A YEAR ago, Malaysia ushered in the Pakatan Harapan government with much hope and expectations. The new government was elected by the people on the back of promises of human rights and institutional reform. After decades of abuse of power and the use of repressive laws by the former government to silence its critics, I expected Pakatan to use the best opportunity we have ever had to transform Malaysia into a more democratic country that respects human rights and possesses strong, accountable and transparent institutions.
I was heartened to see progressive appointments made to head key institutions such as the Election Commission, Parliament and the Judiciary, and these institutions have started to make reforms in the right direction.
I also welcomed the government’s swift action to repeal the Anti Fake News Act (unfortunately thwarted at the Senate stage). I applauded the Cabinet’s decision to abolish the death penalty in all its forms.
And I cheered when our Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced in New York that Malaysia would ratify all the remaining international human rights treaties.
Over the last few months, however, I have observed with growing dismay the stagnation of the promised reforms. I wish to highlight in particular:
1. The backtracking on the decision to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Icerd);
2. The announcement that instead of the total abolition of the death penalty, only the mandatory death penalty would be removed (which has yet to happen);
3. The embarrassing announcement of our intention to withdraw from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court barely a month after we had acceded to it;
4. The proposed Bill on the National Security Council Act which amends the Act rather than repealing it, as promised in the Pakatan manifesto, and, worse, introduces amendments that make it even more far-reaching than before; and
5. The alarming mixed messages on child marriage that were expressed by members of the government and the delay in imposing a minimum age of 18 for marriage.
I have also seen the government prevaricate on the abolition of repressive laws such as the Sedition Act, Prevention of Crime Act and Printing Presses and Publications Act. These were Acts that Pakatan promised to abolish in its manifesto, along with draconian provisions in the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, the Communications and Multimedia Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
The government has also not set up the much-needed Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) despite repeated announcements that it would be done.
Instead of reviewing the Official Secrets Act and enacting a Freedom of Information Act as promised,
the government even made secret the Council of Eminent Persons’ report, and has yet to disclose the Institutional Reforms Committee report, which was meant to provide a roadmap for the reforms that are needed in the country.
In the last few years of Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s administration, we saw how our institutions were unable to hold him accountable for his actions. Attorney General Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail was sacked in 2015 after being part of a task force investigating the 1MDB financial scandal. The next Attorney General, Tan Sri Mohamed Apandi Ali, cleared Najib of any wrongdoing and reportedly refused to authorise requests for mutual legal assistance so that MACC investigations into the 1MDB money trail could continue abroad.
MACC officers who were investigating Najib were questioned by police and transferred, and the Commission later confirmed his assertion that the RM2.6bil in his bank account was from donations.
The Home Ministry suspended the licence of The Edge that had exposed the 1MDB scandal. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) blocked The Malaysian Insider that was carrying similar stories.
The Auditor-General’s report on 1MDB was classified as secret under the Official Secrets Act.
The Election Commission conducted a redelineation process that was unabashedly in favour of the ruling party.
As a result, billions of ringgit have allegedly been siphoned from our country’s coffers, to the detriment of all Malaysians.
We must never again be put in this situation where our democratic institutions can be manipulated to prop up a leader who has lost the confidence and trust of the nation. The institutional changes and structural reforms to prevent this must begin now, while there is the opportunity to do so.
Progressive appointments are not sufficient, as these can be reversed easily by a new prime minister or government. The institutions themselves must be revamped and made more independent, accountable and transparent.
I believe that this government stood for change and hope when it ran in May 2018 – a change from the corrupt ways of the past, and hope for the future by reforming our institutions and ensuring that the abuses of the past can never take place again.
I do not know whether we will ever have this opportunity again to reform our nation’s institutions. We must dismantle all the tools of authoritarianism and put our country on a solid democratic footing now so that no matter who is in power, there will be sufficient checks and balances to keep them accountable.
I know that some of these reforms may not seem popular with certain groups of people, but I believe that the electorate will respect a government that keeps to its word and, conversely, will disrespect one that gives in to bullies.
I acknowledge that economic conditions must have a priority, but I would like to remind the government that institutional and human rights reforms must have prime importance as well, as it is our future that is at stake.
I know that Pakatan is understandably concerned about losing power in the next general election. But wouldn’t it then be safer to put in place the necessary institutional and structural changes now to safeguard our democracy in case it does lose power, rather than not?
Despite this year’s disappointments, I still believe and hope that Pakatan will be able to effect the changes necessary to make Malaysia a truly democratic nation.
(The writer is a lawyer and was part of the legal support team on the Institutional Reforms Committee)