Malaysia: For Citizens’ Declaration and Why

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!”

Institutional reforms

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.


Malaysia’s Travel Ban

May 27, 2016

Malaysia’s Travel Ban: Administrative Stupidity or Political Insecurity?

by Azmi Sharom

BOY, was I worried last week. This paper reported that the Immigration Department was going to bar those who disparaged or ridiculed the Government from traveling abroad.

And those who did so overseas would be barred from traveling upon their return home. For up to three years!

Crikey. This was most concerning. In my job I speak about laws and government policies all the time; at home and abroad.We, lecturers, go to seminars and conferences and we discuss ideas.

So, even if I take special care to say only the sweetest things about the Government, I could still be faced with questions like “Why is your government-owned strategic development company facing so much trouble?”.

What a conundrum. Do I spout some inanity (“err … that is a good question, Malaysia is truly Asia. Thank you.”) or give my opinion and risk being unable to eat authentic Nasi Gudeg for three years?

I suppose I could say something brilliant like “Look, is that an ostrich in the aisle?”, and then make my escape. And furthermore, The Star reported that these disparaging comments can be done in any manner. Good lord, does that include private conversations?

What if I am in a café in Madrid and my Spanish host asks me, “Señor Azmi, why does your Government prevent people from going overseas to get human rights awards?”

What do I say then? “Manuel, I am Malaysian, I cannot answer your question. Please pass the paella.”

Then fortunately, the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs comes swooping in and says that there will be no ban on travelling for critics of the Government.

Phew, that’s a relief then. I guess those guys in the Immigration Department just got together and decided amongst themselves to make up this policy.

I did not realise that government agencies had so much autonomy that they could make far-reaching unconstitutional, anti-human rights-type decisions without the OK from the minister or his faithful deputy.

Just shows what I know.

But then the Deputy Minister goes on to say that the ban only applies to those who are a threat to national security and who have violated the Constitution.So I guess Maria Chin is a national security threat and habitual violator of the Constitution then.

It is as though the Constitution is a high-born Roman lady in danger of being attacked by a ravaging Visigoth.How can a private citizen violate the Constitution?

Hey, we are not the ones who make laws that blatantly go against the Fundamental Liberties listed in Part 2 of the Constitution. We are not the ones who say that this is an Islamic state when the Constitution says no such thing.

We are not the ones who obtusely say that there is no separation of powers because the Constitution does not use the term “separation of powers” (even though the executive, legislature and judiciary are each given separate chapters and have clearly defined powers).

It is virtually impossible for a private citizen to violate the Constitution.Short of perhaps companies that treat their workers like slaves or practise gender bias.

So the idea that citizens who violate the Constitution can have their passports taken away is laughable.It’s as though by throwing big words into the mix, this ludicrous and unlawful attack on our freedom of movement is all hunky dory.

Really, all this business about keeping us stuck at home is ridiculous.Do we need to go overseas to belittle the Government when their actions can be spread far and wide via existing technology? Why worry about citizens belittling or disparaging them abroad when they do it so well by themselves?

Message to Perak’s Mullah Harussani Zakaria

May 27, 2016

Message to Mullah Harussani Zakaria–Islam is not about exclusivity

by Azrul Mohd Khalib

Perak’s Mullah Harussani Zakaria with his political patron, Najib Razak

Warning: If this column starts to sound like you have read it before and you think that you are having a déjà vu moment, you are probably right. It sometimes feels like a broken record dealing with and responding to our recalcitrant and wayward religious authorities.

We have just been told that it is a crime to publish, and to read the Quran in non-Arabic languages without accompanying Arabic text.

Stop the press! All printing of the Quran in Chinese, Spanish, Afrikaans, Russian, Chechen, Indonesian and English around the world must cease! After all, if it is supposedly a wrong practise here, it must be wrong elsewhere too. After all, Islam is a global religion.

The recent warning from Harussani Zakaria, chairman of the Home Ministry’s Al-Quran Printing, Control and Licensing Board, is representative of what’s gone wrong with the practice and teaching of Islam in this country.

While Muslims in other countries are busy making their religion increasingly accessible, friendly and inclusive to those not of the Islamic faith, our religious authorities are moving in the exact opposite direction.

Far from sounding enlightened, progressive and welcoming, individuals such as Harussani are making Islam in Malaysia sound and appear to others as arrogant, irrational, suspicious and disdainful of other religions.

Maybe Harussani is more knowledgeable than I am in this matter, but I am almost certain that this kind of paternalistic approach is neither in accordance with the teachings of Prophet Muhammad nor adhering to the principles of Islam. But what do I know? I don’t write or understand Arabic so Harussani can perhaps provide some enlightenment.

I am tired of our religious authorities treating Islam like it is some exclusive club and they alone determine who gets to join and the conduct of those who are members. Historically, we have seen this behaviour before where the clergy of an institutionalised religion attempts to impose a monopoly on faith and its teachings under the guise of “only the learned and knowledgeable” (i.e themselves) can communicate with God and not be led astray.

