Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Assets — it’s all about trust

Brave New World (The Star)
26 January 2012

Many MPs have their own businesses and professional careers, and frankly they need it. An MP’s pay is simply not that great.


WHEN I was a young boy, Chinese New Year meant getting money — lots of it. We would visit the homes of family friends and the red packets would be waiting.
I was trained to receive such gifts with grace. In other words, not to rip them open in front of the hosts and start counting.
So, I would patiently munch on peanuts and sip chrysanthemum tea, waiting for the time to leave and check out my loot.
In those days, getting a red packet that was light was considered a big deal. It meant that it contained paper money, and not coins.
One ringgit, two ringgit, this was big money. And if you managed to score a RM5 note, man, that was the jackpot!
As I got older, the red packets dried up but there were other things to bring amusement during CNY, like the Hong Kong comedy films that inevitably landed in our cinemas around this time.
This year, however, there was no need to hit the shopping malls to get my dose of laughs.
My favourite minister, Nazri Aziz, after being quiet for some time, gave me a hearty chuckle or two with his statement that ministers should not have their assets declared publicly because it may endanger them.
Endanger them from whom? The electorate?
I am guessing that he is thinking along the lines that if a person’s wealth is disclosed, then there is a threat of kidnapping and things like that.
Actually, if I were a kidnapper I won’t be sitting around waiting for an MACC report before choosing my target.
I could just get into my nondescript car and cruise around Damansara Heights and check out who lives in those giant, multi-million-ringgit mansions.
Or maybe I’ll hang around KL nightspots and observe which young man or woman steps out of a vehicle that costs the same as a luxury condominium.
There is really no need to wait for a public document to see who is rich and who is not.
But then, surely our hard-working elected officials have nothing to worry about. After all, they don’t live in mansions and their children don’t go scooting around in Ferraris, do they?
Actually, all this public declaration of assets business for me boils down to the issue of trust.
I find the whole idea of asking a person how much money and property he has, personally distasteful. It is just not a topic of conversation among polite society.
It can either be crass “I am a millionaire and I have loads of money”, or it can be intrusive “So, did you pay cash for this house?”
And I really don’t care if my elected officials are loaded or not. That is their rezeki.
Many MPs have their own businesses and professional careers, and frankly they need it. An MP’s pay is simply quite pathetic.
If you are an honest person, after you pay for your service centre and your staff you would barely have enough left to pay a mortgage, let alone live a life of luxury.
And I think it is unreasonable to say an MP has to stop all his business and professional interests when he or she becomes a minister.
However, when one is suspicious that power was abused in obtaining that rezeki, and that suspicion is reinforced time and time again by tales of corruption, perceived or otherwise, then it becomes necessary that such a distasteful activity be carried out.
I look forward to the day when we can trust our public and elected officials to the point that all this would simply not be necessary. Until that day comes, I am afraid that despite Nazri’s fear of politically-savvy kidnappers, a public declaration of assets for ministers is an absolute must.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Winning back public confidence

Brave New World (The Star)
12 January 2012

It is not enough that our judges must be seen to be independent, we also need to know that the decision to prosecute or not is made without fear or favour.


IN the wake of the Anwar Ibrahim verdict, there has been much debate on how this proves the independence of our judiciary.
Praise has been lavished on the transformation plan as though it was this plan that improved the judiciary’s freedom.
If this is so, then surely the implication is that before the transformation plan there were problems with the Bench.
However, it would be too much to ask of anyone in the ruling party to admit to this.
After all they have been vehemently denying that there is nothing wrong with our justice system despite damning reports both from home and abroad.
So for the past few days, Barisan MPs and supporters have been going around saying: “I told you so, nothing wrong with the judiciary. I told you so.”
Well, to use a well-worn phrase, “a swallow does not a summer make”.
The loss of confidence in the judiciary is too deep to be revived with just one decision.
Let’s look at this judgment. A cynic would say that this was the best thing to have happened to Barisan.
After all, if Anwar was locked up the ruling party would have to deal with a “martyr”; and Azizah would once again be pushed into the foreground.
I am not suggesting for one moment that this is why the judge made his decision; I am not privy to the workings of his mind.
I am merely pointing out that it is not so easy to say with just one case that all doubts regarding the relationship of the judiciary and the Executive can be wiped out.
To restore faith in the legal system would take years. And it is not merely the Bench I am talking about here.
The independence of the Attorney-General’s Chambers and its prosecution service must also be restored.
It is not enough that our judges must be seen to be independent, we also need to know with absolute certainty that the decision to prosecute or not is made without any fear or favour.
Once trust is lost, it takes years to rebuild.
This is true between individuals; it is even truer when it comes to institutions as important as a country’s legal system.

