At the Opening of the 14th Parliament– A Hopeful End to a Boorish UMNO dominated House

July 20, 2018

At the Opening  of the 14th Parliament– A Hopeful End to a Boorish UMNO dominated House

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It was a surreal experience sitting in the visitors gallery of the Dewan Rakyat the other day watching members of the 14th Parliament take their oath of office. It was like sitting in on history as it unfolded.

A moment to remember

There was the redoubtable Dr Mahathir once again in his old seat with the wife of his one-time nemesis sitting beside him in the capacity of Deputy Prime Minister. And all the familiar faces that were long associated with the term “opposition” now ensconced comfortably in the government benches.

What an awesome feeling it must have been for all these former opposition stalwarts to be  sitting on the right side of the House and of history.

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Malaysia’s No 1 Servant-Leader, MP Lim Kit Siang

The indomitable Lim Kit Siang was there as well clearly savoring the moment. Perhaps no other politician in our history fought so long and sacrificed so much for the changes now unfolding in our nation. They say it’s hard to keep a good man down; he’s the living proof of it.

And how in keeping with the times to see Judge Mohamad Ariff Yusof, a man of sterling character and integrity, take the speaker’s chair. His presence in the chair is itself proof enough of the new government’s respect for the role of parliament in our democracy.

His appointment may not have met the letter of Pakatan’s pledge to appoint an MP as speaker but it far surpasses it in spirit.

A parliament worthy of our nation

I have been a civil servant and ambassador for a long time. Over the years I have had to watch in silent dismay the antics of so many of our parliamentarians – their lavish junkets abroad, their boorish behaviour, their own sense of entitlement. Their disdain for the people who elected them was always evident.

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The new Opposition Leader Dr. Zahid Hamidi

They shamefully trampled on the fine parliamentary traditions that underpinned our democracy, stifling debate and rubber-stamping the ill-conceived and malicious actions of an overbearing executive. They looked the other way in the face of some of the worst excesses our nation has seen, dishonouring in the process the very institution that was meant to give expression to our democracy.

Some were such poor representatives of our nation that I confess there were times when I felt ashamed to claim them as my own. But those days are behind us now. Looking around the chamber on that first day of Parliament, I couldn’t help thinking that we finally have a parliament we can be proud of, a parliament worthy of our nation.

Passionate & committed

To be sure, many of the newbie MPs are  inexperienced in parliamentary procedure but there’s no doubting, however, their passion and commitment to building a better Malaysia. Many of them know what it is like to be tear-gassed, arrested, imprisoned, and harassed for their convictions. It’s hard not to believe that they will not be more tolerant of dissent, more respectful of human rights or more sensitive to the hopes and aspirations of our people.


Together – seasoned hands and newcomers, idealists and pragmatists, dreamers and realists, religious and secularists, young and old, graduates from renowned institutions and certificate holders from the school of hard knocks – they constitute, arguably, the most formidable team ever assembled on the government benches.

To survive as a government, they will have to learn to give and take, negotiate and accommodate as our diversity demands. There’ll be challenges, of course, but if anyone can do it, it is this team of parliamentarians.

Heads in the sand

And it is just as well given that so many of those who sit in the opposition benches appear to still have their heads in the sand, unable to rise to the demands of a nation reborn. Perhaps they’ve fed on their own bile for so long that they are no longer capable of providing the kind of credible opposition we had hoped for.


Even as Parliament got down to work, UMNO minions were outside Parliament doing their utmost to stoke fears of impending doom and spewing their usual racism and bigotry. They had earlier announced that they would march with hands bound and mouths taped to symbolize the loss of Malay power but apparently thought better of it. It would have been more appropriate for them to have taped their eyes instead to symbolize their own lack of vision.

People are watching

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Whatever it is, members of the 14th Parliament should know that the citizens who elected them will be watching them closely.  While the people understand the challenges ahead, and will certainly give them some leeway, the honeymoon will not last forever.

Promises were made; promises must be kept. We’ve come too far and fought too hard to accept anything less than genuine transformation and real change. There is an expectation too that they’ll put principle ahead of party in the interests of the people. The people have rediscovered the power of their vote and will use it to hold them accountable.

As well, they’d better be prepared to leave the ivory tower that parliament can sometimes be and walk among the lesser mortals in whose name they govern. All too many of the MPs whose seats they now occupy were just too full of themselves, their honorifics, their entitlements; and they paid the price for it.

Repository of our hopes

Five years is a short time in politics but it’s all the time they will get to fulfil their promises to reform our nation, banish corruption, rebuild our economy and forge a new national consensus on the issues that have long divided us.

It’s a tall order for sure but they have the support of the people and the parliamentary majority to get things done. All that is needed now is the political will, courage and wisdom to do right by our nation.