The reality has less to do with God but more to do with the very earthly pursuit of power and control over others. Over the years, the ever-expanding sphere of influence of Islamic institutions in Malaysia have gone increasingly unchecked and it can be argued that through their actions, have repeatedly violated Constitutional limitations and even expressed disdain for those limits. Yet, very few have dared to challenge them and even fewer have stood to defend those who have done so. Just ask Rosli Dahlan.

I have travelled to many places in the world where Islam has taken root and flourished. Based on my own understanding, Islam is not and has never been about exclusivity and superiority of faith.

It is arguably a violation of Islamic teachings to insist on exclusivity as touted by Harussani as it prevents others from acquiring knowledge, learning and understanding Muslims and Islam.

The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) himself, through his own documented practises and teachings, practised inclusivity, humility, and believed in the importance of knowledge and most importantly, sharing it with others.

Exclusivity results in misunderstanding, ignorance, conflict, bigotry and irrational fear. It breeds contempt for others and arrogance.

One of the most common complaints and gripes by the Islamic authorities and clergy in this country is that they are frequently misunderstood and that others must seek understand and learn about Islam.

Fair argument, until you make important texts like the Quran inaccessible. Read the notice from the Kementerian Dalam Negeri again and you will realise that what it is actually saying is that reading the Quran is off limits to non-Muslims (need to take Islamic ritual ablutions to touch and read the Quran) and to those not proficient in the Arabic language.

Speaking of reading, I have struggled to explain to those who are non-Muslims how it is possible for a person to be able to read the Arabic in the Quran yet not understand a single word of it.

Because that is how the Quran is often taught (can a person be taught when the language of the lesson itself is not understood?) here in this country.

Harussani’s statement itself affirms that you can read without understanding and it is okay. I really don’t understand that and never have. Wouldn’t it be meaningless without understanding the words of what you are reading? Maybe it’s just me but that is my individual cross to bear.

Oh, final question for the mandarins of the Kementerian Dalam Negeri: is it also a crime to download digital versions of the Quran such as eBooks or apps in other languages? Are we allowed to think for ourselves or do we need to ask for your permission?

Those who demand for exclusivity and impose such restrictions and monopolies of knowledge convey a lack of depth in their awareness and understanding of how Islam is practised elsewhere around the globe and of its co-existence with other world religions.

Get a grip.

Pro UMNO Lawyer Shafee– Time to learn to eat the humble pie

May 27, 2016

Pro UMNO Lawyer Shafee: Time to learn to eat the humble pie– Who is “We”?

Senior lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah expressed his disappointment with today’s Kuala Lumpur High Court decision which dismissed his suit against lawyer Tommy Thomas, former Court of Appeal judge V.C George, the Malaysian Bar and former President Christopher Leong, claiming it was “erroneous”.

“Naturally, we are disappointed with the decision on the matter. However we take the position and certainly believe that the judgment is erroneous.In light of this, we will be filing an appeal together with a certificate of urgency and hope for the matter to be heard expeditiously by the Court of Appeal. We are taking steps to compile a record of appeal immediately,” he said.

Tommy Thomas

Shafee was the senior lawyer who was granted a fiat by then Attorney-general Abdul Gani Patail to prosecute former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim at the Court of Appeal and Federal Court.

However, upon gaining a conviction at the Federal Court against Anwar, he held a public talk at Kelana Jaya for UMNO Youth about the case.

Subsequently, the UMNO-linked lawyer also held talks elsewhere.

This led to Tommy filing a motion, which was seconded by George, at the Malaysian Bar AGM last year complaining about Shafee’s conduct in having the public talks.

Christopher Leong

Shafee then filed a suit to stop Tommy and George from tabling the motion against him and obtained an ex-parte injunction a day before the AGM.

Today, Justice Hanipah Farikullah dismissed the defamation suit and accepted the defendants defence of fair comment, justification and qualified privilege. The court found it was improper for Shafee to discuss ‘in camera’ evidence at a forum.

V.C. George

“For this court, evidence involving in camera evidence is not proper for an advocate and solicitor to divulge it to the public. To my mind, there is some substantive truth for the first defendant (Tommy) and the second defendant (George) in the defence of justification,” Justice Hanipah said, among others, before dismissing the suit.

Philippines’ Man of the Moment: Rodrigo Duterte

May 26, 2016

Philippines’ Man of the Moment: President-Elect Rodrigo Duterte

by Mong Palatino

Mong Palatino explores the many sides to the Philippines’ new President, revealing there is far more that meets the eye than Trump comparisons alone can offer.

President-Elect Rodrigo Duterte–The Man from Mindanao

The landslide victory of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte in the recent Philippine presidential election has been reported already across the world. Perhaps many in Southeast Asia are asking: Who is Duterte?

The reaction is understandable. After all, it was only five months ago when Duterte announced his bid for the presidency.

