fails to deliver.


It was the internet that helped the new government grab power. It was netizens that helped Harapan win.

Today, the new government must cultivate a new culture of critical consciousness, to teach citizens how to use the Excalibur of the new regime, new excitement, new society. Not for the new emperors to have a newer sword of Damocles hanging over citizens wishing to speak truth to power.

So educate. Teach us how to critique the power abusers be they politicians, theologians, or the monarchs, safely and scientifically.

Wasn’t that the grand promise of Harapan, to leave the idiocracy behind?

AZLY RAHMAN is an educator, academic, international columnist, and author of seven books available here. He grew up in Johor Bahru and holds a doctorate in international education development and Master’s degrees in six areas: education, international affairs, peace studies communication, fiction and non-fiction writing. He is a member of the Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education. Twitter @azlyrahman. More writings here.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Will this be Mahathir’s finest moment?

December 17, 2018

Will this be Mahathir’s finest moment?

by Kim Quek



COMMENT | I refer to Rais Hussin’s article “Mahathir’s resignation is not an option” which is a response to my own “Mahathir must step down to save Reformasi.”

Reviewing the above two articles, I would contend that the issues at hand are: The potentially devastating impact on Pakatan Harapan arising from the anticipated mass migration of defecting UMNO MPs to Bersatu, and whether Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad should step down at this juncture.

Defecting UMNO MPs

What motivates UMNO MPs to defect in the first place?Considering that the intention to defect occurred so soon after losing the election, the probability of this being motivated by a drastic change of political ideology is almost nil.

Such speedy decisions to switch camp from the opposition to the ruling coalition are invariably prompted by the desire to seek greener pastures, as well as to escape criminal investigation and prosecution, as almost all of them have been tainted by corruption during the corrupt rule of UMNOo and Najib Abdul Razak. They are pure opportunists, and many are intended escapees from the law.

Their massive influx would reflect the complete lack of integrity and principles of Harapan in general and Bersatu in particular.

Fatally for Harapan, it will be taken as a grand sell-out of the electorate, who had voted Harapan to power precisely because they had been repulsed by the despicable UMNO leadership.

And whatever Bersatu may say, it can not remove the widespread perception that it is implicated in such mass movement of defectors.

Former minister Hamzah Zainuddin’s declaration of 36 UMNO MPs having signed a pledge of loyalty to Mahathir is the latest incident, among many others, that has given fuel to such perception.

Mahathir as a reformist PM

What is the root cause of UMNO’s decadence, which subsequently leads to its almost instant virtual collapse?

Answer: racism and corruption. The former breeds the latter, in addition to fracturing the country along racial lines, breeding mediocrity and brain drain which have caused our prolonged economic malaise – all under UMNO’s hegemonic rule.

The Reformasi movement founded by Anwar Ibrahim in 1998 was precisely intended to overcome all these vices, which includes wiping out corruption, restoring justice and equality, reforming the tattered institutions and restoring the rule of law, thereby putting the country on the path of healthy national integration and robust economic growth.

The Harapan coalition has therefore an enormous task at hand. In addition to reforming the broken institutions, the impaired governance and restoring the rule of law, it must at the same time tackle racism which is the mother of these evils.

Among these urgent tasks, institutional reforms and reform of biased mindsets on race and religion of the majority of our populace are basic, the success of which should serve as a solid foundation upon which ‘New Malaysia’ will thrive.

It goes without saying that to successfully implement such a heavily reform-loaded agenda, the leader must be a reformist of deep conviction of such reforms.

In this respect, Mahathir’s background would make him ill-fitted as leader of this reformist coalition, considering the fact that most of his current task would involve dismantling or reforming or rebuilding the governance infrastructures which he built during his long reign as UMNOPresident and Prime Minister.

And this is reflected in his delay or refusal to repeal many repressive laws, to abolish racist institutions, to reveal comprehensive recommendations for institutional reforms.

It is also reflected in his lack of enthusiasm to reform the biased mindset on race and religion, and the lack of action to gradually and strategically phase out pervasive racial discriminations and reintroducing meritocracy in education, state-controlled enterprises and public service.

While it is unfair to demand full performance on such reform agenda from Mahathir, in view of his political background, the same cannot be said of Anwar, founder and leader of the Reformasi movement and successor-designate to Mahathir.

Anwar would be a shoo-in for this task. Apart from being the architect of the reform concepts of this movement, he was also instrumental in formulating the election manifestos for the 12th and 13th general elections, which later served as a blueprint for the manifesto which helped Harapan to win a sweeping victory in the 14th general election.

Anwar has built up the movement from cradle to its present maturity, for which he has endured incomparable sufferings and political persecution almost continuously throughout the past two decades of struggles.

He is not only the most knowledgeable person on such reforms, but he also has the grit, guts and gumption to see the reforms through to their fruition.

Mahathir’s finest moment?

Mahathir is a politician extraordinaire. He is unique in modern history. After autocratically ruling the country for 22 years, he returned to the political scene many years later to lead a reformist coalition and succeeded in overthrowing the decadent regime which had ruled uninterrupted since independence 61 years ago and crowned himself Prime Minister at the incredible age of 93.

He has made many mistakes in the past, but he has also made the greatest contribution to the country – dethroning the almost unbeatable, corrupted-to-the core autocracy, thus giving the nation a new breath of life.

However, his greatest challenge is yet to come.

At this moment, when the mass of UMNO defectors are at his doorstep ready to boost up his relatively small party, will he embrace them to strengthen his hand to rule to his heart’s content?

Or will he have the wisdom at this final hour to recognise the sacrosanct call of history – relinquish power now, and let his reformist successor lead the next leg of the nation’s journey?

The former choice would almost certainly cause the coalition to lose credibility with its supporting electorate and cause dissension within the coalition and demoralise the entire reform movement.

While the latter choice would give a fresh impetus to the current reform agenda that would enable the nation to scale new heights and make this his crowning moment that would seal his status as founder of the ‘New Malaysia’.

