EXCLUSIVE | Gobind speaks to R.AGE about his late father, press freedom and the Pakatan manifesto

  • Nation
  • Friday, 24 May 2019

WATCH: R.AGE’s exclusive video interview with Gobind Singh Deo 

AS the legal bureau chief of Pakatan Harapan, Gobind Singh Deo had an important role to play on the night of May 9.

At around 10pm, he was called from his constituency in Puchong to the Sheraton Hotel in Petaling Jaya, where he would have to advise the party on the first ever democratic transition of power in Malaysian history.

And yet, there was something else - someone else - on his mind.

“I think I missed him the most that night,” he said of his father, the late Karpal Singh, with a wistful smile. “He told us repeatedly to never give up, to believe in what it is we wanted to achieve, because eventually it will come.

“At the moment that everything he said would happen, happened, he was not with us. But rest assured, he was most certainly in our thoughts. We missed him terribly that night.”

Gobind was speaking to R.AGE just a couple of weeks before the first anniversary of that historic night, to talk about the journey he has been on ever since, particularly in his role as Communications and Multimedia Minister.

He gave his thoughts on press freedom, censorship, and his determination to fulfill the promises of Pakatan’s election manifesto.

But first, we spoke about where it all began - with his father.

What was the moment you decided to be a politician?

There are just so many moments, it’s hard to pinpoint when! I can tell you when I decided to become a lawyer -- that's when my father was arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA), in 1987.

(Karpal was detained for 457 days under the ISA during Ops Lalang, when the police arrested a slew of opposition politicians and activists)

The reason for that is simply because I saw what happened to him, and I saw what a law like the ISA could do, how draconian and oppressive it was, and I wanted to make sure that that doesn't happen to anyone else.

Eventually, I realised that one of the ways in which I could actually remove laws like that was to be a member of parliament.

Gobind pictured with his father, Karpal, in 2009 at the Session Courts in Jalan Duta, where the latter was charged under the Sedition Act.

Can Malaysia be a beacon of hope for press freedom in South East Asia?

I think we have to recognise that in today's world, especially with social media and the way people today express themselves, there is a need for us to promote that freedom which will allow a level of discussion that helps people understand the issues around them.

Ever since I became a minister, there has been no attempt on my part to direct the press to report things in a certain way. This is something that was quite common in the past.

After 10 months, I have found that we have a press that is not just experienced, but they are very mature in the way they think. So I am confident that in Malaysia, we understand how our society thinks, we know what the sensitivities are. We understand how important it is for us to acknowledge that we are a country that is formed by different people, with different thoughts, different backgrounds, different religious and cultural concerns, and so forth. And if we can build a group of people in the form of the press who understand all that, but yet can put up a discussion and let people decide therefrom what it is they think of policies, then it is something that is good for the country. It is something that we need in order for us to develop further and to build a true Malaysian identity.

A media council has been mooted to oversee the press in Malaysia. What are your plans for this media council?

(The ministry) had to make a decision -- do we want to get involved with it, or do we want to say ‘No, let's get the press to deal with it, let them come back to us with a proposal’, so that we can have this measure of independence. The media council can then say that this is an institution that they created themselves, this is a structure they decided upon, this is how they want to operate, this is how they want to move forward.

Of course, at the end of the day they will consult the government, but this gives me the freedom to take a position that is adverse to them.

So I think that's very important, and that's how we pitched it. So I am informed now that (Prime Minister’s special media adviser) Datuk A. Kadir Jasin is discussing it with members of the press, and I am told that it is at the tail-end of discussions. I'm informed that they will meet me soon and hopefully we will be able to see it instituted before the middle of this year.

You said before that ownership of media by political parties should be avoided. Why?

Well, it's really a question of bias. If you talk about press freedom, you talk about balanced reporting, then there must also be the assurance that the reporters are not tied down by who their bosses are, or who the owners of their (media company) are.

I've also made a distinction between the two scenarios -- the first being a scenario whereby the owners do not control the newspaper, and the second where the owners are the people who control the newspaper. So I think we have to look at who controls the newspaper. Because you may have owners who are non-political, but then have a group of people who are political and who control the paper.

Then you're going to have the same problem. So it's not so much us looking at the political parties per se, but it is about trying to ensure that reports that come out from any agency are balanced and they are not contaminated by the fact that that particular agency is controlled or owned by a certain person who has an interest in the way that news is reported.

But what about RTM? What's RTM's role in Malaysia’ media landscape?

Many people have asked me ‘How independent can RTM be?’ Because when you are from JPA (Civil Service Department), there are certain rules and regulations that you are bound by, which relates with the government of the day. So this is something that I'm looking at as well. And this is the reason why I spoke about looking at the possibility of merging Bernama and RTM.

We should try to create an entity like the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation, the UK’s national broadcaster). The BBC operates very independently from the government, although grants are given to it by the government for certain purposes. That’s a very different setup from what we have at RTM.

