Francis Loh looks back and wonders if tens of thousands of Malaysians would have marched in KL on 9 July 2011 had PM Najib promoted greater democratisation.
How could the prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak have got it so wrong?
Shortly after assuming office, he had proclaimed his desire to usher in a 1Malaysia, announced a policy of Rakyat First, Development Now, launched many Government Transformation Plans (GTP) with a variety of goals, claimed various achievements under several National Key Result Areas (NKRA), and released his New Economic Model (NEM) which seeks to liberalise the economy by among others, removing some of the NEP constraints, in order to transform Malaysia from a middle-income nation to a high-income one.
In a visit to the United Nations, and then to the United Kingdom, he had also boasted that his Barisan Nasional (BN) government was a moderate one and called upon the nations of the world to join him in building a global Movement of Moderates. As a result of all these initiatives, he has assumed the appearance of a dynamic, moderate and liberal leader, at home and abroad.
So why didn’t he pronounce another GTP or NKRA, in keeping with his 1Malaysia and Rakyat First, to facilitate the demo-cratisation of Malaysia as well?
Or if that’s too far-fetched for Umno and the other BN parties, launch a GTP or NKRA to ‘Modernise the Electoral System’ to bring it in line with political reforms throughout the world? After all, this is being done not only in neighbouring East Asia but in the Middle East as well.
Or, if even that is not acceptable to his Umno/BN team, then forget about having any new GTP or NKRA; simply announce that his BN government would order the Elections Commission to look into ‘alleged complaints’ about the electoral system’ – no need even to be specific phantom voters or postal votes or longer campaign periods. Yes, simply state that the matter would be looked into. Why, there does not even need to be much urgency in dealing with the matter. After all, what’s the status of all those GTPs and NKRAs anyway? Except for the two ministers attached to his Office, who monitors them?
Of course, it would look good if some phantoms were removed, a ‘special action committee’ set up to look into the issue of postal voting, and yet another to do some cost-benefit analysis of going biometric or using indelible ink or even henna.
If one of these seemingly altruistic moves towards democra-tisation had been taken, chances are there would not have occurred that eventful Walk for Democracy, which drew tens of thousands into the streets of Kuala Lumpur on 9 July. And if the march had nonetheless gone ahead, it is likely that it would have only drawn the support of hundreds, perhaps a few thousand, probably from the ranks of the NGOs. The march might have been a very limited affair; after all, the prime minister had promised to look into the matter. So many opportunities to look statesman-like and appear democratic sadly missed!
The rakyat want democracy
Instead, the sledgehammer was used to deal with a completely just demand. Bersih 2.0’s eight-point proposal was not taken seriously – which sparked its call for a Walk for Democracy on 9 July 2011. But the proposed march was declared an ‘illegal gathering’ and the wearing of yellow T-shirts banned. After a meeting with the King, Bersih leaders accepted the government’s offer for the gathering to be held in a stadium. However, its move was stymied. We are now told it had to be a stadium of the prime minister’s choice, outside Kuala Lumpur! And this, after Najib had called upon Bersih 2.0 to shift the gathering to ‘a stadium’, no conditions originally mentioned. Then there was the court order to arrest 91 specified walkers on sight.
Taking the cue from Ibrahim Ali and Perkasa and from the increasingly rabid Utusan Malaysia, the prime minister, in a gathering in Kota Baru on 2 July broadcasted over Radio Malaysia, painted Bersih chairperson Ambiga Sreenaeasan as anti-Malay and anti-Islam. And when this failed to convince Kelantanese and other Malays, he claimed that Bersih’s Walk for Democracy was an attempt to topple the BN government and to seize power via undemocratic means. Pakatan Rakyat’s de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, apparently, was the dalang behind Bersih.
In fact, the authorities could not get their story-line straight. About 30 Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) supporters were detained in Seberang Perai and six of them, including MP for Sungai Siput Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, were detained under the draconian Emergency Ordinance (EO), which allows for detention without trial. At one stage they were accused of ‘waging war against the King’. For 33 days, the six were held in solitary confinement first in Penang and then in Kuala Lumpur.
There is no doubt that the tens of thousands who took to the streets on 9 July were incensed by the government’s use of the sledgehammer to deal with Bersih’s just demands. The fact of the matter is that the rakyat now want democracy.
Democratising Malaysia ought to be the most important Government Transformation Plan. It is with regards to this National Key Result Area that we should show achievements, not least in reforming the current electoral system. If Najib fails to work on this, it could lead to eventual dismantling of the Barisan Nasional coalition, which his father so painstakingly created.
Dr Francis Loh is honorary secretary of Aliran.