Whatever Mahathir decides, it may mark another turning point for the country.

KIM QUEK is the author of the banned book The March to Putrajaya, and bestseller Where to, Malaysia?

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Time Person of the Year 2018–RUNNER-UP

Time Person of the Year 2018–RUNNER-UP


The Guardianand the War on Truth

The stout man with the gray goatee and the gentle demeanor dared to disagree with his country’s government. He told the world the truth about its brutality toward those who would speak out. And he was murdered for it.

Every detail of Jamal Khashoggi’s killing made it a sensation: the time stamp on the surveillance video that captured the Saudi journalist entering his country’s Istanbul consulate on Oct. 2; the taxiway images of the private jets bearing his assassins; the bone saw; the reports of his final words, “I can’t breathe,” recorded on audio as the life was choked from him.

But the crime would not have remained atop the world news for two months if not for the epic themes that Khashoggi himself was ever alert to, and spent his life placing before the public. His death laid bare the true nature of a smiling prince, the utter absence of morality in the Saudi-U.S. alliance and—in the cascade of news feeds and alerts, posts and shares and links—the centrality of the question Khashoggi was killed over: Whom do you trust to tell the story?


Khashoggi put his faith in bearing witness. He put it in the field reporting he had done since youth, in the newspaper editorship he was forced out of and in the columns he wrote from lonely exile. “Must we choose,” he asked in the Washington Post in May, “between movie theaters and our rights as citizens to speak out, whether in support of or critical of our government’s actions?”

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Khashoggi had fled his homeland last year even though he actually supported much of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s agenda in Saudi Arabia. What irked the kingdom and marked the journalist for death was Khashoggi’s insistence on coming to that conclusion on his own, tempering it with troubling facts and trusting the public to think for itself.

Such independence is no small thing. It marks the distinction between tyranny and democracy. And in a world where budding authoritarians have advanced by blurring the difference, there was a clarity in the spectacle of a tyrant’s fury visited upon a man armed only with a pen. Because the strongmen of the world only look strong. All despots live in fear of their people. To see genuine strength, look to the spaces where individuals dare to describe what’s going on in front of them.

In the Philippines, a 55-year-old woman named Maria Ressa steers Rappler, an online news site she helped found, through a superstorm of the two most formidable forces in the information universe: social media and a populist President with authoritarian inclinations. Rappler has chronicled the violent drug war and extrajudicial killings of President Rodrigo Duterte that have left some 12,000 people dead, according to a January estimate from Human Rights Watch. The Duterte government refuses to accredit a Rappler journalist to cover it, and in November charged the site with tax fraud, allegations that could send Ressa to prison for up to 10 years.

In Annapolis, Md., staff of the Capital, a newspaper published by Capital Gazette Communications, which traces its history of telling readers about the events in Maryland to before the American Revolution, press on without the five colleagues gunned down in their newsroom on June 28. Still intact, indeed strengthened after the mass shooting, are the bonds of trust and community that for national news outlets have been eroded on strikingly partisan lines, never more than this year. And in prison in Myanmar, two young Reuters reporters remain separated from their wives and children, serving a sentence for defying the ethnic divisions that rend that country. For documenting the deaths of 10 minority Rohingya Muslims, Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone got seven years. The killers they exposed were sentenced to 10. This year brought no shortage of other examples. Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam was jailed for more than 100 days for making “false” and “provocative” statements after criticizing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in an interview about mass protests in Dhaka. In Sudan, freelance journalist Amal Habani was arrested while covering economic protests, detained for 34 days and beaten with electric rods. In Brazil, reporter Patricia Campos Mello was targeted with threats after reporting that supporters of President-elect Jair Bolsonaro had funded a campaign to spread false news stories on WhatsApp. And Victor Mallet, Asia news editor for the Financial Times, was forced out of Hong Kong after inviting an activist to speak at a press club event against the wishes of the Chinese government. Worldwide, a record number of journalists—262 in total—were imprisoned in 2017, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which expects the total to be high again this year. This ought to be a time when democracy leaps forward, an informed citizenry being essential to self-government. Instead, it’s in retreat. Three decades after the Cold War defeat of a blunt and crude autocracy, a more clever brand takes nourishment from the murk that surrounds us. The old-school despot embraced censorship. The modern despot, finding that more difficult, foments mistrust of credible fact, thrives on the confusion loosed by social media and fashions the illusion of legitimacy from supplicants. Modern misinformation, says David Patrikarakos, author of the book War in 140 Characters, titled after the original maximum length of a Twitter post, “does not function like traditional propaganda. It tries to muddy the waters. It tries to sow as much confusion and as much misinformation as possible, so that when people see the truth, they find it harder to recognize.”The story of this assault on truth is, somewhat paradoxically, one of the hardest to tell. “We all learned in our schools that journalists shouldn’t be the story ourselves, but this is, again, not our choice,” says Can Dündar, who, after being charged with revealing state secrets and nearly assassinated as a newspaper editor in Turkey, fled to Germany, where he set up a news site. “This is the world of the strong leaders who hate the free press and truth.”That world is led, in some ways, by a U.S. President whose embrace of despots and attacks on the press has set a troubling tone. “I think the biggest problem that we face right now is that the beacon of democracy, the one that stood up for both human rights and press freedom—the United States—now is very confused,” says Ressa, the Rappler editor. “What are the values of the United States?”

The staff of the Capital Gazette, photographed in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 9, from left: Jimmy DeButts; E.B. (Pat) Furgurson III; Katherine Fominykh; Jeffrey Bill; Joshua McKerrow; Anthony Messenger; Christine H. Gorham; Andrea Chamblee, widow of John McNamara; Rachael Pacella; Selene San Felice; Danielle Ohl; Paul Gillespie; Rick Hutzell; Erin Hardy; Janel Cooley. Moises Saman—Magnum Photos for TIME

The question no longer seems strange, for the same reason a close look at where we get our news no longer sounds like civics-class homework. In normal times, the U.S. news media is so much a part of public life that, like air, it’s almost impossible to make it out. But it has been made conspicuous—by the attacks and routine falsehoods of the President, by social-media behemoths that distribute news but do not produce it and by the emerging reality of what’s at stake.

