While it would be easy to be discouraged by the narrow Old Politics of race and religion, Francis Loh draws hope from the continuing emergence of a more inclusive, cause-oriented New Politics.
Dear Aliran members and friends
It is a pleasure to see all of you again. I welcome especially those of you who have come from outside Penang. Many of you were also present at the Fund Raising Dinner when we were in celebratory mood. We had lovely food that night, were entertained by dancers and singers, enjoyed the antics of the Aliran Singers, and heard a wonderful speech by Dato’ Ambiga.
This morning, I want to focus on more mundane political matters; on the political goings-on in our country. At first glance, it appears that things are worsening, or at best, nothing has changed. I shall share with you about some of these frustrating and disheartening events and issues.
However, I then want to look at the less apparent structural changes to our political economy. I argue that change has been occurring, and that we are now on the threshold of a New Politics. Viewed in this way, much of the current controversy and political goings-on that arise, due to these issues, is because this New Politics which wants to grow and expand is challenging the Old Politics that refuses to go away.
And thirdly, I want to highlight the role of CSOs or NGOs like Aliran in this transition from Old to New Politics.
Nothing has changed at first glance
The Najib government has repealed the ISA and Emergency Ordinance. But then they started using the Sedition Act and to a lesser extent Sosma to arrest and charge critics, social activists and members of the Opposition. From 2013 to Sept 2014, 20 people were charged. Before this, between 2011 and 2012, only two persons.
And while they go charging all these Opposition leaders and independent-minded intellectuals and academicians, they do not touch someone like Ibrahim Ali, who had called for the seizing and burning of Malay-language Bibles. The government has also stated that no action would be taken against the FT Umno Youth chief (Mohd Razlan Muhammad Rafii) for threatening to burn down the DAP HQ. Also, the police have stated that they will not investigate the PJ Utara Umno deputy division chief (Mohamad Azli Mohemed Saad) for sedition, although he had called for the closing of all vernacular schools.
The prime minister has been going on and on about 1Malaysia, about how his government practises moderation, and that he wants to lead a global movement of moderates. Yet we see that it is not just Perkasa, Perkida, Martabat and Isma that are whipping up Malay ethno-religious sentiments. His own Umno party members and his Umno-BN government are also doing that.
It appears that they want to keep us divided. For if we cross ethno-religious boundaries, what would then be the rationale to have an Umno, an MCA, an MIC? Cakap tak serupa bikin!
The point to draw from this discussion is not that we want the government to resort to the use of its arsenal of coercive laws like the Akta Hasutan. Aliran is part of Gerakan Hapuskan Akta Hasutan. We were also part of the Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA in the past.
But we can’t help observing who is fanning these ethno-religious sentiments and the inconsistency in the application of the law.
Erosion of confidence in institutions
There is also the erosion of confidence in the people who are supposed to uphold the laws. There is so much gossip about this and that judge and the widespread notion that the higher one goes up the judicial ladder, the lesser our chances of getting a fair trial. The rakyat’s confidence in the judicial system has been shattered by many judicial decisions in past decades. The popular belief is that the judicial system, rather than being autonomous and a check over the Executive, has been politicised and compromised!
As well, nothing seems to have changed, or perhaps things have got worse, ever since the first cases of ‘body snatching’ and disputes over the custody of children (between spouses, one of whom would have converted to Islam), were highlighted in the media more than ten years ago.
In the most recent case, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) has refused to act against a Muslim convert who was ordered by the civil court to return his children, whom he had kidnapped and converted to Islam, to his wife. Instead, the IGP disputed the order on the grounds that the Muslim father had been given custody of the children by the Sharia court. If the IGP refuses to follow the letter of the law, what does it say to the ordinary rakyat? Remember the dictum: Justice must be done and seen to be done!
Yes, confidence in the police has eroded, no doubt about this. In this regard, we also hear about deaths in police custody, which appear to be occurring more often than before. The police responsible for interrogating and put in charge of the detainees hardly ever need to stand trial after an investigation into the deaths in custody have been conducted. Often, the blue-black patches and other marks of beating are ridiculously explained away as having been caused by the detainees themselves. The police officers in charge of these people who died in custody seem to have impunity.
Some short remarks about the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC): who among us has confidence in this institution? Why has it not caught any big-shot involved in the illegal logging business which current Sarawak chief minister Adenan Satem has condemned publicly just weeks ago? The problem has been in existence for decades!