But it will take time. I've spoken to the Prime Minister about this merger. He has told me to look at it carefully and to report back to him.

But again, at this point in time, my position with RTM is to report news in a balanced way. My approach is and always has been, that whatever it is we say, it's about discussion. It's about ensuring that we get all points of view across.

Of course when it comes to issues of concern -- for example if there's a breakout of a disease or the pollution in Sungai Kim Kim -- that's where we asked RTM to focus on that, because people want to know what is going on. People want to understand what actually happened. They want to know what the government is doing, whether the problem is prolonged, whether it can be solved. In cases like that, of course I will ask RTM, just like I asked all the other press, actually, to assist us by giving additional coverage.

Let's talk about censorship. Where is the line drawn?

Censorship comes under the Home Affairs Ministry so it's not something that comes under my ministry. So of course I am not going to talk about what happens there because it’s outside my ministry.

But what about your thoughts, as someone who is dealing with the press, who is dealing with FINAS (the National Film Development Corporation)?

My view is that we should try, as far as we are able to, to allow as much as we possibly can. But there are sensitivities, and here I think the police play an important role, because they often express concerns about what it is we see on TV. Of course, they have their views.

So I think it's really a question of us making a decision as to whether we want to be more progressive, in the sense that we want to talk about issues that exist, while making sure that we are able to balance things in such a way that we are able to promote healthy discussion about issues. I look at it from that angle, with that approach. But I want to repeat that this is my personal view, censorship comes under the Home Affairs Ministry. That ministry decides what needs to be censored and what needs not.

In the past, you have defended people against laws like the Official Secrets Act (OSA) and the Sedition Act. Has your stance changed with regards to these laws?

No. I am very clear - the Sedition Act must be abolished.

Gobind represented law professor Azmi Sharom after he was charged with sedition over an article published in 2014. Azmi was acquitted in 2016.

What about the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA)?

We are looking at repealing it, actually, but certain provisions (in the act) need to be “saved”. The question is how we “save” them, so it's really a question of what we need to do.

The Communications and Multimedia Act?

Amending Section 233. We cannot repeal the whole act because the whole act deals with many things, including regulatory frameworks, so we are focusing on amending section 233, with section 211 read together as well. It is a work in progress, hoping to get it through parliament in July.

Can Malaysia do with a freedom of information act?

Yes. We have done it in Penang and I think at the end of the day, it is something that we can achieve and we need to look into it.

My commitment (about these laws) remains. My view is that it is listed in the manifesto, so what we said we are going to repeal, we need to repeal. What we said we need to amend, we need to amend. If we cannot repeal a particular legislation, I think there's a need for us to explain to the public why it is we can't, and we must have a very very good reason for it. But my position remains -- if we said that we need to repeal it, then we should repeal it.

When we interviewed Khairy Jamaluddin for this series, he gave the Pakatan government a ‘D’ in his report card. How would you rate your government's performance?

Well, people will have their opinions about how Pakatan Harapan has performed. But I think at the end of the day, we look at our performance in context -- in the sense that we are now forming the federal government for the first time after 61 years. There are problems we have had to deal with, huge financial problems. There were ministers who had to look at their ministries, understand how the ministries operated and decide how it is we need to start managing these ministries. And of course, we need to deliver on the promises in our manifesto. This takes time.

Yes, mistakes have been made. I have openly acknowledged the fact that we're new, it's a learning curve, and in the process we have found that some decisions that we made had to be reviewed.

But it's all a work in progress.

Eleven months is a short time, especially for a first-time government. We need more time to deliver. We are working on it, and I think that in the months to come hereafter, we will see Pakatan Harapan moving in a much firmer direction towards the policies and promises that we have made in our campaign and manifesto.

You mentioned "inexperienced ministers" as one of the reasons why there has been flip-flopping on some of manifesto promises. Do you want to elaborate on that?

When I mentioned experience, I was looking at it in the context of us becoming the Federal Government for the first time. In other words, all of us are new to our ministries. We have not been federal ministers before. So this is why I talked about experience.

Of course, after eleven months, most of the ministers now understand how things operate. Looking ahead, I think that we will be able to do things a lot quicker and a lot better.

What do you think your father would have said when the May 9 election results were announced?

I think he would have been very happy that we finally defeated Barisan Nasional. And I think he would have been very focused on what it is we needed to achieve. He would have reminded us what we needed to do for the people.

At the same time, I am very certain that he would also have been very practical about the way in which things were to be done. We are a new government, we would need time to get things done.

We have to make sure that we deliver but at the same time we have to understand that these promises cannot be achieved overnight. So I think he would have given us the space.

We miss him, but unfortunately we still have to carry on. We have to get things done.

Watch the previous episode of R.AGE’s Close Up series, with Khairy Jamaluddin:

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