Efforts to undermine factual truth, and those who honestly seek it out, call into doubt the functioning of democracy. Freedom of speech, after all, was purposefully placed first in the Bill of Rights.

In 2018, journalists took note of what people said, and of what people did. When those two things differed, they took note of that too. The year brought no great change in what they do or how they do it. What changed was how much it matters.


“I can tell you this,” declared Chase Cook, a reporter for the Capital Gazette. “We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”

Cook’s promise, shared with the world on Twitter, came just a few hours after five of his colleagues were killed. The man charged with their murders had been obsessed with the paper since it wrote about his harassment of a high school classmate—part of its routine coverage of local legal proceedings. He made the office a crime scene. To put the damn paper out, staffers set up laptops in the bed of a pickup in a parking garage across the street.

Khashoggi was a leading journalist in Saudi Arabia for decades before fleeing to the U.S. in 2017. In columns for the Washington Post, he criticized Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s quest for total power and suppression of free speech. On Oct. 2, Khashoggi was murdered by agents of the kingdom inside its Istanbul consulate, while his fiancée waited for him outside.Moises Saman—Magnum Photos for TIME (Source photo: Alamy).

When the next edition arrived—on schedule—the opinion page was blank but for the names of the dead. Gerald Fischman. Rob Hiaasen. John McNamara. Rebecca Smith. Wendi Winters. Beneath their names was a coda that might have been written with a goose quill: “Tomorrow this page will return to its steady purpose of offering our readers informed opinion about the world around them, that they might be better citizens.”

That’s the workaday business of local news. “Community journalists are the only ones who are going to go to your kid’s basketball game,” says Selene San Felice, a Capital Gazette features reporter. “They’re the only ones who are going to cover lifeguard training … They’re the only ones who are going to cover your local elections and tell you exactly what’s going on.”

This passing of valued information is a wholesome essential of self-government. We can’t reason together if we don’t know what we’re talking about. But the information has to be trusted.

It mostly still is, in places like Annapolis, where the Capital Gazette operates. A poll released in August by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit devoted to improving journalism, found that more than 70% of Americans express either “a fair amount” or “a great deal” of trust in both their local papers and local TV news, even as resources for both continue to shrink. It’s what you might expect of neighbors. At the local level, journalists and community remain mutually reinforcing.

The national media enjoyed the same kind of connection not so long ago. In 1976, 72% of Americans voiced trust in all news outlets (before 1972, whether Americans trusted the news media was not a question Gallup bothered to ask). But while most institutions rode a steady downslope in public confidence in the jaundiced aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, the national media traveled its own path. There was a split—by party.

‘I’ve been a war-zone correspondent. That is easy compared to what we’re dealing with now.’

Maria Ressa

Maria Ressa
Ressa co-founded the news site Rappler. It has relentlessly covered the brutal drug war of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, including extrajudicial killings that have alarmed human-rights advocates. Duterte has called Rappler “fake news” and banned its reporters from presidential events. The government recently charged Ressa with tax fraud—a move widely viewed as an attempted crackdown on Rappler’s reporting. She faces a possible 10-year sentence. Moises Saman—Magnum Photos for TIME.

“We have an era from the ’70s until about 2000, when both Democrats and Republicans were becoming more skeptical of the press,” says Jonathan Ladd, director of the American Institutional Confidence Poll at Georgetown University. “Then in the past 18 to 20 years, the partisan divide is growing, where most of the continuing decline is on the Republican side.”

The division coincides with the growth of partisan cable news networks. In 1996, Fox News Channel was founded on the assumption that the national media reflected the liberal inclinations of journalists working for it. And surveys did show a lean to the left in their personal politics. Fox was not the first news outlet to thrive by offering news viewers the satisfaction of a shared view of the world—MSNBC, its liberal counterpart, premiered four months earlier—but it was the most strikingly partisan in a television landscape that historically tried not to be.

When TV arrived in homes via physically scarce airwaves, a license to broadcast was deemed a public trust, and the Federal Communications Commission enforced the Fairness Doctrine, which required stations to cover public controversies, and to include more than one side. The hundreds of channels brought by cable rendered the scarcity premise obsolete as justification for regulation (the Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987), and the fire hose that is the Internet has washed away the last traces. So it was that TV news went from being a blandly unifying force, confined largely to half-hour nightly newscasts, to a constant companion nudging the country into partisan camps.

Especially around presidential elections. On a fever chart of media trust, the downward slope makes sharp dips every four years, followed by upswings after the President is chosen. But the recovery after 2016 was partial. Republicans remain deeply distrustful of most news outlets. “Even things that are demonstrably true, people are skeptical about, and that’s a pretty dangerous slope to be on,” says Marc Hetherington, a political-science professor at the University of North Carolina and author of Why Trust Matters.

A Bangladeshi police officer grabs the mouth of photographer Shahidul Alam, preventing him from speaking to the press during a court appearance in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Aug. 6. Alam was arrested after criticizing the government in an interview. Suvra Kanti Das.

Most journalists are under no illusions about their infallibility. They make mistakes, every day. The framing of “fake news” posits that any errors are intentional, a coordinated campaign to deceive. Less discussed—and contrasting sharply with the lies of autocrats—is the speed with which any good news organization moves to publicly correct and acknowledge its mistakes.

“People assume the worst about journalism,” says Joy Mayer, director of the Trusting News Project, which works with community news organizations. “They have all these assumptions that we pay our sources, that when we talk about anonymous sources, we don’t even know who those sources are. They’re surprised that we have ethics policies and that we have long discussions about which word to use or which photo to use.”

News organizations bear some responsibility for this. The ethos of remaining separate from the story has hindered journalists from explaining how they do their work, warts and all. But some are finding these days that just communicating basic and obvious facts can be a struggle. That’s even harder from a distance. “Freedom of the press starts at the local level,” says Capital editor Rick Hutzell. “At the national level nobody’s listening—they’re all shouting too much.”

