A New Malaysia? #1: Meredith Weiss & Ambiga Sreenevasan

July 20, 2018

A New Malaysia? #1: Meredith Weiss & Ambiga Sreenevasan


In this podcast, New Mandala’s editor Liam Gammon talks to Prof Meredith Weiss about whether Malaysia is witnessing “democratisation through elections”, and Dr Ross Tapsell, Director of the ANU Malaysia Institute, speaks with Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan about how civil society can hold the new government to its promises of reform.

This podcast was produced with the support of the Malaysia Institute and the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

About the guests

Meredith L. Weiss is Professor of Political Science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University at Albany, State University of New York. Her research addresses political mobilisation and contention, the politics of development, forms of collective identity, and electoral politics, primarily in Southeast Asia. She is the author of Student Activism in Malaysia: Crucible, Mirror, Sideshow (Cornell SEAP/NUS Press, 2011) and Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia (Stanford, 2006).

Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan is a practising lawyer and President of the National Human Rights Society (HAKAM). She is a former Co-Chairperson of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH). From 2007–2009 she was President of the Malaysian Bar and continues to be an active member of the Malaysian Bar. She has received the U.S. Secretary of State Award for International Women of Courage, and the Chevalier de Legion d’Honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honour) by the French Government. After the victory of the Pakatan Harapan coalition in Malaysia’s May 2018 general election, she was appointed to the Committee on Institutional Reforms, an expert body established to develop recommendations for the new government on matters of institutional and legal reform.



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

Image result for Mahathir and Wan Azizah in 14h Parliament

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.

Najib Razak sought CIA’s Help for GE-14–A Treasonous Act?

July 19, 2018

Najib Razak sought CIA’s Help for GE-14–A Treasonous Act?

By MP Lim Kit Siang


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The letter of the Research Division in the Prime Minister’s Department to the CIA before the 14th General Elections on May 4 seeking US support against Pakatan Harapan must have given Malaysians the shivers, reinforcing the view that the greatest thing to happen in Malaysia was the change of Federal government in Putrajaya on May 9 or nobody can be assured what would have happened to the future of Malaysia.

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Najib Razak–“A progressive leader and a staunch supporter of the US”.

The letter by the Research Division’s Director-General Hasanah Ab Hamid to the CIA painting the former Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak as  a progressive leader and a staunch supporter of the US while describing the leader of  the Pakatan Harapan Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as “anti-West” should never have been sent by any self-respecting government or official.

It is just not good enough for Najib to now claim that he, as the Prime Minister at the time, did not instruct the Research Division in the Prime Minister’s Department to pen the letter to the CIA seeking US support for the Barisan Nasional against Pakatan Harapan five days before the May 9 general election.

It raised many questions, in particular whether the Najib government was so shambolic and even anarchic that the right hand did not know what the left hand was doing, and the Prime Minister did not know what was happening in the PMO or his governemnt?

If so, Najib is clearly the worst Prime Minister in Malaysian history. But there is an even more serious question – how can a caretaker government pen such a disgraceful and even disloyal letter to the intelligence organ of a foreign government asking for foreign interference in the domestic affairs of Malaysia?

Najib’s claim that he had no knowledge about the letter is a very lame and completely unacceptable. Najib said he did not even know of its existence as “Not all letters have to go through me”.

His claim that agencies, especially those related to intelligence matters, have the autonomy to perform their duties for reasons they think would benefit them must be repudiated in no uncertain terms, and the Pakatan Harapan government must make it clear that no agencies under it have any authority to send such a self-serving and disloyal letter to any foreign government.

I had asked the MCA Deputy President, Datuk Seri Wee Ka Siong, now sole MCA MP for Ayer Hitam, to state in Parliament whether he was aware and approved of Hasanah’s letter to CIA as he was at the time the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, but as expected, Wee completely avoided the subject when he later spoke in Parliament in the debate on the motion of thanks for the royal speech.

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Remember him? –Najib’s man in 1MDB

Let Najib turn up in Parliament and justify the despatch of the shocking letter from the Research Division in the Prime Minister’s Department to the CIA five days before the 14th General Election, and he should also take the opportunity to explain when Parliament approved the setting up of an intelligence unit in the Prime Minister’s Office and the details about the budget and operations the secret intelligence unit under him.

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MP Lim Kit Siang–DAP’s statesman

(Media Statement by DAP MP for Iskandar Puteri Lim Kit Siang in Parliament on Thursday July 19, 2018)



Do we really still need a council of elders?

