Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Under Threat? What Threat?

Brave New World (The Star)
17 April 2008

"Since the recent general election, voices have risen up in a shrill warning cry that the Malays are now ‘under threat’. But perhaps the real threat is the threat to Umno hegemony.


And so it begins. Race-based rhetoric has raised its ugly little head in response to a democratic process. Over 49% of the people of Malaysia have voted for parties that have rejected race-based affirmative action in favour of a needs-based platform.

It did not take very long for voices, both common and royal, to rise up in a shrill warning cry that the Malays are now “under threat”.

“Under threat” from what, may I ask? Let’s take a bit of time to look at this so-called “threat”. Firstly, Malays are given special protection under Article 153 of the Constitution.

Article 153 is titled “Reservation of quotas in respect of services, permits, etc, for Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak”. Article 152 states that Malay is the National Language. The Supreme Head of the Federation, according to Article 32, is the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, a Malay ruler.

This is the foundation of Malay “special privileges”.

None of the Pakatan Rakyat component parties, including the DAP, have said anything about removing Articles 153, 152 and 32. They remain safe and secure with no sign whatsoever of any sort of threat.

Besides, in order to change it, you would need a two-thirds majority in the lower and upper houses of Parliament plus the support of the Conference of Rulers. The last time I checked, no one has a two-thirds majority in the Dewan Rakyat.

Secondly, due to simple demographics, it is unlikely that a totally non-Malay party is ever going to win absolute control of the government. Of the five state governments in the hands of the Pakatan, four are led by a Malay Mentri Besar.

Penang is an exception, but Penang has been led by non-Malays since the 60s. Why was there was no outcry before this?

Thirdly, the proposed doing-away with the NEP (or whatever it is called nowadays), I suppose, can be seen as a threat to the Malays.

But how it can be a threat is beyond me, because the replacement suggested by the Pakatan is not some sort of laissez-faire capitalist economy. Instead, it is an economic system with affirmative action promised to those in need.

If the Malays are the largest group of people in Malaysia who are in the most need, then they will get the most help. If they are not in the most need, then why on earth do they need help then?

This is the point where I will get angry letters about how the NEP is needed; because in the business world – the real world which I know nothing about because I am just a lowly-academic trapped in my ivory tower – Malays are discriminated against by the Chinese. So we need a policy like the NEP to provide some balance.

I disagree.

If there are racist business policies being conducted against the Malays, then you face it head on with anti-discrimination laws.

If some person feels he is being discriminated against, no matter what his race, then let there be a law to help him, and let us punish the racists with a hefty fine or jail term.

You do not meet racism with racism; you challenge it by destroying all traces of it.

The problem with the NEP, as I see it, is that it breeds a mentality of entitlement based on race and not merit. This mentality seeps into governance, and it creates an atmosphere of mediocrity. One example of this is how the Constitution has been disregarded in relation to employment issues.

The Federal Constitution states that you can set quotas at the entry points of government services, for example, the civil service and public universities. However, this is counter-balanced by Article 136 that says all federal employees must be treated fairly regardless of race.

This means that once inside a service, everyone is to be treated equally based on merit. In such a situation, only the cream will rise to the top.

However, since the introduction of the NEP, the practice in government services has been to promote Malays mainly. This has in turn led to a drop in the number of non-Malay actors in the service of the public.

Taking my profession for example, the closeted unrealistic world of academia, I look down south and I see that 30% of the staff in the National University of Singapore Law School are Malaysians.

How come these clever fellows who are good enough to teach in a university that is among the top 20 in the world are not here in the land of their birth? Why are the blinking Singaporeans enjoying our talent? Is it because that talent is all non-Malay and they feel they have better opportunities there than here?

This is a complete waste, and in the end this loss of talent means a loss for the university, the country and the people of this country, including the Malay students who miss out on the best possible teachers.

