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Don’t squander chance to institute far-reaching reforms

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We must not let up the pressure on elected officials and always speak truth to power as a way to consolidate democracy in Malaysia, writes Azmil Tayeb.

We are now three weeks into the new epoch of Malaysian politics and the clamour for change has been deafening and relentless, namely from the people and civil society.

The laundry list of reforms is long and comprehensive, a testament to the decades of rot and depredation entrenched in the former Barisan Nasional (BN)-led government. Newly appointed cabinet ministers of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government have so far been echoing the demands for change from society.

Education Minister Maszlee Malik has been vocal in wanting to abolish the draconian University and University Colleges Act (UUCA), which has emasculated campus politics and turned many academics into kangkung (figuratively speaking) since the 1970s. The minister, who was a former academic teaching at a local university, knew first hand what it was like to be at the receiving end of UUCA’s blunt instrument.

Other ministries have also displayed similar zeal to do away with the oppressive relics of the BN past. Minister of Communication Gobind Singh Deo has vowed, as his first order of business, to abolish the Anti-Fake News Act, which was passed with such haste by the former BN government right before the general election for the sole reason to intimidate and silence its critics.

It should not come as surprise to hear this clarion call for reforms ringing out of the great citadels of Putrajaya nowadays as these newly elected wakil rakyat not only had the direct experience of being victimised by the ancien regime – but, more importantly, because these reforms are the collective wish of the rakyat who put them there in the first place.

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Nevertheless, despite the whirlwind of demands that accompanies the triumphant post-election mood, we have to manage our expectations in a more realistic manner. It is understandable that after long decades of living under the oppressive yoke of the previous BN government, people now are optimistically hopeful that genuine reforms can finally be effected – and fast.

We have to remember that the current PH government has never had any experience governing at the federal level and many needed reforms are more than just quick fixes.

Implementing institutional and structural reforms – such as separation of powers, decentralisation (including reinstituting local elections), streamlining government agencies, redrawing electoral boundaries and empowering independent commissions like the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and the Electoral Commission – will require time and patience. We should give our elected officials the opportunity and space to carry out their duties to the people.

Meanwhile, we should not be resting on our laurels and must consistently maintain the pressure on these elected officials to keep them on the straight and narrow.

If we can glean any lesson from our neighbours Indonesia and the Philippines, which have gone through similar political transition, it is the fact that the process of democratic reforms is slow, arduous and frustrating – if they are undertaken at all.

Many reformers in those countries mistakenly eased off the throttle once the despots had been overthrown, which then allowed elements of the old regime to reconstitute and adapt themselves to the newly configured political environment. Now, exactly two decades since the 1998 Reformasi, Indonesia is seeing signs of democratic backsliding and the political rehabilitation of the old authoritarian Suharto regime, embodied by his former son in-law Prabowo Subianto and son Tommy Suharto.

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After the hard-earned victory of bringing democratic changes to Malaysia, surely we do not want to squander the chance for reforms and go back to the old corrupt ways. Hence, the sheer importance of not letting up the pressure on elected officials and to always speak truth to power as a way to consolidate democracy in Malaysia.

Aliran has been working together with other civil society organisations to engage with the various ministries and the newly formed Institutional Reform Committee. Genuine reforms can only be achieved from the bottom up, namely from the people and civil society.

Malaysia for the first time has a government that is receptive and open to input and criticism from society. Hence, we have to maximise this opportunity to help drag the country out of its doldrums and shape it into a just and equal place for all.

Azmil Tayeb
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
1 June 2018

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