As we usher in the New Year, the situation in the country remains fluid, even after a second change of government in three years.
Let us never forget how Parliament was suspended for such a long time under emergency rule during the year. Along with other NGOs, Aliran challenged this suspension in a legal suit – and the matter is still before the courts.
When Parliament finally reconvened, the Mahiaddin Yasin-led government fell apart – only for a fresh coalition to be cobbled together, this time led by Umno’s Ismail Sabri Yaakob.
Yes, Umno is back in power again, after a brief hiatus. And little has changed – the political manoeuvring seemed more like a game of musical chairs. The government remains largely mono-ethnic and mono-religious, apart from the Barisan Nasional-friendly parties from Sarawak and Sabah.
Some things barely change. The government has done little to curb ethno-religious sentiment, which simmers and flares up now and then. Sometimes it appeared to be pandering to such sentiment.
Witness the Timah and Sajat controversies. It is almost as if such controversies are allowed to surface now and then to divert our attention from serious corruption and accountability issues.
Among the critical issues is the RM1.8 trillion in the outflow of illicit funds over a decade. Now, we have the Pandora papers, which shone some light into how elite personalities stash enormous sums of money abroad. This raises a host of questions.
Meanwhile, the 12th Malaysia Plan contains RM400bn worth of projects. Some believe that 20 to 30% of spending could be lost due to corruption and ‘leakages’. Imagine if this money was used to improve our schools and hospitals, build more low-income housing and empower urban poor and rural communities.
The worrying part is that no one from all the high-profile cases of elite corruption has gone to prison. In fact, one by one, they seem to be let off the hook or allowed to resume an active role in politics.
As the year ends, even the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission has come under the spotlight with serious allegations about a conflict of interest involving its chief.
Budget 2022 saw lopsided race-based allocations that seemed to marginalise minority communities. Worse, expenditure outweighs revenue by RM98bn. This deficit is likely to be financed by domestic borrowings, leaving future generations to pick up the tab.
Already, the government’s total debt and liabilities may have surpassed RM1.3 trillion, which is 88% of gross domestic product (GDP), according to one economist.
The economy is expected to be driven by domestic consumption, but this consumption is heavily financed by debt: household debt has surpassed RM1.3 trillion – almost 90% of GDP.
Whichever way you look at it, we are swamped with debt.
People are suffering from the flagging economy – job losses, long hours at work, the rising cost of living. Yet, truckloads of highly paid ministers, ‘envoys’ with ministerial status, ‘advisers’ and heads of government-linked companies are lapping up their allowances and perks, including brand new Vellfire cars for ministers.
We still see ecologically destructive projects and a high level of emissions around the country, as decision-makers seem oblivious to the climate emergency gripping the world.
We still witness gender gaps and inequality, including in the representation of women in Parliament and state assemblies.
Much like the band playing while the Titanic sinks, the country is sinking deeper into a morass, while elite politicians merrily indulge in endemic corruption.
The disconnect between the ruling elite and the struggling grassroots could not be wider.
As the corrupt allow ethno-religious controversy to be stoked to camouflage their tracks, confidence in the country has waned among both investors and ordinary people.
Investors are shying away and turning to neighbouring countries.
The brain drain worsens as many professionals and young people see little hope for the future. Many middle-class families who send their children abroad for studies are telling them not to return home.
Where have we gone wrong? What can we do? Given such a dire situation, is it foolish to hope that things will get better?
This is where Aliran and other civil society groups can play an important role to re-ignite hope and spur renewal and reforms. Civil society has a critical role to play in promoting a more inclusive, democratic and sustainable future.
We must continue to raise awareness and consciousness among people of all ethnic groups and all faiths or none.
A period of consolidation
Given that much of this year was under lockdown, we in Aliran consolidated our resources to help us extend our reach in the future.
We tweaked our website to make it much lighter and quicker to download. We upgraded our webhosting to cater for sudden spikes in traffic without our website being affected. We implemented an online membership application form to make it easier for anyone interested in joining Aliran.
We engaged a freelance translator, who has provided us with prompt and accurate translations. Thus, we have been able to expand our Malay content considerably, compared to last year, publishing significantly more original articles and translations in Malay.
At the 2020 AGM, we said we would explore expanding the use of social media. A few months ago, we formed a social media team to spread inspiring messages to highlight a range of human rights and promote the cause of justice. This year, too, we held our own Aliran webinars for the first time, organising five such sessions.
All these efforts had some impact on the wider public. Despite a slight drop in website traffic, donations from the public rose 30% and helped narrow our monthly deficits. And after our financial year-end on 30 September, a couple of generous donations miraculously erased our deficit for the year! To all those who believed in us and supported our cause, to our string of volunteer writers and activists, we thank you for your generosity of time and resources.
All this consolidation will help us better respond to national events and influence the agenda in the run-up to the next general election, which promises to be intensely contested.
We will prevail
If we want to build a new, more just Malaysia we can be proud of, we need to start by reaching out and engaging in conversations, especially with vulnerable groups.
We cannot afford to be discouraged. We must live in hope – for we are on the right side of history, our message of justice, freedom and solidarity desperately needed.
People used to laugh when the late Desmond Tutu would ask during the dark days of apartheid in South Africa, “Why don’t you join the winning side before it’s too late?” But in their hearts, they knew he was right. It was just a question of when.
We too must persevere in pointing the way to a more democratic, inclusive and sustainable future for Malaysia. We must never lose hope – for our hope lies in the ordinary people of Malaysia and our cause.
When the government failed to respond promptly in the wake of the devastating floods recently, many ordinary people – locals, migrants and civil society groups alike – rose magnificently to the occasion. They crossed ethnic, religious and class lines to rescue people, distribute relief supplies and clean up muddy homes.
They inspired us and gave us a glimpse of what is possible in a more inclusive Malaysia that harnesses our talents and resources for the common good. In their own way, they showed us we cannot leave matters to the ruling elite to sort out. We have to get involved.
Indeed, we should never underestimate ordinary people’s ability to bring about change. The anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
We have more than a small group involved in the movement for reforms and justice. And ultimately, we will prevail.
Happy New Year!
Anil Netto, 6pm, 31 December 2021