BFM interview on education

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Lack of respect for the Constitution

Selangor Times
25 November 2011


It’s quite apt that it was during a mass circumcision ceremony that Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz made his announcement that Section 27 of the Police Act 1967 is going to be removed. We, the people of Malaysia, just like the poor little nippers at that ceremony, are going to be rid of something.
However, there is a difference between us and the scores of little boys who will now be wandering around gingerly holding their sarongs at arm’s length. Whereas they are safe in the knowledge that their foreskins are not coming back, we can’t really be sure whether Section 27 of the Police Act is going to return in another form.
Section 27 is the law that governs public assemblies, and it has been heavily criticised as being a stumbling block to legitimate peaceful gatherings. Now the government wants to replace it with a new law. But we will have to look at the proposed Peaceful Assembly Bill very closely before we can say with any certainty that the draconian Section 27 is well and truly consigned to the graveyard.
It’s all rather silly, actually. We would not need a Peaceful Assembly law if there was a true understanding of the law in the first place. If one were to look at Section 27, it does look, on the face of it, a totally authoritarian law. The police appear to have unlimited power to decide whether a permit to assemble can be issued or not.
However, there are limits to police powers. It’s called the Federal Constitution. The constitution guarantees us the right to gather peacefully. The only conditions are that the gathering is non-violent, and not a threat to national security or public order.
In other words, unless the police have actual hard evidence that one or more of these conditions will not be fulfilled, they simply must give a permit. And if they make a poor decision, then the courts should be the final arbiter.
The problem is that there is no respect for the constitution. The reason why nations have constitutions in the first place is to ensure that government has boundaries. Think about it, they have tremendous power.
They can tax us, their agents can carry weapons, they can lock us up, they can make us listen to turgid patriotic songs. There has to be something in place to ensure that this power is not abused. Hence the constitution.
However, if one were to treat the constitution simply like some sort of manual, a sort of “Governance for Dummies”, without understanding its true meaning and purpose – which is as a guarantee and protector of the people of this country – then anything can happen.After all, the definition of “national security” can be so broad that it makes a farce of constitutional provisions.
The police could say, “Asking for fair elections is against national security, so we won’t allow for a march to happen”; and then the court says, “Yup, we agree.” They will be following the letter of the constitution, but certainly not it’s spirit.
But I think this argument for constitutionalism would roll off the government’s back. I mean, when you have two cabinet ministers saying that homosexuality is unconstitutional, you know that you are dealing with people with zero understanding of what the constitution is.
Because apparently, according to Article 3 of the constitution Islam is the religion of the federation and homosexuality is against Islam, then homosexuality must be unconstitutional.
First off, Article 3 does not make Malaysia an Islamic state. According to the Supreme Court case of Che Omar Che Soh [1988], it was held that secular law governs the nation and Islamic law is confined only to the personal law of Muslims. Article 3 is taken to mean that as far as official ceremonial matters are concerned, Islamic form and rituals are to be used.
Furthermore, if we take the ministers’ line of reasoning, the article that forbids slavery must be removed from the constitution because Islam does not forbid slavery. In fact, the Quran has several verses condoning it.
This country was built on the premise that our secular government is limited, and that the people have fundamental liberties that must be protected.
But when those who are in power have no concept whatsoever about this philosophy – when years of uninterrupted power and a pragmatic ruling style which cares nothing for principles have ruled for over half a century – we get the situation which we are in, where laws that already exist are ignored, and a big deal is made of new laws that do nothing more than illustrate the ignorance of the government machinery.