Shahidul Alam

Alam, a photographer and activist who has documented human-rights abuses and political upheaval in Bangladesh for over 30 years, was arrested in August for making “false” and “provocative” statements after criticizing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in an interview. He could still face up to 14 years in prison if convicted, but he plans to cover the country’s election on Dec. 30 amid concerns of election rigging. Moises Saman—Magnum Photos for TIME.


The morning after dissident politician Boris Nemtsov was murdered on a Moscow bridge in 2015, employees at a troll farm called the Internet Research Agency opened their work orders: “Create the opinion that Ukrainians could have been mixed up in the death of the Russian opposition figure.” We know about the instruction because some of the few media outlets free of Vladimir Putin’s control—including a news outlet called MR7.ru—got a copy, and posted it online. Otherwise, Nemtsov’s death might have been obscured entirely by the haze of charge, countercharge, links and conspiracy theory that autocrats encourage, because they obscure testable reality and the activism it might inspire


In the U.S., hyperconnectivity means the country can be targeted by misinformation from anywhere. The same Internet Research Agency was named in the federal indictment handed up to a U.S. District Court in February, charging Putin’s allies with mass-producing posts that aimed to affect the 2016 presidential election.

By then, the U.S. intelligence agencies and Justice Department had concluded that Russian operatives seeded Facebook with uncounted posts intended to help the Trump campaign and sow dissent among supporters of Hillary Clinton. Bloomberg News revealed that, with the help of Facebook employees, the Trump campaign used nonpublic “dark” posts to discourage some African Americans from voting.

Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known by her pen name Mother Mushroom, is a Vietnamese blogger who drew attention for criticizing the Communist Party–controlled government. In 2017, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “propaganda against the state.” In October, Quynh was released in a freedom-for-exile deal. Now in the U.S., she vows to continue highlighting abuses in her home country. Moises Saman—Magnum Photos for TIME.
In March, the New York Times and Britain’s Observer reported that Facebook had allowed private data from up to 87 million users to reach Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy founded by a billionaire backer of Trump. The data was used to promote his candidacy without users knowing the source.
“I had the immediate association with the brainwashing of the communist regime,” says Vera Jourova, the European Union Commissioner for Justice, who grew up in communist Czechoslovakia. “When you are targeted with this misinformation through your mailbox or Facebook account, without having a clue that someone is trying to influence you, the result is the same. So that was my first instinct: My God, we have to stop this. This is turning into a totalitarian arrangement.”
Information on social media turns out to be hugely problematic. Facebook, like other social media, makes money by keeping people on the platform. To do so, its software—the algorithms that determine what shows up on your screen—frequently delivers content in a way that promotes political polarization. Some of the problem is mixing civics with kid pictures, “social” and society. For the same reason that people avoid political discussion at Thanksgiving, Facebook users may tend not to “friend” people with opposing views. But even if they do, Facebook will suppress their views in your news feed—by 5% among conservatives, and 8% for liberals, according to University of North Carolina information sciences professor Zeynep Tufekci’s analysis of a study by Facebook data scientists. That unseen suppression occurs on top of people’s conscious decisions not to click on things they disagree with.
In the same study, those decisions limited exposure to diverse opinions by 6% for liberals and by 17% for conservatives.Facebook has said it is changing its algorithms to promote “meaningful” social interactions and working to limit fake news on the platform.Two-thirds of American adults say they get news from social media. In a 2018 survey by Gallup and the Knight Foundation, Americans said they regard 65% of information on social media as “misinformation.”

Dulcina Parra covers crime as a radio reporter in Los Mochis, a city in Mexico’s Sinaloa state that has been ravaged by drug violence. This year she worked to publicize the efforts of Las Rastreadoras de El Fuerte, a group of mothers devoted to searching for those believed to have been abducted or killed by cartels—a number estimated at more than 37,000. In 2009 she herself was kidnapped after investigating threats to doctors at a local hospital amid gang clashes. Moises Saman—Magnum Photos for TIME.
Machines are not friends of civic engagement. Within the bubbles they help us build, the algorithms tend to promote negative messages. “Fear and anger produce a lot more engagement and sharing than joy,” early Facebook investor turned critic Roger McNamee wrote in the Washington Monthly. BuzzFeed reported shortly after Trump’s election that “top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined.”
In real life, engagement can mean listening, exchanging opinions, reading faces. In tech, engagement means any activity on the platform, which maximizes profits for companies that sell your attention to advertisers. Print media and TV sell ads too, but their primary product was credibility. As established media companies struggled to adapt their business models to digital, they often lined up to partner with the social-media companies that now controlled the audience.
Reuters journalists Wa Lone, center front, and Kyaw Soe Oo, center back, after their trial began in Yangon, Myanmar, on Jan. 10. The pair had documented the regime’s ethnic cleansing; their prosecution has been widely viewed as retribution. They were sentenced in September to seven years in prison. Lynn Bo Bo—EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.
In some countries, social media essentially is the Internet.
A Facebook-funded program makes the social-media site free in the Philippines, which means most people are unable to access anything beyond it, as other websites—including news sites—require more expensive data use. “If your mass base gets Facebook for free and thinks it’s the Internet, they don’t realize A) it’s filtered and B) You can’t search,” says Ressa, the Rappler editor.
 Without search, there’s no way to check information.When the Internet started, the goal was empowerment through connection. Now, when Jourova sees senior executives from Google and Facebook, she says her first question is: “‘How will you improve the world which you have spoiled?’ At first they laugh, and then they see that I mean it seriously.
“It’s been a painful period for them,” Jourova says of the Silicon Valley giants. “They underestimated the natural movement and behavior of bad forces.” The other factor is financial, she says. “When you make big money, you can become blind to the moral aspect of what you’re doing.” The E.U. is pushing regulations that would require platforms to remove hate speech and propaganda. Computational propaganda was the term Ressa picked up at a conference: “It is meant to mislead and deceive to create artificial consensus, to manufacture reality.”
Google took the motto “Don’t be evil,” but, like Facebook, makes money by selling our attention. Twenty-one percent of American adults get some of their news from YouTube, a Google company. Its algorithm produces engagement by suggesting (and often auto-playing) videos endlessly, but not randomly. Nor does the site exhibit much evidence of journalistic rigor. On Nov. 27 at 11 a.m., two of the five stories displayed on YouTube’s World News home page were from RT, formerly known as Russia
Today, the Kremlin-backed 24-hour news channel, notorious for its sly disinformation.

