This year had it all: GST, price hikes, the 1MDB debacle, the incredible RM2.6bn ‘donation and the NSC Bill. Henry Loh reviews a year that left many Malaysians feeling dejected.
As 2015 draws to a close, it would be timely to take a quick look at the year that has been, especially with regard to the political and socio-economic front.
For the ordinary Malaysian who takes an interest in what is happening in our country, it is highly unlikely that 2015 will be looked upon as a good year. Take a look at Damian Denis’ piece on the Five ways Najib defined Malaysia in 2015.
For sure it has been a momentous year.
The imposition of the goods and services tax (GST) (on 1 April 2015), led to price hikes for many goods and services, fuelling inflation and increasing the financial burden of all citizens, particularly the poor.
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A major drop in the price of crude petroleum from above US$100 to the current level of below US$40 per barrel has severely eroded the country’s income. An indication of the value of exports may be obtained from these statistics. A reduction in oil prices, coupled with lower demand for crude oil, natural gas, palm oil and other commodities, is bound to affect the econony.
Throughout the year too, the value of the ringgit had been weakening against the US dollar. On 3 December 2014, the ringgit had already dropped to 3.445 to the dollar. By 11 March 2015, the ringgit had fallen to 3.710. Around July, it had sank further to 3.81. By 18 December 2015, the ringgit had plunged to 4.38. Thus the drop in value is close to one ringgit in the space of 12 months.
We now need RM3.09 to purchase one Singapore dollar – a clear indication of just how weak the ringgit is. A year ago, around this time, we only needed RM2.651 to buy one Singapore dollar.
A weak ringgit would mean that Malaysian exports would be relatively cheaper, and that is a positive. But the negative impact is that imports would be much more expensive, and the Malaysian economy is far from self-sufficient. Because we are dependent on imports, this has inevitably led to an increase in the cost of living.
As we start the new year, the 1MDB financial debacle is already full blown. Concerned non-governmental organisations, opposition parties and civil society in general have been clamouring for answers to how a government-owned sovereign fund could accumulate such a massive debt of RM42bn so fast. (1MDB in its current form began operations in 2009). Equally important is the question, how is 1MDB going to meet its financial obligations?
Sad to say, there were no meaningful and clear answers forthcoming from the powers that be. Instead, throughout the year, we were made to witness moves that undermined democracy and made a mockery of the principles of good governance. For the record, the prime minister is the chairperson of the advisory board of 1MDB.
During the year, the Wall Street Journal and Sarawak Report raised many issues about 1MDB. A major revelation was that US$680m, equivalent to RM2.6bn, was transferred into Najib’s personal account sometime in March 2013.
Many believed that these funds are related to 1MDB funds but the prime minister claimed that the RM2.6bn was a donation to Umno and had nothing to do with the sovereign fund. The official explanation is that the donation came form a Middle East donor(s).
Calls for explanations, clarifications and credible answers reached such a crescendo that it prompted then deputy prime minister Muhyiddin (also Umno deputy president) to join the fray .
This was of course a big no-no for Najib, and on 28 July 2015, after obtaining consent from the Yang Di Pertuan Agong for a cabinet reshuffle, Muhyiddin was unceremoniously sacked from the cabinet . Another minister and Umno vice-president Shafie Updal, who had also requested that thorough investigations be made into 1MDB and the RM2.6bn ‘donation’, was also dropped from the cabinet.
Other undemocratic – and what many will view as self-serving – moves made by the prime minister included the following:
a) the sacking of the then attorney general, Abdul Gani Patail (though it was officially announced as an early retirement due to health reasons). Gani had been involved in investigations into corruption allegations related to 1MDB.
b) the then chairman of the public accounts committee in parliament, Nur Jazlan, and several other members of the same committee were given ministerial positions in the cabinet reshuffle. This in turn led to the suspension of the committee hearings on 1MDB.
c) the arrest and subsequent transfer of key Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission directors involved in the investigations of 1 MDB to the Prime Minister’s Department.
d) the transfer of then deputy director of Special Branch, Abdul Hamid Bador, to the prime minister’s department. The former deputy director of Special branch was reported to be involved in the 1MDB investigations.
e) the suspension of The Edge that had been actively highlighting the 1MDB issue.
f) the arrests and detention of critics under the Sedition Act and other oppressive laws.
These moves has caused the prime minister to suffer what K Haridas refers to as an enormous credibility issue. The prime minister has been asked to walk the talk and not make a mockery of the good governance principles of integrity, transparency and accountability.
The recent move by the ruling coalition to push through the National Security Council Bill has sent shudders down the spine for those of us who value freedom and justice. Some of the provisions in the bill provide sweeping powers to the council, and there is grave concern that it can be easily abused.
Indeed, there are inadequate checks and balances provided. No wonder, many signed an online petition calling on senators to reject the passage of the bill in the Senate.
The media statement by Aliran on this controversial bill spells out the danger in placing so much power in the hands of the small group of council members, headed by the prime minister as the chairman. It is an affront on the country’s constitutional democracy and due process.
What is most disturbing is that, for many of us, “this NSC Bill has nothing to do with the country’s national security BUT … everything to do with protecting the political security of the scandal-ridden Najib administration and of the prime minister himself” (Aliran media statement).
Unfortunately, the bill was passed by the Senate just before Christmas.
The recent Umno assembly was a great disappointment. Needless to say, the former deputy prime minister – but still deputy president of Umno – Muhyiddin and Umno vice-president Shafie Apdal were sidelined and not given a platform to speak. This prompted Aliran executive committee member Damian Denis to ask if the assembly was a celebration of corruption.
Overall, the state of political affairs in our country is somewhat depressing and discouraging. But we must remind ourselves that not all is lost. On 29-30 August, just before Merdeka Day, the Bersih 4 rally was organised in Kuala Lumpur and many other cities across the world.
The sea of yellow that we witnessed in KL, made up of thousands of supporters of all ethnic groups, sent a strong message that civil society was alive and well and that the Rakyat were prepared to stand up and be counted.
Many concerned citizens donated money to fund Bersih activities – a total of RM2.4m was collected – and to their credit, the committee was able to render accounts to be promptly audited – in direct contrast to what we see happening in 1MDB.
Hence it is befitting that we take heed of what Mariam Mokthar has asked in a recent blog post, “Who is the most powerful person in Malaysia?” In it she explains why it is not Mahathir, Najib, Kit Siang, Hadi Awang, Zahid Hamidi, Guan Eng or Anwar.
Her answer to the question is a simple but most powerful “YOU”. “You may not realize it, but as an individual you are strong. When you team up with others, you are invincible. You are the most powerful, pass it on.” Use your vote to fight for change.
With those words of encouragement, Aliran would like to urge all friends and fellow citizens who believe in freedom, justice and democracy to keep up the good fight and stay in the struggle against corruption and abuse of power and privilege.
Aliran takes this opportunity to wish all friends, members and readers a most Happy and Meaningful Christmas and New Year.
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
30 December 2015