In a very real sense, these members of parliament have become the repository of all our hopes and dreams for a better, more inclusive nation. Our future is now in their hands. May Almighty God give them the grace to rise to the occasion.

Gag Order: An Act of Media Self-Censorship

July 8, 2018

Gag Order: An Act of Media Self-Censorship

by Bob

COMMENT | The gag order placed on the High Court trial of former Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak impairs both open justice and fair reporting. It should be removed at the earliest opportunity.

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In the first place, the order is unclear in its scope of restriction. Thus, there is no compelling reason for the media to comply as in doing so it would constitute an act of self-censorship.

This would not only be against the conscience of journalists, it would also be an affront to the new democracy that is emerging after May 9, when the people voted convincingly for a return to constitutional democracy.

Journalists can continue to pursue court reporting in the manner they have always practised in fair conscience. Don’t let anything or anyone gag you. Most of all don’t ever gag yourself again, for that would be a disgrace to your calling.–Bob Teoh

The gag order was issued to ensure a fair trial and to prevent a trial by media, as claimed by the defense counsel. But this is both nebulous and untenable and the order is unprecedented.

This is censorship of the press and, far from preventing a trial of public opinion, the move will only encourage fake news to surface in the ensuing absence of fair and responsible reporting. We must not allow unclear restrictions to shut the door to press freedom and open justice.

Malaysia is a Commonwealth country and our judiciary can follow the open justice convention as espoused by countries like the United Kingdom and Australia where prior restriction to fair reporting is already available.

Likewise, in Malaysia, there are also prior restraints to court reporting like evidence in camera in rape cases where the press is excluded.  There is no need for gag orders.

The Najib trial is about alleged corruption and abuse of power in the highest levels of government. Public interest is best served by the widest coverage through fair reporting. The media has its fundamental obligation to report factually, accurately and fairly.

Such reportage must be contemporaneous and not be kept in abeyance for two months, as the gag order demands.  That would be stale news and indeed likely to constitute an offence according to the international convention of court reporting.

The Aattorney-General Tommy Thomas (photo), as the lead prosecutor, must appeal against the gag order vigorously and urgently. So too must the Bar Council and human rights agencies like the National Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) and the National Human Rights Society (Hakam).

The media through their own bodies like the National Union of Journalists, publishers and editors associations and the Malaysian Press Institute too must make their representations to the court in no uncertain terms.

‘Clinical’ reporting

Najib, 64, was charged yesterday with misusing his position to receive a RM42 million bribe as inducement to provide a sovereign guarantee on behalf of the Malaysian government for a loan of RM4 billion from the pension fund Kumpulan Wang Persaraan (KWAP) to SRC International.

He also faces three other charges of criminal breach of trust (CBT) in his capacity as Prime minister, finance minister and advisor emeritus of SRC International, in which he was entrusted with the RM4 billion.

The first offence of bribery under Section 23 of the MACC Act 2009 is punishable by up to 20 years’ prison and a fine equal to five times the bribe amount.

The other charges under Section 409 of the Penal Code (CBT by public servant) are punishable by up to 20 years’ prison, whipping and a fine. Due to his age, if found guilty, whipping would not be applicable.

Najib’s lead counsel, Muhammad Shafee Abdullah (photo) said the gag order is to “ensure nobody makes unfair comments about the merits of the case in order to get it published by media”.

A breach of the gag order would be contempt of court, Shafee said. But he said news organisations would not be barred from reporting “clinically” on Najib’s cases. There is no such thing as clinical reporting. Only fair reporting, the hallmark of journalism, is needed.

The interim gag order expires on August 8 when Najib’s CBT and corruption cases are scheduled to return to the High Court for management. Shafee said the defence team will then argue for a gag order in full.

Attorney-General Tommy Thomas said, “The defence will have to put in an official application for the gag order, which we will be vigorously objecting to.” The High Court had tentatively set trial to start from February 18 next year.

High Court judge Justice Mohd Sofian Abd Razak then granted the interim gag order and fixed August 8 for a hearing on the official application.

Guiding court coverage

In his introduction to an official guide for judges and the media, “Reporting Restrictions in the Criminal Courts April 2015 (Revised May 2016)”, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales writes:

“Open justice is a hallmark of the rule of law. It is an essential requisite of the criminal justice system that it should be administered in public and subject to public scrutiny. The media play a vital role in representing the public and reflecting the public interest. ”


In recognition of the open justice principle, the official guide points out that the general rule is that justice should be administered in public.  To this end:

  • Proceedings must be held in public.
  • Evidence must be communicated publicly.
  • Fair, accurate and contemporaneous media reporting of proceedings should not be prevented by any action of the court unless strictly necessary.

