May 28, 2016
Malaysia: For Citizens’ Declaration and Why
by P Gunasegaram
“All of us who are concerned for peace and triumph of reason and justice must be keenly aware how small an influence reason and honest good will exert upon events in the political field”–Albert Einstein.
QUESTION TIME | The Citizens’ Declaration is a document that was drawn up by citizens concerned over Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s role as leader of the country. It originates more from Bersih and other civil groups than former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
The key question is whether Najib should continue to be Prime minister given the current situation, especially with respect to rogue strategic development company 1Malaysia Development Bhd or 1MDB and RM4.2 billion in donations that went into Najib’s bank accounts.
When I first read the Citizens’ Declaration, which basically urges the removal of the current Prime Minister through legal means, I found that I did not agree with everything it said, especially with respect to the imposition of the Goods and Services Tax or GST. But how could a document, which was drafted by a few, can acquire universal acceptance?
There were two things that mattered to be me more. Was I in basic agreement with the tone, tenor and key points of the declarations? I was.
Second, as a journalist and writer, does signing it compromise my independence? Perhaps but not much if I take extra care about being fair and balanced nevertheless. We are citizens too and we should exercise our rights, like voting and signing the declaration if we substantially agree with it.
The declaration neither legitimises Mahathir nor does it mean that he becomes the leader of the movement. But if Mahathir wants to support that document and if former finance minister and close Mahathir associate Daim Zainuddin wants to, let them. They have their rights as citizens.
Jailed former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s characterisation of the document as Mahathir’s and his warnings to fellow opposition leaders to be careful about working with Mahathir and Daim in a letter over this is terribly unfortunate. It undermines the efforts of concerned citizens to try and remove what they consider to be an unsuitable Prime Minister from his position. Many will now not sign because of Anwar’s position.
Says Anwar: “Essentially it remains Tun M’s document, defective and incoherent when viewed in the context of reform. Its only focus is the removal of Najib as PM due to the 1MDB fiasco. This is obviously a departure from the raison d’etre of our struggle: for freedom and justice, rule of law, combating abuse of power and corruption, and distributive justice!”
The irony is that the declaration covers some similar ground. What is it that the Citizens’ Declaration says? One may or may not agree with all parts of the preamble, have issues with how accurate and correct they are and whether there is room for disagreement over some of the issues such as GST.
But the key part and what it urges are contained in clauses 36 and 37. Clause 36 reads:
For all these reasons, we, the undersigned citizens of Malaysia agree and support:
a) The removal of Najib as PM of Malaysia through non-violent and legally permissible means.
b) The removal of all those who have acted in concert with him.
c) A repeal of all recent laws and agreements that violate the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Federal Constitution and undermine policy choices.
d) A restoration of the integrity of the institutions that have been undermined, such as the Police, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), Bank Negara and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
Clause 37 reads: We call upon all Malaysians, irrespective of race, religion, political affiliation, creed or parties, young and old to join us in saving Malaysia from the government headed by Najib, to pave the way for much-needed democratic and institutional reforms, and to restore the important principle of the separation of powers among the executive, legislature and judiciary which will ensure the independence, credibility, professionalism and integrity of our national institutions.
It is because of these two clauses and that I agree with them that I signed the declaration. I honestly believe that they are legitimate demands. Although I don’t believe that they of themselves will directly result in the Prime Minister stepping down, over one million people stepping up to put their names for the document is a telling message that cannot be totally ignored.
To not support, withdraw support or become less associated with it because Mahathir is involved or appears to be taking credit for it or is closely associated with it is wrong. If you believe what the declaration calls for, sign it. Nothing else is of real consequence.
This is not the first time that citizen’s efforts are being politicised. It happened during the Bersih-driven demonstrations for electoral reforms when opposition figures pushed themselves to the forefront ahead of the key organisers. In this latest case, those with their own political axes to grind – Mahathir, Anwar, the ruling party and the opposition – have their own take on things. They are entitled to them.
But what does PKR and Pakatan Harapan hope to gain by distancing themselves from a citizen’s initiative that is calling for the legal removal of the prime minister, the same thing that PKR and Harapan partners have been calling for? Is it not rather short-sighted and strategically inconsistent to not sign the declaration or support it or distance yourself from it just because Mahathir and Daim Zainuddin support it?
Removing a Corrupt Prime Minister
While Mahathir may have his own political motives for supporting the declaration, he does not allude to them in public or make his strategic thoughts publicly known. All he wants – or seems to want – is to remove a corrupt Prime Minister.
Yes, if he had not removed the checks and balances on the executive and introduced draconian measures to consolidate his own power and showed how it can be done, all this would not have happened now. Indeed he was responsible too for the current state we are in.
When UMNO was declared illegal in 1987, Mahathir formed a new party, UMNO Baru, and kept all his opponents out. He emasculated the judiciary and made it impotent as a check and balance against executive abuse. He repeatedly used the two-thirds majority in the legislature to make many constitutional changes, removing safeguards for abuses. The legislature did not balance the executive but instead served as a rubber stamp for Mahathir’s measures.
He cultivated patronage and corruption and privatised large chunks of profitable government businesses, in some cases under iron-clad guarantees and purchase agreements, to cronies. He allowed corruption to grow and flourish and did little about it because it suited his own purposes. He was an example to Najib, of what Najib could get away with if he had the levers of power and exercised them accordingly.
Yes, Mahathir has ulterior motives in wanting Najib out. With Najib in power, the opposition has better chances of victory. And if the opposition comes to power, there are lots that will come into the open, and Mahathir has a lot to hide. It is in Mahathir’s interest to knock Najib off the Umno president’s post – before the next general elections.
But all that is beside the point – it’s not as if Malaysians don’t know. They do but they recognise that Mahathir’s voice, for better or worse, is a strong one which still resonates with many Malaysians.
Mahathir was a bad prime minister because of all this and much more but Najib is worse. Getting as much as RM4.2 billion into his bank accounts must be a “no!” for any leader anywhere. It has not even been established that it is a donation as Najib claims. And there are links between that donation and 1MDB, the most mismanaged Malaysian government company of all time.
Why would any opposition party want to distance itself from a primarily citizen’s initiative calling for the legal ouster of the prime minister under whose watch all these happened just because Mahathir supports it? What kind of a strategy is that?
This must rank, together with Anwar’s infamous announcement post the 2008 elections that the opposition will gain power through crossovers from BN, as one of the low points in Anwar’s announced strategies. It’s also why the public has trouble trusting politicians because power is the ultimate aim no matter the lip service towards justice, goodness and truth.
Perhaps it is just as well – such a move by the opposition to distance itself from the Citizens’ Declaration may paradoxically give it more credibility, Mahathir notwithstanding given that he is a political opportunist par excellence who has taken his chances far better than Anwar has.