Malaysia: A lost democracy? (Part 2)

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Is Malaysia really lost and broken? People of goodwill must continue to strive to bring about change: we can rebuild the country into a land where we do  not live in fear, but in freedom, says Zaid Ibrahim, in the concluding part of his presentation.

The  founders  envisaged  a  Government  for  all Malaysians. Even Tun Dr. Mahathir spoke about it. One  of the elements of Vision 2020 as envisaged by Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamed was the creation of a united Bangsa Malaysia.  How  can  such  a  vision  be  achieved  if  the Government is not willing to listen to the grievances of a substantial segment of Malaysians? Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad  introduced  the  idea of Bangsa Malaysia  in a speech entitled “The Way Forward”. This is one of nine central  and  strategic  challenges  of  Vision  2020.  Although he only mentioned Bangsa Malaysia once, its use  had  sparked  enthusiastic  debates.  

The  creation  of Bangsa  Malaysia is the challenge of establishing a united Malaysian nation with a sense of a common and shared  destiny.  This  must  be  a  nation  at  peace  with itself,  territorially  and  ethnically  integrated,  living  in harmony and  full and  fair partnership, made up of one Bangsa Malaysia with political loyalty to the nation. Different  meanings  have  been  given  to  that  term Bangsa Malaysia. Many believe  that  it was  intended  to bolster  the  non-Malays  through  the  envisioning  of  a united  country  where  their  cultural  and  religious uniqueness would not be  threatened; Tun Dr. Mahathir in  fact  explicitly  mentioned  this.  On  the  other  hand, some  believe  that  Bangsa  Malaysia  was  just  a  neat reference  to  a Malaysia  united  under Malay  or,  more appropriately, Umno hegemony.

Whatever  the case,  I would like to believe that whilst the government of BN has done little other than pay lip-service to the concept, principally  by  issuing  pandering  slogans,  since  Dr Mahathir left, the country will nevertheless in the future move  towards  a  more  pluralistic  society.  The integration of different ethnic groups  would  occur naturally  through  the  expansion  of  economic life and through the unintended effects of globalization so much so  that  ethnicity will be depoliticised. We  nonetheless need to actively promote efforts at an institutional level if  we  want  this  notion  of  Bangsa  Malaysia  to materialise. The political parties making up government may not want to do so for their own short-term interests but as a whole, the people will call for it.  

This brings us again  to  the democracy  and  the Rule of Law. We will not  succeed  in  promoting,  a  united  country  and  allow for  the  evolution  of  Bangsa  Malaysia  if  we  do  not  subscribe  to  the Rule  of  Law. We  need  the  openness, freedom  and  social  justice  that  will  be  possible  only with it in place and democracy. How do we bring unity to  the  people  if  we  are  not  prepared  to  respect  their dignity?

Economic dimension

To  achieve  the  aspirations  of  the  New  Economic Policy,  Bumiputras  need  to  be  given  thinking  tools  to participate  in  the  global  economy.  At  present  their  attention  is  kept  focused,  almost  on  a  daily  basis,  on race- related  issues even  though  there are serious  issues such  as  the  economy  and  the  lack  of  trust  in  the institutions of government  to  deal with. The  obsession with the Ketuanan Melayu Dotrine has in fact destroyed something precious  in us. It makes us  lose our sense of balance and  fairness. When a certain Chinese  lady was appointed  head  of  a  state  development  corporation, having  served  in  that  corporation  for  33  years,  there were  protests  from  Malay  groups  because  she  is Chinese.

A new economic vision  is necessary, one  that is  more  forward  looking  in  outlook  and  guided  by positive values that would serve to enhance cooperation amongst  the  races. This will  encourage  change  for  the better; to develop new forms of behaviour and shifts of attitudes;  to  believe  that  only  economic  growth  will serve  social  equity;  to  aspire  to  a  higher  standard  of  living  for  all  regardless  of  race.  We  need  to meaningfully  acknowledge  that  wealth  is  based  on insight,  sophisticated  human  capital  and  attitude change. A  new  dynamics  focused  on    cooperation  and competition will spur innovation and creativity.   
 
