Malaysia: Desperate times, disparate solutions

It’s probably been the busiest fortnight in Australia for Malaysian affairs all year. But you would have missed it if the Australian mainstream media was any guide, Radio Australia aside.

As Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s communications chief and state MP Nik Nazmi left the east coast after a successful speaking tour, Prime Minister Najib Razak and wife Rosmah Mansor flew in soon afterwards to Perth for the CHOGM show.

On the other side of the continent, Malaysia’s civil society icon Ambiga Sreenevasan was in the middle of her three-city, meetings- and dinners-heavy lecture tour of leading university law schools, while her colleague in the Bersih2.0 reform movement Dr Wong Chin Huat addressed Malaysians in Perth outside the CHOGM confinement.

Yet thanks to the Gillard government’s peculiar skills in conceiving and selling a ‘Malaysia solution’ to its vexed problem of asylum seekers and an electorate’s paranoia over Australia’s borders – and the Abbott opposition’s superior ability to use such alien tropes to thwart any federal government resolution – much Australian public discussion about Malaysia remains focused on a tawdry people-swap deal that’s worth nearly a billion ringgit to the Najib government.

The Australian deal is seen by many in Kuala Lumpur as a much-needed investment for prime minister Najib Razak’s campaign to stay in power, as Malaysians are consumed in a febrile political climate, anxious over early elections expected within the next six months.

Prime Minister Najib must have been pleased to share some Perth springtime at the CHOGM show last weekend, playing statesman with other leaders and meeting Malaysians at a picnic, while leaving behind however briefly Putrajaya, its usual jockeying for seat selection on the eve of elections, and rumours of internal party feuds over his leadership.

It’s also why both Ambiga and the oppositionist Nik Nazmi were quickly quizzed about the so-called ‘Malaysia solution’ in Australian media interviews, and PM Najib found it necessary to defend the deal and demand co-ownership of it in the Australian media on the eve of his Perth arrival.

Najib defended Malaysia’s reputation in its treatment of refugees and its broader democratic values in the Sydney Morning Herald, and explained the joint-venture project would “smash the business model of the people traffickers”.

Moreover, Malaysia was a “progressive, liberal nation”, that was not “some repressive, backward nation that persecutes refugees and asylum seekers”. His government treated “genuine refugees” with “the utmost dignity and respect while they await resettlement elsewhere”.

But these claims about Malaysia don’t stand up to scrutiny, said the Bersih2.0 leader Ambiga Sreenevasan, especially when Malaysians themselves are still denied many of their constitutional rights. The senior lawyer and ex-Bar Council chair has long fought for Malaysia to live up to its human rights rhetoric and obligations, and she said it’s particularly pertinent today when Malaysia continues to sit on the UN Human Rights Council.

In her four lectures at the law schools of Melbourne, Sydney, UNSW and the ANU, Ambiga raised the eight key demands of the Bersih2.0 movement for free and fair elections. She also recounted the systematic intimidation, death threats, and other attempts to delegitimise the Bersih2.0 coalition in the days leading up to the 9 July demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur. She shared some of the highlights of her discussions with Australian officials and parliamentarians in Canberra, and urged better Australian engagement with Malaysians’ quest for electoral reforms.

On behalf of Bersih2.0, Ambiga challenged the Najib government to invite foreign election observers for the looming 13th general elections, in light of the Prime Minister’s claims that Malaysia is a “progressive, liberal nation”. She urged the Prime Minister to make good his recent promises of political liberalisation, and allow the newly-formed Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on electoral reform to fulfill its tasks.

“You can see the demonisation that the government did over Bersih, but you can also see how the people really feel about Bersih – look at the disconnect,” Ambiga told the packed ANU lecture hall last week, as she read out some of the thousands of personal testimonies from Malaysians who marched for electoral reform that July day.

“We’re apolitical, we’re not aligned to any political party,” she said about Bersih2.0 and its supporters. “What we stand for is what is right. We want transparency – we want a better Malaysia. And we’re now prepared to stand up and ask for it.”

“We really are fed up with how our politics is run in our country. We don’t like the dirty politics, we don’t like the language of racism, we don’t like people running down others because of their religion and their race. We want a mature level of discourse, we want to see statesmanship.”

During the lively discussion period after her ANU speech, Ambiga said the “rakyat” (Malaysian people) overcame their fear of each other and united in the face of riot police, tear gas and other state-sponsored violence on 9 July.

