29 December, 2007

Correct, correct, correct

Top 10 news of 2007
Dec 29, 07 12:09pm

This was the year that tens of thousands of Malaysians broke free of mental chains and collectively thumbed their noses at those in control. From courtly lawyers to cheesed-off car-tinters, there was a unity of purpose across their respective causes, as they claimed the right to speak and to be heard - and damn the consequences!No, it had nothing to do with a government that “gave” them freedom to do so. It had everything to do with a citizenry that would not cave in to the commands of an overbearing government.Malaysiakini celebrates a year of definitive mindset change - so, it is apt that C-words rule our choice of Top 10 news issues of the year. Think of that clip, corruption, clean-ups, conversions, courage, crackdowns, crime, conflict, commission, culling, chatterboxes and campaigns... caught on yet?

Correct, correct, correct
1. THE ISSUE: Correct, correct, correct, ya, ya, ya! Our top story of the year couldn’t be any other than the explosive Lingam tape, revealed in part on Sept 19 by PKR de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim.The full 14-minute clip, said to be recorded in 2002, shows senior lawyer VK Lingam talking on the phone about appointing ‘friendly’ judges to the Bench. He claimed to be in conversation with then Chief Judge of Malaya - the judiciary’s No 3 - Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim Omar, who later became the chief justice.The claims ignited an uproar, propelling some 2,000 lawyers into taking an unprecedented 3.5km ‘Walk for Justice’ in search of investigation of judicial corruption.Despite clear public anger and concern, the government was initially reluctant to set up a royal commission of inquiry and offered only a three-member panel to probe the authenticity of the eight-minute segment of the clip.When there appeared to be no longer any question about its authenticity, the government agreed to set up a full-blown commission, although criticism has continued over its choice of members and the still-limited terms of reference.Ahmad Fairuz did not get his wish for an extension of service and retired on Oct 31 under a cloud of doubt, despite earlier denying involvement via de facto law minister Mohd Nazri Abdul Aziz.Anwar released the full clip on Dec 14. Prior to that, Lingam’s estranged brother had exposed more juicy details about the lawyer’s alleged relationship with judges - but the lawyer himself has taken a vow of silence until such time as the commission summons him to testify.WHAT’S NEXT: Possibly, some clarification of the murkiness surrounding top appointments in the judiciary. Sanctions, you say? Don’t hold your breath waiting. After all, the Royal Police Commission was unable to push through its own police watchdog proposal.

2.Hindraf emerges from the shadows
THE ISSUE: The Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) was relatively unknown until it provided Indian Malaysians the opportunity to vent feelings pent up over 150 years. The grouping is led by lawyers and brothers P Uthayakumar and Waythamoorthy, who have taken up issues that have plagued the grassroots of a downtrodden community.From alleged police brutality and deaths in custody, they duo have zeroed in on marginalisation and discrimination of Indians. In defence of the right to religion, they have also been calling attention to the demolition of Hindu temples nationwide.The first sign of Hindraf’s growing base of support was when it gathered some 2,000 Indians at Putrajaya to hand over a memorandum detailing the community’s problems. It did not even get the courtesy of a response.Waythamoorthy then gave the campaign an instantly international image by suing the British government for RM14 trillion - on grounds that colonialists had brought Indians to Malaya as indentured labourers and later failed to factor in their interests when the Federal Constitution was being formulated. The brothers, along with other Indian lawyers, began a nationwide roadshow to explain the suit and publicise Hindraf’s intention to petition the British Queen to support the suit by appointing a Queen’s Counsel to represent Indian Malaysians.On Oct 29, about a week before Deepavali, a century-old temple in Kampung Rimba Jaya in Padang Jawa, Selangor, was destroyed as part of a wider operation by the Shah Alam Municipal Council to clear a squatter settlement which included a surau. This proved to be the proverbial straw - it even produced a rare sighting of MIC president S Samy Vellu, as Hindraf lawyers pitched into the chaos that ensued. It was a short hop from that incident to the Nov 25 mass rally at Kuala Lumpur, which saw some 30,000 Indians backing a bid by Hindraf leaders to submit a petition to the British High Commission. The police response was a crackdown on protesters, followed by charges of attempted murder (since dropped), illegal assembly and causing mischief. Five Hindraf leaders have been detained for two years under the Internal Security Act. The community’s cause has resonated with individuals, civil society groups and political parties, even if some have distanced themselves from certain Hindraf claims. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has been pressured into meeting with Indian-based NGOs to hear the community’s long list of grouses. WHAT’S NEXT: ‘Big Ears’ will have his work cut out for him to offer real forms of redress - and pronto - now that he realises that silence will no longer be met with silence.