Perhaps the real threat is the threat to Umno hegemony, in which case my answer to that is this: clean up your act, live up to your promises and listen to what the people are saying.

Make yourself electable by proving that you can create good government.

That is called democracy.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Say Sorry So We Can Move On

Brave New World (The Star)
3 April 2008

There is nothing wrong in admitting one’s mistake. It is in fact a type of strength."


Saying sorry is really hard, apparently. At least according to Elton John; but then I can’t see that camp old fellow apologising to anyone.

Speaking of old fellows, former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad too doesn’t seem to be keen on saying sorry.

His reaction to calls from DAP chairman Karpal Singh for him to apologise for the dismissal of Tun Salleh Abbas in 1988 was to brush it aside.

Instead, he said that the tribunal which decided against Salleh Abbas, then Lord President, should apologise. That’s akin to John Wilkes Booth saying that his pistol should apologise to Abraham Lincoln.

However, this is neither here nor there. Karpal was just being Karpal, and it will be a chilly day in hell before Mahathir apologises for his administration.

The actual proposal by Senator Zaid Ibrahim is that the present government should apologise to Salleh Abbas and the other judges sacked during that black spot in our judicial history.

This proposal has met with some objections – primarily that an apology is not enough. The culprits are still around so they should be brought to task.

The situation in Malaysia is different from, say, in Australia. There, the recent apology by the government to the Aboriginal people made sense because the perpetrators of the worst offences against Australia’s indigenes are dead.

Actually, I liken an apology to Salleh and the two judges who were suspended, then sacked, more to the South African truth and reconciliation efforts at the fall of apartheid.

The purpose is not so much to punish the offenders, but more to seek closure to an awful part of the nation’s history, and then to move on.

And the legal system needs to move on. We live in the shadow of 1988 and all the problems that have resulted from it.

The perceived loss of confidence in the judiciary’s impartiality stems from that time, as well as the sense that the judiciary is beholden to outside powers, be they political or business.

A sense that was proven apparently correct, correct, correct to many people’s eyes when the infamous Lingam tape floated to the surface.

I can understand the need for justice. I truly sympathise with the idea of putting those responsible for the 1988 debacle through the wringer of the justice system, but, realistically, can this happen any time soon?

Perhaps it is better to have an apology, which will be akin to an official admission that the Government had done something terrible to the judiciary.

With such an admission, we can then start to rebuild, because then it will be absolutely clear that a terrible injustice has occurred and there is a need for a fresh start.

However, at the time of writing, even this symbolic (albeit important) step of saying sorry has been rejected by the Cabinet.

I imagine such an admission would be considered too embarrassing and a loss of face. Or perhaps the Cabinet truly believes that the tribunal was not wrongly constituted and unfair.

Whatever the reason, it is unwise to reject the idea of an apology. We have a desperate need to rebuild our judiciary and – it follows – the entire legal system to something we can not only be proud of, but also more importantly feel secure with.

This is one of the issues that powered the wave of discontent against the Barisan Nasional in the last election. It is odd then that the Cabinet chooses not to deal with it head-on and to dismiss Zaid’s idea (some would say, rather arrogantly).

There is nothing wrong in admitting one’s mistake. It is in fact a type of strength. A person can make all sorts of mistakes, the important thing is to realise that mistake and try to fix it.

Take Zaid, for example. When I first saw him I was a young tutor and he was climbing the Umno ladder.

It was at a panel discussion at a public university and he was defending the amendments to the Land Acquisition Act, which basically allowed the Government to compulsorily acquire land not just for public purposes but also for commercial purposes. It also shut the door on any judicial review over the reasons for such acquisitions.

In my young and idealistic mind, such an amendment was an affront to the principles of justice and social equity I was trained in, and I told Zaid in no uncertain terms that as a lawyer, he could not be defending such a law.

He, being the president of the mighty Muslim Lawyers Association, quite scathingly put me down.

He seems like a different chap nowadays. Maybe I should ask him to apologise?