And what about the illegal farms apparently cultivated by illegal migrant workers which led to the floods and a few deaths in Ringlet, Camerons Highlands? We don’t see the MACC springing into action there.
Rather, they have focused their attention to go after people like Teoh Beng Hock, a small-time aide to an opposition leader, leading to his most unfortunate death. Significantly, no one from the MACC has been charged or punished.
Looks as if the MACC officers can also have impunity!
There was also the attempt to reintroduce local government elections. The Penang government and our own former president, P Ramakrishnan, had taken the federal government to court on the grounds that denying us this third vote is unconstitutional. They had a legal team of among the best constitutional law experts to argue their case. Predictably, that suit has been dismissed.
Life gets tougher for workers
A third area of concern is employment and the livelihood of the rakyat. Workers rights have also been trampled on.
Workers dismissed for one reason or another have been refused retrenchment benefits by the factories concerned, on the grounds that they were not employed by the factories, but by third party labour contractors. A related problem is that workers who try to unionise continue to be dismissed, and this occurs in spite of the various laws enacted to provide for worker rights.
The minimum wage legislation has been passed. The Malaysian Trade Unions Congress has complained that many employers have not complied with the law. Yet the BN government has not gone after these employers. They have only encouraged the employees affected to file a complaint.
We won’t delve much into the worsening economic situation. But the pending introduction of GST and the adoption of the TPPA, no doubt, will lead to a further tightening of ordinary Malaysians’ belts.
Slowly but surely, the government has been withdrawing the so-called subsidies of basic commodities such as petroleum. The result has been an increase in the price of basic necessities and services, not only of petroleum.
Meanwhile, the costs of health care services, public and school bus transport, and housing and rentals continue to rise. And they think that BR1M and other 1-this and 1-that handouts will pull us through, and even appease us.
I could go on-and-on about these and other problems, for example in the educational sector, that are occurring. But we don’t have time for this.
Rise of New Politics
Instead, let’s look at the less apparent positive developments. We must not forget that change has been occurring in our country. And it has blown in New Politics. Many of the specific problems and/or controversies that I highlighted earlier, pertain to an increasingly serious struggle between Old Politics and New Politics. We must be clear about this!
We cannot forget that some 51 per cent of the electorate voted for change in GE13 on 5 May 2013. This New Politics has resulted in the virtual demise of the BN coalition. The BN had to depend on its partners in Sabah and Sarawak, the so-called ‘fixed deposit’ states, for it to win a majority of seats in Parliament. Indeed, there is really no BN anymore, only Umno.
The arrival of New Politics is not to be measured by simply referring to electoral results and the formal political process. It has also to do with structural changes to our economy and society.
As a result of globalisation, the Malaysian economy and society has been transformed as never before. Manufacturing and services are the largest contributors to our GDP, no longer agriculture and mining (except for petroleum).
Malaysia’s educated, globally connected middleclass has been estimated at perhaps 40 per cent of the population today. This growth and consolidation of the middleclass was due to that rapid economic growth which has occurred over the last 30-40 years. And because of the implementation of the NEP, the second prong of which sought to restructure society such that race would no longer be associated with occupation, this middle-class is represented by all ethnic groups.
In turn, this middle class has impacted on our hitherto ethnic-based politics in new ways – formed new cause-oriented NGOs such as the women’s groups, environmental groups, human rights groups; radicalised our performing arts; campaigned for indigenous peoples and migrant workers rights; came out to walk for Hindraf, Himpunan Hijau and Bersih and Bersih 2.0. Ultimately, they began to support the formation of the new Opposition coalition too.
Our economy has transformed. Our society has been restructured. Surely, our politics too has begun to move from Old Politics to New Politics?
It is in this regard that I envision an emerging struggle, not between Umno-BN and Pakatan per se, but between this New Politics, which calls for more CAT-like government and crosses ethno-religious boundaries, and the horrible Old Politics, characterised by racism, cronyism, widening socio-economic disparities (nowadays especially pronounced within each ethnic group).
And our Youth seem to read this writing on the wall better than most, perhaps due to the new IT and social media!
Viewed in this manner, the caustic and shrill voices of Perkasa, Perkida, Isma, Martabat, and of Dr M, the born-again advocate of Ketuanan Melayu, belie the fact that their notion of an exclusivist Malaysia is on the decline.
