Getting out of our political haze

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Photograph: Malaysiakini

The prospects for change will depend on how the Opposition is able to gain support and partnerships in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak ahead of the next general election, says Johan Saravanamuttu.

A choking political haze shrouds Malaysia with no immediate let-up in sight. I borrow the metaphor used by the recently deposed deputy premier, Muhyiddin Yassin.

What is particularly alarming about our current predicament is the danger of the total emasculation of the political integrity and legal autonomy of major institutions of the state.

In theory at least, Malaysia aspires to a system of governance nominally fashioned to ensure some level of the “separation of powers” of the three branches of government, the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, with a measure of “checks and balances” among these institutions.

Ideally, in such a system, premised on popular sovereignty, unconstitutional actions of the state could always be held in check.

That said, such a system of governance has never been really fully practised in our country, stymied from the outset because of one-party dominance.

Moreover, in 1988, the judiciary was dealt a near lethal blow by the Mahathir government when the Lord President (later known as Chief Justice) was summarily impeached for alleged political interference.

Despite Mahathir adhering to the letter of the law in constituting an international tribunal of judges, who went through the motions of an impeachment process, the damage to the judiciary was irreparable.

The fusing of power in the hands of the executive has continued and has now allowed a repressive state to bend the rule of law with impunity to the extent that it has become a mere chimera.

The latest institutions to suffer the fate of executive abuse are the attorney general’s chambers, including the office of the attorney general itself, and the central bank, Bank Negara, along with the fiduciary autonomy of its governor.

Given this political reality, it won’t be at all surprising to see that the motion of censure tabled by Wan Azizah, the leader of the Opposition, against prime minister Najib Abdul Razak in the October-November 2015 sitting of parliament will be shunted aside.

Hypothetically, a vote of no confidence if carried by the majority of the members of parliament obliges the prime minister and his government to resign. But few expect such an eventuality now or in the near future, given the prime minister’s grip on the lawmakers of the ruling coalition.

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All indications are that the Speaker of Parliament, Pandikar Amin Mulia, who was voted in by a 133-89 majority of lawmakers in June 2013, will not countenance a vote of confidence on the prime minister.

In some Westminster systems, speakers are rotated among political parties but Malaysia has opted for a system that has ensured that the ruling party has full control of this office. The current speaker has often gone well beyond standard conventions of parliamentary practice in barring certain debates and suspending Opposition members.

The fusing of power in the hands of the executive branch of government over the years has meant that parliament was a mere rubber stamp of the government. DAP leader Lim Kit Siang’s suspension as a parliamentarian for six months using dubious parliamentary procedures is proof of this.

The current crisis has occurred because of the egregious malfeasance and lack of accountability of the present political leadership and the failure of the ruling parties and their self-serving political actors to act ethically to bring the prime minister to book.

This in turn has led to the spiralling cycle in the manipulation of the institutions of government by a beleaguered premier bent on staying in power.

The abuse of institutions has brought about arguably the worst crisis of confidence in a Malaysian government.

It stands to reason that the mounting lack of confidence of the general public, civil society and a majority of the political class on at least one side of the political divide will have to come to some resolution in the not too distant future.

What shape this will take remains an unknown but I will try to spell out a couple scenarios later.

The main issues, as we are all aware is the 1MDB scandal – a loss or debt of RM42bn by a government entity – and the alleged siphoning off of a sum of RM2.6bn into the PM’s private bank account. We need not get into details of this already copiously aired issue in the social media.

The many recent executive actions of the prime minister to stop his critics and detractors will serve to show how the PM’s manipulation of events has emasculated national institutions and made a mockery of democratic political conventions.

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By any measure of reasonableness, Najib Razak should have been removed as prime minister months ago.

Within the prime minister’s own party, Umno, we have seen the following developments:

  • The ignoring of internal party critics, including a former prime minster, a deputy premier and former finance ministers, among others.
  • The sacking of deputy premier Muhyiddin Yassin and other ministers.
  • A court case by an Umno member seeking answers to the funnelling of money into the premier’s private bank account.
  • The detention of a former division head and his lawyer undertaking legal measures locally and internationally to uncover the premier’s alleged financial malfeasance.

Outside the ruling party, we have seen the prime minister take the following actions:

  • The three-month suspension of The Edge Weekly and Daily for investigative stories on 1MDB malpractices.
  • The sacking of the attorney general and the ignoring of the central bank governor’s recommendations to address money laundering related to 1MDB.
  • A litany of sedition charges against civil actors and politicians critical of the government; some 33 sedition cases since 2013.
  • The use of dubious parliamentary procedures to subdue opposition criticism and debate, the six-month suspension of veteran MP Lim Kit Siang being a case in point.
  • The taking of legal action against former MCA president Ling Liong Sik for his critical remarks.

The above is not necessarily an exhaustive list; many other less outrageous actions have been perpetrated by the government to keep the prime minister at the helm.

At the point of writing, the motion of no confidence is likely to be postponed by the speaker to the next sitting if it is heard at all.

Meanwhile, the prime minister-cum-finance minister delivered his feel-good 2016 budget on 23 October 2015 and this is not likely to be voted down even if there is a call for division.

That Najib Razak has not stepped down given the events adumbrated above is a sad reflection that the project of democracy has suffered another setback. It is ominous that new authoritarian politics has emerged, condoned by a ruling coalition under the grip of a leader that has lost all political legitimacy.

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In my reckoning, there are two broad plausible scenarios of change, one in the medium term and one within the time frame of the next general election.

In the first scenario, the intra-party Umno crisis will peak to a point where it could bring about a change of leadership within the ruling party although the fact that the presidential election has been postponed this year makes it highly unlikely.

Former prime minister Mahathir emerging as Najib’s chief critic may seem to be the party detractors’ best bet. But it still begs the question of what the mechanism for the removal of Najib would be. Mahathir is himself a discredited figure, saddled with a history of abuse of power and could easily be ignored by party hacks.

Former deputy premier Muhyiddin Yassin appears to show no gumption for a frontal challenge against Najib; neither does he have the clout, money or numbers to oust Najib, using the mechanism of party elections, assuming one will be held next year.

More serious analysts point to the real chance for change to come in the next general election not due till early 2018. That scenario depends heavily on the strength of a refurbished Opposition, the Pakatan Harapan.

But fragmentation of the old Pakatan and its present in-fighting are far from inspiring. Already Selangor chief Azmin Ali has suggested that the new alliance should not be cast in stone for a Selangor government to remain in place.

One could put a positive spin to this move by suggesting that Pakatan could and should have more flexible tactics of coalition politics and not rule out Pas as an ally now and in the future. The same could be said of other prospective parties as allies on the peninsula and East Malaysia.

Much now hangs on how the Opposition is able to gain support and partnerships in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, with very little time on its side. The state election in Sarawak due next year will provide the arena to craft new strategies to create a more comprehensive and effective challenge to the ruling coalition.

Johan Saravanamuttu
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
27 October 2015

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