Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Vote For Democracy- Aliran

Malaysians will be going to the polls for the eleventh time on 21 March 2004. Two hundred and nineteen parliamentary seats will be at stake.

No doubt, the BN will win the forthcoming elections. It will perform better this time than in November 1999 when it polled only 56% of the popular vote yet maintained its two-thirds majority in Parliament due to Malaysia’s first-past-the-post (or simple majority) electoral system. There are several factors why the BN will perform better on March 21, 2004.

Changing the rules and the boundaries

With its two-thirds majority in the last Parliament, the BN government passed amendments to the Election Act and Election Offences Act in April 2002. It also added new seats and redelineated the electoral boundaries in 2003. These amendments and changes to the electoral boundaries have been favourable to the BN and detrimental to the opposition.

Among other changes to the Election Act, the list of voters once gazetted can no longer be challenged in a court of law, not even when there are phantom voters. The deposit required of electoral candidates has been increased to a maximum of RM20,000. This increase is a drop in the bucket for the BN parties which list among their assets fancy party headquarters, media empires, colleges and universities, and various other companies, listed and unlisted. They are also well supported by wealthy tycoons and cronies. For the poorer opposition, however, it means considerable financial burdens.

An amendment to the Election Offences Act makes it an offence “to act or to make any statement with a view or a tendency to promote feelings of ill-will, discontent or hostility between persons of the same race or different races or of the same class or different classes…” (see AM vol 22 no 3 for more details). This article is so loosely worded and yet so all encompassing that most criticisms of the BN government by the opposition, attempting to focus attention on serious issues, can be interpreted as offences.

One wonders how government scandals and wrong-doings, or mention of cronies, can be raised under the circumstances. Will criticism of the BN’s pronouncement that Malaysia is an Islamic state be deemed an electoral offence? What if the opposition reminds us that former PM Mahathir had likened the Suqiu to terrorists? What about criticism of the BN’s Vision School programme and the BN’s poor record in providing for national-type primary schools? What about the continued plight of the estate workers? What about the many cases of Indian youths who were presumed to be criminals and shot? And what if UMNO leaders are criticized for deviating from Islamic injunctions of pursuing truth, justice and equity?

In raising these issues, some people, somewhere in Malaysia will surely experience “ill-will, discontent and hostility”. How will it be decided if the law has been broken? In the 1999 election, it was principally the BN which manipulated ethnic sentiments. Some of their advertisements were extremely provocative: “Vote Opposition and You Vote Away Your Cultural Freedom”, “Don’t Let Violence Triumph”, “Don’t Let Anarchy Triumph” or “DAP: Hapuskan Hak Melayu” taking us closer to the brink. We wonder how the Elections Commission will respond to such BN fanning of ethnic sentiments. What will they do to such provocative BN advertisements which will invariably be carried in the BN-owned or controlled press and electronic media? Or, is this amendment especially intended to further muzzle the Opposition parties?

A re-delineation of electoral boundaries was also concluded in 2003 resulting in the creation of additional seats especially in the semi-urban areas where the BN had performed so well in 1999. No additional seats were added to Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah where PAS had scored huge successes. Instead, Sabah has an additional 5 seats, Johore another 6, Selangor 5, Pahang 3, and Penang 2 seats. These states are where the BN had performed well in 1999.

Moreover, the electoral boundaries have also been redrawn in the four Malay heartland states in north Malaya, especially in Terengganu and Kedah. Major changes have also been made to Perak’s electoral boundaries. These changes, according to experts, will invariably benefit the BN (see AM vol 23 no 6).

ISA, detention and convictions

Another reason why the BN will do well relates to its use of the ISA, other coercive laws and the courts to curb the opposition these past five years. Despite the BN’s electoral victory in November 1999, the momentum was in favour of the Opposition parties in 2000 and 2001. This was because of the spectacular performance of PAS in the Malay heart-land states which had translated into PAS’s capture of the Kelantan and Terengganu legislatures, and its 50:50 splitting of the votes with UMNO in Kedah, previously considered an UMNO stronghold.

As well, although Parti Keadilan had won only a few seats, it had cut back the BN’s margin of victory in the multi-ethnic seats from an average of 60-70% in 1995 to 55-60% in 1999. The fact was some one-third of the seats in peninsula Malaysia had been won by less than 10% margins (see AM vol 23 no 6). Keadilan’s victory over the BN in the Lunas by-election, partly due to cooperation with the Suqiu, reminded the opposition parties how close the 1999 contest had actually been, despite the BN’s two-thirds majority in parliament.

However, this momentum was reversed shortly thereafter. First, some of the most charismatic leaders of Parti Keadilan and the reformasi movement – Ezam Mohamed Nor, Tian Chua, Saari Sungib, Lokman Noor Adam, Dr Badrulamin Bahron, Hishamu-ddin Rais (and for a while Raja Petra and Gobalakrishnan too) were detained under the ISA on trumped up charges of threatening national security. Vice-President Mohd Azmin Ali was taken to court and finally sentenced to 18 months' jail for perjury in 2001. Deputy Wanita chief Irene Fernandez was also taken to court and sentenced to 12 months' jail for publishing allegedly false news. Ezam, the Youth leader, already detained under the ISA, was taken to court on a charge of disclosing official secrets and subsequently sentenced to two years' jail. Although Ezam, Azmin and Fernandez are now out on bail and their appeals pending, they have been ruled ineligible to contest the 2004 election on the grounds of their conviction.