‘Some of my Facebook friends attacked me and would ask, ‘Why can’t you control your husband?’ They called him and Kyaw Soe Oo traitors. I have just become numb to it.’

Pan Ei Mon

Pan Ei Mon
Chit Su Win and Pan Ei Mon, photographed here with their children, are the wives of two Reuters journalists who have been jailed in Myanmar since December 2017. The arrest of the two men, Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone, was widely viewed as retribution for their work exposing the regime’s atrocities against the Rohingya minority. Moises Saman—Magnum Photos for TIME.
In a statement, a spokesperson for YouTube said it has worked to change its algorithms over the last year to promote credible news sources and provide more fact-checking resources.
Small wonder that the heaviest users of social media—young people—are the most skeptical of what’s presented to them as news. In groups convened by the Knight Foundation to talk about news and smartphones, teens and college-age Americans said they consider every source biased, except perhaps raw video from cell phones or surveillance cameras. But their appetite for authentic information remains acute. And as they shift from one platform to another, comparing sources and sifting facts, they are basically acting as journalists.
Which says something about the state of the news business in 2018. The Internet was supposed to make reporting more transparent. In a world where readers and viewers can get online and check everything, you’d better show your work. But it wasn’t that simple. The Internet also siphoned away ad revenue—roughly 60% of every digital advertising dollar in the U.S. now goes to Google or Facebook. In recent years, news outlets relied heavily on the platforms to steer audience their way, and in order to find favor on Facebook’s algorithms or a Google search, stories were tweaked for grabby headlines or to elevate the emotional angle. The net effect: fewer and fewer people are actually out reporting—the number of journalists has dropped from 114,000 to 88,000 from 2009 to 2017—while more and more stories recast the same facts in a slightly different way, to provoke reposting on social media.
In the U.S., local newsrooms are disappearing fastest. Since 2004, the U.S. lost nearly 1,800 newspapers, the UNC Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media found in an October report. Half of the 3,143 counties in the U.S. now have just one newspaper, usually a small weekly. Nearly 200 counties have no newspaper. And “between 1,300 and 1,400 communities that had newspapers of their own in 2004 now have no local news coverage at all.”

‘Free journalism in Venezuela is a species in extinction.

Luz Mely Reyes

Luz Mely Reyes
Reyes had covered politics in Venezuela for more than 20 years when she co-founded an independent news site, Efecto Cocuyo (Firefly Effect), amid the country’s political turmoil in 2015. Moises Saman—Magnum Photos for TIME.
For a certain kind of politician, there is an almost liberating genius to framing independent journalists as the enemy. Stray from the truth, and whoever corrects you can be dismissed as “the other side.”
The strategy runs on a dangerous assumption—that we’re not all in this together.A month after taking office, President Trump sat for an interview with Breitbart, the right-wing online news site that had been run by his then chief strategist, Steve Bannon. “The fake media is the opposition party,” the President declared. “The fake media is the enemy of the American people.”
The “enemy” line had been floated 10 days earlier, in a tweet that named the offending news organizations: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”The President may not have known the history of the phrase. It was used in the Soviet Union, to condemn subordinates at the 1930s show trials Joseph Stalin ordered before executing those who had fallen out of favor. “The people” were peasants who had starved after Stalin confiscated grain harvests. The officials were the dictator’s scapegoats.
The Breitbart reporter was interested in defining fake news. He asked: “Can you kind of more clearly define what standards and quality we should expect from those who are doing reporting?”“It’s intent,”
Trump replied.Intent is difficult to assess from outside, but in writing the Constitution a President swears an oath to defend, the Founders made their intentions clear enough: the press is intended to serve the public, and thus serve as a check on government. “The only security of all is in a free press,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, who famously said that given the choice between government and newspapers, he would make do without government (not that he didn’t have his share of criticism for the ways those papers covered him).
Trump’s rhetoric has been embraced by leaders less restrained in their ability to tamp down on reporters.
In Hungary, ahead of elections in April, investigative reporter Andras Dezso embarrassed the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a democratically elected ultranationalist who had solidified power by vilifying immigrants. After state television carried a sensational interview with a woman who told frightening stories of Muslim immigrants, Dezso exposed deep flaws in her account, reporting her ties to Orban’s allies and her record of legal troubles for Index.hu, one of the shrinking number of outlets not controlled by government loyalists. Police called the reporter in for questioning, taking his fingerprints and mug shot. A court then issued a formal reprimand against him for “misusing” information he had found in public databases.
“The post-truth wave started in Hungary two years before Trump,” says Dezso, who draws a line from the U.S. President’s attacks on the media to the plight of journalists in countries where the U.S. formerly encouraged democracy. “It was very useful for Orban that Trump took up his line against the media. It showed the government here that they can become more aggressive, more bold in their own attacks against us.”
The attacks against the press feed into populism’s dark side. “What Orban did first was cast journalists as his political opponents,” says Dezso. “Not merely chroniclers of the political scene but actors within it. The people then saw us as a pillar of power, and there is a primal pleasure in watching such pillars burned.”’
This is the world of the strong leaders who hate the free press and truth.  When you start defending the truth, you become the story itself.’

