Some dramatic developments signalling Hope took place last month.
Somewhat unexpectedly, much disgust was expressed by civil society and in the public domain over Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission chief Azam Baki’s controversial shareholdings. Here was a man put in charge of fighting corruption in the country. But allegedly, he had acquired shareholdings way beyond what he, as a civil servant, was allowed to hold.
Surely this indicated a conflict of interest – the MACC is supposed to symbolise Malaysia’s fight against corruption, and here we had the integrity of its chief being questioned publicly!
Yes, a wide spectrum of Malaysian society – young and old, from different classes, and ranging from different ethno-religious backgrounds – stepped forward to express their disgust with the situation. They wanted Azam to resign or to go on leave. They were not convinced by expressions of support for him by higher-ups. They criticised those who tried to exonerate him. They called for an independent investigation instead.
Aliran is proud we played a leading role in this campaign to investigate Azam‘s controversial shareholdings. We launched an online petition calling on the prime minister to investigate the matter. As a follow-up, we issued a joint-statement with other leading NGOs representing a wide spectrum of Malaysian society, calling for an independent investigation into the matter and for an overhaul of the MACC. This episode culminated in the staging of a rally #TangkapAzamBaki on 22 January.
How does one explain this public expression of disgust in January 2022 so soon after the ruling coalition had cruised to victory in the Malacca and then the Sarawak state elections in late 2021? The sheer ineptitude and unpreparedness of the Perikatan Nasional government in handling the recent floods may have been partly responsible.
Floods in Klang Valley and ‘developed areas’
For the first time, these floods swamped so-called ‘developed’ parts of the west coast of the peninsula, especially in the Klang Valley – not just in far away Kelantan and Terengganu, or Sarawak and Sabah, as was usually the case.
These ‘developed areas’ were more built up, less green; their rivers had been canalised and turned into longkangs (drains). Unlike in naturalised settings, excess water could not be absorbed into the ground.
So, the concretised rivers-turned-longkangs ensured that increased rainfall would fill up the longkangs with more water and invariably flood the surroundings rapidly. For three days, this is what happened in the Klang Valley and in parts of Pahang.
All of us must have received and viewed many videos, Instagram posts, TikTok clips, memes, WhatsApps updates (and whatnot!) of the floods, which we also shared with others. Some of us also went down to help as water levels were rising or to help in cleaning up after the floods had subsided. Others helped with raising funds to help fellow Malaysians set up their homes again.
It needs stressing that the floods hit the urban, educated middle-class in several townships this time. Witnessing their housing estates, parks, highways and shopping malls; schools, temples, mosques and churches; and their own vehicles swamped left a bad taste in the mouths of these Malaysians. See JD Lovrenciear’s article “Flood havoc: Choose capable leaders to save Malaysia” on 2 January 2022.
Amid these floods, a new coalition of NGOs, Gabungan Darurat Iklim (Climate Emergency Coalition), emerged demanding that the government deal with the plight of those affected with more urgency. It insisted that the government pursue longer-term sustainable development efforts to tackle the problem of flash floods – for the floods are caused by a combination of increased deforestation, poorly planned development, and changes in river management.
Coincidentally, Penang-based Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio, which was celebrating its 10th anniversary, had decided to revisit its performance of the plight of Sungai Pinang, the largest river basin in Penang. So, for several months, they prepared a show which combined wayang, dance and music called Wayang Pacak – Seruan Nadi: The cry of a dying river. This show was performed in Penang on 17 and 18 November 2021, with a live feed to a broader audience as well.
In view of the floods in the Klang Valley, Ombak-Ombak prepared a video of their show, including clips about how we ought not treat our rivers, for popular distribution. Check out Tan Sooi Beng’s article “Twist of Fate? Dance musical about rivers under threat coincides with overflowing rivers in Selangor”, where you can also view the video. Enjoy!
Disgust over floods, incense over Azam Baki controversy
The ineptitude of the government in handing the flash floods contributed to a critical attitude towards those in authority.
