Back to the future: Returning to the dark days of BN?

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Muhyiddin Yassin's coalition - Photograph: Bernama/Malay Mail

The Perikatan Nasional government appears to be regressing to the repressive tactics used by the Barisan Nasional administration in the past, Henry Loh writes.

Since 10 June, the country has been placed under a recovery movement control order until 31 August. We are in the middle of this period now, and daily updates on the number of Covid-19 infections suggest the pandemic is under control – but it is far from over.

Official figures record an impressive recovery rate of over 97% for known and recorded cases of Covid-19 infections. The number of deaths attributed directly to this dreaded virus now stands at 123.

To put this in perspective, the global number of recorded cases now stands at 15 million people, with over 600,000 having succumbed to this deadly disease. The US alone has four million cases of Covid-19 infections, with 144,000 deaths.

As concerned and responsible folk, we need to take serious heed of these figures and remain vigilant, taking precautions such as wearing face masks and avoiding crowded places. A casual observation of behaviour in public places such as markets, coffee shops and restaurants suggests that people are starting to relax, perhaps believing the worst is over and life can get back to pre-Covid-19 times. Such an attitude could be fatal, and we should not let down our guard.

Due credit ought to be given to the authorities for constantly issuing reminders to the public to remain cautious and adhere to standard operating procedures to minimise the risk of being infected and infecting others.

Many of us will recall that the movement control order in Malaysia was first implemented on 18 March by the PN government led by Muhyiddin Yassin. The PM had only been sworn in on 1 March, hence the new government had been in charge for just over two weeks before taking this important decision to impose a lockdown or partial lockdown of the country.

Reviewing the steps taken so far, many would agree that the PN government, with the able support of the director general of health and his team, has done a commendable job of controlling Covid-19 infections and curtailing its spread so far. The moot question would be, could the previous Pakatan Harapan government have handled and managed the pandemic just as well or better than the PN?

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Apart from benefiting from PN’s competent and resolute handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in Malaysia, people have, over the past four months, been able to observe the authorities’ management of other important issues – which brings into question the style of governance we can expect from this, at best, shaky coalition.

For the record, the PN government is holding on to power with a tiny 113-109 majority in Parliament. It is a slim majority, and it is not difficult to imagine how precarious Muhyiddin’s position is. This may explain – but certainly not justify – some of PN’s moves since coming into power.

With PN in power, civil society and rights groups seem to have to work a little harder to challenge some decisions that are being made that are detrimental to democracy and the principles of good governance.

One example was the decision to hold a one-day Parliament meeting on 18 May 2020. Having knowledge of the PN’s plan to hold only a one-day meeting, Aliran launched an online petition asking netizens to support the call for a longer, more meaningful meeting of Parliament so that MPs could engage in important constructive debates and discussions. At that time, other countries had already shown that Parliament could be convened despite the coronavirus threat.

Over 75,000 people signed the petition, but PN went ahead with the meeting, which lasted just a couple of hours. For many of us, PN appeared too afraid and not confident it could convincingly defeat a vote of no-confidence, which was on Parliament’s agenda.

For the second meeting of the third session of the 14th Parliament, the august house is sitting from 13 to 29 July. Buoyed by the disarray of the PH-plus coalition – mainly due to disagreement over whether Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Anwar Ibrahim or Shafie Apdal should be the prime minister-designate – the PN government is perhaps now more confident and not as threatened as before.

On the first day of this second meeting on 13 July, many witnessed the antics of rogue parliamentarians who blatantly disregarded the decorum of the house with their poor behaviour. The MP for Baling, Azeez Abdul Rahim, hurled a racist remark at the MP for Batu Kawan, Kasthuri Patto and initially refused to retract or apologise for his statement.

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The new Speaker of the House, Azhar Harun, also failed to put his foot down immediately to maintain order in the house. It was only on the next day that he directed the MP for Baling to retract his remarks and apologise to the MP for Batu Kawan. Aliran issued a media statement condemning the boorish and distasteful behaviour of the Baling MP.

Indeed, MPs on both sides of the divide ought to check their behaviour as shouting and talking over each other achieves nothing constructive and wastes valuable parliamentary time. Such uncouth and uncivilised antics degrade Parliament, and the guilty parties appear like circus clowns. Hopefully, the newly appointed Speaker and his two deputies will try to put some order in the house, but one is not too optimistic.

Recently, the director of an NGO, Refuge for Refugees, Heidy Quah, was called by police for questioning over her Facebook post on the alleged mistreatment of refugees at immigration detention centres. She is being investigated under Section 500 of the Penal Code and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998. Aliran issued a statement urging the authorities to stop the intimidation and to allow for freedom of expression.

Civil society is disturbed by this increasing trend of suppressing dissent through the use of oppressive laws. It revives unpleasant memories of the 60-plus years of Barisan Nasional rule, including 22 years under Mahathir’s watch, when repressive and unjust laws were used to oppress, silence and detain dissidents and critics.

Freedom of expression and the free press also suffered a blow when news portal Malaysiakini, along with its editor-in-chief, Steven Gan, was hauled to court because five comments posted by Malaysiakini readers were allegedly in contempt of the judiciary.

The Bar Council has weighed in on this matter and urged the attorney general to revisit his discretion under Article 145(3) of the Federal Constitution. In a statement, the Bar Council highlighted that the law of contempt has been regarded by some common law countries as an “archaic and unnecessary tool to interfere with freedom of expression”. The UK, for instance, has abolished the offence of “scandalising the court”.

In yet another blow to freedom of the press and free media, the government has reacted strongly to an Al Jazeera documentary, Locked up in Malaysia’s Lockdown, on the treatment of undocumented migrants. Instead of countering and proving that allegations made by the undocumented migrants were untrue, the powers that be decided to probe the global news channel for sedition, defamation and improper use of network facilities. The team behind the report were called in for questioning.

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A Bangladeshi national, Md Rayhan Kabir, who was interviewed in the documentary, had expressed his personal thoughts and feelings over the controversial detention of migrant workers. For doing that, the authorities revoked his work permit. This was a blatant violation of his basic human right to speak up and express himself.

Are we to take it that foreign workers should have lesser or no rights to voice their concerns in this country? Are we not all part of humanity? Indeed, we should all unite and challenge xenophobia and not condone it.

A look at some media statements that Aliran and other concerned civil society groups have issued in the past few months suggests that the PN government may be regressing to the oppressive and repressive tactics used by the Barisan Nasional administration in the past. The police also appear to be more active in calling up activists for questioning.

Meanwhile, Malaysians are waiting with bated breath for the outcomes of the various ongoing corruption cases involving politicians and related parties such as Najib Razak, Rosmah Mansor and Zahid Hamidi. Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz has had his money-laundering charges dismissed after he reached a settlement deal with the attorney general. About two weeks later, former Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman also had his money-laundering charges dropped. Are we to expect more such decisions, as queried by Rama in his article “Are the floodgates being opened for others to escape?

We expect the PN government to do much better in upholding justice, freedom and equality. Malaysians deserve a government that values integrity and abhors corruption. Civil society will not sit quietly by if there is abuse and misuse of power.

In the next general election, all Malaysians will once again need to decide wisely and choose leaders who can take Malaysia forward by adopting good governance principles.

Henry Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
21 July 2020
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