Can Dündar

Can Dündar
Dundar, former editor-in-chief of the Turkish opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, lives in exile in Berlin. He fled Turkey in 2016 after he was detained for months and convicted of revealing state secrets over a story he published alleging that Turkey delivered weapons to Islamist militants in Syria. He survived an assassination attempt during the trial and managed to leave the country while appealing the case. Moises Saman—Magnum Photos for TIME.
At least for some. “With polarization, the belief in your own truth has become stronger, and it doesn’t matter if others say it’s a lie,” says Cristina Zahar, executive secretary of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism. Brazilians in October elected Bolsonaro, a populist reactionary who lambasts major media outlets. “These are new times, really new times,” she says. “And journalists need to find ways to deal with this.”For now, the most prominent U.S. newspapers resist a combat role. “We’re not at war with the Administration. We’re at work,” Washington Post editor Martin Baron has said. And there’s been a lot of work to do.
In the first year of the Trump presidency, 25 top Administration officials and Cabinet members have resigned or been fired—more than triple the percentage of Obama, Clinton and both Bushes, and double that of Reagan—following revelations of conflicts of interest, corruption or other impropriety, many uncovered by reporters. The New York Times dug through 100,000 pages of documents to determine that Trump had received at least $413 million from his father, and participated in “dubious tax schemes during the 1990s, including instances of outright fraud.” The Wall Street Journal revealed candidate Trump had paid $130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels, an apparent campaign-finance felony. ProPublica’s release of a recording of children crying in a detention center galvanized public attention on the Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of separating children from their parents at the border with Mexico.
It’s accountability reporting of the first order, backed by long tradition and legal protections. But those protections have started to crack even in the places where they used to be strongest. Four reporters have been murdered in the European Union since the start of last year. In February, police found the body of Ján Kuciak, a methodical chronicler of corruption in Slovakia, alongside that of his fiancée. The couple, both 27 years old, had been shot at point-blank range inside the modest house they planned to make their family home.
The attack on the Capital Gazette newsroom made the U.S. the fourth-deadliest country for journalists this year, tied with Mexico, notorious for the dangers its journalists face. “You never know when or where you can get smacked,” says Ismael Bojórquez, whose colleague Javier Valdez at the RioDoce, an independent paper in Sinaloa state, notorious as the cradle of narco-trafficking, was killed outside the newspaper’s front door last year. Dulcina Parra, a Sinaloa reporter who emerged alive from a 2009 kidnapping, still goes to work. “I feel it’s part of what I owe society,” she says.
Tatiana Felgengauer, deputy editor for Echo of Moscow, an independent radio station, was stabbed in the neck in October 2017 by a man who forced his way into the station. The attack came after Russian state TV accused Echo of Moscow—and Felgengauer specifically—of working for the U.S. Moises Saman—Magnum Photos for TIME.
It’s when attacks are both political and personal that neutral ground shrinks, and professional truth seekers feel extraordinary pressure to choose a side. Khashoggi rejected the label “dissident,” insisting, “‘I am an independent journalist using his pen for the good of his country,’” his fiancée Hatice Cengiz wrote in the New York Times. In exile, the Turkish journalist Dündar regrets being forced to act as a dissident in the pursuit of truth. In Kiev, Arkady Babchenko decided it was the only choice.
At his old Moscow newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, at least five journalists have been killed since 2000. Babchenko says he knew most of them personally. So when security officers in Ukraine warned him that he was targeted for assassination, he took the threat seriously. Then he says they told him the only way to expose the plot—and remove the threat to others on the hit list—was to fake his own death. Babchenko went along: he was photographed in a pool of pig’s blood, then revealed his living self at a news conference the next day. Suspects were arrested, but the charade left the reporter a pariah to some colleagues, and Babchenko in a new place. Once a week, bodyguards follow him to his talk show, where he discusses Russian affairs before a backdrop of the Kremlin in flames.
Accuracy, fairness, professionalism—the pillars of journalism took root in the U.S. and Britain, spread around the world, and remain the standard. In the U.S., the press retains qualities of a citadel, protected not only by laws and court decisions, but the awareness of the great majority of public officials who serve something larger than themselves.
But dissonance rains down from the top. In November, the White House not only took the unprecedented step of banning a reporter—it then released, as supporting evidence, an apparently doctored video, digitally altered to portray actions that had not occurred. Still more remarkably, the video was first shared by Infowars, the aptly named website of Alex Jones, the fringe conspiracy theorist who traffics in paranoia and illusion.’Freedom of expression is like a jungle now.  We have no laws. You’re not a citizen. You are nothing.’

Amal Habani

Amal Habani
Habani covers government corruption, police abuses and human-rights violations as a freelance journalist in Sudan. Authorities there have detained her 15 times and banned her writing from a major newspaper. In January, she was held for 34 days and assaulted with electric rods for reporting on economic protests. Moises Saman—Magnum Photos for TIME.A U.S. district judge ordered CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta’s press pass returned; Fox News joined the pleadings on the side of the press, and the White House obliged. But days earlier, a Fox host, Sean Hannity, had joined the President on the stage of a campaign rally. The President promotes Fox shows routinely in tweets, and vociferously opposed the merger of CNN parent company Time Warner (a onetime parent of TIME) with AT&T.
The consolidation of the nation’s media outlets is certainly cause for concern. Just five corporations control what most Americans see or hear (in 1983, it was 50). But Trump made no public objection when Sinclair Broadcast Group proposed buying Tribune Media. That merger would have left Sinclair with television stations that reach 72% of U.S. homes—nearly double the percentage allowed by the FCC, which had winked at earlier expansions. Sinclair is an unusual owner, in that it requires stations to carry news reports and commentaries from its central office, packaged to appear local. In March, Sinclair required some 200 anchors to recite a script warning that “some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think.” The website Deadspin captured the Orwellian moment in a chilling compilation video.For the first time in living memory, an element of personal danger has entered coverage of public affairs in America. Bodyguards now escort CNN reporters through Trump rallies, and the network’s Manhattan newsroom was evacuated in October when its mail room found one of the 16 pipe bombs addressed to Trump critics. Police traced the bombs to a Florida man living in a van plastered with Trump stickers.
The heightened risk for journalists in the U.S. still pales compared with those working to report the truth elsewhere. In Myanmar, the friction points in society are ethnic, with an overlay of religion. About 88% of the people are Buddhist. The Rohingya are a small population of Muslims mostly from the state of Rakhine, not far from Bangladesh, the Muslim country that many Burmese regard as the best dwelling place for the Rohingya. Successive governments have refused to give Rohingya citizenship, rendering most stateless. There is an armed separatist movement, a contested history and a state of tension that is almost constant, especially in Rakhine state
Kyaw Soe Oo grew up there. He was raised Buddhist, but did not share the widespread bias against his Rohingya neighbors. “Kyaw Soe Oo believes every human should be treated equally and there should be no discrimination against anyone,” says his wife, Chit Su Win. “He has tried to teach his daughter this value too.” As her mother spoke inside a tidy apartment strewn with toys in Yangon’s Insein township, the 3-year-old sat on her lap, watching Frozen
Once a poet, Kyaw Soe Oo found a passion for journalism. He worked for a local paper, then in 2017 was hired as a reporter for Reuters, the global news agency. He worked closely with Wa Lone, a hard-charging reporter who at 32 is four years older, also Buddhist and also from the provinces. Together, they covered one of the biggest stories in the world that year—the transfer of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh, pushed out by Burmese forces.
Working in their homeland for a leading international news organization, they walked a line that eluded Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the government who, before she wielded political power, won a Nobel Prize for Peace for her moral authority. In power, she has remained silent as verified reports pile up of arson, rape and mass executions by military forces against the Rohingya.

