Your 10 Questions for Sivarasa Rasiah

  • Business
  • Saturday, 01 Jan 2011

You have been detained under ISA twice. Yet, you have been undeterred in your opposition role. Don’t you fear at all that it could happen the third time? Kumar, Penang

This is a misunderstanding. I have never been arrested under the ISA although I believe I came close to being arrested in October 1987 during Operasi Lalang when a close friend, Yunus Ali who was staying in my home was arrested at my house under the ISA. I had to “volunteer” for an interrogation at that time to reduce the prospect of arrest.

I have been arrested though, a number of times under other laws such as the Police Act starting from 1996 when activists including Dr Kua Kia Soong and Dr Nasir Hashim and I were detained for a week in Dang Wangi lock-up.

Since my involvement in the “Reformasi” movement from 1998, I have been arrested again about 10 times and spent time in various police lock-ups on several occasions. I was also prosecuted three times for so-called “unlawful assembly”.

Thankfully, all the charges have been dismissed so far, although the prosecutors are appealing. I don’t discount the possibility of an ISA arrest happening though. As a human being, we can experience fear when facing police action.

But the prospect of arrest is an occupational hazard for activists in Malaysia who push the boundaries for reform. If one allowed a fear of arrest to prevail, we would not be able to do what we have to do. If personal freedom has to be sacrificed for the greater good, so be it.

How has your base of social activism helped in your role as a Member of Parliament (MP)? June, Seremban

My social activism since 1986 in Malaysia and in my student years earlier at Oxford and London is what has shaped and built the ideas, principles and political vision that I now carry with me and champion. Without my history of activism, I think I would have been a less interesting MP.

Of course, in my student and NGO days, one had the luxury and space of articulating principles and values in an idealised fashion and pushing for the limits, and which many of my colleagues and I did.

My involvement in the political movement since 1998 has brought a degree of pragmatism into my activism. I learnt that the oft quoted saying that “Politics is the art of the possible” is not an inaccurate statement. Also, dealing with grass roots concerns and widely differing views within the party and coalition posed a different set of challenges from dealing with networks of activists.

What led you to move into politics? Did you see the winds of change just before the March 2008 elections and felt that this would be a good time to embark into politics? Any regrets, so far? Sonia, Selangor

I got involved way before 2008. I would say that seeing the reaction and turbulence in our society to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s arrest and detention and the birth of the Reformasi movement in September 1998 was the start of my direct involvement in politics. When the then largely Malay-based group of political activists decided that racial politics had no future and initiated what was to become the multi-racial Parti Keadilan Nasional in April 1999, me and a number of other social and human rights activists decided it was time to get directly involved.

I preferred, then, to join Parti Rakyat Malaysia whose leaders such as Syed Husin Ali and Sanusi Osman whom I had already supported in previous elections. Recognising that both parties would be strengthened by merger, many of us worked towards that objective which we achieved in 2003. Despite the setbacks we experienced in the 2004 elections when PKR went down to just one parliament seat, we persevered in our belief that this country needed a paradigm shift away from BN’s racial and authoritarian model. Our vision was and continues to be a multiracial platform espousing justice and fairness for all communities, affirmative action based on need not race, a genuine democracy with open and transparent governance. We believed that PKR with Anwar’s leadership had a key role to play in forging a coalition with PAS and DAP to provide a alternative to BN and to create the transition towards a two-party system in a democratic Malaysia. I believe that this is what the rakyat saw in March 2008 and which together with their growing rejection of BN resulted in the March 2008 political tsunami.

Regrets? I have none, whatsoever. I think we are in the middle of shaping Malaysia’s destiny and an exciting and truly challenging time in our history.

Did you almost choose a different career path and what was it? Gordon, Johor

Yes there was a time in my distant past when I hankered to become a doctor. It did not materialise and I know now that was God’s plan for me. In December 1979, when I successfully applied for the Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford, I made the decision to switch out of the field of genetics, which was my first degree.

Does your wife and family feel uneasy that what you do, as an activist and politician, could be risky? Sumathi, Penang

My wife Anne has been most supportive of my political work, because she shares the same values and beliefs. We met coincidentally at a demonstration in May 1987 in Ipoh Road which was organised as a citizen’s response to the brutal rape and murder of a nine-year old girl Ang May Hong. Operasi Lalang in October 1987 kind of threw us together.