July 19, 2018

Do we really still need a council of elders?

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QUESTION TIME | On May 11, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was sworn in at 9.30pm a day earlier as Prime Minister following the May 9 elections, announced a rather abbreviated list of key cabinet ministers which included just three others besides himself – Bersatu’s Muhyiddin Yassin as Home Minister, DAP’s Lim Guan Eng as Finance Minister and Amanah’s Mohamad Sabu for Defence.

Conspicuous by absence was any minister from PKR, the largest partner in the new ruling coalition with 48 seats, compared to 42 for DAP, 13 for Mahathir’s Bersatu and 11 for Amanah, indicating a schism already developing between Mahathir and PKR.

It will be two days later and after a meeting between Mahathir and de facto PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim before the latter’s wife, Wan Azizah Ismail was picked as Deputy Prime Minister.

Simultaneously, Mahathir announced a council of elders, which came to be known formally as the Council of Eminent Persons, headed by his old friend, the rather controversial former Finance Minister and UMNO Treasurer Daim Zainuddin.

It included as its members business tycoon Robert Kuok, former Bank Negara Malaysia Governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz, former Petronas CEO Hassan Merican and prominent economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram.

That sequence of events indicated that Mahathir was prepared to go it alone if he had to and the appointment of the council of elders probably came as surprise to the other parties in the Pakatan Harapan coalition, especially PKR who was already unhappy with losing the finance ministry to DAP on top of not being consulted.

Now here was a Jedi-like council which was going to hear representations from others and make recommendations. In Mahathir’s words at the press conference, these people (the council) will study a lot of things submitted to them from (events dating back to) 2009 until now because “we want to take action if necessary as quickly as possible. One thing we think is very important is the Ministry of Finance and Defence – we need to have them focus on that, and later Home Affairs have to be advised on what they need to know. That is the decision we have reached this evening.”

Two days after the elections and in the euphoria of the moment after ousting a kleptocracy, very few voiced any reservations and many welcomed the appointment of the council. But on further reflection, is such a council necessary? Or desirable even? Let’s see.

Image result for daim zainuddin in china

Tun Daim Zainuddin enjoys the full confidence of Prime Minister because of his record of service as Finance Minister and problem solver.

One major concern about the council of elders is Daim himself and his past. Before Bersatu’s formation and entry into Harapan, Anwar had singled out Daim as one of the leaders who may be corrupt. In a recent interview after Daim’s appointment as head of the council, Anwar had this to say:

“He can contribute […] He must be aware that people are also expressing deep consternation that he has not been able to explain some of the major excesses of the past […] To me if you want to talk about democratic accountability, it must not stop at Najib […] although it does not extend to endless witch hunts.

“I discussed this with Guan Eng also, […] he (Daim) can assist, (but) there are major issues we have to address. He can contribute, I am not saying he should not. But he should be reminded and mindful […],” said Anwar.

Daim, however, in a reply at a press conference, said that “young fellows” were pushing Anwar. “I have met Anwar a couple of times. Anwar is a very polished politician, he knows the ground very well, he knew what the manifesto was.

‘[…] Pakatan Harapan offered Tun M as the Prime Minister for two years [… ] you have to honour the manifesto […] when you sell Tun M as the seventh prime minister you must honour that […] but the young fellows are in a hurry,” he said.

Not everyone happy

Clearly, not everyone was happy with Daim’s appointment as the head of the council of elders. Insiders say that while there are others in the council, all of whom have outstanding credentials, Daim does not listen sufficiently to alternative views. Thus, it may be possible that the final recommendations made would be vetted and diluted by Daim.

Also, committees have been set up under the council of elders to study things such as institutional reform and 1MDB but these reports have to be submitted to the council of elders and not directly to the prime minister or the cabinet, giving excessive power to this council and to Daim who heads it.

Quite alarmingly, the council appears to have forced the resignation of some people through intense questioning and questionable methods, contributing to a sort of witch-hunt under which people are made to feel that they must resign.

Apart from the resignation of Bank Negara Governor Muhammad Ibrahim, the most prominent example of this was when Daim was alleged to have forced the country’s two top judges, Chief Justice Mohd Raus Sharif and Court of Appeal President Justice Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin to quit.

According to a report in Malaysiakini, former Federal Court judge Gopal Sri Ram claimed it was “an open secret” that this occurred during a meeting at Daim’s private office. Sri Ram said Daim, who is also a lawyer, should not have demanded Raus’ and Zulkefli’s resignations, adding it was unconstitutional for anyone other than the Prime Minister to summon the head of the Judiciary.