Therefore, unless there are exceptional circumstances laid down by statute law and/or common law, the court must not:

  • Order or allow the exclusion of the press or public from court for any part of the proceedings.
  • Permit the withholding of information from the open court proceedings.
  • Impose permanent or temporary bans on reporting of the proceedings or any part of them.

The official guide also points out that the courts and Parliament have given particular rights to the press to give effect to the open justice principle, so that they can report court proceedings to the wider public, even if the public is excluded.

Guidance is based on the recommended approach to take when making decisions to exclude the media or prevent it from reporting proceedings in the courts. The guidance takes the form of an easy reference checklist for use in court.

In the light of this, what is clear is that the High Court gag order in the Najib trial is unclear. An unclear court order is a bad order. This does not serve open justice and fair reporting.

Journalists can continue to pursue court reporting in the manner they have always practised in fair conscience. Don’t let anything or anyone gag you. Most of all don’t ever gag yourself again, for that would be a disgrace to your calling.

BOB TEOH is a media analyst and a readers’ advocate.

Malaysia: Standoff over Choice of Prominent Lawyer Tommy Thomas as Attorney-General

June 2, 2018

Malaysia: Standoff over Choice of  Prominent Lawyer Tommy Thomas as  Attorney-General


A CONSTITUTIONAL crisis could be looming between the newly-elected Pakatan Harapan government and the Malay rulers over the appointment of the new Attorney-General.

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More than 10 days ago, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad wrote to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong asking that he remove Apandi Ali as the A-G and replace him with top lawyer and constitutional expert Tommy Thomas, the unanimous choice of all PH leaders.

Amanah, Bersatu, DAP, and PKR felt that the appointment of a respected legal name would be the right signal to send to Malaysians and the rest of the world that the new government was serious about reforming the country’s institutions.

Also, this appointment would ensure the presence of a skilled litigator in the chambers to handle all high-profile cases, including the prosecution of those involved in the 1MDB scandal.

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Mr. Prime Minister,please stand firm on this issue: No constitutional monarch or sultan has the power to obstruct the work of a duly elected government. Power is with the Malaysian people. I am shocked to learn of this impasse. The business of government is being interrupted by our King who is bound to accept the advice of the Prime Minister.–Din Merican


But that letter from Dr Mahathir to the King has not been acted on, leading to a standoff between the popularly-elected government and the Palace.

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Instead, there have been messages relayed from the Palace, seeking that PH drop its choice of Tommy Thomas. Dr. Mahathir was asked to consider several candidates, including a former high court judge and a serving court of appeal judge.

The Malaysian Insight understands that other Malay rulers have also supported the King’s position, adamant that the A-G should be a Malay/Muslim.

This impasse and possible constitutional crisis was alluded to by two noted bloggers close to PH.

In a post titled “Another Crisis Brewing: Country is Not Out Of Danger Yet”, Syed Akbar Ali said that Dr Mahathir’s choice for the A-G position was being blocked because he was not a Malay or Muslim.

“There is nothing in the federal constitution which says that non-Malays and non-Muslims cannot be appointed as the attorney-general, ” he noted, adding that cabinet and key civil service appointments were the sole discretion of the PM.

Dr Mahathir and PH leaders have refused to back down. They still believe that Thomas is the best man for the job. The plan is to offer the 66-year-old a two-year contract as the A-G. He ‎wants to return to private practice after that.

At the core of this standoff is the question: Should key appointments to the government be the purview of a popularly-elected prime minister, or must he bow to the wishes of a constitutional monarch?

‎Blogger Kadir Jasin noted that the federal constitution puts clear limits on the authority of a constitutional monarch.

As for this notion that all key positions should be held by Malays, the former newspaper editor offered a scathing response.

“What’s the use of having Malays in high positions if that Malay is cruel, corrupt, and someone who collaborates with thieves and speculators?” he asked, adding that integrity was more important than race.

Political observers said that the Malay rulers had no reason to worry about Malay rights being overlooked under a non-Malay A-G.

The duty of looking after Malay interests and Islam can easily be ‎handed over to the Solicitor-General.

Observers also warn that the Malay rulers should be careful because there is already a view among Malaysians that there was an unnecessary delay by the palace in swearing in Dr Mahathir as prime minister after GE14.

Given the euphoria in the country and the reservoir of goodwill and affection Dr Mahathir has earned from ordinary Malaysians for saving the country from Najib Razak, ‎it is clear who they will support in this impasse. – June 2, 2018.

Malaysia: The Rule of Law is not an Arbitrary Rule

May 25, 2018

Malaysia: The Rule of Law is not an Arbitrary Rule

By Dr. Kua Kia Soong

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The new Pakatan Harapan government claims to be serious about implementing the Rule of Law in this country without fear or favour instead of the arbitrary application of the law which we have witnessed for the past 61 years. However, against this principle, some of the recent changes in government institutions and actions by the new administration are cause for concern.