3. Yearning for a ‘Bersih’ electoral system
THE ISSUE: All that the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) wants is an election system that is free of taint and above suspicion. In aid of this, the grouping - comprising 67 NGOs and five opposition parties - has been active in canvassing voter support, while also lobbying the Election Commission (EC) to implement its ideas.Earlier this year, it held low-key meetings with the EC and roadshows to educate the public about what should constitute clean and fair elections in Malaysia. These efforts bore fruit - the EC agreed to use indelible ink to curb multiple voting and even to introduce transparent voting boxes in the next general election. Still, this apparently fell short of Bersih’s demands.When the coalition took its case to supporters in Kuala Terengganu in September, its planned ceramah attracted action. The cops moved in, sealed off the venue, and used force to deal with resistance - ‘live’ bullets injured two people.Not to be intimidated, Bersih reacted with plans for a massive rally in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 10. Despite a police cordon and use of water cannon and tear gas, some 40,000 protesters managed to march to Istana Negara where a petition was handed to the King’s representative.This was followed with another memorandum to the prime minister - via opposition MPs, amidst pandemonium outside Parliament on Dec 11 - and at a more sedate affair at his Putrajaya office on Dec 18. But it failed to end the tenure of EC head Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman because of his alleged failure to correct failings in the electoral system. Abdul Rashid has been given another year as EC chief.
WHAT’S NEXT: Bersih has threatened to step up pressure for electoral reform, although it is being cagey about the methods. All eyes will be on possible abuses, vote buying and fraud in the upcoming general election, which some expect will be held as early as March.

Subordinate brings down ACA head
4. THE ISSUE: In his last self-proclaimed act of ‘national duty’ before he retired last year, Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) senior officer Ramli Manan did something that would eventually take down his boss in spectacular fashion. The former ACA Sabah chief levelled several allegations against then director-general Zulkipli Mat Noot ranging from corruption to a sexual assault. He sent his report to the police chief, the premier, attorney-general, auditor-general and director-general of the civil service, but the outcome was a deafening silence.What he was unable to achieve behind the scenes had to be accomplished in public, after the corruption watchdog Gerak revealed the contents of his report in February this year.In an exclusive interview with Malaysiakini, Ramli later said that, for six years prior to retirement, he had been consigned to ‘cold storage’ because he had persisted in investigating a corruption allegation against former Land and Cooperative Development Minister Kasitah Gaddam in 2000.Ramli also said he was further victimised when his pension and salary were held back, and since filed a legal suit over this.Under the circumstances, it would have taken a particularly thick-skinned politician to bear the risk of being associated with Zulkipli, so the prime minister and his ever-willing cabinet went into damage-control mode.Zulkipli’s service, which had been extended twice since retirement in 2005, was unceremoniously terminated on March 31. However, four months later, attorney-general Abdul Gani Patail cleared him of all corruption allegations.WHAT’S NEXT: Expect to hear the sound of the government laundromat in high-spin cycle to handle more dirty linen, should more whistleblowers come forth.

