That’s the question Martin Jalleh ponders over as he looks back over the last year. It has been a period of fanciful slogans and failed institutions with the BN having little to show for it.
The catchphrase and chant of 2009 was “change”. The political tsunami of March 2008 brought about unexpected, unthinkable and unforgettable change to the political landscape of Bolehland. The country and the political divide were left with no choice but to change – for better or worse!
No one has been so conversant and committed to change than Najib Razak. As the year began he masterminded the change of the legitimate government in Perak. He tried successfully to convince the citizens of Bolehland that all dubious change is possible and can be made “legal”.
As the historic day of him being PM neared, Najib hammered home his message of change: “If we don’t have the courage to change, the people will change us at the next general election”. Umno heeded his warning. The first thing that they did was change their president! Pak Lah was hounded out of office in March.
Pak Lah had failed to translate rhetoric into reality. The Umno warlords wrapped in a world of their own made him a scapegoat. They were also largely responsible for reducing Umno into a fragmented “formidable” force. It was their resistance to change that had contributed to the rot. Such refusal to reform continued throughout 2009.
As the days passed, Najib’s “change” appeared to be one of taking the country back to the bad old days. Lim Kit Siang would remark: “In Najib’s pre-100 days as Prime Minister, the country is already seeing increasing signs of the powers-that-be reverting to the “old ways” of restricting freedom and silencing criticism…”
At the 59th Umno General Assembly held in March, Najib rallied on the delegates towards change. He said Umno needs leaders who “dare to change and are accepting of change, who dare to criticise and are willing to accept criticism”. Sadly, he and his cohorts did not appear to be receptive to criticisms in the days that followed.
Najib also reminded the delegates that if Umno was to remain relevant then the indispensable role of the new media must be recognised. He declared: “Like it or not, we cannot regard the new media as our enemy…” Unbelievably, six new-media organisa-tions would later be denied accreditation to Umno’s general assembly!
In October 2009, Umno held an extraordinary general assembly to take what Najib called “a bold and brave step in amending the party’s constitution to make it more transparent, inclusive and democratic”. Proud of the changes that took place the Umno President declared that the amendments are “not cosmetic. They represent concrete and significant changes.”
But former de facto law minister Zaid Ibrahim was unconvinced: “Of course, Umno…has introduced some change in their internal party processes but what about the mind-set of the leaders? We see no change whatsoever. It’s all cosmetic. The more things seem to change, the more they remain the same. They will never change.”
In an article, Barry Wain, author of the book Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times believes Najib’s political background and baggage “doesn’t recommend him for the role of reformer” and “almost everything about Mr. Najib proclaims the status quo”!
On April Fool’s day, the Malaysian Insider reported that Najib, in his final public address before his swearing in as PM “gave a hopeful glimpse into his administration … when he said that the new thrust of his government will be One Malaysia”.
For the rest of the year the citizens of Bolehland were bombarded with the slogan without knowing what Najib had in mind. Najib did not giv a clear picture of 1Malaysia, neither did Apco Worldwide, a global PR firm, employed to re-engineer and redeem the PM’s flagging image at a rumoured price of RM20 million or more. As columnist David D. Matthew would write: “slogans by itself are often nothing more than convenient rhetoric… 1Malaysia… is an empty slogan disguised as a solution.”
Tunku Abdul Aziz, a former chairman of Transparency International and DAP vice-chairman, argued that the PM has to “venture beyond sloganeering and spell out in terms that are concise and clear what he has in mind when pontificating on what appears to thinking Malaysians to be nothing more than a party dogma being shoved down their throats as part of a ploy to regain the non-Bumi electoral support.”
“How does Najib propose to give practical effect to his excellent concept given the reality of Malaysia’s race-biased policies of racial discrimination? Does he not see a contradiction? Is he clear in his own mind what he is talking about?
“For now, it remains a slogan and, without a clear vision of what 1Malaysia is intended to be, it could well turn out to be nothing more than a grand illusion. Does he really believe that he has what it takes to reconcile Umno’s pathological obsession with bumiputra rights on the one hand with the principles of inalienable equality for ALL Malaysians on the other?
1Malaysia without complete equality of opportunity is nothing if not a cruel and dishonest practical joke.”
Undoubtedly, Umno’s coalition allies were of no help in bolstering Najib’s 1Malaysia message of unity. They were busily engaged in bitter internal battles and endless bickering throughout the year, refusing or pretending to bury the hatchet in spite of the possibility that they could be burying themselves for good!
In his concluding line for the year, Lim Kit Siang highlighted the charade and chicanery the new PM had put the nation through: “After nine months (of Najib’s premiership), ‘1Malaysia. People First. Performance Now’ has proved to be mere publicity and propaganda puff of Najib’s premiership with no meaningful change or consequence to the lives of Malaysians.”
Fires of fanaticism
In September 2009, the United Nations General Assembly heard from Foreign Minister Anifah Aman the 1Malaysia concept which “aims at fostering appreciation and respect for all races…(and) envisages unity that arises from true acceptance instead of mere tolerance…” At home, the slogan remained but one perfect “performance”!
