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Malaysian civil society as the progressive third force

Kua Kia Soong

COMMENT | Malaysia faces an existential threat of self-destruction if we do not quickly learn from past mistakes and provide a way forward for the nation.

At the 14th General Election just last year, we succeeded in toppling a corrupt and dysfunctional BN regime only to be quickly disillusioned by a Pakatan Harapan government that treats their election manifesto as a useless booklet that can be ignored after the election.

Malaysia’s economic growth has stagnated and the stock market has fallen which resulted in the peoples’ revolt against Harapan at the Tanjung Piai byelection. This is a grim reminder to all of us that if we do not act quickly to point to a way forward for the nation, we will be stuck with this BN/Harapan circus for the future with grave consequences for the people of this country.

The challenges of good governance are the concerns of a vibrant Malaysian civil society. Throughout history and in different parts of the world, the actions by civil society have produced dramatic results to change the course of history. In Malaysia, the civil rights movement, Hindraf and Bersih demonstrations all contributed to the regime change in GE14.

Time to move beyond the two-front system

So far, the new Harapan government has not spelt out their fundamental difference in race-based and neo-liberal economic policy from the old BN regime. After the fiasco of Proton 1.0 with its huge cost to Malaysian taxpayers, our public transport system and Malaysian consumers, it is unbelievable that such a failed enterprise could be supported by a Harapan leadership full of former critics of the first Proton project. Mahathir has also begun to privatise our national assets to favoured cronies as he did during his first term.

Using the excuse of the government debt to delay local government elections which have been suspended in our country since 1965 is not acceptable. It is a simple matter of abolishing a provision under the Local Government Act 1976 and reviving the Local Government Election Act to introduce local government elections.

If our income per capita in 1957 was only US$800 and we could afford local council elections, don’t tell us we can’t afford local elections when our income per capita is now US$10,000.

It is equally absurd to tell Malaysian Independent Chinese Secondary School graduates that their Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) can only be recognised in five years. This is a serious breach of promise in the Harapan GE14 manifesto since more than 80 per cent of Chinese voters voted for Harapan because of this promised reform.

Time to build a third (progressive) force

The civil rights committee was right to call for a two-front system to depose the corrupt and authoritarian BN regime. It was a struggle we had to go through but now, we have ended up with the same autocrat who is trying to implement the same policies he introduced in 1981.

Furthermore, Harapan has succeeded in forcing PAS to ally more closely to Umno especially after GE14, thus making race and religious issues even more oppressive. It is time for all who have hoped for real reforms in Malaysia to build a "third progressive force" for a truly just, democratic and sustainable future that BN and Harapan have failed to provide.

These demands are not unlike the "joint declaration" by the major Chinese associations in 1985 or the Malaysian Human Rights Charter of 1993. They include:

  • An end to racism and racial discrimination in Malaysia

Perhaps the strongest reason for going beyond the two-front system is the fact that both BN and Harapan are dominated by race-based political parties to gain votes and popularity.

The most distressing of all was the so-called “Malay Dignity Congress” with its racist resolutions which the prime minister patronised. Consequently, none of the political parties in either of the two coalitions have raised the question of when the racially discriminatory New Economic Policy, that was scheduled to end in 1990, will end.

Good governance requires the eradication of institutional racism through a “New Equitable Policy” with corrective action in all economic and education policies based on needs/ sector or class and not on race, with priority given to indigenous people, marginalised and poor communities; institutionalising means testing for access to scholarships or other entitlements; implementing merit-based recruitment in civil and armed services; enacting an Equality Act to promote equality and non-discrimination irrespective of race, creed, religion, gender or disability with provision for an Equality & Human Rights Commission; and ratifying the International Convention on the Eradication of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

  • Calling for a climate emergency

No country in the world can escape the effects of the climate crisis. In Malaysia, floods and landslides will be more severe and we have been warned that many coastal areas of Malaysia will be deluged in just a few years.

Even before this climate crisis, at least since the eighties we have been warning the government against the folly of deforestation, degradation of the environment especially our rivers, the emphasis on cars and highways to the neglect of public transport, the unsustainability of our farming methods.