Some  might  say  that  this  is  a  fantasy.  I  disagree. How  do  we  go  about  transforming  the  culture  and values  of  the Bumiputras  so  that  their  ability  to  create new  economic  wealth  can  be  sustained?  By  changing our  political  and  legal  landscapes  with  freedom  and democracy. Dr Mahathir was  right  to  ask  that Malays embrace modernity. He fell short of what we needed by focusing on  the physical aspects of modernity. He was mistaken  to  think  all  that  was  needed  to  change  the  Malay mindset was science and  technology. He should have also promoted the values of freedom, human rights and  the respect of the  law. If affirmative action  is  truly benchmarked on  the equitable sharing of wealth  that  is sustainable, then we must confront the truth and change our  political  paradigm;  40  years  of  discrimination  and subsidy  have  not  brought  us  closer.  There  is  a  huge economic dimension to the Rule of Law and democracy that this government must learn to appreciate.  

Legal pluralism
 
Relations  between  Islam,  the  state,  law  and  politics in  Malaysia  are  complex.  How  do  we  manage  legal pluralism  in Malaysia?  Can  a  cohesive  united  Bangsa Malaysia be built on a bifurcated  foundation of Sharia and secular principles? Will non-Muslims have a say on the operation of Islamic law when it affects the general character  and  experience  of  the  nation?  This  is  a difficult  challenge  and  the  solution  has  to  be  found.  Leading  Muslim  legal  scholar  Abdullah  Ahmad  an-Na’im is hopeful. He believes that the way forward is to make  a  distinction  between  state  and  politics.  He believes  that  Islam  can  be  the  mediating  instrument between  state  and  politics  through  the  principles  and  institutions  of  constitutionalism  and  the  protection  of equal  human  rights  of  all  citizens.  

Whatever  the formula,  we  can  only  devise  a  system  that  rejects absolutism  and  tyranny  and  allows  for  freedom  and plurality  if we are able  to first agree  that discourse and dialogue  is vital. Democracy and  respect  for  the  rights and dignity of all Malaysians  is  the prerequisite  to  this approach.
 
A  compelling  argument  for  a  constitutional democracy  in  Malaysia  is  that  only  through  such  a system  will  we  be  able  to  preserve  and  protect  the traditions  and  values  of  Islam  and  the  position  of  the Malay  Rulers.  For  a  peaceful  transition  to  true democracy  of  this  country,  one  of  key  issue  that requires care  is  the position of Islam and  its role  in  the political system of the country. In fact I regard this to be of  paramount  consideration.  Although  the  expression Islamic state is heard from time to time, and whilst it is true that Abim, Pas and lately Umno had made the concept a key part of  their agenda,  the areas of emphasis differ and  are  subject  to  the  contemporary  political  climate.

For reasons too lengthy to discuss now, I would say that the  “synthesis  of  reformist  Islam,  democracy,  social welfare  justice  and  equity”  would  be  sufficient  to appease the majority of Muslims in so far as the role of Islam  in  public  life  is  concerned.  This  state  of  affairs could  be  achieved  peacefully  and  without  tearing  the Constitution  apart.  The  progressive  elements  in  Pas, inspired  by  Dr  Burhanuddin  Helmi  in  1956,  are  still  alive. Pas leaders of today who have carried that torch also make reference to a more accommodating vision of Islam that puts a premium on substantive justice and the welfare of the people as major policy initiatives.   
 
Umno’s  approach  (or  more  accurately  Dr Mahathir’s  approach)  to  Islamic  content  in  public policies  was  articulated  in  the  early  1990s.  This however achieved little in changing the political system. His  “progressive  Islam  “was  more  nationalistic  than Pas, and designed to usher new elements of modernity into  Islam.  Science  and  technology were  touted  as  the means  to  defend  Islam  and  the  faith.  The  approach taken was short on the ideas of human rights and social justice,  and  the  Rule  of  Law  and  designed  more  to convince  the  rakyat  of  Islam’s  compatibility  with elements  of  modernity  like  science  and  technology.

Anwar  Ibrahim,  the  present  opposition  leader, articulated  a  brand  of  reformist  Islam  that  was  more individual  centered  and  liberal.  Drawing  its  humanist thought  from  the  great  Muslim  scholar,  Muhammad Iqbal,  Islam  Madani  gave  emphasis  on  human  rights and freedoms. Islam Hadhari came on to the scene just before  the  2004  general  elections  as  another  form  of  progressive  Islam, possibly  inspired by  the  thinking of another  noted  scholar,  Ibn  Khaldun.    Unfortunately, nothing much came out of this effort.    

