I disagree with the country's leaders

comments     Dr Toh Kin Woon     Published     Updated

Several major marches and pickets, all peaceful, have taken place in our country over the last few months.

There was the 'Walk for Justice' organised by the Bar Council. This peaceful march called for a complete review of the country's judiciary system with a view to restoring its independence, and hence put into effect the separation of powers so important for justice. This was followed by a march to the palace organised by Bersih, a broad coalition of political parties and NGOs, calling for free and fair elections.

The most recent, this time to hand over a memorandum to the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, was organised by the Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf, in short. Although the stated objective of this last demonstration was to demand compensation for the exploitation of Indians from the British government, it was in effect to highlight the socio-economic and cultural plight of the Indians, especially their lower strata.

To all these must be added the numerous pickets called by the trade unions for higher salaries just to meet rises in costs of living so burdensome to the workers.

All these marches and pickets, especially those organised by Bersih and Hindraf, drew tens of thousands of people. And this, despite the authorities warning the public not to take part as these assemblies were all so-called "illegal". Participants were threatened with arrest should they take part in all these illegal assemblies.

These marches drew flak and condemnation from almost all Barisan Nasional leaders. Their criticisms centred on their illegality, potential threat to peace, the possible destablisation of the economy including frightening away foreign investors. I disagree with the views of our country's leaders.

Instead of condemning, one would have thought and hoped that they should have been more concerned over the grievances, frustrations and disappointments that have brought so many thousands to the streets in the first place and to seek fair and just solutions to them.

Is it true that there are lots of defects in our country's judicial system? If so, what are they? What must we do to overcome these so that we can restore its independence, and give real substance to the separation of powers in order to strengthen our country's democratic institutions?

Likewise, what are the shortcomings in our country's electoral system, especially pertaining to the electoral rolls, election campaigning, access to media, etc? And on Hindraf, what are the grievances, frustrations and unhappiness of the lower strata of the Indian community, and that of all the other communities, pertaining to housing, education, health, jobs, equity and religious freedom?

Until and unless these and many more issues concerning our country's judicial and electoral systems as well as social justice for the poor are looked into seriously and satisfactory solutions found, the discontent that has brought thousands to the streets over the last several months will remain. To me, it is this discontent and unhappiness that will be a greater threat to our country's peace and stability, rather than the marches, pickets and demonstrations.

To be fair, the government did finally agree to the setting up of a royal commission of inquiry to look into the Lingam case that triggered the outpouring of dissatisfaction over the state of our judicial system. The terms of reference of this soon to be set-up royal commission have, however, not yet been announced. Hopefully, its scope of work will include getting to the bottom of why our judicial system has declined so precipitously over the years.

A truly democratic society that allows peaceful marches, an independent and just judicial system, free and fair elections, equal respect by the state for all religious faiths and social justice for the poor are, among others, the key pillars of democracy, peace and stability. Without these, no amount of coercion, including the threat to use the obnoxious Internal Security Act (ISA), can bring us the lasting peace and security that all Malaysians desire.

Finally, I find it extremely disturbing that a backbench Barisan Nasional MP who took a divergent stand on Hindraf should be so severely rebuked and chastised by a couple of BN leaders. This clearly does not augur well at all for intra-BN democracy.

The message sent seems to be that all BN elected representatives are expected to be meek and passive followers of the views of their leaders and that no space is provided for independent views, including those articulated by the larger civil society. I wonder how such a stance by the leaders can attract people who want to seek changes from within!

The writer is a member of Gerakan and Penang state executive councillor for Economic Planning, Education, and Human Resources Development, Science, Technology and Innovation.

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