2016 – A nerve-wracking repeat of last year?

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Indonesian reformasi activist Mugiyanto was barred from entering Malaysia and immediately deported

Several incidents that have already taken place are reflect on a regime that is nervous and insecure and, in turn, increasingly intolerant of legitimate criticism, laments Mustafa K Anuar.

A belated Happy New Year! This wish is offered to you with much trepidation and caution.

Why? Because we are just into the 14th day of the year, and yet many things have happened which are reminiscent of the troubling and at times nerve-wracking 2015.

In other words, we seem to have started the year on the wrong footing, the very sentiment shared by writer Dharishaan Vengadesan.

Take the latest incident that involved three Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) members and a Solidariti Anak Muda (Samm) member. They were detained for merely staging a peaceful candlelight vigil outside the Johor Baru Utara district police headquarters to express solidarity with detained PSM central committee member Khairul Nizam Abdul Ghani. Khairul Nizam has since been released. Surely a peaceful candlelight vigil would not give rise to social disorder.

And a few days before that, Indonesian reformasi activist Mugiyanto was barred from entering Malaysia and immediately deported at KLIA2. He was invited by Bersih to speak at their forum on social change. To deprive Bersih the opportunity to hold a civilised dialogue with the activist is indeed an affront to our freedom of expression.

Unfortunate incidents like the above are reflect on a regime that is nervous and insecure and, in turn, increasingly intolerant of legitimate criticism, the exchange of views in the public domain, and dissent. This gives rise to a further erosion of our democratic rights, especially in the wake of the 1MDB financial scandal, criticisms of which is frowned upon by the powers that be.

And it doesn’t inspire confidence in the democratic process of our country when, for instance, Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar announced recently that the country’s police force would “focus on threats from social media this year”.

While we acknowledge the occurrence of some nasty comments in cyberspace, surely this doesn’t merit a deliberate change of priority for the police. As rightly pointed out by The Malaysian Insider editor Jahabar Sadiq, the “real crime is out there, not online”. The fact that even the house of the deputy prime minister’s bodyguard was broken into by machete-wielding robbers doesn’t speak well of the crime situation in the country. And this is three weeks after the house of the deputy prime minister’s daughter was burgled.

Besides, some fear that such prying by the police on social media may have the potential of crossing the line and invading the privacy of social media users. If this invasion of privacy becomes a reality, it would certainly be a setback to whatever democracy that is left in our beloved country. This is because snooping of this nature can be interpreted as giving a blank cheque to the powers that be to interfere in our private lives.

This is not the only problem that is staring squarely at us this New Year.

The gloomy economy has spelt trouble for Malaysian workers. According to the Malaysian Employers’ Federation (MEF), more than 20,000 workers have been retrenched from various sectors since September last year and this trend is set to spill over to this year.

At the same time, the cost of living has soared despite the stubborn assurance by Deputy International Trade and Industry Minister Ahmad Maslan that the GST would actually help to reduce the prices of goods and services in the country. Highway toll rates, for instance, have gone up.

So now Maslan has advised people to take on two jobs to cope with this inflationary trend, leaving Aliran member David Yeoh bewildered.

What is depressing is that the antics of Maslan and his ilk from last year seem to have spilled over into this year. Take the latest public expression that came from Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Minister‎ Abdul Rahman Dahlan, no stranger to controversy himself. In response to the Perak sultan’s criticism of the housing developers’ penchant for building expensive houses, Rahman opined that Malaysia was not a communist country and therefore could not undemocratically force developers to build cheaper houses.

Surely you don’t need to be a communist to be compassionate towards the poor, the needy and the marginalised in society. Let it be known that all revealed religions teach us to be kind and caring towards the poor and the needy. And a roof above oneself is certainly a basic necessity for a decent living, a basic right. It is a weak excuse for the minister’s seeming reluctance to play a pro-active role in providing low-cost housing for the people.

For Penangites, hill degradation has become a cause for concern among many including the Penang Forum group, of which Aliran is a part. It is feared that unchecked and unregulated development could bring about irreversible environmental destruction on the island.

Meanwhile, the politics of ethnicity and religion is still being peddled by certain political actors – and the gruesome implications of this are felt by many in our society. Then, there are the intra-ethnic conflicts, particularly within the Malay community, which have wide repercussions, as observed by Aliran president Dr Francis Loh.

Ordinary Malaysians somehow get entangled in this kind of ugly politics. For instance, kindergarten teacher M Indira Gandhi is still going through her nine-year-old torment of not being able to be united with her children ever since they were converted to Islam.

But, it appears, all is not lost. In an effort to curtail rising ethno-religious tensions and promote religious harmony in the country, religious leaders from the Islamic and Christian faiths came together. Kuala Lumpur Archbishop Julian Leow Beng Kim met with Federal Territories Mufti Zulkifli Mohamad al-Bakri for the first time at the latter’s office.

Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope that 2016 will bring forth some degree of peace, harmony and mutual understanding amongst Malaysians. Like Aliran member Teo Chuen Tick, we can only hope for a better Malaysia this year and beyond.

Mustafa K Anuar

Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
14 January 2016

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