We’re no longer safe
5. THE ISSUE: Next to the state of the economy and retail therapy, Malaysians are apparently most concerned about personal safety.And where they have feared to tread in criticising the state of politics, they have not held back in demanding responsibility and accountability of the police force in stopping criminals in their tracks.The number of reported crimes went up over the first half of the year to 87,582, or an increase of 7,006 cases compared to the same period last year. The incidents included 1,507 reports of rape, as well as a spate of highway robberies and snatch thefts resulting in injuries and fatalities.In June, some 200 people gathered in front of the Johor Mentri Besar’s house to protest the rising incidence of crime in the state. Although this turned ugly when the police moved in, it did result in the cabinet ordering additional police personnel to be deployed and approval for 11 new police stations in the southern-most state.The same month, Deputy Internal Security Minister Johari Baharum also assured the public that the police are viewing the crime situation seriously and that the government was stepping up responses. As another step, the Parliamentary Caucus on the Human Rights organised public hearings in July to assist the police in curbing crime. Held in three states - Selangor, Johor and Penang - these allowed the public to raise problems and voice dissatisfaction, although the media were barred from covering the sessions.Think-tank Merdeka Centre followed up on public perceptions, releasing findings in August that confirmed what everyone else already knew.WHAT'S NEXT: Hopefully real action to prevent rapists, kidnappers, robbers, muggers and their ilk from running wild, instead of locking up protesters for claiming their constitutional rights.

Conversion confusion
6. THE ISSUE: Conflicts based in religion continued to grab the headlines, including several cases carried over from last year. Whether or not civil courts have jurisdiction over syariah matters remained the crux of the debate. The much-anticipated Lina Joy decision saw the Federal Court decide that the issue of conversion lies with the Syariah Court, splitting the nation over the concept of freedom of religion.Another shocker was when M Revathi, who was born a Muslim but brought up as a Hindu - and who married an Indian Malaysian - defiantly revealing the coercion she went through during at an Islamic rehabilitation centre.The year ended with the Federal Court's landmark ruling that R Subashini, whose husband converted himself and one of their two sons to Islam, can seek divorce in the civil courts. But the controversial 2-1 decision also ruled that the husband can convert the son without informing the mother. A global interfaith conference was cancelled at the last minute - with Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi pulling out as keynote speaker - sparking criticism as to whether the government is as tolerant as it claims to be. And when Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak said Malaysia has never been a secular state, it further exasperated those still lay hope on the spirit of the Federal Constitution.WHAT’S NEXT: Religion will remain at the centre of contention so long as it is politicised. The battle over religion will continue in the new year as two lawsuits have been filed over the right of Christians to use ‘Allah’ in referring to God in Bahasa Malaysia.

Drama in Year of the Pig
7. THE ISSUE: The Year of the Golden Pig saw an unprecedented stand-off between pig farmers and a combined force of law enforcers in Malacca.The Malacca government had decided to close pig farms for reasons of environmental hygiene, just as other states had done over the last few years. The similarity ended there.On Sept 4, thousands of enforcement officers from the relevant agencies made an attempt to cull pigs in Bukit Beruang, Paya Mengkuang, Kampung Man Lok and adjacent areas. However, they were thwarted by angry farmers who set up barricades on all approaches to their farms. They were incensed over the high-handed and ‘secretive’ assault by the state government, especially since the notice period for eviction had yet to expire.Farmers, villagers and family members - including the young and the elderly - took up position in front of the barricades, holding national flags and banners with messages celebrating the 50th anniversary of Malaysia’s independence.Police cordoned off all major roads, isolating the villages. Hundreds of police and anti-riot personnel were armed with batons, canes, teargas-canister launchers and automatic rifles. Excavators were brought in to dig holes to bury the culled pigs, while police trucks - including some with water cannon - were stationed in the vicinity. Officers stood by, clad in white plastic-suits, waiting for the order to move in and cull the animals. After 10 tense hours, state MCA officials struck a deal with the authorities and won a reprieve for the farmers, who were given up to Sept 21 to cull part of the livestock. However, they were unable to do so due to logistical problems. Further discussions on Oct 2 led to a postponement of the deadline to March 3 next year, by which time the state intends to cap the number of pigs at 48,000. All 24 farms outside Paya Mengkuang must close by December.
WHAT’S NEXT: Expect capitulation from the farmers, who have no other choice. This is one occasion where they will have to live to fight another day - and work on standards of hygiene, to keep the authorities well and truly off their back. But the high-handed manner in which the authorities sought to close the farms will be remembered when Chinese Malaysians go to the polls.