“Daim is not the Prime Minister and even if he had been asked by the Prime Minister to do what he did, he should have declined and left it to the attorney-general, the prime minister and the cabinet to handle it.

“After all, we do not want to return to the old days when there was no respect for the separation of powers and the due observance of constitutional requirements,” Sri Ram said.

One wonders what was it that Daim said to obtain their prompt resignations when other calls before that for them to resign went unheeded.

Perhaps the most important question to ask is why have this council in the first place when a new government has been elected? The right thing to have done is to have appointed the cabinet as soon as possible, form committees in the various ministries to study issues, co-opt external experts as necessary and use civil servants who know the ground after many years of experience.

The reports can then be presented to the cabinet for discussion, further input and final approval. That way, ministers become fully responsible for their ministries and if these ministers are appointed with some wisdom and due consideration for their abilities, there is no reason why they can’t do a better job than a council of elders which may have tainted members.

Also, these ministers are eager to work, fresh, and many of them experienced. Barring at most three, the rest are untainted by previous hints of corruption or abuse of power.

In any case, that is what one would expect in a functioning democracy. The so-called council of elders is therefore unnecessary and ultimately it is a body that bypasses the role of the cabinet in the decision-making process of the country, giving advice directly to the PM.

The life of this council should not go beyond the hundred days allocated to it.

This is the third part in a series of articles on Malaysia post-GE-14. The others were:

Part 1: Mahathir’s patently unfair cabinet

Part 2: Did Mahathir win the general election?

P GUNASEGARAM has nothing against the council personally, most of whom he has great respect and admiration for and has interacted with in the past. E-mail: t.p.guna@gmail.com

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


‘New’ or ‘old’ Sabah in New Malaysia?

July 18, 2018

‘New’ or ‘old’ Sabah in New Malaysia?

by Dr. Bridget Welsh@www.malaysiakini.com

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Congratulations, Sir. May God Bless and Guide You

COMMENT | On the streets of Kota Kinabalu, there is open delight of the appointment of one of their own, Richard Malanjum, as the new chief justice. Across the diverse multiethnic mosaic of the state, many respond with the phrase “I feel Malaysian.”

Given the continued resentments of unfairness of the federal government that percolate, these sentiments highlight that inclusiveness and appointments based on merit do resonate, much more than the handful of narrow-minded, peninsula-based views featured in the media. Sabahans, in their open and optimistic style, celebrate the successes of their own across communities, as arguably the silent majority in the country does as a whole.

The question of the federal-state relationship and treatment of different ethnic communities were very much at the heart of why Sabah voted for Parti Warisan Sabah and Pakatan Harapan parties – and why they not only were critical for the coalition to form the numbers for their majority sworn into Parliament yesterday, but why there is a new Warisan coalition government in the state.

While acknowledging it is still early days, this article focuses on whether there are signs of change in Sabah, and suggests that the ‘old’ Sabah will constrain the ability of the new government to bring about meaningful changes in the short-term – but that in the longer-term, there are indications that a new political landscape is being formed with the emergence of a ‘new’ Sabah.

Local dynamics shaped GE14

The story of the electoral outcome and the new government in Sabah is quite different from the national picture. 1MDB and former prime minister Najib Abdul Razak, for example, were less central than the perceived corruption of the family of Musa Aman (photo) and their continued hold on power.

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Slating five members of the Aman family as candidates in GE14 did not go down well with many in the electorate. After 15 years in power, Musa and his cartel of interests still play a major role in the Sabah economy.

GST was an important issue, seen as a federally imposed tax that did not help the local economy. The tourist tax is seen the same way.

State rights and representation embedded in the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63) were also mobilised and remain so, as Sabahans expect a meaningful review of the federal-state relationship with greater respect, inclusion, and political autonomy and control over their own resources and economy. A crucial element in the review is protections for religious freedom, as the impositions on freedom are seen to be driven by developments in the peninsula.

Local racial differences, particularly differences between the rights of immigrants and resentments of the indigenous Kadazandusun Murut communities, played out in many local contests. This made the results in a handful of seats quite close, and brought to the post-GE14 the reality that, like the Malay support deficit that Harapan faces at the national level, the Warisan government faces the same from many of the Kadazandusun Murut, especially in more rural and semi-rural areas.