Anne has spent many long hours and days in front of police stations with other friends and supporters, sometimes waiting patiently, sometimes pressing for my release. I have heard from friends that bullying police officers have occasionally scuttled away having experienced the lash of her angry tongue reacting to the injustices taking place in front of her. Really, I don’t think I could do what I have been doing without her.

What is it about Malaysian politics which you would most want to change? Annie Chew, PJ

What I, and most of us in Pakatan Rakyat are striving to do is to change the context in which our politics is played out. We want to change the reality of a 53-year continuing dictatorship by Barisan Nasional.

We want a truly democratic environment. We want free and fair elections. We want a level playing field, not just during elections but as a continuing environment in between elections. We want change that will benefit all stakeholders and players and even BN when one day, which is certainly destined, they become the opposition in Malaysia. We want to see our key institutions, the press, the judiciary, the police, the Election Commission, the AG’s Chambers, the MACC independent and professional. We want to entrench an environment where the government of the day knows that they can be replaced by an alternative that is also available to the rakyat. If we achieve that change of our political environment, then we will see our politics also changed for the better.

Do you think elections will be called next year and why? James Ong, Kuching

I think it will only be called at the end of next year at the earliest, and more likely to take place in 2012. I don’t think Umno/BN is ready for an early election and will only move in that direction if they do well in Sarawak. Given the trend in Sibu and the fact that the Dayak population of Sarawak are now restless because of threats to their Native Customary Land and issues connected to religion, the outcome in Sarawak is difficult to predict.

If true democracy is the government of the people, for the people, and by the people, what is your opinion about political leaders who are rejected by the people, yet come through the back door as Senators to become Ministers and party leaders? Dr M Raken, KL

If you look at a presidential system of government such as practiced in the US, France, Brazil, this is actually not a problem. You have an elected President who nominates unelected persons as a cabinet to manage the country. You also have a powerful elected legislature that acts as a real check and balance on the executive. No one says that this is not a democracy although I would say that the US form of democracy still has problematic features – it has not dealt with ownership of the media.

In the Westminster parliamentary system that we have inherited from the British, it is elected legislators who are nominated into an executive cabinet by the Prime Minister who commands the support of the majority of the elected legislators. So, if a Prime Minister wants to use someone who failed to get elected but who is perceived to have the necessary skills and experience, why is that such a problem? I am not convinced that it is one.

Political systems all over the world are evolving. Ours is too. We should not be too rigid in our approaches.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced personally, as well as professionally and what have you learnt from them? Stephenie Lao, Sepang

The biggest challenge I have faced professionally as a practising lawyer (since 1987) is the occasional challenge of arguing contentious cases before corrupt and/or spineless or self-serving judges. We learn that the case will not be judged on its merits as we have been taught in law school. We learn, however, that does not mean withdrawing from the battle. We go to court to present our arguments fairly and without fear or favour.

My biggest challenge, personally, was when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in April 2009. Because of the different types of cancer involved with different survival rates, there was a difficult one week waiting for the test outcomes. The operation also caused the loss of voice for almost a year – a difficult reality for a lawyer and a politician. However, I am thankful, I fully recovered my voice and my health. I feel that I have been blessed with a second chance at life.

It appears that there’s much back stabbing in PKR and the party is highly divided. How is it supposed to draw the voters in with such a perception? Generis, Kepong

I believe that much of these perceptions have resulted because of gross and continuous exaggerations in the BN-controlled mainstream media. On occasion, even falsehoods have been perpetuated of divisions when none exist.

The obvious fact that our leaders are never or rarely given their full right of reply with equal prominence speaks for itself. For example, when have you ever seen Anwar or Azizah or Syed Husin allowed to speak for several minutes on prime time national television? Just compare that with the media practice in our neighbours in Jakarta and Bangkok and Manila where the people get to hear all their political leaders regularly on prime-time television.

Having said that, we in the party must also take responsibility for the lack of discipline shown by some members who openly attack the party and its leaders. We need to handle discipline better.

Our strength lies in our multi-racial membership, our multi-racial leadership and the 17-point programme we have enshrined in our party constitution. We are the only truly national party in Malaysia today organised in all states and in almost all parliamentary constituencies. In our annual national Congress, you will see the diversity of Malaysia in substance not as tokens.

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