The Attorney-General must be TRULY independent

First, it has been reported that Lim Guan Eng’s lawyer plans to make representations to the new Attorney-General for the corruption charges against him to be dropped or changed. After the shenanigans associated with the last “BN-friendly” Attorney-General that we are presently beholding, I’m surprised the new PH government would want to be seen to be doing the same with a “PH-friendly” A-G.

Now, if we are not to slide into banana republicanism instead of upholding the Rule of Law as claimed by the new Prime Minister, the new Attorney-General should not only be strictly independent but must be SEEN to be independent and not an instrument of the ruling party. The Malaysian people did not sack the old regime to put in place the same old same old.

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People have a sense of justice. We do not tolerate double standards and the Attorney-General has to be scrupulously neutral if he is not to be accused of partiality. Rule of law implies that every person is subject to the law and that includes the powerful and the well-connected.

When the Attorney-General’s office is abused for political ends, we will no longer have faith in the Rule of Law. Once the system is not seen to be fair, people will lose faith in the legal system in this country and we will have anarchy. It is the rule of law applied without fear or favour that protects individuals, and society as a whole, from arbitrary measures and safeguards personal liberties.

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What are the terms of reference of the Council of Elders?

Then we had a ‘Council of Elders’ or Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) thrust upon us with unknown terms of reference and without constitutional precedence. Before further statements and actions are taken by the CEP, Malaysians want answers to important questions:

1. Is this Council merely an advisory function to the Cabinet or just to the Prime Minister?

2. Was the Chairman of this Council elected by the Cabinet or appointed by the Prime Minister?

3. Is its sell-by date 100 days or is that just Daim’s own agenda that he recently announced?

4. Will a place be reserved  in CEP for Tun Mahathir when he hands over the Prime Ministership to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim?

This is why the specific terms of reference for the CEP must be clear for all to see. Now, if this Council is merely an advisory role, why did Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim warn us to be wary of Daim Zainuddin in his recent interview with Malaysiakini:

“…people are also expressing deep consternation that he has been unable to explain some major problems in the past…People say there’s no need to bring old baggage, which is true, but to me, if you want to talk about democratic accountability, it must not stop at (former Prime Minister) Najib (Abdul Razak).”

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Put an end to Ministerial and Prime Ministerial prerogative in our laws

Many of our laws have a rider that allows the Minister to have the final say with interpretation of the law. Other laws such as the Petroleum Development Act 1974 gives inordinate power to the Prime Minister as pointed out by Former UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Param Cumaraswamy:

“Section 3 of the Petroleum Development Act 1974 empowers the Prime Minister to direct the Board of Petronas as he deemed fit. Such directions are binding on the Board notwithstanding any written law to the contrary.” (Foreword to ‘Racism & Racial Discrimination in Malaysia’ by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM 2015:xii)

Such prerogative powers should not be in the hands of ministers and the Prime Minister if we truly believe in the Rule of Law and work should start to clean up all such laws to ensure they are “people-friendly”.

Want of transparency, accountability and good governance in public administration and government-linked corporations has brought the system of governance into an appalling state. The blatant abuse of power resulting in misuse of public funds with impunity led to the fall of the old regime. Malaysians expect better laws, proper procedures and transparent processes. In other words, we want Rule of Law, not arbitrary rule.

Dr. Kua Kia Soong is the Adviser for SUARAM.

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


Stunning Victory for Democracy in Malaysia

May 10, 2018

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In a stunning upset that virtually nobody saw coming, Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan opposition has soundly trounced the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition that has held power for six decades, raising the possibility that Prime Minister Najib Razak, who heads the United Malays National Organization, could be prosecuted for a series of massive scandals.

The vote was also a rare victory for democracy in Southeast Asia, where there are dictatorships in Cambodia and Thailand, an authoritative government in Singapore, a government that looks like it has failed in Myanmar, a rigidly Communist government in Laos and an increasingly menacing one in the Philippines.

The opposition won at least 122 seats in the 220-member Parliament, with only 79 for the Barisan Nasional. Parti Islam se-Malaysia, which has been informally aligned with the Barisan, won another 18 and now will govern in two rural east-coast states on the peninsula. Besides retaining Penang and Selangor, Pakatan Harapan won Melaka, Negeri Sembilan, Kedah and Johor, the birthplace of UMNO.  Mahathir said at a press conference that the eastern Malaysia state of Sabah has also fallen to the opposition although officially that has not been announced.

Electoral chicanery didn’t work

Najib and UMNO attempted to engineer the May 9 election, the country’s 14th, in their favor with a redistricting plan that compressed as many as 150,000 opposition votes into a single district while leaving some of their own constituencies with as few as 5,000.  The government’s controlled press blanked out all favorable opposition news and social media, on which millions of Malaysians depend for news, were placed on watch with a “fake news” law that threatened up to six years of imprisonment and massive fines for whatever the government deemed to be fake news.

