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General election looms large: Time to reclaim our nation

The People come first; and we want democracy now!

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Malaysia’s 15th general election must be held by September 2023, five years after the last general election in 2018.

However, it appears that the election will be held earlier. At a press conference on 25 April, Aliran shared the People’s Agenda that Aliran had prepared. Apart from us, there are five other sponsors, namely Gerak, Suaram, Pacos Trust (Sabah), Save Rivers (Sarawak) and Undi18. It was proudly announced that 53 Malaysian NGOs, including the six co-sponsors, had endorsed the People’s Agenda up to that point.

Aliran president Anil Netto invited other NGOs to join in endorsing the document, which he said would be presented to the political parties at the end of April (and again before the general election).  

In essence, we wish them to incorporate the values and priorities outlined in the People’s Agenda into their own party manifestos. Or better yet, adopt the agenda as their manifesto!

If they do so, we will have a chance to assert the interests of the rakyat first and foremost, to realise a free and democratic Malaysia, and to reclaim our nation, one that is inclusive and compassionate to all, and in solidarity with one another.

Watch out for the webinars on the People’s Agenda in the coming months. With the general election looming, let us survey recent political developments.

‘Court cluster’ wants general election immediately

At Umno’s celebrations after emerging winners in the Johor state election, supporters chanted “Bubar, bubar!” calling for Parliament to be dissolved.

If it has its way, Umno, now driven by the so-called “court cluster” (prominent figures in the party involved in court cases), would want the general election to be held as soon as possible. They believe the momentum is with them, and they have the ability to win the election and form the next federal government.

If this comes to pass, the first task for any new Umno-Barisan Nasional government would be to advise the King to pardon former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was found guilty in 2020 and sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment and fined RM210m for his involvement in corruption.

But Najib remains scot-free! Why, the shameless ex-PM has even dared to be involved in electoral campaigns.

Also in the court cluster is current Umno president Zahid Hamidi, whose own court case is coming up. There are also other Umno leaders who have court cases ahead of them plus some other Umno leaders like former Sabah chief minister Musa Aman, who was granted a “discharge not amounting to acquittal”.

This court cluster contrasts with another faction of leaders within Umno, some of whom – like Hishammuddin Hussein and Khairy Jamaluddin – are presently serving as ministers in the Bersatu-Umno-BN coalition federal government led by Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the current PM.

To their credit, a few of these ministers have worked with the opposition to temporarily set aside political differences in order to combat the Covid pandemic and the economic downturn, which had caused a massive drop in business activity, job losses and the closure of factories, shopping malls, colleges and schools.

These joint efforts have allowed us to reopen the country from 1 April. And a return to a ‘new normal’ is underway.

Alas, the draft ‘anti-hopping’ law has not yet been passed in the current sitting. The constitutional amendment that would have enabled the proposed law to be enacted has been referred to a parliamentary select committee instead, after concerns arose from both sides of the aisle over its broad wording that could have negated parts of Article 10 of the Constitution.

Expect more resort to ethnic-religious baiting

But watch out: Zahid had promised, during the Johor state election campaign, that if Umno is returned to power at the federal level, it would implement more Sharia laws.

In this regard, it is shameful that a current deputy minister in the PM’s Department, from a partner party, has taken the stand that state laws on religious conversion should be respected, apparently, regardless of what the Federal Constitution states.

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He was commenting on a court decision that the children who were converted to Islam as minors should be returned to the custody of their mother, Loh Siew Hong. Loh had applied to a civil court to overturn the conversion of her children without her consent.

Hullo, the deputy minister, who should know better, is essentially saying state laws should reign supreme – or at least have equal weight, alongside the Federal Constitution. He seems oblivious to a landmark Federal Court decision in 2018 that all state laws are subservient to the ruling that the conversion of minors must have the consent of both parents.

Remember this too, if we have a snap general election: the current government is so bankrupt of ideas, let alone comprehensive policymaking, that it has tried to market the national language globally instead of strengthening trade, stemming rising food and fuel prices, creating jobs and helping parents to cope with their children returning to school, as we reopen our borders.

Enter Rafizi, Nurul & Co

You would have noted Rafizi Ramli’s re-entry into national politics recently. The former PKR vice-president and Invoke convenor, who played a critical role in the 2018 general election, announced he would run for the post of deputy president in the upcoming PKR election.

The other members of his cai or team are Permatang Pauh MP Nurul Izzah Anwar, Tanjong Malim MP Chang Lih Kang, former Kapar MP G Manivannan and Setiawangsa MP Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad.

