Pointers in the Days of Hope

By Kua Kia Soong, Director of SUARAM, 1 May 2008

May 13:Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969” by the writer was intended to be an exorcism of the ghost of May 13. Ever since 1969, the BN leaders had been raising the spectre of May 13 as a threat of what would happen if BN lost power in the general elections.

Then the twelfth general elections came with its devastating results. The BN lost more than they did in 1969 but “May 13” didn’t happen!

The surprise was that it took so long for the marginalized and racially discriminated communities in this country to revolt. Hindraf was a long time coming. The masses in the Indian community have long suffered dispossession, evictions and low wages. They have witnessed the neglect of Tamil schools and disrespect for their places of worship. Indians have borne the brunt of police violence, with an average of 1.3 police shootings per week and Indians making up 60 per cent of these shootings. (Star, 11.5.2000) Until the last elections, they had dutifully voted for the MIC.

The Chinese electorate, especially in the cities, had traditionally voted Opposition but had become inscrutable in the last ten years or so when they had plumped for the BN instead. Why they had voted BN since 1995 was more to do with their perception that an Opposition alternative government was unlikely.

The Malay electorate, coaxed as the “princes of the soil” with special privileges in various aspects, had consistently voted for UMNO ever since the first general elections. But this time around, a substantial proportion of Malay voters (5% swing against BN, according to Star Online, 17.3.08) decided they were not prepared to accept the status quo.

The Indians had had enough of being marginalized and discriminated against and had decided to discard their decades-old ties to the MIC. The Chinese were not prepared to be treated as second-class citizens and to be threatened incessantly with the keris by UMNO leaders at UMNO general assemblies, while a substantial body of Malay voters finally decided they had had enough of the Umnoputras’ manipulation of “bumiputraism” for their own selfish interests.

Now that the two-front system that we had called for in the 1990 general elections has come about, it is the appropriate time to produce the peoples’ wish list for the Barisan Nasional and the Pakatan Rakyat.

Abolish Racially Discriminatory NEP
Mono-ethnic political parties have no place in a country that professes to respect democracy and human rights and there ought to be a Race Relations Act that outlaws political parties organized along racial lines.

Progressive Malaysians have been calling for the abolition of the racially discriminatory NEP since the seventies. Nevertheless, one of the most significant policy speeches before the last general elections was that made by PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim when he called for the abrogation of the NEP. It was significant because he was a former UMNO stalwart and it was a litmus test of the receptivity of the Malay electorate to this policy change.

The results of the general elections show that especially in the five states won by Pakatan Rakyat, a substantial proportion of Malay voters voted for PKR in full knowledge of their policy on the NEP. The repercussion of this reality on UMNO’s mainstay, viz. its bumiputraist ideology is going to be far reaching.

The sooner this country gets over its fifty years of racial politics and recognizes “race” as an antiquated primordial instinct with no place in an enlightened society, the better for all of us. All forms of affirmative action should be based on need of sectors or classes or marginalized indigenous peoples but never on race.

Sectors left out of mainstream development, such as the New Villages, plantations, neglected sectors in East Malaysia need to be modernized for time has stood still for them ever since the Emergency.

Culturally Fair Education Policy
Fifty years after Independence, with a developed economy and a two-fold increase in our population, the number of Chinese and Tamil schools has dropped from 1342 Chinese primary schools and more than 800 Tamil schools in 1957 to 1280 and less than 600 respectively today. The cause celebre in the Chinese community for the last seven years has been the continued closure of the SRJK© Damansara Chinese primary school. It has become a symbol of UMNO’s dogged determination to disallow the expansion of Chinese and Tamil schools in the country. The financial allocation to these schools compared to Malay-medium schools is completely lopsided and has long been a source of grievances. Add to this the continued refusal by the BN government to recognize the Unified Examination Certificate of the Independent Chinese Secondary Schools since it started in 1975 even though it is recognized by leading universities all over the world.