This has been ameliorated somewhat by the addition of United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (Upko) into the state coalition post-GE14, but it does not take away from the fact that most Kadazandusun Murut did not vote for Warisan or Harapan parties. The political swing that took place was largely one along the east coast of Sabah and in the urban areas, representing primarily a Bajau/Suluk victory supported by ethnic Chinese and urban-based Kadazans.

Nevertheless, a majority of Sabahans showed that they were open to change, as they had been in 1985 when they voted in the Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) government. Many of the same political demands for rights and representation were echoed, but the results reflect a different social base of mobilisation than in the past.

Legacies of the ‘old’ Sabah

Given Sabah’s mixed experience with a new state government in the past, expectation of change is relatively low. They place more hope in change coming about through a new federal government – namely, a new federal-state relationship that might emerge – and pressures for reform at the national level that will hopefully extend into the state.

The nexus between the federal and state is intertwined with the issues that make the management of the state so challenging. Three legacies in particular complicate the Sabah context.

First, the corruption in Sabah is deep, extending from business to the (mis)management of its borders. Decades of exploitation of the state’s resources by its political elites have bequeathed a governance mess. Early investigations of the state’s finances echo the financial mismanagement and indebtedness left by the Najib administration at the federal level, with allegedly millions missing and foundations and other state bodies plundered.

Sadly, this pattern of graft has happened all too often in Sabah, but what distinguishes the current situation is the sheer amount of greed involved. Chief Minister Shafie Apdal (photo) has inherited limited state coffers and a bureaucracy seen as tainted. Graft in the state has been accentuated by its large resource economy and rapid land development.

‘Contributions’ and ‘payoffs’ are everyday practices. Much of what has happened in the past few months have focused on assessment and clean-up. There have been early efforts to address illegal logging, but these are slow-going, given the scope of the problem.

Corruption is also connected to the thorny and sensitive issue of illegal immigration. This problem has its roots in the 1970s, in the era of United Sabah National Organisation (Usno) and later Sabah People’s United Front (Berjaya), but came to a head in ‘Project IC’ during Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s first tenure as prime minister. The systematic granting of citizenship to foreigners in the state was the subject of the Royal Commission of Inquiry in 2013, which provided recognition but little in the way of solutions.

Today, illegal immigration directly involves an estimated quarter of Sabah’s 3.9 million population, with thousands of stateless people, especially children, lacking access to education and basic healthcare. The exact number involved is unknown, as there are persistent concerns of continued streams of undocumented immigrants who are seen to undercut wages and have transformed the social fabric. Resentments run as deep as the corruption, if not deeper. The issue affects the state as a whole, its social fabric, economy and security.

The Warisan government has promised to move toward ameliorating the problem, but will need meaningful cooperation from the federal government to address underlying concerns about immigration, citizenship and the financial and social costs.

Many of those tied to the Bajau/Suluk community are expecting the Warisan government to act, given their electoral support in GE14, while others are anxious that solutions will be exclusionary and inadequate.

Mahathir has an opportunity to address a serious problem he himself exacerbated in his first term by working with a Warisan partner that has its roots within the migrant community, to move towards a more just Sabah and improve its welfare. Now is perhaps the best time in decades.

Closely related to the two legacy issues above is the incidence of poverty and economic vulnerability. Of all the states in the country, Sabah has the highest rate and numbers living in poverty. Officially, 2.9 percent of citizens live in poverty, according to statistics published in 2016, but in practice this number is much larger, with sharp income disparities and relatively low wages.

The federal government is often blamed, but the responsibility should be shared by state leaders as well, who have not done enough to address inadequate roads to Pitas, isolation in Pensiangan, nutritional deficits in Keningau and insufficient water supply across the state.

The new state government has only two of its leaders with experience in government, but many of its ministers are sincere. Nevertheless, there are grouses among the public that there have been few deliverables to date.

Reducing economic disparities needs to be a priority, as should integrating social justice with a plan for the economy. There are ideas percolating regarding localisation, but to date it is not clear what the priorities of the new Sabah government are, and if the team as a whole is working together.

Special care will be needed in managing the area of infrastructure – historically one of the more lucrative areas of graft – to assure that this is not a vehicle for further wealth aggrandisement and party patronage.

The emerging ‘new’ Sabah

If what the Warisan-led government faces is indeed challenging, changes in political conditions offer promise.

A younger generation of Sabahans are open to embrace change, eager to build their state and embrace new ideas. Nearly a third – 31.3 percent – of the population is under 40, offering energy and momentum for change. Younger voters were an integral part of the Warisan-Harapan victory.