Rafizi and the others launched their “Project Ayuh”, aimed at the fence-sitters. Some of these fence-sitters claim to be disappointed over how the Pakatan Harapan government they voted for in 2018 eventually self-imploded a couple of years later.

The implosion was largely due to Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s reluctance to hand over power over to Anwar Ibrahim, and intra-party and inter-party disputes among the PH partners.

Without a large turnout in the coming general election, especially among the young, the opposition pact will not have a chance, Rafizi and Co have surmised.   

Yes, Rafizi and Nurul’s re-entry has given PKR, and the opposition parties more broadly, a new lease of life. Previously, almost every news report about the opposition parties was negative – or portrayed to be so.

Recall their decision to contest the Johor state election under their own party banners, rather than the PH one. Worse, there appeared to be no coordination of strategy between the opposition parties. Nor did it appear that the opposition capitalised on the split within Umno.

This lack of strategy and coordination bewildered the voters. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was reportedly lacklustre during the campaign. Several columnists reported that PKR failed to raise local issues during the campaign, as if they had given up the fight.

In short, there was no spark! So, the turnout rate was dismal. Why, many younger voters didn’t even show up!

With Rafizi and Nurul back in the news now, we read of PKR challenging Najib over his suggestion that the government should bail out Sapura Energy from its bankruptcy woes. Not again, Rafizi and Co are protesting, no bailout whatsoever!

We hear of arrangements for a debat perdana (grand debate) between Najib and Anwar. (In truth, nobody should be debating with this felon. Before you know it, he might try to seek a postponement of his 1MDB hearing so that he can take part in an event of ‘national importance’, the debat perdana!).

Whatever the case, there’s a buzz in PKR circles again. Rafizi admits he is in a hurry –  for he believes the election could be held in four months’ time.

Before that, the PKR party election must be held in mid-May. Hopefully, the contest between Rafizi and Saifuddin Nasution Ismail, the present PKR secretary general, for the deputy president’s post, and the battle between Fahmi Zainol and Adam Adli for the youth leadership will not turn acrimonious and split the party down the middle again – like it did in the previous party contest when Rafizi challenged Azmin Ali, the then incumbent deputy president.

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One obvious way to avoid this clash of personalities is to focus on the policies that each advocates. Vote in those leaders who stand for the rakyat’s interests – for participatory democracy, for inclusiveness, for equitable and sustainable development.

We have not heard of the policies that the candidates stand for. Indeed, there has not yet been any discussion of the substantive issues that might divide them.

Rather, we have rumblings of who is more loyal to Anwar, the party president. And of where Rafizi, Nurul and Co have been burrowing themselves these past two years. No, we have not heard of policy differences between the contestants.

Changing of the guard in DAP

Preparing for the general election was also the theme of the DAP’s congress held over 13-14 March in Kuala Lumpur. 

But this theme was overshadowed by the announcement of Lim Kit Siang’s retirement from politics after 56 years and the decision by his son Lim Guan Eng, 61, to step down as party secretary general and assume the post of party chairman, which Kit Siang was vacating.

Anthony Loke, 44, was then appointed by members of the central executive committee as the new secretary general.

The mood for change was in the air. Several other DAP stalwarts were also not elected back to the central committee. The committee now has several new faces, including a higher representation of women due to the gender quota the party had adopted. Kudos to the DAP for this move forward.

In a press conference after the party election, Loke clarified that the party would allow “talented young members” to play a bigger role. Again, kudos to the DAP if this occurs.

However, it is disappointing that the only two bumiputra elected into the central executive committee were Yang Syefura and Kapayan state assembly member Jannie Lasimbang, who came in through the gender quota.

Some commentators have said that the changing of the guard is an opportune time for the party to discard its pro-Chinese image and push for a more multi-ethnic one.

For me, the DAP must do more than that! It has to reach out to people of all ethnic backgrounds, yes. But it must boldly reach down to the ordinary rakyat and champion their socioeconomic plight, first and foremost. After all, it claims to be a social democratic party.

In this regard, it must discard the more neoliberal policies it appeared to adopt when PH was in power briefly. Then, several subsidies that were in place to help the poor were removed on the grounds that the subsidies compromised the workings of the market.

Reaching down to the people is an important challenge for the DAP, indeed for PH as a whole, and for whichever party comes to power. 

