The venue of the second post-Permatang Pauh forum (See also 16 Sept: D-Day?)
AS the main auditorium of the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall (KLSCAH) emptied on the evening of 11 Sept 2008, a straggling audience member supplied Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) vice-president Sivarasa Rasiah with a slice of trivia.
“916”, shorthand for the 16 Sept deadline that is gaining popular use, is also a figure of millesimal fineness equivalent to 22 carats, the standard purity for gold bullion in Malaysia. “Really?” Sivarasa answered. “I didn’t know that.”
With a week to go, the Malaysia Day deadline, by which opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has pledged to take government, has put politicians like Sivarasa in a spot. His task is the subtle venture of managing perception.
There is mounting public worry over the methodology of forming a ruling coalition in parliament via Barisan Nasional (BN)-to-Pakatan Rakyat crossovers: whether it’s constitutionally legitimate, whether it is ethical, whether it presages merely cosmetic reform. These concerns coloured the queries that Sivarasa had to answer at the After Permatang Pauh, is 916 an opportunity of change? (sic) forum.
Jointly organised by the youth section of the KLSCAH, Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor, and Pertubuhan Jemaah Islah Malaysia (JIM), the forum’s apparent draw was the East Malaysian voice in its panel: Datuk Richard Yong, secretary-general of the Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP).
Though the SAPP is one of the 14 BN component parties, it has nevertheless been a very vocal critic of the coalition. SAPP president Datuk Seri Panglima Yong Teck Lee spearheaded a motion of no-confidence against BN chairperson and prime minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in June.
Window of opportunity
On 11 Sept, Richard confirmed that the SAPP viewed the period post-March 2008 as a unique opportunity. “916 and Permatang Pauh offer a window for change,” he said. “We must be careful of the risks — but if it doesn’t happen, we will surely be worse off.”
Referring to 16 Sept as the day when Malaysia was formed to include Sabah and Sarawak, Richard said: “For many years, the powers-that-be have played down the significance of 16 Sept.”
This sidelining was emblematic of the wider disregard shown to Sabah and Sarawak, he noted. “Sabah has a 20% poverty rate,” he said as an example, “whereas, in the peninsula, the average is around 6%.”
Much of his presentation revolved around the issues plaguing Sabah, including its endemic illegal-immigrant problem and lack of political autonomy.
Richard attested to the Sabahan public’s desire for change. The very fact that SAPP MPs frequently get questioned about the 16 Sept deadline for a new government, according to him, is proof enough.
But the party isn’t too fixated on the deadline itself. “We believe in change for the better, whether it is 916 or not,” Richard said. At the end of the day, it’s about meeting the needs and aspirations of East Malaysians. “We desire not to be treated as colonies of Malaya, but as full members of the Federation of Malaysia.”
Richard Yong, Sabah Progressive Party secretary-generalCautious about change
While “change” was arguably the most uttered noun at the forum, most panellists were more cautious than Richard as to its definition.
Columnist Hishamuddin Rais observed that, should 16 Sept’s slated events take place, it would mean new people running the country, “which could make things a bit better” or it could be a cosmetic change.” Citing the apparent lack of Big Money shifting allegiance, he cast doubt on Anwar’s promise of economic reform. “I fail to see structural changes,” Hishamuddin said.
The self-described “non-governmental individual’ also pointed out the Pakatan Rakyat’s lack of a shadow cabinet line-up. Such a line-up, Hishamuddin argued, would indicate that the fledging coalition had a solid command structure, and its decisions were not just made by individual personalities.
“I see only Anwar making the decisions,” Hishamuddin said. “There must be openness and transparency, not only economically, but in how we choose our leaders. Otherwise, authoritarian politics may return — and that is the most dangerous thing.”
KLSCAH Youth assistant secretary Ng Chong Soon worried about the immediate effects of wresting power from the BN. “Will racial issues be played up and the Internal Security Act used?” Ng asked, in an oblique reference to Bukit Bendera Umno chief Datuk Ahmad Ismail’s recent firestorms. “Will there be an Emergency? Will the army get involved?”
JIM president Zaid Kamaruddin observed that 16 Sept appeared to be more of a PKR or Anwar project rather than a Pakatan Rakyat one. He also noted that, since nobody had seen concrete policies for the currently hypothetical Anwar-led government,” I don’t think a new government is prepared to take charge.”