The Barisan spent lavishly on handouts to voters. Top opposition figures were threatened with sedition and other law violations and their leader, Anwar Ibrahim, remained in prison on sexual deviancy charges that human rights organizations said were trumped up to keep him out politics.  Mahathir told reporters the new government, which is expected to take power soon, would work to pardon the 70-year-old Anwar and free him.

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“Najib took the rural Malays for granted, thinking money would do the trick,” said Din Merican, a Malaysian academic now teaching at the University of Cambodia and whose critical blog was blocked by Malaysian authorities prior to the election. “He was wrong in underestimating the power of [former Prime Minister] Mahathir Mohamad over the Malays. They are grateful to him.”

Mahathir the driving force

Nonetheless, when the dust settled, it was the 92-year-old Mahathir who led the opposition to a convincing victory in a furious, hard-driving campaign accusing Najib and UMNO of massive corruption and calling them a “government of thieves.” It was the third prime minister he has brought down in his career. Mahathir is expected to be named premier again when the parliament reconvenes, although the understanding is that Anwar will take over when he is released from prison, which should be almost immediately. That is likely to require another election for him to join the parliament.

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The Deputy Prime Minister-Elect Dr. Wan Azizah Ismail

Although there were rumors that Najib and UMNO leaders were attempting to rally the police and army into declaring a national emergency and martial law. But, one source told Asia Sentinel, both institutions were split and in the end he was forced to cede power.

Now, when the dust settles, it will be necessary to rebuild virtually all of the country’s institutions including the parliament, whose leaders have exited on bribes from the prime minister to keep him in office. The courts have functioned to repress the opposition and to exculpate the guilty among the leadership. The police have investigated only the opposition on political matters. The mainstream press is in the hands of the government-aligned political parties and uses its monopoly to clout the opposition and protect the establishment.

The religious establishment – the leaders of Islam, the major religion in the country — have backed the leadership when needed, loading onto the people a fundamentalism that most do not espouse.  The opposition has been emasculated by sedition charges, police pressure, intimidation, hammering by a kept press, and gerrymandering.

Race card kept UMNO in power

Political dynamics – a fear generated among ethnic Malay Muslims that ethnic Chinese would come to dominate the political sphere as well as the business world – along with gerrymandering is largely what kept the Barisan in power during Najib’s nine-year reign.  The opposition won the popular vote in 2013 but was kept from power by Malaysia’s first-past-the-post parliamentary system and stringent gerrymandering.

However, he was precluded from playing the race card in this election with Mahathir once the leader of UMNO and the country for 22 years, ending his own reign in 2003.

Nonetheless, an unpopular but necessary goods and services tax, a perception of rising prices, the endless string of scandals involving Najib and a widespread dislike of his grasping wife, Rosmah Mansor, led rural Malays to sour on UMNO and the prime minister. “They lost the Malays,” one observer told Asia Sentinel.

Credit Malaysiakini

“There is much to do,” said Americk Sidhu, a Kuala Lumpur-based lawyer who has been a prominent foe of Najib. “This is just the beginning. There is much to fix. The first thing the new government needs to do is completely revamp the election commission so that all future elections will be run fairly, which will mean UMNO will never form the government again. And of course we have to create a free, independent and impartial judiciary.”

Opposition members want Najib’s head

Ominously, among the first orders of business could be a move to prosecute Najib and other UMNO leaders on allegations of criminal activity going back to 2006, although Mahathir told reporters that Pakatan Harapan wouldn’t seek revenge on Najib.

However, Najib is the subject of a French investigation into the sale of submarines by the French munitions maker DCNS to the Malaysian government, along with Najib’s close friend Abdul Razak Baginda. It included the murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a then-28-year-old translator and party girl who was killed by two of Najib’s bodyguards for reasons that have never been explained. The woman’s death and events surrounding it, including a massive bribe to UMNO to buy the submarines, was the subject of a prize-winning series of stories in Asia Sentinel in 2012.

An even bigger scandal blew out in 2009 with the creation by Najib and a financier friend, Low Taek Jho, of the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd. a development fund that Najib and his family, Jho Low and others used as a personal piggy bank, looting it for billions. At least RM39 billion (US$9.83 billion at current exchange rates) was said by the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism to have been lost to fraud and mismanagement. A US investigation, which was called the biggest kleptocracy probe ever brought by the US Justice Department, concluded that more than US$2 billion was stolen, with at least US$681 million disappearing into Najib’s own pockets.