When you’re confronted with evil, real evil, you can’t just take your notebook out and ask it for a comment.’

Arkady Babchenko

Arkady Babchenko
Babchenko spent years as a Russian war correspondent, leaving for Kiev in 2017 after his criticism of the Kremlin led to threats against him. Last spring, when Ukraine’s intelligence agency warned of a plot to assassinate him, he faked his own death in a sting operation designed to catch the people paying for the murders—a controversial move in the journalism world. Moises Saman—Magnum Photos for TIME.
On December. 12, 2017, Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone were invited to dinner by a police official. They had been investigating the execution of 10 Rohingya men the official’s unit was involved in.  After the meal, the police handed the reporters some papers, discreetly wrapped in a newspaper. Moments later, the reporters were placed under arrest for possession of the papers, which they had not yet read. In September, Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone were sentenced to seven years in prison. A police captain who testified that they were framed was prosecuted separately.
Whom do you trust? It may seem a wonder that, in a world riven by tribal tensions, national leaders seek division where sturdy bridges already stand, and confusion where clarity can mean the difference between life and death. The world may not be getting worse, only more confused, but in time that distinction can vanish. There is urgent work ahead in shaping a communications system guided not by software but by the judgment of citizens, and the social contract implied in the First Amendment: facts matter.
Not even his wife really understood what Kyaw Soe Oo did for a living. She got a glimmer of the risk involved from a Korean movie they watched together, about a reporter covering a massacre. And then one day in 2017 she went with him into Rakhine, to do some sightseeing in a town that suddenly came under attack from a Rohingya militant group.
“I went with him because I had never been to Maungdaw before,” she says. “I wanted to see Maungdaw. I saw fighting. “I ran. He went to work.” —With reporting by Abigail Abrams, Katie Reilly and Paul Moakley/New York; Abby Vesoulis and Josh Meyer/Washington; Simon Shuster/Kiev; Eli Meixler/Dhaka; Laignee Barron/Yangon; Ioan Grillo/Sinaloa; Joseph Hincks and Feliz Solomon/Hong Kong; and Matt Sandy/Rio de Janeiro.
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Rally shows need for a radical revamp of the curriculum

December 10,2018

Rally shows need for a radical revamp of the curriculum

by Dr.Azly Rahman@ www. malalaysiakini.com

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Anti-ICERD rally a win for New Malaysia but a setback for Harapan’

December 9, 2018

Anti-ICERD rally a win for New Malaysia but a setback for Harapan’

by Lim Kit Siang  |  Published:  |  Modified:


MP SPEAKS | The peaceful holding of the anti-ICERD rally in Kuala Lumpur yesterday is a victory for New Malaysia but a setback to Pakatan Harapan.

As Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin rightly said after the rally, it was a demonstration that the Pakatan Harapan government will always respect the rights of the people to speak and assemble peacefully, as long as these rights are practised according to the provisions of the law and the Malaysian Constitution.

The former UMNO-BN government have never recognised, respected and upheld the constitutional and democratic right of Malaysians to speak and assemble peacefully, as witnessed what happened to the five Bersih rallies from 2007 to 2016 – Bersih 1 on November 10, 2007; Bersih 2 on July 9, 2011; Bersih 3 on April 28, 2012; Bersih 4 on August 29 and 30, 2015; and Bersih 5 on November 19, 2016.

But there is a major hitch – the organisers of the of the anti-ICERD in Kuala Lumpur did not want a New Malaysia, which was born on the historic day of May 9, 2018, to re-set Malaysian nation-building policies to save Malaysia from the trajectory of a rogue democracy, a failed state, a kakistocracy( cronyism+ and a global kleptocracy and awaits Malaysians to give it flesh, blood and soul to be a world top-class nation – united, democratic, just, progressive and prosperous – which may take one or two decades to accomplish.

The organisers of the anti-Icerd rally came to destroy and not to create a New Malaysia. I said it was a setback for the Pakatan Harapan to build a New Malaysia because yesterday’s rally would not have happened if the Harapan government had handled the Icerd issue better.

As constitutional law expert from Universiti Malaya, Professor Shad Faruqi, has stressed, most of the criticisms against ICERD have no legal basis.

He said: “However, as hate and fear are potent weapons in politics, the perpetrators have succeeded in polarising society and raising the spectre of violence.”

As Shad Faruqi has pointed out, Icerd is neither anti-Malay nor against the Malaysian Federal Constitution. Since yesterday, Malaysia has become the laughing stock of the Muslims in the world, as 99 percent of the 1.9 billion Muslims of the world live in 179 countries which have ratified ICERD, including 55 of the 57 Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) nations.