Another group of Malaysians, associated with PAS’s Youth wing, were detained under the ISA for allegedly belonging to the so-called Kumpulan Militan Malaysia (KMM), allegedly related to the Jemaah Islamiyya, considered the al-Qaeda’s proxy in Southeast Asia. Twelve of these ISA detainees began a hunger strike in early March to protest their continued incarceration without charges being laid.

Vote for a Strong Opposition to act as a check on the Executive, and with a view towards developing a two-coalition or two-party system over the long term.
Meanwhile, Anwar Ibrahim’s appeals against his conviction on charges of corruption and six-year prison sentence handed down by Justice Augustine Paul in April 1999, were rejected by the Appeals, and then the Federal Court. Anwar’s appeal was based on exposing the intrigue, the selective admission of evidence, and summary rejection of critical defence witnesses by the Judge, but alas, to no avail. In this regard, numerous Malaysian as well as international bodies, including the International Court of Justice, the International Bar Association, the President of the European Union, Amnesty International, Asia Watch, the International Federation for Human Rights, etc., had voiced their criticisms of the Court’s decision to set aside Anwar’s appeal, the convictions of Fernandez and other Keadilan leaders, and the use of the ISA generally to detain critics without trial. It was evident that the Malaysian Judiciary had lost its independence and become beholden to the Executive.

Another set-back to the opposition was the difficulty in finalising the merger of Parti Keadilan and Parti Rakyat, especially in the absence of the leaders detained under the ISA. There was further frustration when the Registrar of Societies (ROS) delayed and refused to approve the merger even after it had been agreed upon by both parties. Hence although the new Parti Keadilan Rakyat was launched in August 2003, it shall not be able to contest the 2004 election as such. Likewise, the Parti Sosialis Malaysia, which had applied to the ROS for registration prior to the 1999 general election, has still not been able to get itself registered. By contrast, the BN-affiliated Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party, a splinter party of SNAP, was able to get registered within weeks.

The above events indicate how the BN government has abused its powers to reshape the electoral process, to detain and outlaw exciting opposition leaders, and to muzzle and constrain the opposition parties generally, all, so as to guarantee the BN’s continued victory in electoral contests. Malaysian elections might be somewhat free but definitely not fair to the opposition.

War against terrorism

However, the momentum also swung against the Opposition due to two other factors not of the BN’s design. First, there was September 11, 2001, which was followed by the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and several incidents of bombings by Islamic radicals in Southeast Asia. As a result of these developments, there have developed further anxieties, especially among non-Muslims, about political Islam. In the midst of these developments, Dr Mahathir, then prime minister – with his support of the US in its war against terrorism on the one hand, condemnation of the US invasion of Iraq on the other - emerged as a champion of moderate Islam as well as leader of the South, at home and abroad

In contrast, there have arisen concerns about PAS’s connections to the KMM, and by extension the JI, now held responsible for the bombings in Southeast Asia. Although there is no evidence of such PAS connections, nonetheless, the dramatic change in the international political climate, the hype over terrorism, the loss of lives due to the bombings, and the ISA arrests have had their knock-on effects in Malaysia.

This has heightened fear of PAS’ intentions among some Malaysians, particularly non-Muslims. The anxieties have persisted because PAS, instead of combating the undemocratic and unjust policies of the BN, and pursuing more equitable development since its 1999 gains, has focused its attention on introducing Hudud and Qisas laws, and Islamic rule generally in Terengganu. Additionally, the BN-owned or controlled mass media has systematically projected PAS as discriminatory towards women, and fixated with segregation of the sexes, and curbing so-called unIslamic forms of dress and entertainment. PAS’s lack of consultation and rejection of criticisms vis-à-vis these policies were also often highlighted, leaving the impression that the party was even more authoritarian than UMNO and the other BN parties. The sudden death of PAS leader Fadzil Noor, popularly regarded as more approachable and open-minded, and his replacement with Abdul Hadi Awang, considered more aloof and close-minded, reinforced these negative impressions of PAS.

In the midst of these developments the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) finally withdrew from the Barisan Alternatif (BA). No doubt, today’s opposition is no longer as united, nor the BA as multi-ethnic a coalition, as it was in 1999. By contrast the 13-member BN maintains a multi-ethnic front and appears united. Many of their intra-party squabbles have also been resolved, at least temporarily. The transition from Dr Mahathir to Abdullah Badawi, who will lead the BN into the 2004 polls, has also enhanced the image of the ruling coalition in the eyes of the Malaysian public (see Cover Story in this AM on Abdullah Badawi’s allegedly softer yet still determined leadership, his moves to rein in corruption, and his decision to abort or trim down a couple of mega-projects).