Relentless racism ran deep and wide in the year. Racial baiting was at its worst. Umno leaders had a free hand in playing the racist card to the hilt while they hid behind their hype and hypocrisy over 1Malaysia and went on a hysteria from time to time.
The racism was so glaring. It resulted in Minister in the PM’s Department Nazri Aziz revealing that the Cabinet had conceded that courses by the National Civics Bureau (or Biro Tatanegara, BTN) were racially divisive and used to promote certain government leaders. There was a need for an overhaul.
As the long debate raged on, Nazri told those who defended the BTN courses (which were compulsory for new civil servants and public university undergraduates), they were in a state of denial. Muhyuddin had sided with those who refused to acknowledge Nazri’s contention that the BTN was a mockery of Najib’s 1Malaysia concept.
The controversy began when seven Selangor Pakatan Rakyat lawmakers said a big part of the programme had nothing to do with nation building or education but was an Umno and BN race-based programme during which participants were indoctrinated with propaganda about “Ketuanan Melayu”.
When Dr Mahathir joined in and insisted there was no need to revamp the BTN courses, Nazri called the former PM a “bloody racist”! Mahathir told Nazri he should resign from Umno because if he were against racism, he should not be in a “racist party”. In return, Nazri conferred on Dr M the title “the father of all racists”.
In 2009, the Umno-owned mainstream press, especially Utusan Malaysia, went on a spree of spinning falsehood, spouting lies and spewing seditious articles with impunity whilst enjoying immunity of the Home Minister, who was ever ready to stop or suspend Opposition publications at the slightest and smallest excuse!
The Malaysian Insider reported Utusan’s ugly and unethical ways: “The Utusan (Malaysia) has been a mouthpiece for Umno ultra-nationalists and a tool for defending the party’s “Ketuanan Melayu” (Malay supremacy) policy. The newspaper has also been criticised for being used to attack the opposition and ratcheting up racial tensions.
The paper also suggested that DAP was anti-Islam and said Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was willing to betray the Malays to be prime minister — both incendiary subjects in mainly Malay-Muslim Malaysia. Its articles have labelled the Chinese community as ‘pendatang’ (immigrants) and the Indian community as ‘keling’.”
As the year came to a close, Nazri Aziz (who had earlier castigated Utusan Malaysia for defending the BTN courses) condemned the Malay daily for its “outdated racist propaganda”, saying that the Umno-owned newspaper must accept that Malaysia is a multi-racial country.
Umno’s insolence also ruled in matters concerning religion. Using Utusan Malaysia as its main instrument, the party continued to politicise religion for its survival by creating unfounded insecurities amongst Muslims and a distrust of other religions and wrongly applying the concept of Malay supremacy and exclusivity to Islam. They also implored the name of the rulers when it was convenient.
Religious bigotry reared its ugly head. The event that laid bare Malaysia’s religious divide took place on 28 August 2009, after Friday prayers during the month of Ramadan, when about 50 Muslim protesters who opposed the relocation of a Hindu temple marched from the Selangor State Mosque to the State Secretariat with a severed cow head. (Hindus consider the animal sacred.)
Amid chants of “Allahu Akbar” they threatened bloodshed, kicked, spat and stomped on the cow’s head and left the severed head at the entrance of the State Secretariat while riot police stood by and watched! Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein later met some of the protesters and justified their demonstration!
It was only a matter of time before “Asia’s melting pot of races and religion” would boil over…and it did a few days into the New Year – in the aftermath of a landmark ruling on 31 December by the Kuala Lumpur High Court. The court ordered the lifting of the Home Minister’s ban against the Catholic church publishing the word “Allah” in its weekly paper, Herald.
The resultant fire bombs on churches reduced to ashes and made a mockery of Anifah Aman’s boasting of the “true acceptance instead of mere tolerance” amongst all races and religions in the nation. After being PM for nine months, Najib failed to fight the fires of religious fanaticism often fanned by his own party, but took flight behind the facade of 1Malaysia!
As Najib and his cohorts portrayed themselves as agents of change, they at the same time manipulated the nation’s democratic institutions to contain, cripple and crush legitimate dissent and/or to hinder genuine change advocated by the Opposition.
Key institutions such as the Judiciary, the office of the Attorney-General, the Police and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission ended up becoming the tools of the government. They were no longer perceived as impartial. (See accompanying stories on the police and the judiciary.)
In early March 2009, the Pakatan Rakyat Perak state government was forced to hold an “emergency sitting” under a raintree. An Adun, when supporting one of the motions, spoke of an “institutional crisis” in the country. He then corrected it to “constitutional crisis”. He was in fact right: the country’s institutions were in a grave institutional crisis and the nation was heading towards becoming a failed State!
During the Perak constitutional crisis, then Bar Council president Ambiga Sreenevasan said that she was alarmed that “our institutions, that is the courts, the police, etc., are being tested….. What is going on in the state shows a total breakdown in relation to the structures and sanctity of the legislature”.