Duterte’s electoral success is historic and politically significant for the Philippines. Not only did Duterte receive the most number of votes in the history of the Philippines, he is also set to become the first President from Mindanao.

Mindanao is the country’s second biggest island known for its rich natural resources but plagued by poverty and numerous local conflicts. When Mindanao people speak of historical injustice, they are referring to the state-sponsored displacement of Muslims from their homeland and the continuing plunder of the island’s wealth by corrupt politicians from ‘Imperial Manila.’

Duterte’s victory suddenly gave hope that the national government will start to prioritize the needs of Mindanao. Duterte, who claims to understand the history of the Muslim struggle for self-determination, also promises to pursue the peace process in Mindanao.

That a politician from Mindanao will assume the presidency on June 30 is unprecedented in Philippine politics. It’s like a Buddhist mayor sympathetic to the self-determination struggle of Thailand’s ‘Deep South’ becoming prime minister.

Unfortunately, Duterte’s anti-crime platform is given more attention by the mainstream global media. Because of his aggressive methods to rid Davao of crimes and his plan to kill all drug lords once he becomes President, he is called the ‘Punisher’ and Dirty Harry’. Perhaps he deserves the nicknames and he has no one to blame but himself if the world thinks his only crusade is to enforce discipline and order in society. He is like Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha who believes that reforms can be achieved through extralegal and even authoritarian means.

Like Prayut, Duterte’s scandalous statements ridiculing women and the LGBT sector often attract wide condemnation. Both Prayut and Duterte think that crass talk can make them more popular among ordinary citizens. But when commentators condemn Duterte’s behaviour, most fail to mention his similarity with Prayut. Right or wrong, Duterte is often compared to American presidential candidate and business tycoon Donald Trump.

The comparison is inaccurate and unfair to Duterte. First, he is not a billionaire. Second, he does not mouth anti-Muslim statements. Third, he is proud of his so-called Leftist background. And fourth, he has been serving the country as an elected leader for three decades already.

Cambodia’s Hun Sen: Making a Difference

If making politically-incorrect pronouncements is the measure for comparison, Duterte’s image is closer to Prayut or Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. The latter is like Duterte, a veteran politician who uses obscene language to ridicule his critics and political enemies.

But perhaps matching Duterte with Trump can also help to make the Filipino leader realize that his public antics are increasingly being viewed by many as offensive and divisive.

Persuading Duterte to abandon his ‘Trump’ reputation is easy.  He only needs to remember his record as a politician who has consistently worked well with progressive groups and NGOs in drafting social welfare programs for the poor. Unlike Trump who is part of America’s traditional elite, Duterte is seen as an ‘outsider’ who challenged the rule of oligarchs and big landlords in the Philippines.

In many ways, Duterte is like Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo. Both made a name by being effective city mayors before running for a national position. Both gained popular support among the poor and the youth. And both tapped into the widespread frustration of ordinary voters against the inefficiencies and inequities of the bureaucracy.

The Philippines today is like Indonesia in 2014 after the electoral victory of Jokowi. There’s high expectation that Duterte will deliver change and uplift the conditions of the poor and marginalized.

Duterte is no democracy icon like Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi but many Filipinos now see him as a leader who will lead the struggle against elite oppression, criminality, and corruption.

The defeat of the military-backed party in Myanmar remains the most meaningful political event in Southeast Asia in recent years but Duterte’s rise to power is a political phenomenon that deserves serious attention too. Indeed, Duterte has cultivated a strongman image like Hun Sen and Prayut; but unlike the two, he gained power in a more democratic way similar to how Jokowi and Suu Kyi’s party won a convincing mandate to lead in their countries.

There’s a persistent anti-communist bias in the Philippines, and in the whole Southeast Asian region as well, but here’s an incoming president who introduces himself as Leftist or socialist. If Duterte turns out to be a real socialist, will this start a trend in Southeast Asia?

Will he become a genuine reformer or will he degenerate into a conservative populist? He has six years to establish his true legacy but this early he is already facing corruption allegations. It’s noteworthy to mention that his rivals are suspicious about his bank transactions. The issue is quite similar to the ‘political donations’ received by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (pic above) in his dollar bank accounts. Although, to be fair to Duterte, Najib’s corruption scandal is definitely far worse.

Duterte’s detractors want to unseat him already even if he has not yet taken his oath as president. His supporters, however, expect him to bring change in three to six months which is part of his election campaign pledge. Of course substantial change is difficult to achieve in six months but he must try to show some concrete results during this period if he wants to retain the support of the majority who voted him to power.

Duterte is more than just the Trump of East Asia. To understand his politics, it’s useful to compare him to other leaders in the region. And once we see the many sides of Duterte, he appears less scary; although he remains an enigmatic political figure who can either strengthen or destroy democracy in the Philippines.

Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. He is the Southeast Asia editor of Global Voices, a social media platform.

How to introduce Duterte in Southeast Asia