This sense of injustice had been building up through the years and the demolition of Hindu temples merely added fuel to the fire of discontent in the Indian community.

Since the elections, the new Pakatan Rakyat controlled states have been making significant policy changes, including scrapping the quit rent for these schools and even providing financial allocation from the state coffers. If the BN does not quickly come to its senses and look into the critical shortage of Chinese and Tamil schools, financial and human resources for these schools, they will suffer an even bigger loss at the next elections.

Reclaim our Human Rights
A two-front system has made it possible now to ensure that our fundamental liberties entrenched in the original Federal Constitution are returned to us. Pakatan Rakyat has already declared that they would rescind the Internal Security Act if they came to power. Detention without trial has no place in our supposedly democratic society that has pledged to uphold human rights.

Suhakam had recommended, a few years ago, the repeal of the ISA but this call was not heeded by the BN government. The National Human Rights Commission had also made proposals for reclaiming our freedom of assembly, association and expression but the Badawi government has chosen to ignore this national body in the same way it treats other NGOs in the country.

Another of the prime minister’s faults which led to the election debacle was his failure to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the police. It called, among other things, for the establishment of a Police Complaints Committee to look into all complaints against the police. Only an accountable and effective police force can tackle the national crisis of law and order, a crisis which continues to be a major concern of voters of this country.

The first important reform by the BN Government after the 12th general elections has been the formation of a Judicial Commission for judicial appointments. While this is significant, SUARAM has pointed out that Article 121 of the Constitution needs to be amended to restore the status quo that existed before the 1988 assault on the judiciary. Param Cumaraswamy, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and lawyers has also stressed that the commission should deal with judicial complaints to ensure judicial accountability; that the authority of the Attorney-General and also court officials in the subordinate courts need to be removed from the control of the executive, and also that the judiciary must be financially independent of the executive,. (The Sun, 22 April 2008)

Other urgent reforms include the review of the Official Secrets Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the introduction of a Freedom of Information Act to give real meaning to the freedom of expression in Malaysia.
A Checklist for Reform
The space for reform in the states ruled by Pakatan Rakyat is quite sizeable. Basically, the whole State List and the Concurrent List of the Ninth Schedule of the Federal Constitution are potential targets for reform.

As each community pushes forward their demands and grievances, let us not neglect the Orang Asli community, our original people, who need the most assistance and are the only community that deserves affirmative action because they are still largely unaffected by class differentiation.

Firstly, land tenure for indigenous peoples, urban settlers, farmers and titles for New Villagers who have used their land for years should be settled once and for all instead of being given out only as election candy to a few at each election. Only then will landowners have the incentive to develop their land or enterprises to the benefit of the whole nation. To regulate rent and regularize the relation of landlord and tenant, there should be instituted a Rent Tribunal to ensure fair rents for tenants and landlords.

Secondly, regazette forests that have been degazetted and rectify all the despoliation by the old regime. Allegations of corruption in these development projects involving permanent forest reserves and wildlife reserves should be investigated and the culprits brought to book. Halt all projects involving destruction of hills and forests and gazette all possible green lungs in the state.

Thirdly, introduce local government elections as a priority and bring services including education, housing, health, transport, places of worship and burial/cremation grounds under the purview of local governments. Local Education Authorities should be brought back as a means not only to meet the needs of the various ethnic communities but also as an effective way to stop the politicization of education. Allocation for the various services including the different language-stream schools would then be on the basis of proportionate NEED.

Fourthly, each state under Pakatan Rakyat should implement a State Water Policy as an example for the other states. This would incorporate water conservation; water demand management through pricing and fiscal measures; re-piping; cleaning up rivers and preserving our natural water catchments. All new water supply projects should be halted in view of this state water policy and until proper evaluation and peoples’ views have been heard.

The recently announced steps by the PR-run Selangor State Government not to charge for the first 20 cubic metres of piped water from 1 June 2008 and to compensate the private water concessionaire SYABAS smacks of a populist measure that ignores water demand management. This is disastrous for water conservation.

