Our broken democracy

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Andrew Aeria looks at the state of our democracy one year after 8 March 2008. What he uncovers is not a pretty picture – much of the abuse of power and nonsense still remains. Electoral democracy, human rights, the judiciary and the media all remain broken. 

March – an extremely refreshing month

When the unlikely opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) realised they had thumped the mighty Barisan Nasional (BN) on 8 March 2008, Pas praised God, ‘Takbir! Allahu-akbar!’ DAP was dumbfounded while PKR jumped for joy.

March heralded a new dawn for democracy after all those dark years of repression, frustration and dashed hopes. After nearly five decades of nationhood, we had had enough. We were tired of Umno/BN’s feudal, non-transparent, non-accountable, and crass attitude towards governance. For far too long, the country had endured nauseating corruption, civil service inefficiency, police impunity, elite hypocrisy, political detentions, religious intolerance, racism and Umno-putera greed.

Even long-time Umno/BN supporters disillusioned with the sheer levels of corruption, lack of leadership and drift within the coalition were not unhappy. For them, it was good that the governing coalition was delivered a big slap. Many hoped that Umno/BN would learn, change their bad habits and renew themselves. Others hoped that PR would reform and renew the five states they now governed.

In our heads and hearts, the delicious thought swirled, “Yes! There is hope now for Malaysia!” We wanted change! A progressive and democratic society! Among others, we wanted a new political culture ‘where feudalism, corruption, nepotism, hypocrisy and double standards are done away with once and for all’. We wanted democratic and governance reforms. We wanted responsive and responsible electoral democracy. We wanted improvement to our human rights and civil liberties. We wanted judicial independence and the rule of law strengthened. We wanted an independent and responsible media.

In other words, we wanted our ‘broken democracy’ fixed.

Yet, one year on, much of the abuse and nonsense still exists. Indeed, as the French put it so exquisitely, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’ or ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same’.

Electoral democracy

We all remember the indelible ink fiasco. Additionally, we have long had serious reservations about ‘phantom voters’, postal votes, the mainstream media’s propaganda, the persistent abuse of government machinery, instant minor rural projects, and gifts and cash handouts to voters and journalists during elections.

In 2004, an extensive two-year nationwide study completed by Ikmas, UKM found that “the Malaysian electoral system and the process of legitimation (sic) coming from it is increasingly under strain”. Lacking credibility, the professional response from the Elections Commission (EC) would have been to improve its act.

But what have they done since March 2008? Nothing! Thus, electoral irregularities continue. Supposedly, the EC cannot act since policing electoral irregularities is not their responsibility. And yet, when it suits their political masters, the EC can act with great creativity even vetoing the right of Speakers to declare vacant a legislative seat as it did in Perak recently.

Then, there is the contemptible behaviour of the four Aduns in Perak who thought nothing of betraying the electorate by defecting (the Umno guy Nasaruddin defected twice!). The honourable thing would have been to consult their constituents, explain their reasons for wanting to defect and obtain consent. But no. They simply defected. And, some suspect, were rewarded financially for doing so.

In the process, they deposed a legitimate government via dubious means and precipitated a constitutional mess. In retaliation, Speaker V. Sivakumar suspended the ‘new BN Menteri Besar’ Zamry Kadir and his whole ‘Exco’ from the legislative assembly. Perak politics is now a farcical circus. Anwar Ibrahim has since revealed in parliament that many other PR MPs and Aduns have also been approached to defect. He talked of bribes and blackmail, of ringgit millions, bullets and kidnapping threats.

And what about local government elections? In February 2005, Lim Guan Eng speaking to DAP leaders said, “We must restore local government elections for the sake of democracy, good governance, rule of law, accountability and transparency.” The DAP and PKR 2008 general election manifestos both listed local government elections as a key promise.

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Today, only Gunung Rapat New Village in Perak has balloted to elect their village chief. Nobody else has done so nor are they encouraged. Instead, every PR state government has given excuses (yawn!) to avoid holding local government elections. PR’s attitude here only imitates the BN’s gravy train of rewarding grubby party cronies with local government appointments instead of allowing the rakyat to freely choose their local government representatives.

Additionally, instead of fulfilling their 2008 election manifesto promises to ensure better living standards, provide a healthy environment for the future generation, and to preserve forests and protect urban green lungs, the DAP/PR Penang state government is reluctant to stop dangerous hill-slope development projects despite having the power to do so. Notwithstanding pressure from the Tanjong Bungah Residents Association, the state government is hesitant about protecting life and property. It’s also ambivalent about securing water catchment resources.

Housing developers continue violating federal government hill-slope guidelines on steep and dangerous (i.e. Class 3 and 4) hill-slopes in Tanjong Bungah and Batu Feringghi. Ignoring the risks to and fears of residents, the Penang government mumbles incoherently about ‘not wanting to be sued’.

