Thinking Allowed: Merdeka! Merdeka!

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It’s Independence Day celebrations again for the 49th time. And if you’re a patriot, you should have put up the Malaysian flag outside your home, at your work place, on your car, etc. And if you’re truly red, white and blue, with yellow crescent and a 13-pointed star, you should have helped to paint the longest Jalur Gemilang in Tanjung Bungah, or put together the largest Jalur Gemilang made up of coloured cards. Or decked your bull and bullock cart in national colours. For as the deputy PM has declared: ‘Merdeka cuma bererti jika kita kibarkan Jalur Gemilang dengan cara masing-masing’ ('Independence is only meaningul if we fly the national flag in our own way').

Merdeka, in fact, is only partially about the flag. Most importantly, it is about our Freedom and Independence. And unlike during British colonialism, we should now be celebrating not only our Freedom but a system of government that is accountable and responsible to the people, transparent in all its dealings. And you would also expect politicians would no longer resort to race-baiting, least of all to cover-up their shortcomings.

In good faith? 

Tell that to the Menteri Besar of  Selangor. Initially denying that his officers had signed away outdoor advertising rights to a private company, he soon changed his tune to admit that some such original contract restricted to the building of pedestrian bridges had been expanded to include gantries, billboards and other forms of outdoor advertising. Noticeably angry with his officers when he made the admission, he announced that the agreement would be ‘suspended’; only to change his mind, again, that ‘no action will be taken against the officers involved.’ For they had signed the agreement ‘in good faith’ with the intention of speeding up the building of the pedestrian bridges. They were ‘technically right though morally wrong’. With that, he declared that ‘the matter was now close’.  In fact, the expansion of the contract involved expanding the value of the contract as well. Talk about accountability and transparency. One smells a rat here. In the spirit of Merdeka, we support the call by a group of Malaysians for a thorough investigation by an independent panel of citizens to get to the truth.

Come to think of it, the independent panel might also want to look into the destruction of 1,200 hectares of forest in Shah Alam, next to the Bukit Cahaya Agricultural Park – still no action taken against those responsible for allowing the 35-odd developers to push ahead because perhaps the officers concerned acted in ‘good faith’? Or how about looking into the controversial construction of the ‘Exco Village’ in Section 7, Shah Alam, its 10 bungalows, swimming pool and clubhouse reserved for the exclusive use of Selangor’s councillors and senior officers? Or how about that project to construct the ‘Sepang Gold Coast’ which involved a joint venture between Permodalan Negeri Selangor and Sepang Bay Sdn Bhd that would have resulted in a ‘massive holiday paradise with a Jurassic theme park’, even a ‘replica of Venice’, which, thank heavens, was scaled down to a project of holiday chalets because the prime minister, in post-tsunami mood, was concerned that hundreds of acres of mangrove swamps would be destroyed? Then there’s that study tour to Egypt in 2005 – to look at best practices in public accounts there (yes, in Egypt!) – that the Selangor Public Accounts Committee attempted. Whose cock-and-bull idea was this? What a Merdeka it would be for those in Selangor if they could be freed from such a colonial-style, wasteful, non-transparent government.

READ MORE:  The post-Merdeka ‘Malayanisation’ of the civil service

Merdeka in our universities? 

And what of our public universities? Despite review after review by each in-coming new minister of education, the students are still controlled by AUKU (Universities and University Colleges Act). Why, the new batch of students in 2006 were still required to raise their hands to recite the ‘Aku Janji’ in a mass ceremony during their orientation week.

An example of the type of student leaders we are producing can be gauged by what occurred on 17 July in Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM). An all-male group mostly belonging to the UPM student council intimidated another group of students (including several females) that called themselves the Students Progressive Front for setting up a desk during orientation week to help new students. Even if the group was not a formally registered student organization, why was it necessary to prevent them from providing a service to new students? Let alone manhandle members of the group and verbally abuse them ‘Keluar!’, ‘Balik!’ ‘Belah!’  ('Get out!')  Were the UPM student representatives acting like thugs or were they ‘merely singing and cheering’ as concluded by the committee set up by the UPM VC to investigate the episode? Accordingly, the VC has ‘denied any bullying’ took place and would let off those students involved after advising them. In the mood of Merdeka, we support the call by the Students Progressive Front that an independent committee of neutral people be set up to determine the truth of the matter.

