13 November, 2007

Malaysia's anti-democracy

Malaysia is in a political cul-de-sac, resulting in an erosion of national institutions and the entrenchment of corruption. Recent events show that awareness of these problems is growing, but Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is politically too feeble to implement his good intentions, increasing the difficulty of reconciling the interests of the Malay/Muslim majority with the non-Muslim Chinese, Indian and indigenous groups that make up 45 percent of the population.

Public disquiet and Abdullah's own weakness were on display in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday when some 40,000 people, headed by the leaders of the three opposition parties and including former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and representatives of a wide range of NGOs, defied a government ban to march to the palace of the king, the titular head of state, to petition for clean and fair elections.

The Malaysian government's clampdown on Saturday's rally in Kuala Lumpur is predictable as far as the political constellation in place in the country is concerned.

Malaysia is still attempting to secure socio-political stability in the multi-ethnic society it badly requires to build a strong and prosperous country, as outlined in its Vision 2020. Despite his squabbling with Mahathir Mohamad, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and his predecessor share much in common, notably when it comes to stability.

Mahathir is an avid critic of democracy, as well as the West, but Malaysia, particularly the dominant Malay ethnic group, and Badawi owe him a lot for laying the foundation for the country's economic viability during his 20 years in power. Under Mahathir, Malaysia survived the financial crisis that swept across Asia in the late 1990s.

While no local media covered the rally, foreign news services reported that 300,000 people attended the event, making it the biggest rally in the country since 1998 and the arrest of fired deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.

Police said they detained 245 people who were among the crowd marching to the royal palace to hand over a letter calling for clean and fair elections.

The fact that local media exercised self-censorship in response to the rally only underlines the long-standing paradox of Malaysia, where publications are free to live without press freedom.

By any conventional standard, Malaysia remains a quasi-democracy despite the bicameral parliamentary system that has prevented an absolute monarchy from reigning.

The country maintains the draconian Internal Security Act and Official Secrets Act, which have continued to haunt the opposition or those who differ with the government, including the press.

Following the heavy handling of Saturday's protest, nobody can guarantee that the Badawi administration will not be tempted to enforce these acts to crack down on government critics and the opposition and further silence the media. The world is watching closely whether Badawi will seek another Ibrahim to be sacrificed to keep Malaysia free from noisy criticism.

While Badawi may have every reason to stifle the critics for the sake of stability, he must take into account the changing world, where sooner or later no government will be able to resist public aspirations.

Indeed, democracy has not fully taken root in the region, but it is growing fast thanks in part to the revolution in information technology. Malaysia can ban criticism against the government, but the question is for how long.

Democracy, human rights and press freedom are the keys to success in today's world. Unfortunately, Malaysia, as well as other developing nations, is afraid to give this recipe a try.

Broken promises !

Abdullah came to power in late 2003, promising greater transparency and to fight the country's endemic graft. However, the general perception is that he has failed to deliver and there is a growing sense as he becomes entrenched in power that he no longer intends to. He has retained a number of high-ranking officials widely suspected of corruption. The anti-corruption agency remains under the purview of the ruling government. Critics also charge Abdullah with neglecting to address judicial corruption and electoral fraud and other cases of official abuse and neglect.

Malaysia's race-based political landscape means agendas often play out along ethnic lines. Saturday's protest witnessed the participation of a large number of members from the opposition, the ethnic Malay-dominated, Islamic PAS party, which apart from running on a clean governance platform would like to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state. But a much broader swath of Malaysian society was represented - activists, ordinary citizens, young, old, Indian, Malay, Chinese. Police expressed alarm at the large number of children present, state media reported.

"It was a citizens' event involving an issue that is quite universal," said activist Tian Chua. The last time Malaysians took to the street on such a scale was during the reformasi movement in 1998 after the nation's then deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was sacked after challenging former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad's hold on power and later received a black eye from a beating in jail by police chief Rahim Noor.

Public participation in the political process waned sharply after reformasi, however. Indeed, a much overlooked consequence of the period is that the government has used that tumultuous turn of events to repel many Malaysians from being active stakeholders of the national development process. The ruling elite now often brands those vocalizing dissatisfaction with official policy short-sighted troublemakers intent on destabilizing the nation, and many Malaysians today echo that government line.

The government's rhetoric of fear and intimidation was employed once again during Saturday's protest. For instance, Abdullah was quoted as saying, "They are challenging the patience of the people who want the country to be peaceful and stable." Anonymously sent text messages warned people to stay away from Freedom Square, where an "illegal anti-government" rally would be held. It was illegal in the sense that gatherings of more than five people require a police permit and organizers were unable to obtain one on the grounds that it would block traffic and disturb business.