In effect, DAP Penang has compromised and become very business-friendly since winning government. It seems afraid to upset developers. Is this because DAP Penang has quietly received donations from developers? What value then should voters place on DAP manifesto promises? Strikingly, the PKR/PR government in Selangor has been unafraid to ban all hill-slope developments. Why the contradiction?

Despite our hopes, electoral democracy remains ‘broken’.

Human rights

Who can forget the cruel Internal Security Act (ISA) being used against MP Teresa Kok, Raja Petra Kamarudin and journalist Tan Hoon Cheng in September 2008? As well, the five Hindraf leaders – M Manoharan, P Uthayakumar, V Ganabatirau, R Kengadharan and K Vasantha Kumar – remain icons of resistance to the heinous injustice of detention without trial. But for how long more? How many more must march shackled in the footsteps of the thousands since 1948 before this wicked law is repealed? Presently ‘at least 50 people are detained indefinitely without charge or trial under the ISA’.

Hindraf remains outlawed. One cannot assemble or speak or identify with the Hindu Rights Action Force. Neither can one wear a Hindraf T-shirt and go visit the PM during his open house Hari Raya lunch as happened last October. That apparently was a ‘disturbance’ and seemingly ‘against the law’.

Neither can one cycle peacefully to parliament in a Jaringan Rakyat Tertindas (Jerit) campaign. When Jerit activists did so over a fortnight last December to highlight the plight of poor workers, food shortages, non-affordable housing, minimum wage demands, opposition to health services privatisation and the repeal of the ISA, they were harassed by police all the way. Throughout the campaign, some 200 detentions were recorded, including about 50 arrests. Apparently, cycling for a cause is not allowed. ‘Thugs’ burnt a few of their bicycles. If only the police showed similar enthusiasm in tackling crime and arresting real criminals, what a safe place Malaysia would be.

The police resist reforms. A Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysian Police was set up in February 2004 over public concerns of human rights violations, abuse of power, corruption and ineffective or unresponsive work practices within the police force. In May 2006, 125 recommendations were made, key being the formation of an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC). Unfortunately, it remains a non-starter. Instead, a toothless version of the IPCMC bill (called SIAP) will soon be tabled in parliament despite it not commanding public confidence.

And what of those thousands of migrants and refugees who come to Malaysia to seek work or to escape violence and political persecution? Instead of receiving succour, nearly all tell ghastly tales of being horribly abused and exploited. Migrant workers are treated like commodities, ‘bought and sold like fish and vegetables’.

They are harassed and extorted (by Rela especially), their passports confiscated. Trafficked like cattle (with women forced into the sex trade by the criminal underworld), they are squeezed for every last drop of their blood. Tenaganita recently alleged that Burmese Rohingyas, some even holding UNHCR documents, are “arrested, jailed and deported, but since they are stateless they are taken to the Thai border and often sold to Thai traffickers”.

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US Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff “are said to be reviewing reports of extortion and human trafficking from Burmese and other migrants in Malaysia, allegedly at the hands of Malaysia government officials”. Remember plantation worker R. Ganesh who starved to death and maid Nirmala Bonat who was hideously tortured? They have gone now but others still suffer sadistic treatment. In ‘a monstrous act of barbarism’, a hundred persons were discovered forced into a 1,000 sq ft shophouse unit only to be released when their manual strength is required for work we are too lazy or too dainty to do ourselves’.

Legal or otherwise, are these workers and refugees not ‘entitled to the same basic human rights as anyone else’? Who protects them?

Despite our hopes, human rights remain ‘broken’.

Judicial independence and rule of law

In 2007, the infamous Lingam Tapes revealed a can of worms about judicial fixing. It sparked a fire-storm of indignation. Demands for judicial reform led to the adoption of the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) bill. Among its key aims are to maintain judicial independence; guarantee transparency and meaningful consultation in judicial appointments; allow stakeholder representation; ensure accountability and outline selection and promotion criteria of judges.

But the JAC does not impress or inspire public confidence. The Bar Council says the JAC falls short and does not even meet its own professed aims. Put differently, judicial independence will remain compromised for the foreseeable future.

The quality of our judiciary is mediocre. It continues to under-perform. And how to erase such perceptions when the Altantuya Shaariibuu murder trial leaves so many questions unanswered and so many crucial persons not summoned to testify? The judge and prosecution team mysteriously got changed earlier on. Statutory declarations are disregarded and evidence ignored during the trial. Certain lines of questioning are blocked. Bala goes missing, Razak Baginda walks free and the two suspects remain masked in court raising suspicions about their true identity. Many bloggers suggest it’s all a stitch-up job.

And what tragedy befell Kugan Ananthan? Healthy when taken into police custody, he was soon dead after ‘a drink of water’. He became another statistic, adding to the 1,535 that have died in custody since 2003. Then, there are those alleged ‘armed robbers’ who get killed ‘after they first shoot at the police’; the latest being the six ‘gold robbers’ in Kulim, Kedah. Whether suspected ‘car thief’ or ‘bank robbers’, are they not innocent until proven guilty? Should they not be tried in court? Instead the Home Minister and police view them as ‘criminals’. Whatever happened to the rule of law? Or are we being vulgarly ruled by law?

