Reforms in Malaysia must go on

Ding Jo-Ann


COMMENT | As civil society prepared to gather on Monday to discuss our response to the fall of the Pakatan Harapan government, I joked with a friend, “hopefully we all don’t get arrested under the Internal Security Act”. It was funny, but not really.

After all, it was only two years ago when Fahmi Reza was convicted of portraying former prime minister Najib Abdul Razak as a malevolent clown. It was just three years ago when cartoonist Zunar was arrested for drawings deemed offensive to Najib, and Malaysiakini founders Steven Gan and Premesh Chandran were charged for posting footage of a press conference criticising the attorney-general’s decision to clear Najib of corruption. In 2015, the Barisan Nasional (BN) government suspended The Edge and in 2016, blocked The Malaysian Insider after they revealed incriminating details about the 1MDB financial scandal.

Even though the new Harapan coalition came into power in May 2018, and has been in power until this Monday, many oppressive laws are still in place. With the fall of the Harapan coalition government, it’s not unimaginable that these oppressive laws would be wielded yet again if the former coalition government with Umno in the lead returns to power. And with its new partner, the Islamist party PAS, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to imagine how these laws could also be used increasingly in the name of Islam.

Reforms thus far

Harapan’s convincing win in the 14th general election (GE14) heralded a golden opportunity for reform given the coalition’s manifesto promises. Harapan promised to repeal or amend oppressive laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), the Sedition Act, the Prevention of Crime Act (Poca) and the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act. Their manifesto also guaranteed media freedom, the review of the Official Secrets Act, and a new freedom of information law.

Reform has been slow since the people’s victory at the elections less than two years ago. The Sedition Act, Poca, Sosma, PPPA, and section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) are all still in place. In fact, investigations and charges for “offensive statements” are still occurring under these laws.

Nevertheless, some progress has been made. The voting age has been lowered to 18. The Universities and University Colleges Act was amended to allow for greater student political participation, with the promise of more reforms. The Peaceful Assembly Act was amended to shorten the notice period for holding assemblies. The amendments also allow for the issuance of compounds for non-compliance with the notice period, which do not carry criminal records, as opposed to criminal charges.

The Official Secrets Act is being reviewed by the Legal Affairs Division in the Prime Minister’s Department, with plans to enact a freedom of information act. Consultations have already been held with government agencies about what form the new act should take.

A Media Council Steering Committee, which I am a part of, is working on a draft bill and reviewing the laws that need to be abolished or amended for the media council to be successful. These include the PPPA, the Sedition Act and section 233 of the CMA.

The Independent Police Complaints of Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) got the closest it has ever come to existing, although the second reading of its bill was postponed. As part of the process, Minister Liew Vui Keong held open consultations with stakeholders, including civil society. This was a display of unprecedented openness and transparency on the government’s part.

The women’s groups have been collaborating with the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry. In the pipeline were two laws that were meant to be tabled in Parliament that would tackle sexual harassment and stalking.

Plans were also in place to introduce a two-term limit for the prime minister and to pass a parliamentary services act to re-establish Parliament’s independence.

Reforms must go on

Now that the Harapan government has fallen and its future hangs in the balance, what will happen to these planned reforms?

No matter who our next prime minister is, and whether a unity government, Harapan 2.0, or backdoor government is put in place, we must ensure that the reform agenda continues.

A lack of reform leads to real consequences for people on the ground. When leaders are free to enrich themselves and defraud the public, enabled by oppressive laws and unaccountable institutions, the nation suffers. Wages remain low, money for health and education diverted, and resources to deal with climate change, food security and water stress will be scarce.

A Peking University law professor has shown how the lack of a free press, poor governance and an information blackout in China led to the massive spread of Covid-19 in Wuhan. This is just one example of how a lack of accountability, transparency and freedom of expression can cost lives.

The people of Malaysia voted overwhelmingly to change the government on May 9, 2018. Those of us who voted out the BN government may vary greatly in our politics, beliefs and values. But we all knew that the BN had to go so that we could strengthen our institutions and put our country back on track. The Harapan government may have fallen for now, but that spirit should not fall with it.

Using our voice

In the 2008 election, many were shocked when the BN lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament. In 2018, we were shocked again when the BN lost power.

Perhaps we should stop being shocked at what we are capable of accomplishing together. We are powerful when we are united, and those who attempt to thwart the people’s will do well to remember that.

We should also remind ourselves that given the results of the last three elections, we have a lot more in common than we think. We must constantly keep in sight our common outcomes for the nation especially when politicians fan racial and religious sentiments for their own gains.

I hope that in the coming days Malaysians from all walks of life will continue to call for the continuation of reform. I hope Malaysians will continue to demand for a democratic and accountable government that represents the will of the people, not the will of politicians.

We have not lost our voice just because we have lost our government. But the fall of the government we voted for proves one thing. That the reforms we voted for in 2018 must continue. These must happen. For if they do not, there is no guarantee that at the next political crisis, we will not lose everything we have fought so hard for.

And that, unfortunately, will be no laughing matter.

Ding Jo-Ann is a qualified lawyer and was part of the legal team assisting the Institutional Reforms Committee set up by the Pakatan Harapan government in May 2018.

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

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