Reforms in Malaysia must continue

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Let us hope the government continues working towards transforming Malaysia into the more democratic, clean, accountable and rights-respecting nation that we all truly deserve, says Eric Paulsen.

The past few weeks have seen political upheaval in Malaysia, resulting in the appointment of Muhyiddin Yassin as Prime Minister leading a new governing coalition, Perikatan Nasional.

Just as we were getting used to the new Malaysia, an even newer Malaysia has emerged. The government must now reflect and respect the will of the people it represents in these uncertain times ahead, made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic and the global economy downturn.

The results of the 2018 general election demonstrated that the nation was crying out for greater reform from its government and institutions. The previous years of Barisan Nasional rule were characterised by high-profile corruption scandals and gross abuses of power.

Reform was never going to be easy after more than six decades without a change of government, and we must remember that Pakatan Harapan had only 21 months to make its mark against all this history. Despite multiple challenges and setbacks, progress has been made and cannot be jeopardised now.

The Pakatan Harapan administration tackled the long-complained-about culture of impunity in the police force by supporting the creation of an independent police complaints and misconduct commission with an amended bill that was due to be tabled in the next parliamentary meeting.

Plans for strengthening our democracy were also in the works. A constitutional amendment, proposing a two-term limit for the prime minister and menteri besar and chief minister positions, a Parliament Services Bill restoring the autonomy of Parliament from under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Department, and a political funding bill to regulate donations and sources of funding for political parties were also set to be tabled in Parliament.

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Former Prime Minister Najib Razak and others involved in the 1MDB scandal are facing trial for corruption and money laundering charges. It is crucial for the credibility of Perikatan Nasional that these charges and other cases are not dropped. Therefore, it was heartening to note that newly appointed Attorney General Idris Harun has directed all prosecution teams to continue pursuing these high-profile cases.

To carry on rebuilding public confidence, Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s promise of a cabinet which is clean and has integrity must be kept, and state institutions like Parliament, the judiciary, the Election Commission, the Attorney General’s Chambers, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and the police must remain independent and free from political interference.

While civil liberties were stifled in the past, many spurious and politically motivated cases against activists and ordinary Malaysians exercising their rights were dropped after the 2018 general election. Amendments were made to the Peaceful Assembly Act and the Anti-Fake News Act was repealed.

It was therefore alarming to witness new investigations under the Sedition Act, the Peaceful Assembly Act and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act already taking place under the new government.

The attorney general should not take any further action in these cases which needlessly interfere with the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Just because these oppressive laws remain on the books does not mean that it is right to use them.

Rather, the government would garner a lot of support and goodwill from the people if it refrained from using such legislation and committed to repealing or amending them in future.

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While stopping short of its promise of total abolition of the death penalty, the Pakatan Harapan government made moves in the right direction by committing to repeal the mandatory nature of the death penalty, and there have been no executions since they came into power.

We must not allow this progress to be reversed. Malaysia should join the global trend towards abolition, not only because the death penalty is totally ineffective as a deterrent to crime, but because it is a cruel and inhumane punishment that does not reflect our values as a society.

Although political ownership and influence of media outlets is still an issue in Malaysia, the Pakatan Harpan government supported the establishment of a self-regulating media council. A media council steering committee has been working on a draft bill to make this a reality and reviewing laws that curb freedom of expression and of the press.

The reform process may be caught in the balance for the time being, as we wait to find out what kind of government Perikatan Nasional intends to be. The government needs to reassure us that the initial investigations into peaceful protesters and individuals expressing themselves on social media are not a sign of things to come. The reforms that have been implemented and those that are still at stake should not be abandoned now.

The best thing that the government can do now is honour what Malaysians voted for and celebrated in the 2018 general election. Clean and inclusive politics, respect for human rights, accountable public institutions and a progressive democracy – this is still what we want, and we have reasons to remain hopeful.

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In July last year, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, becoming the first constitutional amendment to receive multipartisan support from all members of Parliament. This could mean over seven million new and young voters in the next election who won’t be afraid to shake things up if the government and political parties do not live up to their expectations.

Something has already changed in Malaysia. We have greater civil liberties, more independent state institutions, a huge leap in press freedom, stronger anti-corruption initiatives, broader respect for the rule of law and more empowered citizens.

Let us hope that, as the dust settles for now after the dramatic events of the past weeks, the government continues working towards transforming Malaysia into the more democratic, clean, accountable and rights-respecting nation that we all truly deserve.

Eric Paulsen is the Malaysian representative to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. The views expressed here are solely his own.

Source: The Star Online

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