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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Najib’s non-moment

Sulaiman Kamal | 4:04 PM | | Best Blogger Tips

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Why we yawned when he announced his administration’s intention to repeal oppressive laws.

t must have crossed Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s mind that his speech last Sept 16 might just turn out to be his greatest moment. Between the preparation of the speech and the announcement about repealing repressive laws, there must have been moments when he saw visions of himself being hailed everywhere as a hero of democracy.
But it all fell flat, regardless of the follow-up work of his spin masters.
The public distrust of Umno and the personalities associated with it is so ingrained that the announcement would have been taken with sacks of salt even if it he had not made the anti-climactic statement that new laws would replace the Internal Security Act (ISA) and emergency ordinances.
Indeed, even coffeeshop talk has called it a desperate political stunt, perhaps a last spurt to make it to the finishing line in what could be the most intense electoral race in Malaysian history.

But one must try to be fair, and not judge the prime minister too harshly. It is possible that he is making a genuine attempt to change the character of Umno into a party worthy of respect and support and to avoid making the mistakes of past Barisan Nasional administrations, including the one immediately preceding his, with its broken promises of democratic reforms.
Perhaps, even Najib has realised that he might have to live with his conscience longer than with his constituents. One should note that he is doing his Haj this year.
Still, we hear no one singing “I feel change in the air” to celebrate the repeal of repressive laws. Indeed, chances are we will be breathing the same stale air for the rest of the year, at least.
Until the actual repeal of those laws and the tabling of bills proposing the replacement laws, the more politically aware members of the public will be watching closely for signs of Najib’s sincerity or otherwise.
Highly placed intelligence sources believe Najib will decide to hold the 13th general election early next year, soon after the Chinese usher in the Year of the Dragon. Earlier predictions of the election being held late this year have lost some credence due to the prime minister’s tight official schedule.
The major catch to the proposed repeal of draconian laws is that there is no indication that it will happen before the coming election. Meanwhile, the government can continue using them against political opponents to try to ensure its victory in the election.
Artificial democracy
The past tells us that the Umno-led government excels in the character assassination of political opponents and that when this fails, it resorts to locking them up under the ISA or some other law that allows detention without trial.
Even under Tunku Abdul Rahman’s leadership, there were more than a thousand political detainees. The number went down to 574 during Tun Abdul Razak’s tenure (1970-1976), but rose to 1,245 under Hussein Onn (1976-1980). Under Dr Mahathir Mohamad (1981-2003), the most notorious of them, the number of ISA detainees was 1,304. Things changed little during Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s premiership.
The Tunku, who faced widespread public criticism when his administration enacted the ISA in 1960, promised that that the law would be used only against communists.
“They – my cabinet colleagues – and I solemnly promised to Parliament and the nation that the immense powers given to the government would never be used to stifle legitimate opposition and silence lawful dissent,” he told the Far Eastern Economic Review years later.
There are some who would dispute the Tunku’s claim, but only the naive, the Umno apologists and those with vested interests would deny that his successors misused and abused the ISA for decades.
The author of the ISA was British lawyer RH Hickling (1920-2007), who had also taken part in drafting the Federal Constitution. He returned to Malaysia in 1987 to present a paper at a forum on the development of the constitution.
“It was not my intention to use the ISA to oppress political opponents and those dedicated to non-violent activities,” Hickling said at the forum.
He advised Malaysians to ask themselves whether the system they lived under was “democratic in essence” or whether the democracy was “artificial”. If they found that it was artificial, then they must look for the “remedy”, he added.
In 2000, a group of international legal and judicial luminaries published a report entitled “Justice in Jeopardy: Malaysia 2000” about threats to the rule of law in Malaysia.
It said: “Our clear impression is that there are well-founded grounds for concern as to the proper administration of justice in Malaysia in cases which are of particular interest, for whatever reason, to the government… The central problem appears to lie in the actions of the various branches of an extremely powerful executive, which has not acted with due regard for the other essential elements of a free and democratic society based on the just rule of law.”
Becoming a patriot
It would appear, on the surface, that Najib’s Sept 16 announcement represented an attempt to administer the remedy that Hickling spoke about.
But what about the two new laws? From what Najib and the Home Minister have been saying about them, it appears that they will be nearly as draconian as the ISA, if not exactly so. Certainly, they would not make Malaysia any more democratic.
In all likelihood, no sane person would regard Najib as a saint. It was not too long ago that he declared Umno’s intention to keep Putrajaya “even if bodies are crushed and lives lost”.
It is well to remember these famous words of William Randolph Hearst: “A politician will do anything to keep his job, even become a patriot.”
So, until the deal is done, we have every right to view Najib’s attempt at dramatic excellence as nothing more than floating a raft to save Umno from drowning in an electoral tsunami that will be worse than the one that struck in 200

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