The rakyat must have thought: The PN leaders couldn’t wait to come to power in the next general election and instead came through the Sheraton backdoor. But they have been inept in rehabilitating the economy and in fighting Covid. They didn’t know how to fix worsening standards in our schools and universities, and now, they are ‘blur’ about dealing with these floods as well! Worse, some were trying to conduct photo shoots and take selfies of themselves visiting flood victims. How shameful!
This new critical attitude led to a related concern about worsening corruption in high places. Imagine, after so many changes in prime minister and after extended court sessions for many years, the two largest financial scandals the country has witnessed – the SRC International and the 1MDB cases – have not seen any closure.
We were shamed throughout the world but it appears there’s no urgency in trying to reclaim our dignity. Instead, former Prime Minister Najib Razak, a convicted felon who in July 2020 was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment and fined RM210m for his involvement in corruption, has remained free. Why, he even dared to be involved in electoral campaigns!
There have also been delays in the court hearings of others, including Umno president Zahid Hamidi. And there have been several cases of leaders whose cases were dropped (‘discharged not amounting to acquittal’), including former Sabah Umno chief minister Musa Aman.
I believe middle-class Malaysians of all ethnic backgrounds, particularly in urban areas, have become incensed with all these grandfathers’ tales of corruption – of how some Saudi royalty had banked in billions of dollars into one’s account; of how the account belonged to a do-good foundation, not the accused; and now, how one’s brother had used one’s trading account to buy shares.
Youth on the march
On 22 January, several hundred young Malaysians gathered in Bangsar (ha ha, not Sogo as originally announced!) to demand that MACC chief Azam be arrested, as so many different efforts to get him to come clean on his controversial ownership of shares had come to nought. They also wanted the MACC to be moved from the Prime Minister’s Department and placed under Parliament, and new members to be appointed to the MACC.
The controversy had been unravelling for several weeks, including in Parliament, where the matter of his ownership of shares was raised. Apparently, the value of the shares he owned totalled much more than what a civil servant in his position could accumulate. Ridiculously, he offered the reason that his brother had bought these shares using his name and account without his knowledge!
Azam was summoned by a parliamentary special select committee to answer questions. But he demurred on the grounds that a discussion of the matter could be tantamount to sub judice as he had filed a defamation suit against a journalist who had reported on his ownership of the controversial shares. The former Speaker criticised him for defying Parliament – to no avail.
Worse, the Securities Commission looked into his records and felt that no proxy, other than Azam himself, had operated his account. In effect, this means that Azam lied when he claimed earlier that his brother had been operating his account without his knowledge. Strangely, Azam, as well as the MACC, welcomed the Securities Commission’s finding.
In the event, members of the MACC advisory panel issued a statement saying they had not been consulted by their panel chairman, who had unilaterally exonerated Azam!
The leaders of the protest rally reportedly included political party youth leaders and activists. On the eve of the protest, a “Pentas Anak Muda” ceramah was organised in Bangsar, calling for public participation at the #TangkapAzamBaki rally the next day.
After the rally, police called in and questioned some of the youth leaders. They included Muda vice-president Dr Thanussha Francis Xavier; Amanah youth leader Mohd Hasbie Muda, his deputy Zubair Rahim plus committee members Asmaaliff Adam and Abbas Azmi; DAP Youth chief Howard Lee; PKR Youth secretary Ahmad Syukri Abd Razak and PKR member and activist Adam Adli; Jalinan Nusantara Malaysia chairman Mohd Azam Mektar; International Islamic University lecturer Abu Hafiz Salleh Hudin; lawyer Bakri Omar; and social media activist Amira Aisha.
Apart from the youth from nine opposition political parties, another 23 other NGOs, including Aliran, Abim, Gerak, Patriot, Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall Youth and Pusat Kegiatan Pelajar Islam Malaysia (PKPIM), were listed as organisers of the #TangkapAzamBaki action committee.
It was ridiculous that six major roads and 24 train stations across four metro lines – around Merdeka Square, Sogo and Masjid Jamek in downtown Kuala Lumpur – were shut down by police on 22 January from 7am.
In view of the police-directed lockdown, the demonstrators ‘moved’ the rally to Bangsar. There, over a thousand police personnel, including a Light Strike Force unit, had been deployed to face off the outnumbered demonstrators!