Civil society in Sabah has grown and is eager to be a partner in bringing about greater prosperity. There are a plethora of local civil-society partnerships in education and the environment that can be strengthened. The sense of state nationalism that put the new government into office is a strong foundation to build on, one that can be embraced. Capitalising on this goodwill is essential.

Musa’s flight abroad has also brought forward an inevitable development – the end of UMNO in Sabah. Warisan has taken over UMNO’s political base on the east coast, decimated the latter’s base throughout the state, and cut off its access to the main ingredient of its political survival – money.

While UMNO still holds support among some Sabahans – with some of this base tied to the old Usno and Berjaya days – its strength came from its ties to the federal and state governments, relationships that it no longer holds. Already, four leaders have moved and hundreds of ordinary members are flocking away from the party.

Sabah UMNO faces the same problem that the party is beset with nationally – a leader refusing to leave gracefully. The money is on Musa not returning to be sworn in as an assemblyperson before mid-August, which will trigger a by-election and render moot his electoral petition for state leadership.

Musa and his economic cartel remain powerful, however, and limit the ability for alternative patronage networks to form. He – and others in Sabah UMNO – have the shadow of scandals and potential MAAC questioning hanging over them. As things stand, it is likely that UMNO supporters will morph into a locally-based party, rather than hold onto the baggage that Musa left them.

The pattern of political engagement in Sabah is also shifting. Traditionally, the state has been governed by elites and party warlords, who have served to distribute patronage with ordinary citizens getting the raw end of the deal. This sort of political patronage has been failing and in the longer term will be difficult to sustain.

The Warisan government will be forced to perform and yield deliverables as it is not in the same financial position to follow the previous model of engagement – at least not to the same degree.

It will also be forced to meet the expectations of change, to address the increasing demands of a greater informed population. This offers pressure, but simultaneously opportunity – funds now can move less into the hands of politicians and into solving problems and improving the well-being of Sabahans.

A new social contract can evolve for Sabahans. The promise of a ‘new’ Sabah is real, despite the legacies of old.

BRIDGET WELSH is an associate professor of political science at John Cabot University in Rome. She also continues to be a senior associate research fellow at the National Taiwan University’s Center for East Asia Democratic Studies and The Habibie Center, as well as a university fellow of Charles Darwin University. Her latest book (with co-author Greg Lopez) is titled Regime Resilience in Malaysia and Singapore. She can be reached at bridgetwelsh1@gmail.com.

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

Don’t Kiss the Hand that Beats You

July 12, 2018

Don’t Kiss the Hand that Beats You

by Fadiah Nadwa Fikri

Image result for fadiah nadwa fikri oxford

Fadiah Nadwa Fikri@Oxford


“To be free does not and cannot mean to only be free from the visible concrete prison walls in our midst. Freedom must mean that we are collectively free from invisible walls that have long been erected to rob us of our dignity. To be free is to persistently and collectively stand up against and resist institutional dehumanization in all its forms.”–Fadiah Nadwa Fikri

Jangan Engkau Cium Tangan yang Memukulmu


Artikel versi Bahasa Melayu boleh didapati di sini.

Upon his release from prison, former Opposition Leader and Prime Minister in waiting Anwar Ibrahim shared his thoughts on his winding political journey and went on to say something that was exceptionally profound – that the value of freedom was the lesson he learned from prison life. Three years flew by. A man’s liberty was taken away and shackled to prison walls. To spectators of this political episode, Anwar’s incarceration felt like a long absence.

In his absence, ordinary Malaysians continued to deal with their everyday struggles amidst the mundane and intolerable suffocating reality. Some struggled to navigate and make sense of the meaning of freedom, having been forced to live in a bigger prison surrounded by impenetrable walls invisible to many.

When May 9 happened, the country went into immense shock. To witness the fall of an authoritarian government which had been clinging on to power for 61 years was not an impossibility. It is undeniable that the change of government enabled, among others, the release of the former Opposition Leader. The picture of Anwar, swarmed by a sea of journalists, held tightly in his family’s arms, finally free from imprisonment was a sight to behold. The celebration continued late in the night, where thousands of supporters assembled at Padang Timur to listen to his freedom speech.

While the majority of Malaysians were still immersed in the indescribable euphoria, trying to wrap their minds around the change and what it meant for the country, the internal power struggle among the political elite started to rear its ugly head. Realizing how fragile the transition was, some started to question the drama that was unveiling before the nation. There were voices who were quick to tell critics to bite their tongues and have faith in people occupying positions of power.

