It is crucial that we remain aligned not to political parties, political coalitions or individuals, but to principles of human rights and good governance, writes Prema Devaraj.
This May we saw Pakatan Harapan (PH) completing its first year in government. PH survived and so did we.
There were various analyses on PH’s performance. Some hard-hitting truths were delivered through several brickbats. But equally important was the acknowledgement of the efforts for reform put in place thus far and an understanding of existing threats and weakness which need to be overcome.
Yes, for many, change is still too slow. But the reality is that it will take time to build this country back to where it was before its descent. The team meant to be steering this reform drive definitely needs help. There can be no let up for PH – or civil society, for that matter.
The PH government, now beginning its second year, will have to continue the uphill struggle. It has to be more savvy about the way in which it works and focus on what is really important, including tackling the plight of the bottom 40% of households. It also has to sort out the economy while staying true to the principles of good governance. This includes looking at issues pertaining to sustainable development.
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The month of May saw us remember the May 13 racial riots in 1969. We were reminded of how much our society has matured since then and that our actions should be more measured and rational.
Nevertheless, 50 years on, concerns linger over how we manage our ethnic and religious diversity.
Our writers looked at competing narratives and managing diversity in the new Malaysia, how we can encourage youth to bridge this divide, how we may have to revisit religious narratives to combat violent extremism and whether the old way of thinking – ie solely along ethnic lines – could derail the new Malaysia.
The month of May also saw Malaysians lose a strong ally in the battle for sustainable development with the passing the late Mr SM Mohamed Idris of the Consumers’ Association Penang (CAP). Many of us grew up with Utusan Konsumer in our homes and schools. We remember Mr SM Idris and the stand he took on sustainable development and consumerism, with respect and gratitude.
With reference to sustainable development, Aliran was one of 46 groups which signed the petition against the Penang South Reclamation project, which is a 4,500-acre “three islands” land reclamation project off the southern coast of Penang Island. So far, the petition which calls upon the prime minister to halt the project has collected 30,000 signatures.
The battle for sustainable development in Penang has been on for a number of years now. One wonders what lies in store for Penang given that the controversial Penang Transport Master Plan and the reclamation project have been included as part of the draft Penang Structure Plan 2030, which is now in the process of being gazetted.
Will these projects move forward despite civil society concerns and protestations, at least from some quarters? Who and how will the various guidelines and recommendations, which are meant to have been put in place, be monitored?
Aliran continues to be concerned over the ongoing model of development in the country as a whole. While it is clear that there must be development and plans for the future, these must take into consideration the impact on the environment, the ecosystem, the costs of the project and the impact on people.
We caution time and again against the rapacious greed and profiteering we now see in some of the so-called development projects. Greed and profiteering are not limited to land deals alone but can also be seen when healthcare, housing and education become commodities.
Other environment, land and sustainable development issues were also highlighted by our writers. From the sudden clearing of the Bukit Kledang forests in Perak to the possible reviving of tin mining in the country and to the rights of the Kampung Tasik Cunex Gerik Orang Asli to their native customary land.
In Penang we witnessed the sprouting of young environmentalists as a group of young students gathered to highlight the climate crisis on the day of a second global climate strike. The global climate strike, which aims to try and hold politicians around the world to account and tackle climate change, is obviously gaining some traction among the youth here.
As we continue along the path towards a new Malaysia, it is clear there are differences of opinion on what the new Malaysia should be.
How do we share a common vision if we have different ideologies or frameworks for analysis?
What do we do with policies and decisions (be they from the federal or state governments) that run counter to or are not quite in line with ongoing human rights campaigns, principles of good governance or sustainable development?
What do we do with leaders who are sucked into the trappings of power, with which can come greed and arrogance? These are not imaginary.
For these reasons and more, civil society cannot afford to be complacent if we want to realise a new Malaysia. We cannot afford to keep silent so as not to “provide fodder for the opposition” or keep citing the “big picture” argument or maintain that PH is a “young government”.
Agreed, the federal government is merely a year old, is working as a coalition, is dealing with disastrous leftovers from the previous regime and is battling to manage ethnic and religious discontent – manufactured or otherwise.
But now, after a year’s experience in government, PH leaders should be better equipped. Both the Penang and Selangor state governments are already in their third term.
PH is by no means perfect. But the fact is, PH is now the vehicle which is providing the opportunity for change in this country.
So how does civil society use this opportunity in the best possible way? Yes, PH may not always ‘get things right’ – but brickbats and annihilation over social media may not be the only way to counter this.
Providing constructive criticism, alternatives and ‘strong encouragement’ to do the right thing are equally important. Civil society has to help PH grow and mature into the government we need it to be.
Clearly there are no simple answers or quick-fix formulas for success.
But we can be sure that to get a shared vision of the future going, civil society must have continued engagement with PH, monitor policies, evaluate intended outcomes and give feedback.
We have to listen to different views to understand issues and positions better. But we also have to remain vigilant against abuses of power and guard against the marginalisation of the powerless.
Although there may be issues over ideological orientation, it is important to place emphasis on more pro-people policies especially in areas such as housing, healthcare and education.
Furthermore, the indivisibility of rights must be acknowledged and the importance of building solidarity among various issue-based groups must be encouraged if we are to move together for change.
It is crucial that we remain aligned not to political parties, political coalitions or individuals, but to principles of human rights and good governance – and, above all, to the belief in the value, dignity and equality of each human being. This will help to guide our assessment of issues, the positions we take and our vision for reform on a shared platform towards a better Malaysia.
It continues to be a time of change. It continues to be a challenge.
We have a responsibility to be part of it – to guide it, to steer it – in a responsible manner.
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
31 May 2019