Aliran’s petition and civil society joint statement
On 1 January 2022, three weeks earlier, Aliran had initiated an online petition demanding that the prime minister investigate Azam’s case. Aliran’s initiative was sparked by the resignation of renowned political economist Dr Edmund Terence Gomez, also an Aliran member, from the MACC’s consultation and corruption prevention panel.
Despite Gomez’s request and reminders to the MACC to look into Azam’s controversial ownership of shares – which, if true, indicated a conflict of interest with his role as MACC chief – the panel chief had not launched any investigation.
Aliran’s petition also called for a revamping of the MACC so that there would be greater transparency. It also called for relocating it from the PM’s Department to Parliament, where it could be placed under the charge of a bipartisan parliamentary special select committee. Here, at least, it could act more independently. (As of 1 February 2022, almost 20,000 people have signed the petition. If you haven’t read the Petition and signed, please do so here and now.)
Many articles in the mainstream media, even more so over social media, demanded that these allegations against Azam be investigated.
Interestingly, former Prime Minister Najib Razak, the felon, came out in support of the MACC! He condemned the critics for their “selective attacks” on the MACC. Pas leader Hadi Awang claimed these attacks were an effort by the opposition and critics to destabilise Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s government.
Some defenders of Azam tried to turn the controversy into a racial matter. Significantly, about this time, several statements condemning the continued presence of vernacular primary schools in the country were highlighted. Thankfully, this racist rubbish had no track – for Malaysians of all ethnic groups had joined in the rally and in condemnation of the Azam episode.
On 11 January, Aliran, with fellow civil society groups Gerak, Patriot and Suaram, issued a statement demanding that action be taken against Azam. Another 45 NGOs – including Abim, Bersih, G25, Ikram, Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia, Ideas and the Centre for Independent Journalism – endorsed the statement.
In view of the MACC itself exonerating Azam, these NGOs called for an independent investigation into the MACC crisis. Without this independent investigation, how can the MACC restore its credibility?
They also demanded that a team of independent investigators look into how the MACC advisory board chairman exonerated Azam without consulting the other board members.
The NGOs also wanted to know how the MACC chief could allow his brother to buy share using his securities account when it could be a violation of the law. Do check out this important statement endorsed by the 49 NGOs, a good representation of Malaysians from different walks of life and from all ethno-religious backgrounds.
Reforms achieved under the MoU
Another news of Hope involved the ‘traditional’ Opposition. You might have read Subang MP Wong Chen’s piece about the status of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) that was signed between the Opposition and Ismail Sabri when the latter came to power in mid-2021.
At that point, many Malaysians were worried the country was in dire straits – what with the Covid pandemic worsening, the economy breaking down and unemployment rising, and all the political shenanigans following the Sheraton coup.
So, instead of challenging Ismail Sabri with a vote of confidence in Parliament, which could have triggered its dissolution and a new round of elections when the pandemic was worsening, the Opposition, responding to the Agong’s request, agreed to cooperate with the new government instead. The result was the MoU.
Apparently, there are 18 demands that were agreed upon. According to Wong Chen, 13 of these have been completed, three are pending, and two others are ongoing.
The completed reforms are:
- The reduction of the minimum voting age to 18
- The Malaysia Agreement 1963 constitutional reforms
- The inclusion of opposition MPs in the national recovery council
- RM45bn for Covid
- Improvements to the find, test, trace, isolate and support approach and vaccination
- RM10bn aid for 11 million struggling citizens
- Bank interest waivers for the poor
- Incentives for small and medium enterprises (SMEs)
- An adequate supply of vaccines
- The strengthening of parliamentary select committees
- Equal allocations for MPs (regardless of party)
- Balanced select committee chairmanships
- The raising of the Leader of Opposition’s position to be equal to that in a Westminster democracy
The uncompleted demands are:
- A law to curb party defections (expected in June 2022)
- Limiting the PM’s post to 10 years (expected in March 2022)
- A Parliamentary Services Act (expected in March 2022).