No doubt, there’s a greater sense of unity and stability in the DAP compared to PKR. None of the DAP’s 42 elected MPs were involved in party defections.

That’s praiseworthy but not enough. Sometimes a senior party like the DAP has to stir the waters to advocate pro-rakyat policies and be prepared to take the flak.

The Aliran review

Amid these developments and anxieties over the pending election and the lack of debate about policy matters, Aliran conducted a two-day review. It was the first review we were holding for two years. It was also the first time we were resorting to Zoom, instead of engaging with each other face to face.

On the first night, we invited Prof Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former UN assistant secretary general and one-time professor of economics at the University of Malaya, to share with us his understanding of the “state of the nation, economy and society”.  

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Jomo was also asked to share his views on the upcoming general election and how Aliran and other civil society organisations ought to position themselves.

Sixty Aliran members attended this Zoom talk.

The following day, we had follow-up discussions among our members to better understand the current economic, political and socio-cultural situation in Malaysia.

This gave us the chance to review the strengths and weaknesses of Aliran’s current administrative, personnel and financial capacities and our ongoing activities, especially our online educational and communications outreach.

At this session, we contextualised what Aliran might be able to do, given our strengths and limitations, as the general election loomed large. About 50 members took part in the day-long discussions.

Jomo’s talk was illuminating. He highlighted that the economy had stopped growing at the same pace as in earlier decades, even before the Covid pandemic and the China-US trade wars emerged.

Previous economic growth had over-relied on the expansion of the services sector, one that overly depended on cheap foreign labour, which now accounts for almost a third of our labour force!

Meanwhile, manufacturing had stalled over the past decade, with little value-added or investment in the use and development of more sophisticated technology.

Why? We have faltered in human resource development. We might have more universities and more students, including foreign ones. But our academic standards have declined drastically. Our universities cannot compete with the best in East Asia, let alone globally.

Jomo also shared statistics which indicated that inter-ethnic disparities had eased and evened out since the 1990s. Alas, intra-ethnic disparities had widened glaringly. There is growing class disparity regardless of ethnic background. Disturbingly, foreign ownership of equity had risen to new levels during the past 10 years as well, reversing earlier trends.

Take a look at the video of his comprehensive presentation, which contains loads of interesting tables and statistical data.

Towards the end, Jomo stressed we must rally all Malaysians again to bring about a change of government in the coming general election, just as we did in 2018.

The danger is that many voters, disillusioned and cynical over recent political developments, might stay home, instead of coming out to vote. But we boycott the election at our peril – for it is downhill all the way if the kleptocrats are returned to power!

Aliran members agreed with Jomo when we discussed the looming election on the second day of our review. Yes, we must rally Malaysians to come out to vote.

More than that, we decided we would prepare a succinct People’s Agenda with like-minded NGOs. This would be a major contribution to inject discussions about policies during the lead-up to the election.  

The NGOs would then take the values and suggestions raised in the People’s Agenda to the political parties and pressure them to incorporate or adopt those values and pointers. And we must disallow and dissuade the political parties from turning the election campaign into one of race and religious baiting.

We must turn the election into an occasion for deliberating on policies and finding a way out of our socioeconomic malaise.

It should also be an occasion to dream again of becoming a more democratic, inclusive and compassionate Malaysia.

If you have not seen the People’s Agenda, along with the full list of endorsers, check it out here. If you belong to an NGO that would like to endorse the Agenda, get them to fill up the online endorsement form.

And keep an eye on the Webinars section of the Aliran website: in the coming weeks, we will be uploading video clips of the presentations by the leaders of the six NGOs that have co-sponsored the People’s Agenda.

Please share this with your friends. Let’s Reclaim Our Nation in the coming general election!  

Dr Francis Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
26 April 2022
AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
  1. Tegakkan maruah serta kualiti kehidupan rakyat
  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
  3. Raikan kerencaman dan keterangkuman
  4. Selamatkan demokrasi dan angkatkan keluhuran undang-undang
  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

Dr Francis Loh served as honorary secretary of Aliran for 20 years and then president of Aliran for five years from 2011 to 2016. He obtained a doctorate in political science and Southeast Asian studies from Cornell University and retired as professor of politics in Universiti Sains Malaysia. He continues to serve on the Aliran executive committee
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Khoo Soo Hay
Khoo Soo Hay
27 Apr 2022 8.25am

Voters must really probe and examine the background of every election candidate as to their personal background with a view on their character as regards their morality, honesty and genuineness to serve the public and country and not for self.

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