Are we a ‘half-past-six’ democracy or what?

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The Solidarity with The Solidarity with The Edge gathering at the Esplanade in Penang on 27 July 2015

In the light of the suspension of The Edge and curbs on elected MPs and civil society activist, Francis Loh looks at the alarming state of Malaysian democracy.

It is wonderful to see so many people present this evening (27 July 2015) – and dressed in black too.

I understand that this is the ‘dress code’ that the media fraternity wears when one of your colleagues gets arrested or is harassed, or when like now, the Home Affairs Ministry clamps down on a particular newspaper or media agency.

Of course, the sub-text of this gathering and of wearing black today is a protest against the government, which is blatantly curbing our freedom of expression, a move intended to kill our democracy.

Indeed, we are here, because we want to protest not just against the suspension of The Edge Financial Daily and its sister paper, The Edge Weekly, and the harassment of The Edge’s chief executive officer Ho Kay Tat and its proprietor Tong Kooi Ong; but also the blocking of local access to the whistleblowing Sarawak Report website by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).

We are further concerned that the government is resorting to the use of coercive laws to prevent non-journalist Malaysians from unearthing and sharing information about the 1MDB financial scandal.

Reportedly, Tong, the owner of The Edge; a group of CSO activists such as Ambiga Sreenevasan, Jannie Lasimbang, Maria Chin Abdullah and Wong Chin Huat; and a group of elected Members of Parliament (MPs) such as Rafizi Ramli, Tony Pua, Tian Chua, Teresa Kok have had travel restrictions imposed on them for reasons unknown. At least one of them has been disallowed from travelling overseas.

Thus far, the managing director of a 1MDB subsidiary, SRC International (now a unit directly under the Finance Ministry), and a second managing director of two construction companies have been remanded for five days and four days respectively. They are to be quizzed for allegedly offering and accepting bribes under sec 17 of the MACC Act and are in MACC custody.

But more prominent businessmen like Jho Low, Nik Faisal Ariff Kamil and Suboh Mohd Yassin, who could certainly shed more light on the transfer of funds from SRC International to private accounts in AmBank, apparently held under the prime minister’s name, have reportedly fled the country.

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It is in this regard that the arrest of a despatch clerk is most amusing. The authorities investigating the financial fiasco, apparently, explained the arrest by stating that they were trying to understand and grapple with the 1MDB fiasco, bottom-up!

Bottom up? C’mon  …

Hullo! This is a country which hardly ever does anything from the bottom-up; it is always top-down! Look at how the federal government has rejected the need to bring back local government elections. Look again at how they have introduced laws and more laws to curb the people’s fundamental right to assemble, to form associations, and to express themselves. The use of the Penal Code, the MCMC Act and especially the Sedition Act these part months to curb what one can express even over social media is a case in point. No, this government has never been interested in doing things from the bottom-up.

Or look at the so-called reforms being formulated to recover our once highly regarded educational system. There is an urgent need to draw in the parent-teachers associations, the boards of schools, and the local communities to get involved in breathing new life into our schools so that they can compete with schools in neighbouring Asian countries.

But, no, our educational system remains highly centralised and controlled top-down by the federal government. There is a clear need to decentralise so that the half a million teachers and administrative staff employees can be mobilised more effectively from the bottom up.

There is no bottom-up process when it is needed. And here, suddenly, when almost RM2.6bn flows into accounts under the PM’s name, the investigators into the 1MDB financial fiasco want to adopt a bottom-up approach.

By the time they move from the bottom to the top, the people they want to get to would have fled. And taken the money with them as well. Maybe they ought to get Interpol to help them locate and extradite the three prominent Malaysian businessmen mentioned earlier.

‘Half-past-six’ democracy?

The Ministry of Home Affairs has offered the reason that The Edge Financial Daily and the Edge Weekly had to be suspended for three months because the two publications’ reporting of 1MDB were “prejudicial or likely to be prejudicial to public order, security or likely to alarm public opinion or is likely to be prejudicial to public and national interest”. There is no specification as to which particular item of the reporting is causing the Home Ministry such anxiety.