The New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch said in a statement, "If Malaysia wants to count itself a democracy, it can begin by upholding constitutional guarantees of free speech and assembly. The way the system works now, only the ruling coalition can get its messages out."

Open letter to Abdullah Ahmad Badawi

Beth Yahp
Nov 13, 07 5:12pm

Dear Prime Minister,

Sept 26 saw 2,000 lawyers at the ‘Walk for Justice’ to defend the good name and protest the sliding standards of their profession. “When lawyers march,” said Ambiga Sreenevasan, president of the Bar Council, “something must be wrong.”

Last Saturday (Nov 10), 40,000 people from all walks of life and ages walked through the rain-drenched Kuala Lumpur, skirting roadblocks, locked LRT stations, FRU batons, tear gas and water cannons, as well as weeks of misinformation and propaganda spread through the mainstream media and hacked alternative media. They marched to show their disappointment in the current electoral system and their hopes for reform.

Malaysian citizens travelled for hours through the night from all over the country to play cat-and-mouse in Kuala Lumpur with an intimidating array of security forces whose role was clearly not to secure our safety.

I saw men, armed only with shouted slogans, beaten with batons and shields and thrown to the ground. I saw an old woman in a wheelchair halted by a barricade of troops, wielding a deafening siren at her ears. I saw a child clinging to his mother’s shoulders being crushed back and back. He looked terrified and rightly so.

This was at Jalan Mahameru, not Masjid Jamek where in spite of what IGP Musa Hassan described as police “restraint” (Sunday Star, Nov 11), unarmed marchers including journalists were beaten, tear-gassed and bombarded by chemical-laced water cannons. At Jalan Mahameru, we faced two rows of riot police smashing batons against their shields. I saw and photographed people dropping to the ground around me.

This should be the journalist’s privilege; to be allowed to witness and report the uncensored fruits of that act of witnessing. But in this country, the journalists and their editors are not even afforded this or any other kind of professional privileges and protection in order to carry out their jobs according to the journalists’ Code of Ethics. That is, among other things, to pursue factual accuracy and report objectively, without fear or favour.

Instead, journalism in Malaysia seems to be ruled by a Code of Fear and Favour. Here, our mainstream journalists and editors are directly or indirectly on the state’s payroll and are therefore accountable to the state. Those who aren’t are kept on a tight leash of precarious licences and legislation designed to pit self-censorship against financial ruin. Which the bosses will prioritise is a no-brainer.

It seems to me that our media professionals do their best to navigate these treacherous waters, getting by in terms of professional pride through little acts of bravery, defiance and subterfuge. The travesty of it is that, in a true democracy, they shouldn’t have to.

Our journalists and editors should not have to find themselves in the pitiful position of being cowed mouthpieces of the state, obediently failing to report once a news blackout is ordered or “reporting” factual inaccuracies of an astounding magnitude.

Like most of your state controlled media, Prime Minister Abdullah, Sunday Star reported only the IGP’s version of Saturday’s events. Journalism 101 requires a range of eyewitnesses to describe an event objectively. And yet only your ministers were allowed air-time; only aggrieved shopkeepers were interviewed and photos of traffic jams published to support our deputy PM’s lament that the march only served to disrupt traffic, create loss of business and “mar the general perception others have of our society.”

The police were depicted as being “forced” to use their batons, boots, shields, helmets, trucks, water cannons and helicopters against unarmed men, women and children (New Sunday Times, Nov 11).

This reconstruction of reality is one that I and 40,000 other marchers do not recognise. In spite of what we saw and experienced, we are told that we were only 4,000 in number and that 245 of us were detained as opposed to the 24 I later saw released at IPK (police contingent headquarters) in Kuala Lumpur. It was later reported in the NST (Nov 12) that the majority of detentions were pre-emptive, taking place outside Kuala Lumpur the day before. The reasons for arrest included being in possession of yellow T-shirts and bandanas.

Yes, there were massive traffic jams in KL that day and yes, I saw shopkeepers hurriedly pull down their shutters but only when the FRU and police amassed in battle formations at Central Market. However, logic tells us that the traffic jams were caused by numerous police roadblocks and other hindrances to public transport as much as by our march which was marshalled and orderly.

We were constantly told to keep to the pavements, not to throw rubbish, not to disrupt public property and even not to trample on plants along our way. Many people stuck in jams wound down their windows as we passed, smiling and shaking our hands. Others looked annoyed, of course.

I am sitting at my local late night kopitiam as I write this. It is filled with college students chatting and watching football with their teh tarik and cigarettes. I can see how successful your media machinery is, Prime Minister, from what they say. They use the word “riots” to talk about the march, when even a police spokesman described the event as, for the most part, peaceful (RTM2 news, Nov 10).