The terrain on which this internal power struggle was taking place was clearly off limits to ordinary people – including the very people who elected those who are now at the helm of the government. This is the harsh reality associated with representative democracy – a reality we rarely talk about and examine, in which political participation is mainly confined to the ballot box whose final outcome would subsequently be handed over to the ruling elite. In defence of this reality, people are often told to wait another five years if they wish to change the government. Who has the luxury to wait another five years? This question must not be left unanswered.

Image result for anwar ibrahim and the sultan of johor

Any attempt to break the fortress built around this existing system in order to democratize the space for people to assert their political existence is often met with harsh criticism and rebuke. As a result, the power to shape the future and direction of the country remains in the hands of the privileged few, thus further alienating the voices of the many, in particular the marginalized. Genuine democracy which seeks to place people at its heart therefore remains out of reach.

The unending internal power struggle reached a whole new level when the picture of Anwar, bending down, kissing the hand of the Sultan of Johor emerged on the internet. Given the Prime Minister’s strained relationship with the monarchy, there are no prizes for guessing why the Prime Minister in waiting did what he did. What is disquieting about the act captured in the picture is the indefensible feudal culture it’s embodying and the catastrophic consequences it’s transmitting.

It bears reminding that to most of the rest of the world, monarchy was rendered obsolete a long time ago. History has shown that the absurdities on which the institution was built can no longer be tolerated, defended, and justified. To situate a class of people above others by virtue of their aristocratic birth could not be more revolting a notion – a notion that stands in contradiction to the concept of freedom and human dignity.

As people constantly rise to reclaim the meaning of freedom and human dignity in a world that is plagued with institutional dehumanization, this indefensible notion of subjugation raises a number of questions which demand answers. Why do people who bleed red just like everyone whom unconditional submission is forced upon deserve such privilege? Why do people who perpetually live off the backs of those who are struggling to survive and live a dignified life deserve god-like treatment and adoration? Why are people who are unilaterally endowed with immense power and wealth extracted from people they subjugate immune from accountability?

The answers to these questions lead us to one inevitable conclusion: not only is the monarchy anti-democratic, it is also a direct assault on our very dignity which is inherent to our existence as human beings. While proponents of this feudal relic would argue that the monarchy as it exists today is nothing but a neutral constitutional adornment, the fact however demonstrates the contrary. One must look beyond what is written in the Constitution in order to understand the politics this institution practices, whose interest it truly represents, and whose side it is on.

Image result for The Crown Prince of Johor

One month before the recent general elections, the Johor Crown Prince, popularly known as TMJ, unreservedly told the whole nation not to bring down the government – the government which had been ruling the country with an iron fist for 61 years. The Crown Prince’s act of uttering these words shortly before the elections, while many people were engulfed in simmering anger, struggling to escape the oppressive situations they had been subjected to for so long, was indeed a calculated move.

The act was clearly executed out of fear of the unknown – fear of losing the privilege and power accorded to the monarchy by the oppressive government who was complicit in subjugating the people, should a change of government become a reality. This particular event which is in no way an anomaly is proof that the institution has never been neutral. It’s as clear as day that the side of the people is the side it has never been on.

As for believers of this archaic institution who contend that it is a symbol of unity, standing on the side of the oppressor while many are denied the right to good life in a country that is structured by domination, inequality, and exploitation only speaks of one kind of unity: unity in oppression.

Image result for Anwar Ibrahim and The Sultan of Selangor

To be free does not and cannot mean to only be free from the visible concrete prison walls in our midst. Freedom must mean that we are collectively free from invisible walls that have long been erected to rob us of our dignity. To be free is to persistently and collectively stand up against and resist institutional dehumanization in all its forms. As Judith Butler puts it:

“Indeed, if resistance is to bring about a new way of life, a more livable life that opposes the differential distribution of precarity, then acts of resistance will say no to one way of life at the same time that they say yes to another. For this purpose, we must reconsider for our times the performative consequences of concerted action in the Arendtian sense. Yet, in my view, the concerted action that characterizes resistance is sometimes found in the verbal speech act or the heroic fight, but it is also found in those bodily gestures of refusal, silence, movement, refusing to move, that characterize those movements that enact democratic principles of equality and economic principles of interdependency in the very action by which they call for a new way of life more radically democratic and more substantially interdependent.”