There is no better and lasting symbol of institutions decaying in Malaysia than the judiciary. In 2009, the V K Lingam video clip case reinforced its rot even further. The government took the findings of the Royal Commission rather lightly. It made the Commission, one appointed by the King, look like a lame duck.
The government ended its two-year charade when the de facto Law Minister made a laughing stock of himself as he lectured Parliament on what may be morally wrong could be legally or politically correct, correct, correct. With his ‘no further action’ declaration, public suspicion of the cattle-trading culture in the judiciary lingers on.
Another institution that allowed itself to be a mouthpiece of the political masters was the Election Commission. In Perak, it made a mockery of the Federal Constitution when it portrayed itself as a court of law and illegally usurped the authority of the Speaker of the Perak state assembly.
The above unconstitutional act was endorsed by a Federal Court ruling which opened the floodgates to potential interference by the Commission in the country’s legislatures including Parliament. During the year the Commision made declarations and decisions that were blatantly biased and undermined public confidence in its independence.
Another “institution” that failed was the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC): 2009 was the first year of its existence. It was frowned upon as a “monumental failure” and a farce in its task of tackling corruption. It became a favourite tool of the Umno government to repress the opposition.
Five months after the introduction of Najib’s slogans, the respondents in a Star online live chat revealed that the key national institution that they had least confidence in was both the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and the police. Only two per cent of the respondents rated the MACC’s performance in fighting corruption as “good”.
The fatal flaw of the MACC was that it was not politically neutral as stated by Lim Teck Ghee. 74 per cent of the respondents in a poll by the Merdeka Centre said that they were dissatisfied with the government’s handling of corruption and abuse of power issues. A majority of them felt that the MACC was biased.
Since its much hyped up launch on 1 January 2009 the then MACC’s chief commissioner, Ahmad Said Hamdan, “has managed to put his mouth into overdrive while shifting his brains into reverse” as observed by Tunku Aziz. He chose to retire early and will remain haunted by how he had handled the “very small case” of the death of Teoh Beng Hock.
By the end of 2009, it was obvious that corruption in the country had worsened since the formation of the MACC. Malaysia’s anti-graft crackdown was, in reality, a breakdown that saw the country plunge nine places in the Transparency International corruption rankings (Malaysian Insider)! It was also a mockery of Najib’s declaration that “the fight against corruption was one of the six KPI priorities of his administration”.
Parliament, the country’s supreme law-making institution turned 50 in September 2009. Sadly, in spite of Najib’s many slogans, it remained a rubber stamp. The shocking scene in February of wheelchair-bound Karpal Singh being surrounded by a hostile group of Umno Youth thugs while the police and security personnel stood idly by at the Parliament lobby said it all!
Speaker Pandikar Amin Mulia revealed in March that “Parliament is no longer like a first-world Parliament anymore”. He had a role in this. He was ever ready to reject the motions moved by the Opposition to debate crucial issues that would enhance radical reform and was at times ridiculously biased towards the government.
The civil service as an institution was also crumbling with civil servants failing to understand their role and the importance of their impartiality. In fact in January this year, Najib said he “wants the public sector in the country to become a fully professional service without political inclination”. It was obvious why he did not say it earlier in Perak.
Collapsed buildings and the collapse of a suspension bridge in Kuala Dipang, Kampar, in October where three young school girls were killed were constant symbolic reminders of the reality and repercussions of faltering institutions.
The impact of the breakdown in institutions could be increasingly seen not only in the political domain but in every arena of life – education, health care, environment, and use of natural resources. It also resulted in the further marginalisation of minority groups in both East and West Malaysia.
Tengku Razaleigh pointed to the source of the faltering institutions when he expressed sadness that Umno has “indeed lost its soul” and “become corrupt, this corruption has weakened it, and as it grows weaker it is tempted more and more to fan racial feeling and abuse public institutions to maintain power. This is a death spiral.”
He sagely added. “Our major public institutions and our political system have degenerated to the point that the public no longer trusts them. A democratic system of government cannot function below a certain threshold of public confidence. The suspicious death of Teoh Beng Hock under the custody of a watchdog body reporting directly to a prime minister who has his own public confidence issues may have pushed us below that threshold.”
He concluded: “What we must do now goes beyond political parties. We need the rakyat to rise up to claim their institutions, and demand that our public institutions are answerable to them. We must wake up to our sovereignty as citizens, reclaim the constitution which constitutes us as a nation and guarantees our rights, and demand a comprehensively reformed government to restore public confidence. We must do this before it is too late.”
A divided nation, decaying institutions, a dour economy and a PM dogged by allegations –perhaps the events and issues of the year 2009 point to the reality that all real, relevant and radical change can only come about by a change in government! There are those with raw courage whom we saw during the year, who are willing to risk their lives for such a change. But we are prompted to ask, is the Opposition ready?
Martin Jalleh is a well known political commentator