The US by now has confiscated more than US$1 billion in property and other assets connected to the Najibs and Jho Low, including the proceeds from movies made by Red Granite Productions, a Hollywood production company partly owned by Reza Aziz, Najib’s son-in-law and Rosmah’s son. Justice Department officials have recently been in a Bali court, trying to get their hands on a 300-foot yacht, the Equanimity, that Jho Low has been doing his best to keep on the high seas.  Although they had seized the US$250 million vessel, a Jakarta court ruled the seizure was unlawful. The US is now petitioning once again to seize it.

In addition to Altantuya, two other mysterious murders remain to be solved, including the death of AmBank founder Hussain Ahmad Najadi in 2013. Najadi’s son, Pascal, has repeatedly charged that his father had complained about UMNO financial irregularities at the bank, which was the repository of Najib’s US$681 million which US prosecutors say was funneled from 1MDB. The second is the 2015 murder of Deputy Public Prosecutor Kevin Morais, whose body was found in a cement-filled oil drum in a river. Morais, who played a major role in a suppressed report on 1MDB by the Malaysian Attorney General, was believed to be a whistle-blower passing on information about the case to the critical Sarawak Report, edited from London by Clare Rewcastle Brown. Both Sarawak Report and Asia Sentinel have been blocked by the Malaysian communications and media ministry from readership in the country.

Perhaps the biggest question is Mahathir himself, whose authoritarian 22-year reign put in place many of the circumstances that resulted in widespread corruption. He emasculated the judiciary all the way up to the Federal Court after it ruled against him in matters involving UMNO, and for booting two Asian Wall Street Journal reporters out of the country in 1966. He announced that Islam was the official religion. He created the crony capitalism that resulted in a class of rent-seeking Malays who came to depend on inflated government contracts, many awarded under suspicious circumstances. He was largely responsible for taming the press.

Nonetheless, he is revered by the Malay countryside for building the Petronas Towers, which at one point were the two tallest skyscrapers in the world, for bringing the Malaysian Formula 1 race, for the development of Proton, which built the now-ailing national car, and for many other initiatives that pulled Malaysia into the modern world.

Could he change his spots at 92? He has apologized for many of the excesses of his reign —  especially when he discovered the courts, the press and other institutions were being used against him in what is expected to be his final act.

GE-14: Malaysia’s resurgent states stake a claim

April 25, 2018

GE-14: Malaysia’s resurgent states stake a claim

The era of dominant federal government may be over as leading states push for greater autonomy, resisting a centre compromised by scandal and policy drift.

by Tricia Yeoh*

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The dynamic Crown Prince of Johor Maj-Gen. Tunku Ismail Ibrahim: “Do not question the sovereignty of Johor.”

Ahead of Malaysia’s 14th General Election (GE14), Johor’s Crown Prince Tunku Ismail Ibrahim (popularly known as TMJ) issued a statement earlier this month essentially calling for the continuance of the incumbent UMNO government. It was also a thinly veiled criticism of former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed, who had curtailed the powers of the hereditary rulers during his 22 years in power, and who’s now leading the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) as its prime Minister-in-Waiting. The Royal Houses rarely intervene so publicly in national political affairs, and the Johor Royal Family has made the headlines in recent years. Most cutting was the TMJ’s reminder to political leaders: “Do not question the sovereignty of Johor.”

Despite government being in caretaker mode, both federal and state-level parties have been offering “goodies” to their voters in these final weeks before GE14’s polling day on 9th May. The Federal Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) made 67,000 free RM800 (A$269) fuel cards available to taxi drivers in Peninsular Malaysia, while in Selangor state, Chief Minister Azmin Ali handed out cash allocations, laptops and iPads in his constituency. In Penang, responding to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s promise to remove road tolls for motorcyclists at the two bridges linking island and mainland Penang, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng said all tolls would be abolished if PH takes federal power. In Johor, Chief Minister Mohamed Khaled Nordin announced that three entertainment parks worth almost RM8 billion (A$2.7 billion) would be built in the near future.

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Selangor Chief Minister–Dato Seri Azmin Ali

In an environment so highly focused on national-level politics, what role do the states play? Are federal–state relations relevant, and do they impact electoral outcomes in any way, and how?

MALAYSIA IS A complex creature. While it was formed as a constitutional federation and has all the trappings of a formal federalism, in reality it practises only a weak or highly centralised form of federalism. Over the years, greater power and control have become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the federal government, starting with the abolishment of local council elections in 1965.

The Federal Government’s powers are far-reaching, and states have little say over their own state economies. Ever since the early 1970s, when then Prime Minister Tun Razak (Najib’s late father) initiated a policy of a kerajaan berparti or a government run on UMNO’s philosophy—at a time when the race-based affirmative action New Economic Policy (NEP) was being rolled out nationwide—states have been largely subservient to national-level ideology and direction. Up until 2008, UMNO and Barisan Nasional (BN) arguably considered states as natural extensions of the centre, operatives necessary to fulfill the national mandate of economic development—the more centralised, the more efficient.

