Nurul Izzah on the path towards democratising Malaysia

The text of Nurul Izzah’s speech from her public lecture at the Australian National University is appended below. Nurul Izzah is a Member of Parliament in Malaysia and Vice President of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (or the People’s Justice Party) and is touted as a future Prime Minister of Malaysia.

The video of her public lecture is available here and the podcast here.  While she was in Canberra Nurul was also interviewed by New Mandala‘s Nicholas Farrelly with a video available here and the podcast here.

Professor Kent Anderson, Dignitaries, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Assalamualaikum wbt, salam sejahtera, salam perjuangan.

Firstly allow me to extend a heartfelt thanks to the sponsor of this lecture, the School of Culture, History and Languages, and to the kind organizers who have provided me with this valuable opportunity to meet with all of you tonight – Malaysians, friends, supporters and Australians who are sometimes termed Malaysian watchers.

Before giving my talk I would also like to acknowledge that we are going through an exceptionally turbulent period of natural calamities– in such countries as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Brazil – and people’s uprisings in several Arab nations. I would like to express condolences to all who have died or suffered in these events.

Ladies and Gentlemen;

The last time I frequented Australia was prior to the historic events of March 2008 – when opposition parties broke the traditional government stanglehold on more than 2/3rds of seats in parliament, and won power in an unprecedented 5 states. I would like to think that politics would eventually be the vocation of choice for me. However, in all humility, I ony have all of you to thank in determining the natural progression into active politics that I took when I stood as a contestant in those General Elections.

Indeed, the events that stemmed from a rallying call termed Reformasi (or Reform) back in September 1998 were breathtaking in their emotional assault, but more also in terms of their longterm impact. On many occasions I have been represented as the daughter of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim – when in actual fact politically I am the Daughter or Child of Reformasi.

In the formative years following my father’s incarceration,  I rode on the same path and direction of political parties such as PAS (the Islamic Party), DAP – Democratic Action Party, and eventually Parti Keadilan Nasional (KEADILAN), and of various non governmental groups including the human rights group SUARAM, the Islamic youth movement ABIM, Insitut Kajian Dasar, and others.

Change is unavoidable, as politics is a dynamic, demanding yet mesmerizing field. I changed that fateful day of my father’s sacking in September 1998. This, and the events that followed, revealed a flagrant misuse of the nation’s public and democratic institutions, and brought to life an innate desire to participate and affect the direction of Malaysia’s future.

I was not the sole anak Reformasi. I was with a band of brothers and sisters – all of whom embraced Parti Keadilan Nasional as their very first political entity. Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, Sim TzeTzin, Chan Ming Kai, Amiruddin Shaari, Kesavan, Rafizi Ramli – most of whom are now legislators in their own right – all embraced Reformasi ideals and realized that if we were to remain relevant to the future, we had to work hard to ensure progressive ideals of multiracial politics in practice remained alive and kicking on the Malaysian electoral scene.  Above all we wanted to introduce political reform that would end the misuse of government institutions, introduce real democracy based on the rule of law, and reject the UMNO-dominated government approach of maintaining political power by dividing racial groups against one another.

The need for a political contract:

In recent months much effort has gone into debating what, if any, political or social contract was entered into when Malaya achieved independence in 1957. Instead of wasting time bickering about this, I prefer to draw attention to the ongoing plans by the ruling National Front, entitled the Government’s Transformation Agenda, or their ‘Bluebook’ (buku Biru Tua) and compare this to our Pakatan Rakyat’s Buku Jingga (Orange book).  In the government’s transformation agenda, there are four core initiatives, namely: the ‘1 Malaysia’ component, a government transformation program (bureaucratic efficiency), economic transformation programs (including nuclear energy) and the 10th and 11th Malaysia Plans (as implementing tools).

There is no plans for political reform in the BN’s Blue Book (Buku Biru Tua).

Our orange book, on the other hand, which lists our 100 day reform plan assuming we are given the mandate by the people in the next election. The central point of the Buku Jingga is, in contrast to the BN’s Bluebook, that Malaysia must implement political reform, since we can no longer afford the misuse of government institutions in our democracy as this greatly infringes upon the rights of the people – the rakyat.