Not just local students

It does not appear, however, that irresponsible behaviour is the purview of products of our local universities. After all, those members of the Progressive Front are our local students too. Instead, one can graduate from the most prestigious of foreign universities, and still act politically irresponsible. Ask Tony Blair about his foreign policy and toadying to George Bush. Or ask the deputy UMNO Youth leader. Here was Khairy Jamaluddin, one of the best and brightest of young Malaysians, accused of having benefited economically from his position as Pak Lah’s son-in-law: the case at hand was his purchase of a tranche of shares from a listed company with a loan which he had been offered by persons associated with the company. To stop further unsubstantiated allegations, he did the right thing, namely, sell off all those shares that he had recently acquired, apparently at a loss.

READ MORE:  Mission impossible: How Tunku and the civil service raced to prepare for Merdeka

Before one could praise him for his magnanimity, perhaps to divert attention from himself, he turns to race-baiting:  the Chinese would take advantage of any weakness in UMNO (caused by the on-going spat between Tun Dr Mahathir and PM Abdullah Badawi) to make demands. When criticised by his BN counterparts, the MCA and Gerakan Youths, for his remarks, he merely responded that he did not intend to hurt the feelings of the Chinese and had been misunderstood. UMNO Youth chief Hishammuddin defended his deputy, saying ‘the remark was not uttered in bad faith’. Does this mean it was uttered ‘in good faith’ like the Selangor MB had also opined of his officers?

Tellingly, Hishamuddin as BN Youth leader, then announced that certain issues recently raised in public should no longer be discussed by the Youths. They include: ‘matters related to apostasy, the Inter-Faith Council, dialogues relating to religion, the proposal on rotation of the Penang chief minister’s post, the position of Malays in Penang’ and even ‘Khairy’s statement’. And, oh, Hishammuddin also ‘clarified’ that there was nothing wrong in his waving the keris at last year’s UMNO Youth Assembly ‘as long as it was a symbolic gesture’. He went on: ‘The young people today no longer see it as a symbol to uphold ketuanan Melayu’. Even Penang Chief Minister Koh Tsu Koon, he remarked, had waved a keris at a recent function in Penang! Why ‘Give me a kungfu sword and I will have no problems waving it too’, he concluded. So you see, it’s not a problem of local graduates. Indeed, with ‘Don’ts’ like these, and leaders like them, no wonder our Merdeka is so much about the flag.

READ MORE:  Apa bendanya merdeka?

Confused

Information minister Zainuddin Maidin, for his part, has a knack for quotable quotes because he likes shooting from, ugh, his mouth. At a time when there has been some internal squabbling within UMNO as well as between the component parties of the ruling BN, the good minister warned critics not to expose the weaknesses of the Abdullah administration because to do so, he thundered, would be tantamount to baring the weaknesses of the Malays.
 
And what are these so-called weaknesses all about? Well, it’s only about ‘the Malays (who) thrive under the crony system and (that) the transfer of power and administration essentially means the transfer of cronies’. Abuse of power and misappropriation of funds were bound to happen under the crony system, Zainuddin emphasised matter-of-factly, as if assuring the Malay community that such a practice was not really unusual or unethical.
 
It looks like Zam has no grasp of what good governance really means. More than that, he seems adept at transferring the sins of cronies of the ruling party to the Malay community as a whole without even batting an eyelid or blushing.
 
Indeed, his statement also implies that he only perceives Abdullah Badawi as prime minister of the Malay community, not of the entire Malaysian population. We’ve attained 49 years of political independence and yet there are politicians, worse, ministers, who still think like the proverbial frog under a coconut shell.
 
Incidentally, doesn’t Zam’s statement contradict the warning issued by deputy premier Najib Razak to the Malay community not to cultivate a ‘hulur’ (or stretching out the hand) culture? But that might not matter much given that the Information Minister often contradicts himself and others.

A nanny concern

The nanny state of Singapore has recently expressed its concern over dissent that’s brewing in countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Its Prime Minister Lee was worried that this might affect “the climate of ASEAN”.
 
It is hardly surprising that Singapore had such knee-jerk reaction given that it brooks no dissent and criticism of the present Lee administration. To be sure, the island state across the causeway (that was supposed to be connected by a crooked bridge, remember?) has been so used to the idea of “democratic calmness” that a street demonstration of say, three people, in protest against the US invasion of Iraq, was seen as jeopardising “national security”.

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