Selective prosecution continues. Consider the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency (MACC). Despite media hype, it’s a sick joke. Little has changed. Instead of acting on numerous reports of alleged serious corruption cases, the MACC goes after minnows and PKR. It wants to investigate Speaker V Sivakumar for alleged abuse of power. It wants to charge the Selangor Menteri Besar over a luxury car and a few cows!

No action on the BN’s alleged multi-million ringgit efforts to bribe and bully PKR lawmakers to defect. No action on the Sabah or Sarawak Chief Ministers both of whom are exorbitantly rich, their wealth acquired during their terms in office. Nothing on the allegations of corruption during the Kuala Terengganu by-election, Umno money politics or the RM4.6 billion Port Klang Free Zone scandal. No investigation of Samy Vellu’s multi-million ringgit corporate shenanigans involving MIED and AMIST. And certainly no case on DPM Najib despite allegations surrounding submarines and Sukhoi aircraft.

And then there is Bukit Antarabangsa. Another major hill slope collapse and more deaths. God and the rain have been blamed (again). The tragedy likely occurred because the local authority and developers cut corners and closed one eye to wrong-doing. Just like Highland Towers. No respect for the ‘rule of law’. But hey, this is Malaysia. So, nobody is going to get prosecuted and certainly not the developer. Instead, Elizabeth Wong, who stood up against greedy condo developers by pushing through a PKR state government ban on hill slope development in Selangor, is wickedly targeted and hounded from office.

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Despite our hopes, judicial independence and rule of law remains ‘broken’.

The media

Our government-owned and politically-linked mainstream media (MSM) are, to put it mildly, trashy and compromised. A scrutiny of the MSM during March 2008, the Permatang Pauh and Kuala Terengganu by-elections will confirm this. A quick perusal of the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) website [www. cijmalaysia.org/] will inform readers about the MSM’s backward state. Sometimes it’s hard not to compare our sycophantic MSM with previous lowlife media like Soviet TV news and newspapers Pravda (lit. The Truth) and Izvestia (lit. The News).

This was seen again recently in the way the MSM covered the story involving the perverse distribution of surreptitiously taken private photos of Elizabeth Wong. Here, our MSM’s sinister game of gutter journalism and gutter politics revealed itself. Malay Mail led the charge on 16 February when it splashed an unrelated photo of a bare-backed Formula One model on its front-page next to bold headlines, “Fury over bedroom invasion”.

Prominent blogger Anil Netto noted, ‘apart from the juxtaposi-tioning of an unrelated picture next to a sensationalist story, the choice of front-page story is revealing’. Further stories of ‘moral outrage’ from Umno Youth president wannabe Khir Toyo (of all people!) followed and were highlighted by the MSM. They played up the photos and cast aspersions on Elizabeth’s character when the crime was its distribution.

Conscientious readers were rightfully disgusted and incensed. Elizabeth Wong has since resigned and Malaysian politics has lost a hard-working lawmaker. Indeed, the old Russian saying about Pravda and Izvestia best reflects the state of our MSM today. “v Pravde net izvestiy, v Izvestiyakh net pravdy” (In the Truth there is no news, and in the News there is no truth).

Suara Keadilan and Harakah are now being targeted. The Home Ministry has seized thousands of copies of both newspapers this year. These confiscations continue despite Malaysia pledging in 2006 to ‘promote a free media, including in cyberspace’. In the recently concluded UN Human Rights Council Periodic Review meeting in Geneva, Amnesty International noted that ‘Malaysia has failed to uphold these pledges to respect human rights, including its commitment to promote a free media, particularly the Internet. Bloggers have been charged under the vaguely worded provisions of the Sedition Act’. A view Raja Petra, Sheih Kickdefella and others would heartily agree.

Thus, despite our hopes, our media remains ‘broken’.

Conclusion

Our hopes for a better society have been dashed yet again, and this time not only by BN but also by PR. Both coalitions have under-performed since March 2008. Frustratingly, despite a looming recession, they are squabbling. They are wasting time and resources. Their conflicts are risking our rice-bowls. There is scant realisation that with government power comes heavy responsibility for the larger interests of the nation. It seems the rakyat’s interests do not matter. Instead, personal and party interests are being put ahead of the rakyat’s deepening economic woes. Consequently, there is currently a lot of political instability and uncertainty. This is bad for business and wearisome for ordinary folk desperate to make ends meet. ‘The political machinations since the beginning of this year have done little but undermine the will and the fundamental democratic rights of the Malaysian people’. There is already a deepening lack of confidence in the country’s institutions. At this rate, Malaysia runs the real risk of going down the road to becoming a failed state.

So, it is time that we the rakyat take action and put some serious pressure on both BN and PR to improve the quality of their democratic governance. How? I present some ideas in the next issue of the AM.

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