Monday, 7 November 2011

Testing the limits of reform

Brave New World (The Star)
22 September 2011

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak indeed has the country buzzing with his promises of sweeping reforms, but any change to these laws will take at least a year – and that’s practically an infinity in politics.

THERE’S been so much excited quivering during the past week over the Prime Minister’s Malaysia Day speech that I sometimes feel like I’m living in a bowl of jelly. This is not the first time a PM has made the Malaysian public as giddy as schoolgirls at a Justin Bieber concert.
I am old enough to remember former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s “Clean, Efficient, Trustworthy” promise upon taking power and how people thought that this was the beginning of a new type of government. One that was not “dirty, incompetent and dishonest”. Of course, after the numerous financial scandals involving billions, that hope went out the window.
Tun Abdullah Badawi’s “work with me not for me” statement also captured the public’s imagination and his promise for greater civil liberties had hardcore opposition supporters voting BN for the first time. It didn’t take too long before tear gas and chemical water cannons washed away the euphoria which greeted the new PM.
Now it is Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s turn, and indeed he has got the country buzzing with his promises of sweeping reforms.
The Internal Security Act (ISA) is to be abolished, and the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) amended along with a slew of other changes.
I do not believe that I am being overly cynical when I say “this is all well and good but I’ll believe it when I see it”.
My concern is two-fold. First, unless and until we actually see the shape that the amended PPPA takes, and until we can closely scrutinise the two new laws which are supposed to be the replacement for the ISA, I think it is premature to think that we are finally rid of these draconian laws.
From my understanding, under the proposed amended PPPA, a newspaper can still have its licence taken away by the Govern­ment. Is this process going to be easy for the Government and without any recourse to the courts for the paper? If so, then there’s not much change, is there?
The same goes with the two new security laws that are supposed to replace the ISA. If there is still broad discretion to detain without trial then all we have is old wine in a new bottle. I am unconvinced, for example, that the new laws will only be used for terrorism cases.
If the new law is only for terrorists, who is going to define who is a terrorist and who is not? And without a trial, a detention order can still be easily abused – all one needs to do is accuse a person of being a terror threat.
My second concern has to do with the sustainability of the idea within Umno. Let’s not forget, the system of government we have in Malaysia follows the Westminster model, that is to say we don’t vote for our PM directly.
The PM is fundamentally the choice of the party with the majority in Parliament, as opposed to the presidential system where the leader of the nation is chosen directly by the people.
If this idea to abolish the ISA and to make these sweeping systemic changes is primarily from the Prime Minister, how can we be sure that his party will follow through with it if he is no longer PM?
Any change to these laws will take at least a year. A week is a long time in politics, a year is practically an infinity – and anything can happen in such a period.
Putting my concerns aside, I hope that something positive will come from these promises and that these laws will be changed, and the changes will be substantial and meaningful. If it does happen, let us not forget that they happened because the people wanted it to happen.
No matter what the ruling party claims, if it wasn’t for the shock that they had in March 2008, if it wasn’t for the constant call for the repeal of these laws from the public and civil society, we wouldn’t all be quivering as we are now.

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