Port Klang project in choppy waters
8. THE ISSUE: When the flag of the Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ) development project was raised, eyebrows followed suit. The look of surprise soon turned into a frown for those attempting to unravel the tangle of political and corporate deals that followed.It began with Pulau Lumut Development Cooperative Bhd (PLDCB), set up in 1989 and helmed by Selangor Speaker Onn Ismail, receiving 405ha of land on Pulau Indah from the state government.It sold half of the land to Kuala Dimensi Sdn Bhd at RM30 million, following up with the balance at RM65 million - RM95 million in all. In 2002, Kuala Dimensi entered into an agreement to re-sell the whole land-bank to the Port Klang Authority (PKA) at an astounding RM1.81 billion.Kuala Dimensi is linked to property developer and investment firm Wijaya Baru Global Bhd (WBGB), of which Onn's son-in-law Faizal Abdullah is deputy chief executive officer. Amidst complaints of conflict of interest, Kuala Dimensi also signed an agreement with PKA to develop the land into PKFZ at the initial cost of RM500 million. This has since ballooned in excess of RM4.6 billion. Soon allegations that PKFZ was plagued by red tape, interference by politicians and others with vested interests, inaccuracies in the minutes of meetings and attempted tax evasion began to surface. These problems were cited as the cause of a split between PKFZ and the Dubai-based Jebel Ali Free Zone, which had been appointed to manage and promote PKFZ. Following the spate of negative reports - and the government's decision to bail out the project - parliamentary Public Accounts Committee chairperson Shahrir Abdul Samad ordered a probe. However, the PKA’s explanations left Shahrir a sunny bunny once more, seemingly satisfied that all’s well with the project.WHAT'S NEXT: With the attorney-general yet to appear before the PAC and Transport Minister Chan Kong Choy having dodged all questions, on-going investigations could run into a convenient dead-end. Already, the mudah lupa syndrome is kicking in.

Sticks and stones...
9. THE ISSUE: Bloggers were subjected to much name-calling - among these, liars, unemployed women, goblok and monkeys. To add politically-motivated injury to insult, some have had to deal with lawsuits and police action.In January, a defamation lawsuit was slapped on Jeff Ooi and Ahirudin Attan (or Rocky) by the New Straits Times Press Bhd and four others. Nathaniel Tan was arrested in July and remanded for four days under the Official Secrets Act over an anonymous comment left in his blog. Malaysia Today webmaster Raja Petra Kamaruddin and Ooi were questioned separately by the police over alleged seditious comments - Raja Petra in July for postings on his blog, and Ooi in November for his comments on Al Jazeera during the Bersih rally for electoral reform.Ooi also left Barisan Nasional component Gerakan to join DAP in July.With free speech already deemed inappropriate - even dangerous - singing was added to the list in August. Taiwan-based Malaysian student Wee Meng Chee was rapped for his Negarakuku remix posted on YouTube. Politicians threatened to extradite Wee and shut down YouTube.WHAT’S NEXT: Active interest in politics and citizen journalism will spill over into election campaigns and instant dissemination of information.

Real winners of by-elections
10.THE ISSUE: In the first half of the year, three bitterly fought by-elections were held - Batu Talam in Pahang; Machap in Malacca; and Ijok in Selangor; all state seats that fell vacant on the death of the incumbents.The Batu Talam affair was distinguished only by an opposition boycott and an Independent rookie candidate who turned all of 22 during the campaign. He lost to Barisan Nasional (BN), but kudos to him for filling the vacuum.In Machap, the DAP candidate was defeated by MCA’s nominee for the second time.The Ijok by-election on April 28 was the most hard fought and closely followed campaign, being touted as a gauge of the voters’ mood before the next general election.It also marked the return of ex-deputy premier and PKR de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim to the hustings - albeit on an opposition platform. The campaign was even said to be a ‘proxy war’ between him and Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak.The intensity of the by-election was best illustrated by the presence of BN chairperson and Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who was roped in for the final leg of the campaign.MIC candidate K Parthiban, a teacher and political novice, beat PKR’s Khalid Ibrahim - the opposition and a polls watchdog complained of heavy-handed tactics, intimidation, electoral irregularities and ‘missing ballots’.However, the real winners were the bemused electorate who were recipients of government largesse on a large scale, as millions worth of ‘projects’ were rushed into all three constituencies and the big guns rolled into town to entertain them at ceramahs. It sure beats watching the news on RTM!WHAT’S NEXT: A no-brainer - the general election lah!

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