Towards an autonomous public sphere
Having a strong opposition coalition like Pakatan Rakyat (PR) is a positive development. But it does not necessarily usher in New Politics. In fact, we saw in the case of the Selangor MB fiasco how the PR component parties can be divided not only among themselves but within each of them – and not on account of any major policy difference. Rather, there were competing inter-party and intra-party ambitions and interests.
That said, the incredible thing about the PR is that it has lasted this long for it has been carried by the wave of New Politics! But the PR must not forget that it is only a work in progress. It needs to consolidate itself which clearly it has not done enough.
For if the PR component parties are going to be an alternative government, they must consult and debate with one another more; give and take more; curb individual party ambitions in order to achieve more common ground. And of course, consult the rakyat too. By not thrashing out their differences, by not recognising that they were only a work in progress, they made themselves vulnerable to Umno’s manipulations as in the lead up to the Selangor MB crisis. In this regard, the rakyat have been disappointed.
In spite of the PR’s weaknesses and failings, I believe that a change of government in Putrajaya and for a two-party system must be supported. In turn, these developments will facilitate more responsible, more responsive and CAT-like governments, regardless of who is in power. Most voters in Penang, perhaps also in Selangor, will acknowledge that certain CAT reforms have been realised. The governments have been more competent, accountable and transparent than the previous BN one, which lorded over the rakyat for 50-odd years. But there is a long way to go, yet!
Perhaps the more important thing about pushing for a two-party system with alternating governments (which is very normal in a true democracy) is that it will allow for consolidation and expansion of the autonomous public sphere, the space that falls outside of the control of the government, the political parties, the foreign and local capitalist-dominated private sector.
It is a space for civil society groups such as Aliran to thrive on – to have our say, to spread alternative ideas about participatory democracy and sustainable development with equity, for us to spread cooperation with others of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, to celebrate our differences!
This was what Aliran Monthly was about: a monthly site to challenge the dominant political, social and economic development ideas espoused by the powers that be. We also attempted to be a source of critical thinking and alternative analysis.
And although we have produced our last issue of the AM, we will continue to play the role of critically thinking and analysing current affairs, both the more apparent mundane events and controversies, and less apparent structural changes in our political economy, via our website aliran.com, our facebook, and our tweets. Lest we forget, for Aliran and all those wishing to consolidate and expand this autonomous public space, our struggle is also a work in progress.
Projects for 2015
By way of conclusion, I would like to propose that we discuss later some of these specific activities for 2015.
First, in order to ensure that Aliran’s reach into society is increased now that we no longer have the AM, we must design and implement a comprehensive plan on how we want to extend and consolidate aliran.com. A special meeting of Aliran members and friends, especially those who are savvy with operating websites and using social media, must be organised in early 2015. That plan will require much effort, more personnel, hopefully not too much additional funds.
Second, we need to re-launch a new series of talks, discussions and fraternity evenings to reach out to the rakyat, at least in Penang. There are so many issues we need to discuss.
Third, we need to reach out, especially to the youth. We should ensure that we draw them in when we hold the above two events. But we might also want to launch the ‘writing workshops’ that they had expressed interest in when we last worked with youth a year ago.
Fourth, there was a proposal last AGM of initiating a ‘think tank’. One major aspect of the think tank is to ensure that we carry out research and write analytical reports on major issues of the day, for example, on educational policy, ethno-religious relations, corruption, the state of the judiciary, media control, sustainable development, federalism, migrant policy (or the absence of one), indigenous people’s rights, labour unions and the working class.
This would ensure that Aliran continues to complement the TAs, e-newsletters and press statements with more in-depth pieces that used to feature as our lead stories in the AM. These longer pieces were a hallmark of the former AM. Maybe, in the longer term, the ‘think tank’ can also make money for the organisation!
Finally, we need to take our ‘From Aliran Monthly to aliran.com’ celebration to the Klang Valley. We need to form a committee, set a date and locate an appropriate venue as early as possible. This will be a fund-raising effort which might also help to enhance our presence in the KL area. It might also prove to be an opportunity for those of us in the Klang Valley to work together.
Let us discuss all of these together during this AGM.
The above presidential address was delivered during Aliran’s annual general meeting on 23 November 2014.