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Malaysia’s Most Unpopular Politician–Najib Razak

Today, the Prime Minister’s Department budget alone is more than five times larger than the state budget of Selangor and almost nine times larger than Penang’s, according to the 2018 budget. Although policy areas such as local government and land are supposed to be under state jurisdiction, according to the Federal Constitution, there exist entities like the National Council for Local Government and National Land Council, both chaired by a federal minister, both with strong influence over how such matters are managed within the states. There are also numerous provisions in the federal constitution that permit the federal government to actively intervene in a state’s affairs. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King) can declare an emergency on the advice of the Prime Minister for the sake of maintaining “national security and public order”, which is extendable to any matter within the legislative authority of a state.

In the context of Malaysia’s single-party dominance, where UMNO-BN has never lost power, it’s no surprise that, with a few exceptions, BN-controled states are not as autonomous since their decisions are largely governed from the centre. Federal infrastructure projects would invariably receive the required state developmental order approval, for instance (states have the power to withhold this).

On the converse, whenever opposition parties have taken over state governments, they have been punished. For instance, oil-rich Kelantan and Terengganu have had their oil royalties withheld whenever opposition party Pas won power. The federal government banned log exports from Sabah which resulted in that state’s income falling drastically when it was under opposition rule in 1991. Budget cuts and delays in development project approvals have also been standard practice. Some states have resorted to depending on natural resources for their funding, since that is one of the few areas states manage. Sometimes this results in tragic outcomes: for instance, Kelantan was accused of excessive logging, which many argue resulted in the tragic floods of December 2014. Even BN-controlled states like Pahang (Najib’s home state) have also had to rely on natural resources to boost state income, through both logging and bauxite mining.

WHEN PAKATAN RAKYAT took over control of the states of Selangor, Penang, Perak, Kedah and Kelantan in the wake of 2008’s now-historic 12th General Elections, State Development Offices (SDOs) were physically removed from state premises, with funds directly channeled from the Federal Government and completely bypassing the new state governments. The Federal Government also set up Village Development and Safety Committees (JKKKP) that report directly to the Ministry of Rural and Regional Development. In the recent redrawing of election constituency boundaries, many individuals reportedly supporting the exercise and the new Selangor boundaries were in fact representatives of the JKKKP federal committees.

Malaysia’s richest states Selangor and Penang have had to contend with Federal Government interventions in multiple ways over the past decade, including federal instructions to civil servants that ran counter to the states’ agendas. Although civil servants are supposed to serve the government of the day, states’ senior civil servants (except in Johor) are appointed and promoted from the Federal Service and hence are put in the difficult position of serving two masters simultaneously.

For example, in 2010 when the Selangor state secretary was due to be replaced, the federal Public Service Commission announced the name of the new state secretary without the Selangor Chief minister’s consultation. The Chief Minister called for a special state assembly sitting to amend the state constitution, which would give the Chief Minister and the Sultan of Selangor the power to choose senior state officials. But this proposed amendment did not get the required two-thirds majority in the state parliament, and the Chief Minister had to accept the federal government’s choice of a new State Secretary against his will.

However, because these two states are highly industrialised and urbanised, they have had a different experience to previous opposition (non-BN) states, which were primarily rural in nature (Kelantan, Terengganu and Sabah). In the past, the BN Federal Government punished rural states by withholding funding and development, but it was no longer able to do the same in Selangor and Penang. These states have drawn from existing thriving industry, state-linked companies, and land development for their resources. Because these states also contribute disproportionately to the national economy, it was also foolhardy to threaten the economies of these states.

Over the past decade, both Selangor and Penang have sought to promote themselves as better-run states, demonstrating better budget outcomes and economic management, people-friendly services and policy delivery, and the ability to maintain investments and a strong economy. Such messages have been used by both states to position themselves as an alternative federal government model. In fact, some state policies have been imitated at federal level: Selangor’s Rumah Mampu Milik low-cost housing programme arguably inspired the federal-level PR1MA programme.

Selangor used its legislative assembly’s Select Committee on Competency, Accountability and Transparency (SELCAT) to investigate corruption cases under the previous chief minister Khir Toyo of UMNO-BN. Selangor’s UMNO has not been able to recover from these negative perceptions, and lacking a strong leader, the state opposition has been weak. Previous state patronage systems have also been redirected, resulting in curtailed revenue streams that would have previously accrued back to central UMNO headquarters. Both Selangor and Penang state governments introduced Freedom of Information Enactments and implemented asset declaration systems for their Exco (state ministry) members. These two measures are unprecedented, and have not been replicated by other state governments nor the federal government.