UKM research fellow, Dr. Denison Jayasooria, wrote a good article in Malaysiakini entitled: ‘Examining Icerd ratification among OIC members’, where he reviewed the ratification by OIC member states, including Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Palestine, and he concluded: “As far as I note, none of them has objections or placed reservations in the name of Islam.”

IiVERD ++ also does not undermine the power of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, resulting in the abolition of the system of Malay Sultans.

There are 38 countries with the monarchical system, out of which 36 countries have ratified the Icerd including the United Kingdom in 1969, Norway (1970), Sweden (1971), Denmark (1971), Netherlands (1971), Jordan (1974), Belgium (1975), Japan (1995), and Saudi Arabia (1997).

There are absolutely no indications that the ratification of ICERD by these 36 countries have undermined the monarchical system as to lead to their abolition.

But as Malaysia is a plural society, it is of utmost importance that the unity and harmony of our diverse races, languages, cultures and religions in Malaysia must be the paramount goal of the nation.

For this reason, Malaysia should not ratify ICERD until the majority of the races and religions in Malaysia are comfortable with it, support it and understand that it poses no threat to the various races, religions or the Federal Constitution but is a step forward to join the world in promoting human rights.

The Harapan government should not have allowed the organisers of the anti-Icerd rally to hijack, twist and distort the ICERD debate with the toxic politics of lies, hate, fear, race and religion to incite baseless fears that Icerd is anti-Malay, anti-Islam and anti-Malay Rulers, which camouflaged an agenda to allow those responsible for sending Malaysia into the trajectory of a rogue democracy, a failed state, a kakistocracy and a global kleptocracy to make a political comeback and to destroy efforts to re-set nation-building efforts to create a New Malaysia.

This is a lesson the Harapan government must learn quick and fast, or both Harapan and the great vision of a New Malaysia will be destroyed.

LIM KIT SIANG is Iskandar Puteri MP.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Special Report

The ICERD Outrage

Malaysia is one of only two Muslim-majority countries in the world that have not ratified ICERD.

Malaysian reform dynamics

December 8, 2018

Malaysian reform dynamics


by  Andrew Harding, NUS


The pattern of political reform following a regime change is usually predictable: the reformers gain popular support, make changes to the constitution and then use constitutional politics to achieve their ends. But Malaysia’s current period of political change is straying far from this pattern. Instead, Malaysia is proving that peaceful transition and reform may be possible without debates about constitutional amendment.


Image result for asri and mahathir


The new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government — a coalition of four political parties — was unexpectedly elected to power on 9 May 2018, replacing the incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government. Much of the PH’s current political leadership team were part of the BN’s largest member party and now discredited United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), including a former prime minister, two former deputy prime ministers and a slew of former ministers and members of parliament.

The election also revived the political career of former and now incumbent Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir had gone down in history as one of the strong men of Asian authoritarianism. His recent campaign replaced this image with one of a moderate democrat who believes in a free press, a two-party parliamentary system and the rights of citizens.

Mahathir’s campaigning against his old party carried enough rural Malay voters into the PH fold to overturn the BN’s dominance. Voters were appalled at the level of corruption in former prime minister Najib Razak’s government. The contrast was stark between voters’ own economic struggles — including the extra burden of a goods and services tax — and the wanton expenditure of leaders like Najib and his wife.

While the PH have not yet changed a single word of the constitution, it has already redefined the state as one based on good governance, the rule of law, parliamentarism and the separation of powers. The PH has proposed signing the international human rights covenants (except for ICERD), abolishing the death penalty, and addressing the political and legislative autonomy of East Malaysian states Sabah and Sarawak.

The question now is whether the reform process is politically sustainable and can be constitutionally entrenched.

One challenge facing the PH coalition is that any ordinary legislative changes — let alone constitutional amendments — can easily be blocked in Malaysia’s upper house, which is still controlled by senators appointed by the former BN government. The upper house has already rejected a bill to repeal the Fake News Act that was rushed through parliament by Najib before the election to restrict criticism of the government regarding the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.

There are fears that the PH coalition may simply revert to the Malaysian dominant-coalition stereotype. These are partly fears that the leader of the People’s Justice Party Anwar Ibrahim — the largest party of the PH coalition — will assert what he sees as his entitlement to the prime-ministership.

There are also worries about factionalism within Anwar’s party, quite apart from tensions between the four coalition partners. As matters stand, Mahathir is supposed to hand over to Anwar within two years of the election. At 93 years old, Mahathir could hardly plan to go on longer than that, whatever the politics dictates.

For the time being at least, the reformers are in charge.  Attorney General Tommy Thomas and Legal Affairs Minister Liew Vui Keong are implementing the PH’s campaign promises. These include the good-governance reforms that Mahathir wryly suggests would not have been so extensive had the PH expected to win the election. Bringing those guilty of corruption to account is the major priority at this point, and ensuring that problems such as the 1MDB scandal will not occur again is also high on the agenda.

Despite the flurry of reforms, announcements, prosecutions and policy changes since the election, most legal changes — such as abolition of the death penalty — remain to be implemented. These depend on parliamentary arithmetic.

But over the next two to three years, as current senators leave office, there will be opportunity for the PH government to gain much more control over the reform process. These reforms may well involve changes to the Senate itself, which has far too many appointed members and no longer fulfils its original purpose of protecting states’ rights. This of course assumes that PH will remain stable and reform-oriented.

Entrenching the reforms in the longer-term may also be a challenge. While an extended period of constitutional debate would be beneficial for the somewhat ad hoc current reform proposals, politics can change quickly. This could side-line reform and reemphasise ethnic and religious issues. The PH still has to establish its credentials with the majority of Malay voters. At the same time, Anwar has consistently advocated democratic reforms and suffered in jail as a result of overweening executive power.

These reforms are so long overdue that many of them could become fiats accomplis, or matters of consensus rather than contention. For the moment, the further down this road the reforms go, the harder it will be to reverse them.