This is no surprise given the propaganda clips that have been running as a part of news bulletins on RTM1 and RTM2 for the past few months, intercutting flag-burning with demonstrators getting their heads bashed. These, as any advertising professional will confirm, effectively equates demonstrations of any sort with escalating acts of violence on both sides. “Ini bukan budaya kita” are the stern words of warning.

On TraxxFM, I have heard an oddly outstanding song about democracy being played frequently, a lullaby, sung in a soothing paternal voice, about how taking democracy to the streets leads to a loss of self-respect and violence which is not our way. This song is in stark contrast to the ones TraxxFM’s hip and humourous DJs usually play.

This psychological embedding seems odd, Prime Minister, in the year that we celebrate our 50 years of independence which was won by our forefathers who took their struggle for freedom, equality and justice to the streets, media and the discussion tables. They did so peacefully then, as we did so last Saturday.

Prime Minister Abdullah, one of the reasons we marchers; men, women, children, and even incapacitated old folks, braved confrontation in the streets of Kuala Lumpur last Saturday was to call for “equal access to the media” as part of Bersih’s push for electoral reforms. Other proposed changes include the use of indelible ink, clean electoral rolls and the abolition of untraceable postal votes.

I did not wear yellow on the march because even though I’m a sympathiser with the struggle for electoral reform, I am also a witness to both sides of the story. I wore my yellow ribbon of “press freedom” proudly, even though I am not a journalist. I am still wearing it now with the poignant realisation that I can only write this letter, without fear or favour, precisely because I am not a mainstream Malaysian journalist. Of course, whether any of your editors will publish it or not is entirely a different matter.

That little scrap of ribbon, like the seemingly frail ribbon of marchers patiently weaving their way from all over the city to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s palace last Saturday, is symbolic of something far larger and far more important than our aching legs, bruises or shivers caused by sitting uncomplainingly in the rain while the Bersih leaders delivered our memorandum to the King.

It symbolises what you have repeatedly encouraged us to celebrate and embrace: our “Merdeka Spirit” that causes the rakyat to come out in spite of fear and intimidation, to show their grave concern when the state of things seems very wrong indeed. This is, despite attempts at historical revisionism, a part of our Malaysian culture.

With all due respect, Prime Minister, your admonition on the eve of the march, “Saya pantang dicabar”, is a rather odd thing for the leader of a democratic nation to say, given that the basic rule of democracy is the right of all citizens to challenge and to defend. Everyone is entitled to this right, whether in their living rooms or in Parliament.

Challenges and debates also constantly take place in the media whose fundamental role is to provide factual information and objective viewpoints by journalists and editors, as well as to allow equal access to publication and broadcast by proponents from either side of any argument. Only in this way can we, ordinary citizens, partake in democracy. Only then can we weigh up differing statements and opinions against accountable facts. We may be allowed to vote, yes, but how can we choose effectively without freedom of media access and information?

When this integral pillar of any democratic system is obstructed and belittled as it is in Malaysia, we cannot claim to live in a democracy. Our mainstream media then becomes merely a tool of the state used to hoodwink, brainwash and intimidate the people it should rightly be serving. Instead, we, the people, are spoon-fed, led and expected to go quietly like sheep to any foregone conclusion.

If we beg to differ, offer alternative information and viewpoints or even protest, we are called beruk (monkey). I rather think it preferable to be a monkey; curious, inventive and mischievous, than a sheep trotting meekly to my pen or to the slaughterhouse, nose pointed to the ground.

Prime Minister, we are indeed not Pakistan or Myanmar, as your Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin blustered on Al Jazeera (Nov 10) accusing them of presenting a contrary view to what has appeared on our Malaysian news and of only talking to the opposition, not government representatives - even as they were interviewing him.

This is a case of the pot calling the kettle black since almost no opposition figures are allowed to speak in our mainstream media although their images are used in conjunction with images of street violence, for example, to influence viewers’ opinions about them.

“Malaysia… is a democratic country,” Zainuddin fumed. But based on your state’s handling of the rakyat’s peaceful march last Saturday, Prime Minister, and your own media coverage prior to and about the actual event, it is hard to entirely agree.

Unfortunately for Malaysia, this is the perception that will be further broadcast internationally by journalists and editors who are, fortunately, less muzzled than their mainstream Malaysian colleagues.

Therefore, Prime Minister Abdullah, I sincerely urge you and your government, as our democratically elected leaders, to ‘Walk the talk’ and unmuzzle our journalists, editors and broadcasters. I entreat you to fully and fairly endorse and practice democracy in our country. That is, democracy for everyone, not just a powerful few.

(The writer is author of prize-winning novel, 'The Crocodile Fury', which has been translated and published in several languages.)

(Taken fom Malaysiakini- letter to the Editor.)

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