To advance the cause of the Buku Jingga – Pakatan Rakyat legislators since August of last year have written several letters to my Prime Minister and made other efforts for constructive engagement with stakeholders from all sides of the political divide. These include a series of articles with the aim to advocate for a bi-partisan Democracy Rehabilitation Act to be jointly tabled, debated and passed in Parliament.

The Act consists of six items, which are:

(1) To revoke all Emergency Declarations

(2) To repeal all Emergency Ordinances

(3) To uphold the 20-point Sabah and 18-point Sarawak agreements as promised prior to the formation of Malaysia in September 16, 1963.

(4) To ensure Free & Fair elections

(5) To reestablish Local Government Elections (suspended in 1964 through an Emergency Ordinance)

(6) To guarantee the rights of a free media

To date our efforts to reach out have been largely ignored. But in the current parliamentary sitting I have submitted an application for a private member’s bill as a democracy test case which is called The Emergency Revocation Act.

Malaysia has been under Emergency rule, whereby any decrees issued are not subject to judicial review, since the 1960s. A constitutional amendment in 1960 provided that an Emergency remains in place until revoked by parliament. Emergency rule has been invoked on four occasions – in 1964 because of confrontation with Indonesia, 1966 and 1977 to address state political problems in Sarawak and Kelantan, and1969 following racial riots in Kuala Lumpur. I have called for these Emergency declarations to be revoked. There are 82 related ordinances and laws that stem from the emergency laws that in their totality and intent was meant for a different time and now serves a very different purpose of repressing democratic rights.

Whether this bill sees the light of day is subject to a very constrained parliamentary procedural framework created by the second Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak, (father of the present PM) that limits the efficacy of the opposition to perform their legitimate duties as elected representatives in parliament. Again this is another anti-democratic element that characterises the nature of the sitting government of the day.

In addition, with the support of Dato Ambiga Sreenevasan, I have submitted an application to obtain a publishing permit for another bi-partisan initiative which is a weekly newspaper called Utusan Rakyat (People’s Message) which is still pending. My involvement, together with Dato Ambiga is as members of the advisory board of the paper. We are still waiting for YM Tengku Razaleigh, National Front MP for Gua Musang’s agreement to join us as an advisory member.

The process usually takes at least two months. As the application was submitted two weeks ago it will be some time before approval becomes possible. There is an urgent need for such a publication, as there is no free press like what you enjoy here. No information, no transparency, no accountability and no democracy.

Building a ‘new universal doctrine for democracy’ (or a political contract)

We have embarked on yet another initiative towards the same end which is to advocate for Political Reform and the Rehabilitation of Democracy of my country.

I am committed to speak out and even to  shout out the voice of the Malaysian people especially the younger generation that will inherit the political sins of our elders for freedom and democracy at every opportunity. Today there is such an opportunity.

Younger Malaysians have begun to embrace what we have called a ‘New Universal Doctrine for Democracy’; a reflection of a new kind of politics, based on hope and liberation – much inspired by the Egyptian revolution.

I am totally aware that many similar attempts have been made by others, but we feel compelled to re-frame it from the perspective of members of the young generation, unburdened by the baggage of history but instead inspired by the aspiration  to remake/build a free democratic world for all. The youth live by ideals and the hope of a better future.

Central component of the doctrine – Free and fair elections

Sovereignty lies with a legitimately elected government, chosen in free and fair elections.

Therefore, sovereignty is not based on geographical borders or with the instruments of power but rather on the democratic rights of the people. For example, in Libya, the world community or specifically the Arab League has recognised the legitimacy of the opposition and not Gaddafi. In such an extreme case, we see most of the world beginning to recognise the legitimacy of the peoples uprising in the streets rather than the sitting government as it is recognised as the popular expression of the will of the people.

