IN many ways, it was a privilege to be in the US when 9/11 happened. I was a journalist on a fellowship at the University of Maryland, College Park when the World Trade Centre came crashing down in an unexpected terrorist attack on American soil .
The privilege of being in the US then was in being able to witness first-hand the very worst and the very best of Americans in a time of unchartered crisis. After 9/11, President George W Bush’s response was to invade and attack Afghanistan and subsequently Iraq under the branding of the War on Terror. Additionally, the US government took away citizens’ civil liberties by passing the Patriot Act, which, among others, allowed for detention without trial.
(Pic by Paul Keller / Flickr)
Indeed, crises often provide insights into character. It’s during crises, when decisions have to be made quickly and under great pressure, that our default reactions and values kick in. In Malaysia, although we have blessedly not been tested with a crisis the magnitude of 9/11, we’ve had our fair share of crises.
The crisis clamouring most for our attention today is the political coup in Perak. In reacting to this crisis, what are we learning from the responses of those in power in Malaysia?
Disrespect for democracy
The current developments in Perak are clearly forcing Malaysians into unfamiliar political territory. Already, we have seen actions that amply demonstrate the kind of character Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders are made of.
By lodging police reports and filing court injunctions against Perak Speaker V Sivakumar, the BN is saying to us that it has no understanding of the concept of separation of powers involving the judiciary, the executive and the legislature. More worryingly, the current BN government is telling the rakyat it is not interested in respecting the constitutional provisions guaranteeing this separation of powers. And by doing so, it is underlying its disregard for the principles that are integral to a healthy democracy.
The response of the Perak state assembly secretary and the police in Ipoh to the holding of the 3 March emergency sitting was also revealing. The state assembly secretary declared that the Perak Darul Ridzuan Building would be closed to prevent the “illegal sitting” of the state assembly. The police also took it upon themselves to put up road blocks, and prevented elected assemblypersons from entering the building.
Heavy police presence in front of the Perak secretariat building on 3 March 2009
(Pic by Wong Shu Qi, courtesy of Merdeka Review)
This situation would be no different from the Dewan Rakyat secretary locking up Parliament in defiance of the speaker calling for a sitting. And it would be no different from the police then blocking the entrance to Parliament to obstruct Members of Parliament (MPs) from carrying out their duties. Imagine the uproar should that happen.
For certain, both the state assembly secretary and the police acted on someone’s instructions. It could not have been on the instructions of the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) leadership. Hence, it must have been on the BN’s instructions. And it would be safe to bet that royal-backed BN Menteri Besar Datuk Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir was involved, or at least knew about it.
What does this tell us then about the current leadership that has been installed in Perak, and that is backed by the Umno-led federal government? It tells us that the BN would go to great lengths to ensure it doesn’t lose its grip on power, even if its actions are unlawful. More worryingly, it tells us that both the police and the civil service have been corrupted beyond impartiality.
Really, having the people finally decide for themselves what government they want would be small comfort if these actors continue to get away with what they have been doing thus far.
At this point in time, then, even if the Sultan of Perak finally accedes to the dissolution of the assembly so that snap polls can be held and the impasse is democratically resolved, we should still feel unsettled. At stake in Perak, and by extension for the nation, is the rule of law, constitutional guarantees, and the integrity and impartiality of unelected state agencies. All of which have been undermined, and continue to be threatened, by those in power and authority.
And if things weren’t already bad enough, in two suits filed against Sivakumar, the Ipoh High Court chose not to hold the hearing in open court despite the public importance of both cases. More revealingly, the lawyers for the BN plaintiffs objected to the case being heard in open court. We should ask, what were the plaintiffs afraid of? That the public would be better able to scrutinise how the case was being handled?
Additionally, judicial commissioner Ridwan Ibrahim ruled in both cases that Sivakumar couldn’t be represented by his own counsel and that the state legal advisor — whose independence is in question — would instead be forced on him.
Motions being tabled and passed during the emergency
sitting conducted under a tree in an open parking lot
(Pic by Wong Shu Qi, courtesy of Merdeka Review)How then can Malaysians be expected to trust that justice will be fairly and independently meted out by the courts? Already, the PR is filing its cases in courts outside of Ipoh, out of fear that the courts will not act fairly and independently. This is a tragic indictment of the state of our judiciary and a terrible condition for any democracy to find itself in.
But apart from this belittling and labelling, these BN leaders fail to explain what exactly was “uncivilised” or “shameful” about the emergency sitting that PR-elected representatives were determined to attend. Furthermore, weren’t the locking up of the state secretariat building à la 1988 judicial crisis and the use of police to obstruct elected reps from conducting their business the more shameful acts in a democracy?
On 9 March 2009, BN-installed Menteri Besar Zambry described the PR’s naming of the tree as the “Tree of Democracy” as an act of “disloyalty towards Perak royalty”. That would suggest that Perak royalty can be insulted by the notion of democracy. That may or may not be true, but if it is, then it would be yet another troubling issue for our nation.
The PR has also planted five other trees near the “Tree of Democracy” to symbolise justice, trustworthiness, transparency, welfare and integrity. Sure, this could very well be a political gimmick. But the PR is at least espousing principles of leadership Malaysia needs and can only benefit from. In contrast, the BN and other institutions under their influence have only demonstrated an unwillingness to be open, to fight fair, and to act justly, transparently and with integrity.
Jacqueline Ann Surin wants political, judicial and state agency leaders who don’t support democratic principles kicked out. She believes that if our institutions fail us, then the rakyat can only depend on themselves to defend democracy in Malaysia.