Speaking up for the ‘third force’

(The Malaysian Insider) – He says he is independent, supports a pro-reform agenda and plans to run in the next polls. But lawyer and civil rights activist Malik Imtiaz Sarwar also says he hopes to contest on a Pakatan Rakyat (PR) party ticket.

The president of the National Human Rights Society (Hakam) did not appear to see any contradiction with wanting to contest under the PR banner while refusing to join any of the three component parties, PKR, PAS and DAP.

“Whether it will undermine Pakatan is yet to be decided,” Malik told The Malaysian Insider in an exclusive interview, his first since being named a candidate for Barisan Rakyat last week.

He insisted the independent candidate initiative, widely touted as a “third force”, is not to railroad the opposition pact but to provide voters with quality alternative candidates in the coming election.

He added many PR members were unclear about the Barisan Rakyat movement but that “informal discussions” were taking place to persuade them of the suitability of using them as candidates in the coming elections.

Malik disclosed that the Barisan Rakyat candidates would likely stand for elections in urban constituencies, and were eyeing areas where the incumbent was viewed poorly by the voters.

“Looking at the demographics, it’s quite obvious we’re not going for the rural constituencies,” he said.

The 40-year-old’s links with self-exiled government critic Raja Petra Kamarudin, who co-founded the Malaysian Civil Liberties Movement (MCLM) in London two months ago, has put him further under the microscope.

Malik was quick to play down the ties between himself and his future election team-mates in the Barisan Rakyat (BR) initiative – the second candidate will be named at a public forum tonight – from the vocal editor of the Malaysia Today political news site.

“We’re not Raja Petra’s foot-soldiers,” he said.

The 13th general elections are not due to be called until May 2013 but is widely believed will be called next year as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak races to carry out his reforms.

“The decision [to run for elections] is mine and mine alone. I don’t see myself as being dictated to by RPK or Haris Ibrahim or MCLM,” he added, referring to the outfit’s chairman and president respectively.

He also moved to debunk the perception that his outfit is linked to former Umno minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim who recently quit PKR to form a new political party.

Malik explained that he had been involved with the independent initiative since before Election 2008.

It was seeing the increasing decline in the system of governance under the Najib administration that firmed his resolve to contest in the next elections, he disclosed.

He stressed he was committed to fight for the same basic principles of justice – among them the rule of law and an independent judiciary – that point to a fully democratic country.

The lawyer who won an international award last year for his role in freeing Raja Petra who was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) said he had received much support from the businessmen and industry captains he had spoken with.

“I do a lot of legal work with people in the business and industry whom one would think would be supportive of the status quo, but they have voiced they recognised a need for change,” Malik said.

“A big section of the community are concerned about the change management and what it means for them,” he added.

The politicians were more concerned about staying in power than bringing about much needed reforms, while the civil society activists would be able to focus on those core issues for progressive nation-building.

“If you don’t like one side or the other, what do you do?” Malik quizzed.

“Do you abstain from voting? Or spoil the vote? How is that going to help the democratic process?” he probed further.

“I’m not saying I’m the best candidate. I’m saying if what I’m saying and doing can get support, then, vote for me,” he continued.

Malik explained that he had been talking and writing about the need for change for a long time.

“I support a pro-reform agenda. I don’t believe the Barisan Nasional is capable of meaningful reform at this stage; not until it clears up its own problems,” Malik said, forcefully.

He pointed to Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin’s recent remark, in a previous talk with the Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia group, on the need to “break down the silos of division” that had failed to be taken up by the rest of his party’s members, let alone its alliance partners.

He noted that the focus had then fallen to PR to take up the burden to initiate meaningful discussions on reform in the Dewan Rakyat, but they had allowed politicking to overshadow their efforts, to the detriment of the public.

“If Barisan were to say ‘X’, Pakatan would call that same thing ‘Y’,” he lamented.

He noted the decline in objective and quality debates in Parliament over the passing of laws, pointing to the Hansard records of parliamentary debates in the 1960s and 1970s and zooming in on second prime minister Tun Razak Hussein’s introduction of the Internal Security Act (ISA).

“While I subscribe to change, I don’t think the change should be at any and all cost,” he said.

He believes that lawmakers should have the freedom to support any bill that will improve society as a whole and not blindly be made to toe a party’s line.