Civil society should be at the forefront of the movement to implement these measures, including, banning single-use plastics and the import of plastic waste immediately, making manufacturers commit to waste reduction targets and replace fossil fuels with clean renewable energy, encouraging a vegetarian lifestyle and educating farmers regarding the unsustainability of livestock and poultry farming if we are to solve the climate crisis.

  • Wealth redistribution for the 99 percent

Both BN and Harapan are competing to see which coalition can outdo the other in neo-liberal policies that offer investors attractive opportunities that they can’t refuse, implementing "development" projects that involve carving out forests, reclaiming land and colonising other assets in our public commons.

We do not see these coalitions putting forward sound policies to redistribute wealth in this country, such as progressive fiscal policies to tax the top one percent who own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent and the middle 40 percent in our country with higher marginal tax rates on income, capital gains, inheritance and luxuries. The wealth of the richest 50 Malaysians (top 0.00017 percent) amounts to nearly RM300 billion which is a quarter of the country’s total GDP of RM1 trillion!

  • Progressive economic policy

We want a progressive economic policy that includes nationalising all utilities and essential services including water resources, health, public transport, energy; a sustainable agricultural policy to ensure self-sufficiency in rice and basic food items and a reduction in food imports; providing fair and adequate support for all sectors and a just land distribution to all farmers, irrespective of ethnicity; modernising the new villages by giving land titles, improving infrastructure and government assistance to small and medium enterprises; apportioning more revenue from oil and gas to the states that produce these resources.

  • Institutional reform for good governance

We expect good governance to include processes that are equitable and inclusive; that promote participation; that is accountable, transparent, responsive, effective, efficient and that follow the rule of law.

This requires the establishment and strengthening of credible national institutions to implement good governance. NGOs have played a crucial role in contributing to institutional reforms after GE14 only to be told by the new Harapan government that the reports cannot be revealed.

What has happened to the promise to reintroduce elected local governments? Civil society has a responsibility to push for the return of this third tier of democracy and not be corrupted by the appointment system of the ruling coalition.

The freedom of expression and information cannot prevail until we abolish the Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act and the Film Censorship Act; enact a Freedom of Information (FoI) Act at federal and state levels which is reflective of the peoples’ right to know, with the public interest as the overriding principle; prevent the monopoly of ownership and control of the press and broadcasting stations by political parties or corporate bodies.

Progressive social policies

Good governance relating to Malaysian women’s human rights and dignity requires reviewing and amending all laws and constitutional provisions that discriminate on the basis of gender; confronting sexism and prejudice based on gender stereotypes; equal pay for women holding similar posts as men; ensuring through competent national tribunals and other public institutions the effective protection of women against any act of discrimination.

The contribution of Malaysian workers to the nation’s progress and their rights would be recognized by ensuring labour laws are compatible with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention; encouraging and promoting workers’ unionisation; legislating a progressive guaranteed minimum wage for all workers, including foreign workers; abolishing the contractor for labour system and ensuring all workers are employed as permanent employees who enjoy all benefits.

We expect a tripartite consensus to ensure that our workers’ wages are kept in step with the cost of living and productivity so that we can attain the status of a high-income society. Thus, workers and their trade unions should have their place in decision-making at the workplace, especially control of pension funds; enabling workers to have a controlling stake in their company stock ownership and for profits to be diverted into employee share funds; electing workers’ representatives into the management so that they share corporate decisions, including investments, technology, wages and prices.

Although they are the Orang Asal, the indigenous peoples are among the poorest sectors of the Malaysian population and the most marginalised. Good governance would demand the recognition of the right of the Orang Asal to self-determination; protecting the right of the Orang Asal to sustainable development, access to basic needs and advancement of their traditions and languages; following through on Malaysia’s endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP); enacting or amending state laws that recognise and protect the native customary rights of the Orang Asal to their traditional lands and territories.

From watchdogs to warriors

Through the years, Malaysian NGOs have been playing the important role of watchdogs to ensure the rule of law and human rights are safeguarded. With the failures of both BN and Harapan regimes in providing good governance and the similarity of their race-based, profits before people policies, the challenge for Malaysian civil society is clear - be the change we want to see, provide the progressive vision of a Malaysia we want, and organise the progressive third force the country needs.

KUA KIA SOONG is Suaram adviser. The above is his keynote speech at the Civil Society Awards, 10 Dec 2019.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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