Hence, in essence, recognising the legitimacy of an entity  centres around one common variable which is the expression of the people’s will. But if this expression of the people’s will is denied or manipulated at the ballot box, then this action is tantamount to denying or robbing the democratic rights of the people. The world should not recognise the erroneously elected government as being legitimate and hence is not under the sovereignty rights of a state.

The act to deny or manipulate a free and fair election is political piracy. This is even worse than the conventional piracy on the high seas like in the Gulf of Aden against Somali pirates that witnessed a coordinated and concerted international response with the justification that a ship registered and carrying the flag of another nation is under the sovereignty of a state and when in international waters justifies international response. But apart from international law the main reason for such a swift international response is that the Somali pirates are a threat to world trade. Then political piracy of denying the people the democratic right of a free and fair election is also a threat to international peace and democracy and warrants a similar international attention and response.

In the case of sovereignty and international jurisdiction on the high seas, a vessel registered and flying the flag of the nation it registered in is considered the sovereign property of the said nation.The ship or vessel is the sovereign artifact. Now if we were to extend the same argument that the ballot box like the vessel is the sovereign property of the people and not the government or the state as the ballot box is the instrument that defines and confers legitimacy and sovereignty to the elected representatives; then the international community has the legal, ethical and moral right to respond to any government that denies and manipulates the election process.

Therefore, the ballot box and the election process which is the universal democratic right of a people would be under international jurisdiction for verification and certification by an international election commission or body preferably within the United Nation’s framework.

In the event the election were determined to be rigged and the process unfair, then the international community must demand a new supervised election barring which if it is rejected calls for immediate international response that could begin with  a travel ban, asset freeze, ICJ indictment and sanctions against the government leaders, their families and proxies who are deemed political pirates.

The legality and more importantly the morality of such international response is ‘just cause’. If governments welcome international response to assist materially and militarily in times of natural disasters or in the defense of her borders, then the international community has a moral imperative and ‘just cause’ to defend the sovereignty of the people’s ballot box which determines the legitimacy of the elected government to represent them.

Efforts to ensure free and fair elections in Malaysia should include:

(1) The use of indelible ink (as is done in Indonesia and India) to prevent multiple voting

(2) The abolition of postal votes – because these are not subject to the usual public scrutiny and have hitherto always overwhelmingly favoured the government – except for diplomats and overseas voters

(3) A complete revision of the electoral roll to ensure that the existing irregularities are removed and a roll with full integrity is in place

(4) All contesting parties should enjoy fair access to state-owned media especially television and radio

(4) Effective governance and public transparency of campaign finance to eliminate corrupt practices, which includes state finance to parties for compulsory capacity building for women candidates and marginal groups and gender sensitivity training

Ladies and Gentlemen;

The current government of the day is not a legitimate government, even though Malaysia has held 12 general elections. The democratic rights of the people have been denied, as extensively documented by BERSIH 2.0 ( a Malaysian civil society NGO for a Free and Fair Election) headed by my respected friend, Dato Ambiga.

Election arrangements need to be changed so that other executive excesses can be reigned in – ranging from massive state-sponsored corruption, political dominance over the judiciary, exploitation of communal divisions for political gain, and government by law rather than government of the law.

It is my greatest hope that the current BN government implements political reforms and conducts Free and Fair Elections immediately. And after all that is done and if they are  still elected by the people, then I would gladly be a member of the loyal opposition in a free and democratic Malaysia.

I am acutely aware that this idea of a universal doctrine for democracy faces many challenges to be accepted and adopted internationally. Yet if each democratic nation takes the moral courage to act on it by giving notice to dictators and anti-democratic governments that concrete measures will be taken against them, then this may be the spark that will light up the spirit of freedom and democracy everywhere and the first step in a long march to a better world.

Finally, I wish to end with a compelling reminder that all democratic governments in the world  owe it to the people especially the young generation of all nations that will inherit the burden and pay the price of a failed illegitimate anti-democratic government that are guilty of political piracy and economic plundering, to take action in a common resolve for a common cause, now. Indeed, time and righteousness waits for no man or woman.

Thank you.

About Greg Lopez

Greg Lopez is a Visiting Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University.