Preventing conflicts, managing disputes

Whichever  model  or  line  of  thought  that  will find permanence  in  our  political  landscape,  Islamic aspirations  and  ideals  will  certainly  become  an important component  in  the  realm of public policy. To prevent  conflicts  and  ensure  that  various  beliefs  are absorbed  and  accepted  into  the  political  system,  it  is imperative that no force or compulsion is used.   This is where  the merit  of  a  government  adopting  democracy and  Rule  of  Law  becomes  apparent.  The  discussions and  deliberations  of  even  sensitive  and  delicate  issues will make  the  participants  aware  of  the  value  of  ideas and the value of peaceful dialogues.

Managing disputes through a determined, rules-based process will allow for a peaceful resolution of problems. The tolerance shown by the protagonists  in  Indonesia over delicate  religious issues  bodes  well  for  that  country  and  serves  asa useful  illustration  of  what  could  be.  Approached  this way,  Islam  in  the context of Malaysian politics will be prevented  from being as divisive and as threatening as race politics.
 
In  this,  the  issue  of  conflicts  of  jurisdiction  still requires  resolution.  Our  civil  courts  are  denuded  of jurisdiction  to  deal  with  matters  that  fall  within  the jurisdiction  of  the  Sharia  Courts.  No  Court  has  been given  the  jurisdiction  and  power  to  resolve  issues  that may arise in both the Sharia Courts and the civil Courts. The present separation of jurisdictions presupposes that matters will fall nicely into one jurisdiction or the other. However,  human  affairs  are  never  that  neat.  What happens  to  the children of  a marriage where one party converts  to  Islam and  the other party seeks  recourse  in the  civil Court? Or when  the Sharia Court pronounces that a deceased person was a Muslim despite his family contesting  the  conversion? Or where  the  receiver  of  a company is restrained from dealing with a property by a  Sharia  court  order  arising  out  of  a  family  dispute? Where do the aggrieved parties go? I had suggested the establishment of  the Constitutional Court, but  that plea has fallen on deaf ears.   
 
There  is  marked  increase  in  the  use  of  harsh draconian measures  in dealing with political and social issues.  Some  people  say  that  groups  such  as  Hindraf advocate violence and therefore that justifies the use of such measures.  They  may  have  overlooked  the  fact  that violence  begets  violence.  Was  not  the  detention  of  Hindraf leaders under the Internal Security Act itself an act of aggression, especially  to people who consider themselves  marginalised  and  without  recourse?  It  is time that the people running this country realise that we will  not  be  able  to  resolve  conflicts  and  differences peacefully if we ourselves do not value peaceful means in  dealing  with  problems.  

The  situation  has  been aggravated by the absence of an even-handed approach  in dealing  with  organisations  like  Hindraf.  While  I applaud  the Prime Minister for calling on the Indian community  to  reject  extremism,  should  not  a  similar call  be  made  to  the  Malay  community  and  Utusan Malaysia?  I  call  on  the  Prime  Minister,  both  the outgoing  and  the  incoming,  to  deal  with  such  issues fairly.  Start  by  releasing  the  Hindraf  leaders  detained under  the  ISA. The  release would create a window for constructive  dialogue  on  underlying  causes  of resentment.  I  also  appeal  for  the  release  of Raja  Petra from  his  ISA  detention.  He  is  a  champion  of  free speech. His writings, no matter how offensive they may be to some, cannot by any stretch of the imagination be seen as a threat to the national security of this country.

The  Malays  are  now  a  clear  majority  in  numbers. The  fear of  their being  out numbered  is  baseless;  they are not under siege. The  institutions of government are such that the Malays are effectively represented, and there  is no way  the  interest of  the Malays can be  taken away other  than  through  their own weakness and folly. The  BN  Government  must  abandon  its  reworked concept  of  the  Social  Contract  and  embrace  a  fresh perspective  borne  out  of  discussions  and  agreements made  in  good  faith  with  all  the  communities  in  this country.  It  is  time  for  us  all  to  practice  a  more  transparent  and  egalitarian  form  of  democracy  and  to recognise  and  respect  the  rights  and  dignity  of  all  the citizens of this country.  

