It is important to build character, realise democratic aspirations and stay on the moral high ground, writes Azmil Tayeb.
Cameron Highlands voters have made their voices heard loud and clear in a by-election to replace the disqualified MP from the MIC, C Sivarraajh, who was charged with bribery during the 2018 general election. Umno, with the help of Pas, finally saw its first electoral win since the general election.
Pakatan Harapan can certainly learn many lessons as it licks its wounds and marches toward the next by-elections in Semenyih and Rantau, the main one being not to take the people for granted.
Voting patterns in Cameron Highlands show that Pakatan Harapan was outvoted among the Orang Asli voters, who make up 22% of the electorate, and in predominantly Malay areas. Umno’s strategic choice of an Orang Asli as a candidate might have also played a pivotal role in the victory.
The by-election also saw the inaugural debate between election candidates, moderated by Aliran’s own Faisal Hazis.
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A live televised debate among candidates leading up to the election is certainly a trend we must encourage in Malaysia as it is part of a healthy democratic practice. Our neighbour Indonesia, for instance, has been broadcasting live debates among candidates vying for president and vice-president for more than a decade.
One group that has been at the centre of this by-election is the Orang Asli community. Previous elections have seen Orang Asli needs and welfare consistently neglected despite sweet promises before polling day.
As such, the Orang Asli remain one of the poorest communities in Malaysia as they watch their land and livelihood taken away by rapacious development and avaricious businesses, often working hand-in-glove with the federal and state governments.
Wandering Malaysian writes that the stakes were high in the Cameron Highlands by-election as the environment and the Orang Asli’s way of life, both of which are inextricably intertwined, are being severely eroded.
Mustafa Anuar reminds the Pakatan Harapan government, starting with this by-election, not to treat the Orang Asli as a mere vote bank, by repeating the past exploitation of the community by the previous Barisan Nasional government.
Nevertheless, there is one silver lining amidst the seemingly hopeless plight of the Orang Asli. Recently, the Pakatan Harapan government decided to sue the Kelantan state government for failing to uphold the Orang Asli’s land rights in the state.
This much-applauded unprecedented move by the federal government has the potential to usher in more stringent rules regarding native customary land rights and stronger protection of the indigenous ways of life.
Despite the openness of the Cameron Highland contest, exemplified by the debate, it was marred by charges of electoral offences by Pakatan Harapan such as the disbursement of “petrol money” to 60 Orang Asli volunteers, the misuse of state government assets for campaigning, and its candidate wearing a shirt emblazoned with the party logo to the polling station.
The last offence was simply inexcusable for a candidate who was contesting for the third time as it cannot be chalked up to political naivete.
This seems to be a symptom of a larger disease, an undemocratic affliction if you like. Many in the Pakatan Harapan government do not seem to embody the democratic ideals that they had once espoused when they were in the political wilderness rightfully chastising the previous Barisan Nasional government.
Two latest examples illustrate the blatant disregard for democratic ideals.
The first involves the appointment of the wife of the prime minister’s political secretary, Junaidah Kiting, as the new chairperson of Amanah Ikhtiar Malaysia, a government-linked company that provides microfinancing to female entrepreneurs. The appointment was even criticised by the founder of Amanah Ikhtiar Malaysia, Prof Sukor Kasim.
Aliran’s JD Lovrenciear recently attended a meeting of civil society organisations that discussed initiatives to curb abuses at government-linked companies. The group, dubbed the GLC Reform Cluster, comprising Aliran, C4 Center, Gabungan Pembebasan Akademik, Global Bersih, Hakam, Ideas, Hakam, Pusat Komas and Proham, is pushing for an independent task force to be established to look into the abuses seen within these companies.
Political economist Terence Gomez, who is part of the GLC Reform Cluster, wrote a well-reasoned essay on why there is a pressing need to account for and reform all the government-linked companies out there especially in view of their role as a major source of patronage and party funding.
Another example of being tone-deaf to democratic aspirations can be seen in the efforts to reform higher education in Malaysia. Parliament has finally passed a motion to amend the draconian Universities and University Colleges Act but lamentably, only the subsections relating to the right of university students to engage with party politics on campus was repealed.
The amendment essentially opens up the campus to political parties but does not improve students’ overall political freedom and autonomy, which can only be achieved by repealing other repressive sections of the Act. University campuses must be opened to all political activities, not just activities by political parties.
As Francis Loh wrote in the preface to Aliran’s book Regime Change in Malaysia, the change that we have seen in the aftermath of the 2018 general election (or “regime change”, as he calls it) falls in between the regular changes of government normally seen in a functioning democracy and a radical systemic change that upends the status quo ante such as in the Philippines in 1986 and Indonesia in 1998.
In others words, the change that took place in Malaysia after 9 May 2018 is far less sweeping and comprehensive. It also means that many of the undemocratic habits from the previous government are still retained and practised in this so-called “New Malaysia”. The old undemocratic habits stubbornly persist and may even be reinforced by many former Umno members who are now hopping over in droves to the Pakatan Harapan side.
It is the responsibility of civil society and the public to instil and augment democratic ideals in the new government to keep it on the straight and narrow. We cannot afford to watch the Pakatan Harapan government being hijacked by politicians with self-interest who have not the slightest clue what democracy is even it hits them on the face.
More importantly, we need people with character to lead this country forward. I’d like to end this newsletter with a stirring quote from K Haridas on the value of a strong unimpeachable character:
“Yet character is not about perfection. It is more about realisation, growth and the capacity to admit one’s own mistakes and wrongs. It is about being clear about the principles and values that guide one’s life – the non-negotiables that one is clear about. Clarity in these areas is what endows one with both courage and a sense of conscience, and these are developed as we exercise our sense of will to do what is right.”
This kind of character is exactly what we must demand of our leaders and ourselves alike.
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
28 January 2018