Apparently, discussions are ongoing on the remaining two:
- Judicial independence
- Reforms to Parliament’s standing orders
It appears from Wong Chen’s post that the Opposition is claiming shared responsibility for helping to improve how Malaysia has tackled the Covid pandemic.
The statistics regularly presented by the health minister indicate that over 90% of the adult population have received their first and second jabs, placing Malaysia among the most vaccinated countries in the world. This is something to be proud of considering the hiccups we encountered initially, including a lack of access to the vaccines and wishy washy responses led by the then “air suam” health minister. It is good if the Opposition did persuade or pressure the government to commit RM45bn to fighting Covid.
As well, the Opposition is claiming it played a role in influencing the government to fund and introduce economic recovery programmes. This includes making available RM10bn to aid struggling Malaysians, assisting SMEs, and waiving bank interest payments for the poor.
Above all, the government and the Opposition should be proud to have passed the bill to reduce the minimum voting age to 18. Yes, this bill was taken off the timetable towards the end of Mahiaddin Yasin’s term as PM. So, it is good it has been passed.
Apparently, new voters now do not even need to register themselves as voters. According to an Election Commission commissioner, their names will be included in the electoral roll and they can look forward to voting in the upcoming Johor state election, if they so wish.
Kudos also to the government for approving the registration of the new Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda) party, with or without the Opposition’s persuasion.
The reinstatement of the Malaysia Agreement 1963 agreement is also very significant. No doubt, it contributed towards the impressive victory of Gabungan Parti Sarawak in the recent state polls. More importantly, it restores the Kuala Lumpur’s promises of autonomy in certain areas to Kuching and Kota Kinabalu when they first agreed to become part of Malaysia in 1963.
That said, I am disappointed that bringing back local government elections was not one of the items in the MoU. At a time when the whole world is decentralising their governments to facilitate participatory democracy and effective governance at the local level, we remain hesitant about bringing back elected local government.
Housing and Local Government Minister Reezal Merican claimed there was no need to do so, for the existing system of appointed representatives was working well. He feared electioneering at the local level would detract the aspirants from doing their jobs properly; besides, he said, holding yet another level of elections could cost the government about RM302m every two years, as there were 151 local authorities and holding elections would cost RM2m each (The Malay Mail, 9 December 221).
Obviously, the minister does not know what he’s talking about. Remember, Indonesia and the Philippines, both of which are not even federal countries, have carried out wide-ranging reforms in decentralising their local governments, including restoring elected governments at that level. Both, especially Indonesia, show economic development at the local level.
So, bringing back elected local governments is a demand that must be prioritised in the coming general election.
So, too, decentralising our educational system; decentralising disaster management, including tackling flash floods; and, of course, revamping the MACC and relocating it from the Prime Minister’s Department to Parliament to combat corruption.
Judicial reform, one of the items under the MoU but which has made little progress, is related to fighting corruption. It must also be prioritised.
Old vs New Politics
Malaysia’s Old Politics was dominated by a small group of elites who presided over ethnic-based political parties for some 60 long years. They were only linked together through the Barisan Nasional, a multi-ethnic coalition at the top, which was dominated by Umno.
The BN parties also got involved in business activities – running banks, media empires, construction conglomerates and educational enterprises. So long as these parties doubled up as systems of patronage, which provided for their members down the pyramid, support for the BN elites was assured.
However, such patronage led to ‘money politics’; it was a short step towards nepotism and corruption. Not surprisingly, this Old Politics culminated in corruption at the apex of power. Do not forget that former Prime Minister Najib has been found guilty of corruption.
New Politics, one hoped, would be multi-ethnic and untainted by money politics and patronage. It would allow for free and fair elections with democratic participation, including at the local level.
One had hoped that a more inclusive multi-ethnic coalition would displace Umno-BN, already in power for over 50 years. One also wished that perhaps there would be a rotation of power between two multi-ethnic coalitions.
So, we got very excited when the Pakatan Harapan coalition, led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, defeated Umno-BN in the 2018 general election.
One hoped that there might be a deepening of democracy through the reform of key institutions like the judiciary, the police, the MACC, the universities and the entire educational system.