Likewise, the MCMC said in a statement that the Sarawak Report website was blocked on the grounds that the portal could “threaten the country’s stability” with its contents that “cannot be verified and is being investigated”. It claims that it was acting after the MCMC had received “information and complaints from the public”.

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More than that, the IGP has further threatened to take action against Opposition politicians after Lester Melanyi, a former editor of Sarawak Tribune, alleged in his so-called ‘tell-all’ video prepared with some other bankrupt, alleged that Sarawak Report was working with Opposition politicians to “topple the government”.

This was exactly the kind of news report the IGP was waiting for, whereupon, true to his knee-jerk style of running the police force, he warned that he could order the arrest of Opposition MPs for ‘criminal use of force’ under Clause 124 of the Penal Code.

In fact, if true, the MPs should first be held accountable to Parliament, a separate branch of government, before being subjected to the police, who are part of the Executive branch. This happens in any democracy worth its name.

Despite the rakyat being told “to wait” for the results of the on-going ‘bottom-up’ investigations, the Opposition MPs were merely, indeed responsibly, continuing to perform their duty as elected representatives. Take a survey and you would find that most Malaysians appreciate how MPs Tony Pua and Rafizi Ramli have, for years since they were first elected, being judiciously monitoring the performance of the Umno-BN government – to ensure that the government is competent and responsive to the needs of the people; that the money spent by the government is not wasted or stolen and that funds are spent for the purposes they have been approved and intended; in short, to ensure that the government is accountable.

All pro-democracy minded Malaysians including these two MPs have also demanded transparency in the financial operations and dealings of the government. These days, we often talk about CAT government in any democracy. This simply means good governance. This is the work of elected MPs.

Perhaps the people in power do not realise that this is how a democracy works. It is not just about having elections once every five years. It is certainly not about electing MPs to go around their constituencies checking on longkang and potholes; cutting ribbons during opening ceremonies; having open days for festive occasions. It is not even about bothering to combat the troublesome Aedes mosquitoes; which is really the work of the Ministry of Health, and not the work of MPs.

Finally, the role of elected representatives is not to be brokers or go-betweens in awarding government projects and financial spending in shady 1MDB-type deals.

Democracy is…

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Democracy is about empowering people and their participation in decision making; about people-oriented MPs and Aduns who should remember that they are there to serve the rakyat – according to the Chinese saying “ren min shi lao pan” or “the people are the bosses”. And the bosses and their elected representatives have all the right to scrutinise accounts, expose wrong-doings, criticise bad laws and pass pro-people laws…

It follows that civil society organisations too have the right, indeed, the responsibility to scrutinise, to expose, to criticise . We should be thankful to these NGOs, to exemplary MPs like the two mentioned above, for helping to ensure that Malaysia is a working democracy, not a ‘half-past-six’ one.

And most certainly, a democracy must have vibrant mass media and independent press which dare to conduct investigative journalism like what The Edge and Sarawak Report have done. They must make available information to the rakyat, especially when the authorities tell the rakyat to wait and wait. If anything, the Malaysian mass media do too little of such investigative and critical reporting.

A prime minister who proclaims himself to be a moderate and democrat in the corridors of the UN and in Oxford University has only proven that words are cheap indeed. At home in Malaysia, he has proven to be a ‘half-past-six’ democrat at best.

If indeed his name has been tarnished by the likes of the Wall Street Journal, the Sarawak Report and now The Edge, he should sue them to high heaven. Pathetically, his lawyers have only threatened to sue.

And when queried why there has been such delay in acting, the lawyers reportedly have said that they are still awaiting a response to the letter asking for clarifications that they had sent to the WSJ! This is hilarious, not just pathetic!

So we say, lift the suspension of the Edge, unblock access to the Sarawak Report website, allow elected MPs and the civil society activists to play their responsible role. With the help of the media, the elected MPs, and civil society, maybe we can soon get to the bottom of this financial fiasco. This is democracy.

Put another way, we have no confidence that the government’s investigations, acting alone, would want to get to the bottom of things. For right now, the Umno-BN government is acting like a ‘half-past-six’ democracy!

A shorter version of this article was presented in Malay at a Solidarity wth The Edge gathering at The Esplanade in Penang on 27 July 2015.

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