There are also the usual 3-Ms to remember: Money, Media Control and access to Government Machinery all work towards the BN’s advantage.

Beyond UMNO vs PAS, beyond elections

The 2004 general election, therefore, is not about changing the government. Nor is it even about denying the BN a two-thirds majority. Contrary to the opinions of many non-Muslims who are not particularly fond of UMNO but are fearful of PAS, the 2004 election is not a contest between UMNO and PAS either. This election is certainly not a choice, as it were, between the “devil we know” and “the devil we don’t know”. We fall into a trap and end up backing the ruling BN government if we regard the contest in this all-or-nothing manner.

We have to work ourselves back into the equation. Indeed, our options are not limited to choosing between UMNO or PAS. Despite their weaknesses, there are other opposition parties worthy of our support. Voting the Parti Rakyat, Parti Keadilan and DAP leaders into parliament and the state assemblies will enhance the quality of debate and the capacity of those institutions to act as a check on the BN.

There are also many individuals in PAS, as well as in the ruling BN who are worthy of our regard and support. Some of them are facing threats from their own leaders. It is in our interest to ensure that these individuals are voted into parliament.

Equally, there are others, in the BN in particular, who are not only unworthy of our regard, but should be ousted from Parliament or the State Assemblies, or kept from getting in. Latest reports suggest the comeback attempts of two former Mentri Besar of some notoriety.

More than that, there is also an informal or non-formal realm of politics outside of party politics and elections. There are many opportunities for ordinary people to get involved in decision-making about issues which impact on their everyday lives in this realm of non-electoral politics.

The formal electoral realm is clearly dominated by the BN coalition. It offers little scope for ordinary people to express their opinions, to dissent and to organize, and to get involved in decision-making. But people should be looking towards the politics of democracy beyond the 2004 elections, and asking how their participation in the 2004 elections can enhance that democratic space. The elections are not a referendum on what we like; they are not an invitation to vote, and then to subsequently become silent. They are an opportunity to try and shape an environment which can further democratic practices in the country.

The significance of the 1999 general election was that these two realms of politics came together. Issues like rule of law, accountability, repeal of the ISA and coercive laws, minority rights, environmental degradation, justice for all, normally highlighted by the NGOs in the non-formal realm of politics were absorbed into the formal-electoral realm of politics in 1999. Many activists and intellectuals from the NGOs and other organizations also participated in the opposition coalition in 1999, either directly or indirectly. The BN had also become uncommonly vulnerable due to the dual crisis – the financial crisis and Anwar’s saga – in 1999.

One outcome of that coming together has been the improved environment for minority rights. Indeed, even the present apparent anti-corruption moves can be attributed to the environment emerging out of 1999.

There is no such convergence in 2004. The outcome is not in doubt, the BN’s two-thirds majority is virtually assured. The people, so long abused, scolded, harangued, are relieved at a quieter and non-abusive style. They like what they see thus far of the anti-corruption moves, of the purported attempt to curb police mayhem, of an attempt to rein in at least some mega-projects. But we should not be taken in by the message that the best way forward is to deliver a resounding victory to the BN, worse still of their “zero-opposition” target.

Instead, we best signal our approval by showing our disapproval, by sending a clear message of “anti-corruption, yes; back-sliding, no”. Finally, we best signal our intent by shaping the next Parliament so as to provide the greatest democratic space for ourselves, by ensuring a strong opposition. Anything less than that would be sending a wrong signal that we are easily appeased by a few crumbs and gestures of tokenism – hardly a good message to send to a party that has over the past shown itself ever ready to aggrandize more power to itself, given the chance.

We urge all Malaysians, therefore, to:

Vote for a Strong Opposition to act as a check on the Executive, and with a view towards developing a two-coalition or two-party system over the long term. A choice between two coalitions or parties, is the norm in numerous countries ranging from developing countries like Jamaica, Guyana and India to developed countries like Britain, the United States, Australia and Canada. There are very clear developments in the direction of alternating power via multi-party electoral systems in neighbouring ASEAN countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines.

Vote also for All Candidates, regardless of party, who support deepening democracy. Deepening democracy means the repeal of all coercive laws and restoring the rule of law, consulting the people in between elections, and being accountable. Vote also for an independent and responsible mass media. Oppose control of the mass media by political parties.

Vote for those who genuinely promote multi-ethnic dialogue and cooperation. This means recognizing each others’ right to practice and promote our languages, cultures and religions, and the responsibility to respect and co-operate with those possessing other languages, cultures and religions. Oppose those who manipulate ethnic sentiments and seek to divide us along ethnic and religious divides.

Vote also for more democratic and equitable distribution of the country’s wealth to all regardless of ethnic background. Stop all cronyism. If we desire to eliminate corruption, the Anti-Corruption Agency should be made independent and answerable to Parliament, not the PM. A stronger opposition will better ensure that Parliament does its job. Ultimately, the real test of fighting corruption is when the big sharks are charged.

Finally, the struggle for democracy must continue beyond the 2004 general election. We must first promote more widespread participation by ordinary people in decision making about issues that affect their everyday lives. We cannot leave this task to the political parties, certainly not the BN.