To inculcate a reading public and foster urban community centres, there should be excellent libraries in every town and city. We should aim toward having at least one good museum in every state, and gazette as many heritage buildings as possible.

Priority should be given to lifting the livelihood of the poorest in the state, especially the indigenous peoples, plantation workers, urban settlers, and farmers; more facilities for women, young persons, children and the disabled; a system of mean testing to ensure that the poorest are helped and a sliding scale of diminishing assistance for those higher up the scale. Throughout this exercise, emphasis should be on empowering the communities concerned and encouragement of self-help.

Awarding of scholarships should be based on merit although consideration should be given to under-represented groups, while grants and loans should be based on means testing according to a sliding scale of affordability.

A new housing policy would ensure decent housing for the lower income groups and adequate compensation for those who have to make way for new housing or development projects.

To break from the discrimination under the Barisan Nasional, we want a truly multi-cultural policy through adequate allocations and encouragement to all cultures and language streams. Thus, state governments can compensate for the federal government’s discrimination against Chinese and Tamil schools in terms of financial allocation by providing much-needed assistance.

Another Malaysian institution that badly needs reform is RTM, that public broadcasting station belonging to all Malaysian tax payers but which has been treated all these years as a propaganda appendage for the government-of-the-day. Not only that, its coverage of the recent general elections was appalling for its failure to provide prompt up-to-date results. Neither has its radio and television entertainment ratings ever been its strong points. It is time we had a public broadcasting corporation that commands our respect and trust for its neutrality, professionalism, and entertainment value.

The first thing to do is to sever its control by the Information Ministry. In terms of its organizational structure, the British Broadcasting Corporation is a model we could follow. It has a Board of Governors with trustee members who are seen to be independent and respected by all, and an Executive Board with directors who report to the Director-General. Needless to say, the DG is a person who is seen to be competent, fair and independent.

An independent RTM has to stand up to political pressure and commercial pressure. Considering that it is advertisement-free, there is no reason why it cannot compete with the commercial radio and television stations for listeners and viewers.

The current Malaysian commercial radio is just full of pop music in different languages. It lacks accurate information, educational for a and variegated entertainment. RTM could be providing interesting current affairs and local news programmes as well as showcasing Eastern and Western music other than pop music.

We look forward to the day when we read about the fact that RTM has become the most trusted broadcaster in Malaysia and not the least trusted, as has been the case for decades!

From Race to Class
As communalist politics become progressively discredited in these days of hope, the real issues of class will most certainly rise to the fore. In the short period of the existence of the new PR-run state governments, we have already seen several measures and pronouncements which have dented our hopes.

First, we saw the squabbles within the new Pakatan Rakyat over the choice of Mentris Besar and their deputies. In the process, they passed the buck to the sultan to play the role of executive ruler instead of constitutional monarch. This was a regressive step by the peoples’ representatives.

Then there were populist measures to waive summonses by the Penang and Kedah state governments. The respective Chief Ministers have taken upon themselves the role of feudal chiefs with the powers to grant amnesty to law breakers.

The new Penang state government has also pandered to business interests and reneged on pledges to enlarge NGO-representation in the local councils. It remains to be seen whether they will rule in the interests of workers, farmers, urban settlers and consumers.

The new Selangor State Government, in a similar attempt at populism declared soon after coming to power that it would impose a tax on migrant workers “in the national interest”. The principle of workers’ solidarity seems to be lacking in the political principles of Pakatan Rakyat!

These are all indicators that the struggle for a progressive society still lays ahead of us. Within the Pakatan Rakyat, the politics of opportunism is still prevalent as pointed out above and also with the party elite monopolizing federal seats and state seats in the same term and with no fixed term set for the party leader.

Thus, while we celebrate the last days of racist politics in our country, we would do well to be vigilant in the struggle to make Malaysia truly democratic, free and just for all Malaysians, and especially for our working masses.

*******

Original article can be found on the SUARAM website.

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