Hope Springs Eternal

Selangor Times
30 December 2011


THIS year, the most amazing political event to have occurred in the world could very arguably be the Arab Spring. Popular uprisings all over the Middle East have seen dictatorships fall like ten-pins in the centre of of a camel race. The process continues still.
This phenomenon demolishes stereotypes like “Arabs don’t care about democracy”. There are also lessons to be learnt for the rest of us who live in authoritarian societies. And please, do not let the recent flurry of activities from Putrajaya fool you. We live in an authoritarian society.
Attempts made by the ruling coalition to give themselves a more liberal face do not pass close examination. The Peaceful Assembly Act basically bestows upon us the “wonderful” right to gather in stadiums.
The proposed amendments to the University and University Colleges Act simply does not understand at all the concept of student autonomy and freedom. Joining a political party at the age of 21 is not the be all and end all about student autonomy. And don’t get me started about the potential horrors that the replacement for the ISA is going to bring.
However, I digress. My point is that although we may differ in degree, Malaysia, just like the Arab regimes brought down by revolution is authoritarian in nature, and there are lessons to be learnt from the Middle East as to what to expect when a transition is made from an authoritarian regime to a democratic society.
When the Arab Spring occurred, the Malaysian government and mainstream media fell over themselves to say that such a thing could not occur here. Strange as this may seem, I feel that I have to agree. But my agreement is conditional.
People only take to the streets in such numbers and with such intensity and determination when they are suffering greatly (usually from poverty), and when they feel they have no voice. As long as the election process can be trusted in this country, then people will not feel the need to change governments through methods such as those used in Egypt.
Which goes to show that it is of vital importance that our electoral system is trustworthy. As such, significant reforms had best be made before we go to the polls again.
Another major difference between Malaysia and countries like Egypt is that if the current government loses (I won’t use the word “toppled”, because it sounds so harsh), there won’t be a power vacuum. In Egypt, the military has always had tremendous political clout, and there was never a significant “government in waiting”.
Hence the problems they are facing with trying to reduce military involvement in government as they start this new phase in their country’s development.
Here, we have had the fortunate experience of seeing someone else in power, albeit at the state level. The military has kept out of politics (and hopefully will stay so), and we cannot say that there is no alternative to BN.
The last time I looked, Kedah, Penang, Selangor and Kelantan are still standing and prospering. Thus if BN loses Putrajaya, it wouldn’t be difficult to fill those well-padded seats. Likewise if Pakatan forms the next government and they lose in the future.
This brings me to the final lesson that we can learn from the Arab Spring. What matters is not who governs. What matters is the system of governance. It must be democratic, it must be just, and it must be trustworthy.
Western commentators have been wringing their hands at the prospect of an Islamist government democratically elected in Egypt. So what if they are? If they are democratically elected then the wishes of the Egyptions must be respected. The key here is that it must be possible to elect them out.
The same goes in Malaysia. Our democracy is pratically foetal in terms of maturity, and it must develop in order for us to fully enjoy the fruits of a system that respects our inherent dignity as human beings. It does not really matter who holds the reins of power as long as we the people can take those reins away from them.
It feels like that is a long way away, but it does not need to be so. Who knows what 2012 will bring?
Happy New Year.

History lessons must be objective

Brave New World (The Star)
29 December 2011

History education should tell us where we come from, how we have become the way we are and how to move forward.


FOR the past few months I have been involved with a group of organisations and individuals known as Kempen Sejarah Malaysia Sebenar. In short it is known as KemSMS.
Yes, I realise that it is a rather unfortunate abbreviation. It makes us sound like a camp where they teach you how to send text messages (with special classes on how to make funny emoticons).
However, I feel fortunate to be ask­ed to be part of this group because we are working on the very important issue of teaching history in our schools.
Well, when I say “we are working” I really mean that my colleagues have been working. I have merely been sitting in meetings, nodding at their wisdom.
The Education Ministry has formed a committee to review the history syllabus taught in secondary schools and I hope that they will do their work well and with integrity.
KemSMS has been invited by this committee to give our views on the issue and we have done so. What will happen remains to be seen and it would be premature to discuss it here.
What I do wish to discuss is what I have learnt from working with this wonderful group of people.
For one thing, the teaching of history is a far more complex proposition than I had previously thought.
Of course, the most basic complaint that one can make is that a history book has got its information wrong.
If you say that Thailand invaded Malaysia during the Second World War, then obviously you should be knocked on the back of the head with a plastic cup for being an ignoramus.
But of course things are far more complex than that. For example, I could say “The United States of America beat Germany in the Second World War”.
It is factually correct but it misses many important points, like the small matter of the involvement of the Soviet Union, Britain, Japan and Italy.
History is not merely about facts, it is also about emphasis and the subtle intonations of values. And it is here that things get cloudy.
On the issue of values for example, I have been told, rightly so, that one can’t possibly avoid value judgments in the analysis of history. However, when talking about a school syllabus, then any value judgment has to be universal in nature.
Where it is perfectly all right to say that the Pol Pot regime caused the deaths of hundreds and thousands and this is a negative thing, one must not be making statements where one says a particular ideology is better than the other.
It is a very fine line but one that must be walked when we are talking about the education of our children.
If you, as a historian have your own personal biases, then by all means write a book and let your prejudices blossom.
Academic rigour and vigour shall be your only judge. But any value judgments short of the most humanist and general should not infect our school books.
For me, education must have an objective. History education in particular should have the objective of telling us where we come from, how we have become the way we are and from this knowledge the lessons to be taken in how to move forward.
As it has been so often said, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. Yes, history education must have an objective.
What it must not have is an agenda.
And it is this distinction that KemSMS and those who care about education, must keep striving for.