Haris Ibrahim addresses the panelApprehensions about 16 Sept were most candidly heard from the floor. Haris Ibrahim, lawyer, political activist and custodian of The People’s Parliament blog, summed up the disparate criticisms.
He argued that crossovers were tantamount to a betrayal of the electorate, since people had voted for candidates who represented and upheld a certain party’s values.
The only vaccine is transparency: “Can’t these MPs intending to cross make themselves known?” Haris asked. “They should give us their reasons.”
Then, to gauge popular opinion over their decision, these transient parliamentarians should “hold a town hall meeting and say: ‘Guide me.'”
As for worries about what shape the Pakatan Rakyat administration would take, Haris observed that much of what has been said so far were populist slogans. “Give us a manifesto now!” he demanded.
As the only Pakatan Rakyat lawmaker present that night, Sivarasa, who is MP for Subang, bore the brunt of such anxieties. His response? An appeal to the public to be realistic.
“Saying ‘crossovers are immoral’ is emotive language,” Sivarasa said.
He argued that while the concerns raised were real, and deserved answers and debate, the state of Malaysian politics prevented crossovers from being viewed completely in black-and-white terms.
“In a mature democratic country, an MP who wishes to change parties would declare his decision, then resign,” Sivarasa said. “By-elections would be held, and the voters would decide.” But Malaysia, the lawyer and human rights activist asserted, was not a place in which that would be possible. “This country is not a democratic country. The 8 March elections weren’t fair.”
There were further obstacles to a proper, ethical process of transition — constitutional ones. Sivarasa cited Article 48, Clause 6, which disqualifies an MP from sitting in parliament for a period of five years, “beginning with the date on which his resignation takes effect”.
“Our constitution makes it impossible for MPs to resign,” he said.
As for transparency, Sivarasa reminded the floor that the “apparatuses of authoritarianism” were real. “The moment someone’s identity is known, the harassment begins,” he said.
There are material dangers to dissent. He cited the charges of corruption faced by Perak state excos, the Anti-Corruption Agency officials at Yong Teck Lee’s’s door, and intimidation by the Special Branch. “To expect [MPs who are thinking of crossing over] to come out in our Malaysian context is unrealistic.”
Reaching for federal power
Responding to an audience member’s question on why the Pakatan Rakyat could not just wait for another four years and become government at the next general election, Sivarasa said the extent of state power is widely misunderstood.
“It’s limited,” he said, supplying examples of reform by the Selangor government that have been stillborn because of federal intervention. “We can expose corruption, but not charge. Change can be blocked. And look at the difference between the state and federal budgets.”
The Pakatan Rakyat’s answer to all these problems is a resolute reach for federal power.” There will be crossovers first,” Sivarasa said. Then, there will be a push for democratisation and electoral reform, and then early elections would be called. “We will put the issue to the people to get a mandate. If the people disagree, they will punish us by not voting for us.
“The Pakatan Rakyat is a work in progress,” Sivarasa continued, agreeing that there is an urgent need for the nascent bloc to supply a manifesto and shadow cabinet. There is much to be done, but the PKR representative also appealed to the floor to give his alliance a chance. “There are going to be mistakes, excesses. But you have to give it time to find its ground, to find its strength.”
In the meantime, civil society is key. “Its role cannot be understated. Vigilance, advocacy… You have to keep politicians honest — including myself. Those who exercise power have to be reminded.”
Sivarasa’s apologetics, that evening, underlined the Pakatan Rakyat’s unique quandary.
Seeing popular political discourse uplifted to an ethical level, where the actions of leaders are weighed to the measure of right or wrong instead of mere expedience, is heartening. It is also a stark difference from the tone of discussion over the past 51 years of independence.
One may attribute this development to the 8 March victories of the Anwar-led opposition, and its consistently high-road rhetoric of good governance, clarity, and multiracialism.
However, the concerns that are now being raised about 16 Sept mean that Malaysians are holding the Pakatan Rakyat to its pledges, against which a government formed out of clandestine defection seems unacceptably Machiavellian.
Anwar et al find themselves akin to alchemists — who, having promised gold, now find the reality of politics a possibly hamstringing lead weight.