All coercive laws should be repealed, one prayed.
Perhaps we would see more consultation with the rakyat prior to policymaking through the creation of parliamentary select committees.
Or maybe there would be new royal commissions of inquiry set up to investigate a host of chronic problems, perhaps starting with widespread corruption.
Such hope-for reforms were the dream of New Politics.
Alas, what occurred was the very opposite! The 2018 general election outcome was compromised by the Sheraton backdoor coup in February 2020. Hope for a New Politics has evaporated.
‘Big P Politics’ vs ‘small p politics’
The old parties like Umno-BN, the formation of new parties and new coalitions, the holding of general elections – all these pertain to ‘Big P Politics’, the realm of formal procedural politics concerned with the struggle to gain Power. This Big P Politics was dominated by Umno-BN for over 60 years. The ordinary rakyat had little say and control over Big P Politics.
Fortunately, a new kind of politics has emerged: the ‘small p politics’, conducted outside the parties and outside the realm of formal elections. It is pushed by the educated middle class, especially the young. This realm of politics includes concern and advocacy for good governance; for social justice and human rights, including for migrant workers, Orang Asli and Orang Asal; for gender equality, sustainable development and the protection of the environment and cultural heritage, including the promotion of people-oriented arts and music. Combating corruption and cronyism, and reaching out to peoples of other ethno-religious backgrounds through inter-faith dialogue also falls within this realm.
Yes, small-p-politics people like to be consulted and heard. They like to attend town hall meetings, sign petitions and issue joint statements. They are also IT savvy and use Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, TikTok, Instagram and YouTube to disseminate their opinions, performances and announcements.
They also enjoy attending mass rallies like Bersih’s and smaller ones like the #TangkapAzam Baki protest. They like organising flash mobs at street junctions and shopping malls.
All of us have been exposed to, if not involved in, this kind of small p politics to push for one or another cause, one or another issue, without trying to vote out an entire government from time to time.
Disillusionment with Big P Politics, not just of the party in power but of the Opposition too, and their leaders, appears to be on the rise.
Consequently, there has been talk, especially among NGO/CSO circles “to do our own thing”, “to form our own party” and “to put up our own candidates”, ultimately, to implement a plan B in the coming general election.
I consider this to be an unwelcome move that promises a false dawn. Admittedly, problems exist with the existing opposition parties and with their leaders. But any plan B must be thoroughly thought through and has to be widely supported. Any new alternative party must be prepared to contest in a majority of seats and expect to come out on top on polling night: its goal must be to form a new government. No such plan B has been shared with the public.
Unlike the young people of Burma, we in Malaysia are not undertaking the revolutionary path to power. Nor are we like the Indonesians, who are excited about their new leaders, so different from the old military ones. In Indonesia, the Reformasi movement moves on.
The options in Malaysia are limited and very circumscribed. Disillusioned though we might be, we must attempt to marry the small p participatory politics to the Big P Power Politics, the NGO world of cause-oriented politics to the formal party-based electoral process and where they address wide-ranging issues simultaneously.
We should not overestimate the impact of NGO-driven single-issue activism – like protesting an Azam Baki controversy or when we demand that the government does more to fight the floods.
At the same time, we cannot underestimate the impact, influence and buying power of political parties (which in Malaysia have access to the three Ms – the mainstream Media, lots of Money to finance electioneering, and Machinery whether belonging to the parties or to the government, which they use for their party purposes). They can deliver the lowering of the voting age to 18, the reinstatement of Malaysia Agreement 1963, and so on.
The parties can also outmanoeuvre the NGOs. They can certainly manipulate the media and demonise individuals and groups (even opposition parties and their leaders). They can hijack discussions of serious issues and turn them into black vs white, us vs them, and simple-minded racist diatribe.
This is why we in the NGO world need to work with the opposition parties, warts and all. We in the small p participatory politics world must engage with the opposition parties in the Big P Power Politics world. Together, we can offer Hope and possibly Change for the Better.
Let us prepare for the coming general election together. Let us move from Old Politics to New Politics together.Francis Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
31 January 2022