THERE WERE MANY occasions in which overlapping jurisdictions have caused confusion in opposition-held states. The Selangor Government bore the brunt of dissatisfaction over several water shortage incidents in the state over the past decade. ‘Water supplies and services’ was transferred from the Federal Constitution’s state list to the concurrent list in 2005, where both Federal and state governments have joint control over how water is treated and distributed in states. The restructuring has been a long drawn out process because of disagreements between the Federal and state governments, made more complicated because there were four separate concessionaires to negotiate with. But voters cared little for the details, and demanded the issue be resolved quickly.

Such federal–state political competition has allowed other states to embolden themselves. For instance, the states of Sarawak and Sabah have become increasingly vocal in their demands for greater autonomy and to restore the terms of the Malaysia Agreement of 1963. The Sarawak state assembly passed a motion to demand a 20% royalty, instead of the 5% that the state currently receives in petroleum revenue sharing agreements with the federal government, Petronas and international oil companies. Sabah opposition politicians followed suit to demand the same. Negotiating with Putrajaya has resulted in Sarawak being able to set up its own oil and gas company, Petroleum Sarawak Berhad (PETROS), which is to work with Petronas and become an active player in the oil and gas industry by 2020. BN-led Johor has also fluffed its feathers, where Crown Prince Tunku Ismail Ibrahim declared in 2015 that the state had a right to secede from Malaysia if the terms of the federal agreement are violated, and the term “Bangsa Johor” (the Johor race) has been used repeatedly to mark out a specific state identity.


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Penang’s Chief Minister–Lim Guan Eng

Having an opposition coalition leading at the state level offers voters a glimpse into how it will govern at the national level. The picture isn’t always rosy, where there have been complications, in part due to the intra-coalition conflicts on religion and race. More so in Selangor than in the more ethnically homogeneous states of Penang, Kelantan and Kedah. Selangor has had to deal with sensitive issues such as alcohol, entertainment centres, the relocation of a Hindu temple, and the confiscation of Malay version Bibles. In so doing, the state government has had to find a delicate balance where all parties—of various inclinations—will agree to compromise. Although the Islamist party PAS is no longer part of this coalition, its representatives were in the Selangor Exco right up to the recent dissolution of the state assembly. Selangor PAS was less vehement in its criticisms of other coalition partners like the DAP, compared to their national counterparts. Hence the state Pakatan Rakyat coalition outlasted its national coalition (which has now regrouped with different partners as Pakatan Harapan).

There have also been allegations of continued patronage within the states of Selangor and Penang, through well-oiled deals with private developers and contracts at local councils, demonstrating that opposition-led states are unable to break out of the BN model of patronage politics. Unless political party financing is reformed, all parties will depend on such patronage systems for survival. Politicians in Malaysia are expected to provide their constituents with money—gifts for funerals, weddings, mosques, associations and so on. And being in opposition is no exception. In fact, the political culture of clientelism is so deeply rooted that the constituents expect it of their elected representatives.

Selangor and Penang would have likely remained under opposition hands at this GE14, except for the federal Election Commission’s (EC) redelineation exercise which has significantly redrawn constituency boundaries in Selangor—the state the BN desperately wants to win back. BN holding federal power and influence over the EC has resulted in drastically malapportioned seats in the state. In short, states are helpless against federal interventions into its constituency boundaries, directly affecting electoral outcomes.

In some—but not all—cases, the successes of Selangor and Penang have been used as a narrative to convince voters of the economic possibilities these states can achieve in opposition PH hands. Whether such successes can be replicated is dependent on the nature of the state, and only Johor is similar to Selangor in urban and demographic makeup. Other states the opposition hopes to win over like Kedah are more rural. There are other indications that voters in Kelantan are likely to support BN over PAS, given the latter has been unable to contribute meaningful economic development to the state—thanks primarily to issues described above where rural opposition states are cut off from federal resources.

Healthy political competition between the Federal and State governments has expanded policy possibilities, as both levels observe, challenge, adapt, learn from, and imitate the other. Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that states—especially those led by the opposition—are becoming increasingly conscious of their distinctive state identities. Some have expressed their desires for greater autonomy and independence, and are challenging what was previously considered a de facto centralised federal government. This new federal–state dynamic is something any ruling federal government will have to get used to.

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Ms Tricia Yeoh (pic above) is Chief Operating officer at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS). she is on PhD study leave at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, researching federal-state relations in Malaysia. She is the author of ‘States of Reform: Governing Selangor and Penang’, editor of ‘The Road to Reform: Pakatan Rakyat in Selangor’, and director of the award-winning documentary ‘The Rights of The Dead’, about the mysterious death of Teoh Beng Hock in 2009. Tricia was also an aide to the previous Selangor Chief Minister, Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim.