Will major parties grappling with a changing political climate have the clear-mindedness to reform their parties or will they remain stuck in a context whose sell-by date has long expired?
I was once asked by a magazine interviewer what I would do if I were Prime Minister for one day. My instantaneous reply was “Repeal the ISA.”
That such a law remains on our statute books, and continues to be abused to this day is evidence that when those in authority are given the right to detain citizens without trial, the temptation to abuse this law against your political enemies is too hard to resist.
It also breeds laziness of mind as it is so much easier to incarcerate someone with a stroke of the pen rather than carry out painstaking investigation and research to build up a case beyond reasonable doubt and prove it successfully in a court of law.
But what struck me about this recent round of ISA arrest is the widespread public outrage on its use from the most unlikely of critics.
Change is for real in this country. That Sin Chew Daily reporter Tan Hoon Cheng was released within 24 hours of her detention and MP Teresa Kok within a week showed that the Government’s use of the ISA is no longer tenable post-March 8.
In the past, those opposed to the ISA represented discordant voices in society. But this time, it is those who publicly spoke out in unequivocal support of the ISA and the detentions who appear discordant to the general mood of public outrage at the injustice done.
Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar was put on the defensive and ridiculed for his statement that Tan was detained in order to protect her life.
The Minister in charge of religion, Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, stood out as a hardliner in government when he put the blame on those detained for “ignoring racial and religious sensitivities” of the country.
How much Malaysia has changed since March 8. At least nine Cabinet ministers from all major component parties felt compelled to break ranks and criticise the use of the ISA or to at least express caution. One resigned as a matter of principle.
Party leaders outside the Cabinet also spoke out strongly against the arrest of an award-winning journalist, a popular MP and a relentless blogger.
The overwhelming message from Cabinet members and Barisan Nasional parties is clearly that the days of using the ISA injudiciously against one’s political enemies are over.
Most have called for a review of the ISA to stop the abuses and to limit its application to acts of terrorism €“ as was its original intent to deal with threats of organised violence from an underground communist insurgency.
That an array of government leaders felt the need to publicly distance themselves from the ISA arrests just shows how much the ground has shifted in Malaysian politics.
Political leaders must now begin to tread where the rakyat wants to take them. Malaysians clearly demand that guilt or innocence must be proven in a court of law.
Many Barisan Nasional leaders are aware that to continue to disregard public opinion may just be the kiss of death for the party.
But old habits die hard. It boggles the mind why police investigators did not check their facts first before they arrested a journalist who was doing her job in reporting a speech made at an event, and an MP who had vehemently denied the public accusations made against her by the former Mentri Besar of Selangor, Datuk Mohd Khir Toyo, and supported by an article in Utusan Malaysia.
All Mohd Khir, the police, Utusan Malaysia and others who lodged police reports against Kok and incited hatred against her could have done was to just check the facts.
The authorities could have easily calmed public opinion by calling up the two mosques involved, just as Malaysiakini did in order to verify the facts.
As the chairman of Masjid Bandar Kinrara said, Kok was not at all involved in the residents’ petition that the loudspeakers be toned down during religious ceramahs. In fact, the petition was handed over by the residents, not Kok, to Umno’s Seri Serdang state assemblyman Mohd Satim Diman and the mosque committee in February. She was given a copy only after March 8.
A simple check to verify facts with Masjid Kota Damansara officials would have revealed that lightning struck their new PA system and thus they could not amplify the azan. The borrowed amplifier also did not work, thus the silence, not because some non-Muslims pressured them to stop the public call to pray or that the Selangor state government gave in to Kok’s demands that loudspeakers not be used for the azan.
So what stretch of logic concluded that it was Kok who posed a potential threat to national security for “racial incitement” and needed to be detained under the ISA?
That such gross miscarriage of justice could take place against not just the common person, but an MP who won with the largest majority in the last election reveals just why this government has lost public trust and support. Likewise, it would have been wiser to let Raja Petra Kamaruddin who is already charged for sedition and criminal defamation to have his day in court than to turn him into a hero.
In the end, instead of protecting national interest, the Barisan Nasional government has been shown yet again to have acted against its own interest.
For a government that has for long ruled by fiat and seldom felt it owed the public an explanation for its policies and actions, these are hard times. To defend what is good and right in spite of public criticism is leadership, but to defend what is bad and wrong in spite of public opprobrium is stupidity.
There is a new Malaysia out there. The old ways of doing things just won’t do any more.
That some key leaders in PAS today are appearing to be more reasonable and open-minded than some Umno leaders say something about how March 8 has impacted the moderates in the Islamist party and their view of ethnicity and religion.
Many of them, such as Kota Raja MP Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud and Shah Alam MP Khalid Samad, won because of support from the Chinese and Indian voters.
They know that to keep this support base which they won by default because of the widespread public repudiation of Barisan Nasional, they must begin to serve the interests of these communities.
The more they work together, the more trust and confidence they will build. Already DAP MPs are breaking fast with the Muslims in their constituencies.
Khalid made a point to visit a church and extend a hand of friendship soon after the election. They are breaking barriers and building bridges to promote better ties.
The Malays are willing to give the DAP a chance and the non-Muslims are willing to give PAS a chance. Thus the chorus of voices condemning the use of the ISA against those who were building bridges rather than those bent at destroying those bridges with inflammatory falsehoods.
That the two mosque officials chose to speak out rather than allow untruths to fester, that Dr Siti Mariah, a PAS MP, had lodged a police report in defence of Kok against Mohd Khir, are indicators that politicians bent on using race and religion to incite public opinion do so at a cost to their party’s reputation in the public eye.
What is clear is that all the major parties are grappling internally on their mission and vision in the midst of a changing political climate.
Do they have the energy and the clear-mindedness needed to reform their parties and follow the path of change demanded by the voters or will they remain stuck in a time tunnel of language and context whose sell-by date has long expired?
Such polarising politicians might want to portray themselves as champions of their race and religion in order to win party elections, but they will be the cause of their party’s downfall in the general elections.
It is the responsibility of all Malaysians who love this country and have none other to call home to make sure that such politicians do not win the day.