At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves what it is that will allow us to protect all Malaysians, including the Malays? Good governance is about good leadership; and good leadership is all about integrity. We must have leaders  of  integrity  in  whom  people  can  place  their trust.  If  there  is no  integrity  in  leadership,  the  form of government  is  immaterial  –  it  will  fail.  Integrity  in leadership is the starting point to creating a just and fair society.  Integrity  of  leadership  does  not  lie  only  with the Prime Minister or his cabinet.  It needs  to permeate through  all  the  organs  of  government.

Judges, stick to justice!

A  key  organ  of government,  the one  tasked  to protect  the  rights of  the common man against the excesses of government, is the Court. The Rule  of Law  in a  constitutional democracy demands that the Judiciary be protective of the nation’s subjects  be  they,  I would  say  especially,  the  poor,  the marginalised  and  the minorities.  The  Courts must  act with courage  to protect  the constitutionally guaranteed rights of all citizens, even if to do so were to invoke the wrath of the government of the day. Even though not all Judges will rise to be Chief Justice, in their own spheres they must  show  courage.  For  example,  in  PP  vs  Koh Wah  Kuan  (2007),  a  majority  bench  of  the  Federal Court  chose  to  discard  the  doctrine  of  separation  of powers  as  underlying  the  Federal  Constitution apparently  because  the  doctrine  is  not  expressly provided  for  in  the  Constitution.  

This  conclusion  is mystifying  as  surely  the  court  recognises  that  power corrupts absolutely and can thus be abused. If the courts are not about to intervene against such excesses who is? Checks and balance are what  the  separation of powers is  about.  Surely  the  apex  court  is  not  saying  that  the courts do not play a vital role in that regard?  
 
The  reluctance  of  the  court  to  intervene  in matters involving  the  Executive  is  worrying.  In  Kerajaan Malaysia  &  Ors  v  Nasharuddin  Nasir,  the  Federal Court ruled that an ouster clause was constitutional and  was  effective  in  ousting  the  review  jurisdiction  of  the Court  if  that was  the clear  intention of Parliament. The apex  court  so  readily  embraced  the  supremacy  of parliament even  though  the Constitution declares  itself supreme.  There  is  nothing  in  the  Federal  Constitution that explicitly sets out  the ability of Parliament  to  limit  the  Court’s  review  jurisdiction.  

The  Court  could  have just  as  easily  held  that  as  the  Constitution  was  the Supreme Law,  in  the  absence  of  express  provisions  in the  Constitution  the  Court’s  review  jurisdiction remained  intact.  Is  it  not  possible  that  in  vesting  the judicial  authority of  the Federation  in  the High Courts the  framers  of  the  Constitution  intended  the  review powers  of  the  Courts  to  be  preserved  from encroachment  by  the  Executive  and  Legislature?  In India,  the Supreme Court  has  held on  tenaciously  to  a doctrine of ‘basic structure’ that has allowed it to ensure the  integrity of  the democratic process and  the Rule of Law. Any attempt to denude the courts of  the power  to review  by  amendment  of  the  Constitution  has  been struck down.  
 
The  Rule  of  Law  has  no  meaning  if  judges, especially apex Court  judges, are not prepared  to enter the  fray  in  the  struggle  for  the  preservation  of  human rights  and  the  fundamental  liberties.  Supreme  Court judges in other jurisdictions have done so time and time again. Though it is far less difficult to accommodate the will of the government, that must be resisted at all costs, particularly  where  justice  so  demands.  Only  then  can we say  that Malaysia  is grounded on  the Rule of Law.

To  all  our  judges  I  say  discard  your  political  leanings and philosophy. Stick  to  justice  in accordance with  the law. As Lord Denning reminded us: Justice is inside all of us, not a product of  intellect but  of  the  spirit. Your oath is to  the Constitution;  shield  yourself  behind  it. Without your conviction, democracy is but a concept.
 
I would  like  to say more about  law, democracy and about our beloved country. But time does not permit. In  any  event,  I  have  to  be  careful. The more we  say,  the more vulnerable we become. But my parting message is this: The people of goodwill must continue  to strive  to bring about change,  so  that we can  rebuild  the  trust of all  Malaysians.  From  that  trust,  we  can  rebuild  the country where we  do  not  live  in  fear,  but  in  freedom; that  the  rights  of  all  Malaysians  are  acknowledged, respected and protected by the system of law that is just and  fair.  There  is  no  quest  more  honourable  and no struggle more worthy of sacrifice.

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