Suppressing the contagious idea of free and fair elections will continue to be difficult for the Najib government to do, she said, more so in an era of ubiquitous social-media usage in urban areas and the damaged credibility of government-linked organs such as the licensed television networks and newspapers. Ambiga repeated her scepticism about the prime minister’s “reform” of the media laws, and said the promise of relaxing the licensing rules “was no reform at all – where is the concession there if they say they can revoke it at any time?”.

Answering a question about repairing and improving institutions such as the judiciary and the bureaucracy, Ambiga said rooting out corruption was a key way in addressing this challenge.

“There definitely has to be a ‘bersihkan’ process, a cleaning up that has to start now. There’s no point having the MACC (the anti-corruption body) and these institutions when at the end of the day, the people can tell the prosecutions are lop-sided – it’s selective prosecution.

“The institutions have to be cleaned up, and the way they can do that is by having people of the highest integrity occupy positions of power in these institutions.”

As a senior lawyer and former Bar Council leader, Ambiga said a glaring example of such abuses of power was the unwarranted arrests and detentions without trial of six members of the opposition Socialist Party under the Emergency Ordinance laws in the days before 9 July. Among the six detained for a month was the popular Member of Parliament Dr Michael Jeyakumar, with the police claiming their detention was to stop them “waging war against the King”. For many Malaysians, these six oppositionists were unjustly detained for having yellow banners and t-shirts in a van, stopped on its way to join the now-historic July demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur.

“What shocking behaviour! What shocking behaviour,” Ambiga told her audience, appalled “for a country that sits on the UN Human Rights Council, depriving one who is a Member of Parliament and the five others of their liberty for 30 days. And the reason they were released was because their initial detention period was coming to an end, and because Dr Jeyakumar started a hunger fast.

“But kudos to the Malaysian people – daily, they held candle-lit vigils outside Bukit Aman and all over Kuala Lumpur until they were released. So again, well done and congratulations to the people, because it was people power that ultimately resulted in their release.”

With the 13th general elections expected in the next six months, Ambiga said Bersih2.0 hoped the federal government will allow the PSC to carry out its inquiry in full, without its tasks truncated by early elections.

“If you say the (electoral) system is OK, get international observers. Prove it to us,” Ambiga urged the Najib government. “Bring in the international observers, let them observe our elections. That’s my call to the Malaysian government.”

“If you say your system is fine and that it doesn’t need (electoral) reform before the 13th general elections, I dare you to bring in international observers. And let them determine if our elections are free and fair.”

A few days earlier at her Sydney lecture, Ambiga dismissed suggestions from government critics that Bersih2.0 would advocate boycotting the next general elections if electoral reforms were not implemented in time.

“It would be a walkover if there was a boycott,” she told her Sydney audience, “and we would never do that… I think the rakyat will tell us what to do, let’s wait and see what happens at the parliamentary review.”

As for the government’s claim that there was no need for electoral reforms because elections were already “fair” with the opposition parties winning five states in 2008’s elections, Ambiga argued that free and fair elections would have resulted in the Opposition winning more seats, better reflecting the big popular votes tally.

“Because the public is so aware of electoral fraud now, as they weren’t before, everyone’s alert to the cheating,” the Bersih2.0 leader warned.

On the other side of Australia on the eve of CHOGM, Bersih2.0’s Dr Wong Chin Huat shared with a Perth audience the movement’s recent problems with the Election Commission (EC) and the allegedly woeful bias displayed by its officials during this year’s Sarawak state elections, where complaints about electoral fraud were dismissed by the EC. Dr Wong also addressed a public forum on CHOGM’s opening day, where according to Bersih2.0 organisers in Perth, “a rallying call was made to the Commonwealth to send election observers to the next election”.

At a subsequent barbeque for the visiting prime minister and his wife organised by the Malaysian consulate, the local Bersih2.0 representatives attended with their yellow t-shirts but weren’t allowed to meet the guests of honour.

It seems Bersih2.0 remains an “illegal” organisation cast in yellow, even if it is a coalition made up of over 60 legal, Malaysian non-government organisations.

For the mostly middle-class, college educated Malaysians abroad – who number well over a million citizens currently not enriching Malaysia with everything from tax revenues to globalised skills and expertise – the demonisation of Ambiga Sreenevasan and the Bersih2.0 agenda has just made Malaysian electoral reform and good governance all the more urgent.

About Kean Wong, Guest Contributor