Malik is in it for the long haul

Driven by the idealism to bring about change, lawyer and human rights activist Malik Imtiaz Sarwar has offered to be a candidate for the Malaysian Civil Liberties Movement in the next general election. How does he rate his chances?


By Shahanaaz Habib, The Star

MALIK Imtiaz Sarwar is no stranger to controversy. He has made his name as a lawyer and human rights activist. Among other things, he has taken on religiously sensitive cases arguing for the right of the individual, like the right to freedom of religion including for Muslims.

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This has undoubtedly struck a nerve with some conservatives. When he held a watching brief for the Bar Council on the Lina Joy conversion out of Islam case, he even received a death threat.

With so much going for him already, why then has this lawyer and activist decided to join the political arena?

Malik Imtiaz: ‘If I went into a rural constituency, I’d be eaten alive’

The newly-launched Malaysian Civil Liberties Movement (MCLM) has announced Malik Imtiaz as one of their independent candidates in the next general election.

“I am doing this extremely reluctantly. I’ve 101 better things I could do,” he admits in an interview.

But Malik Imtiaz is driven by a desire and idealism to bring about change.

To him, this means not just talking about change but putting in place a plan or concrete steps to move towards that direction.

“We hear a lot (from Pakatan Rakyat) about how bad the Barisan Nasional government is and (how bad) the policies are but we hear very little about how it is going to be solved,” he begins.

“What is Pakatan suggesting concretely as a way to improve the system?

“They talk about a lack of confidence in the judiciary and we see some movement on the part of Barisan to improve it with the Judicial Appointments Commission, but that’s not really as far as it should go.

“And people are still complaining about the quality of the Justices and questions are still being asked about the independence of the judiciary.

“Judges have security of tenure under the Constitution and the laws are the way they are, so what is Pakatan going to do about it (if they come to power). We don’t know.

“We hear ‘talk’ about selective prosecution on the part of the Attorney-General, and unhappiness with the way certain cases are tried. But what’s going to be done about that (if Pakatan rules), we don’t know.

“If you are not proposing anything, then there’s nothing for the other side (Barisan) to react to.”

Malik Imtiaz also points out that race relations and the encroachment of Islamic administration into the public sphere have become critical issues for the public.

And instead of pushing these aside, as political parties often do because they are deemed sensitive, Malik believes in tackling them head on.

“We need to confront these difficult issues and challenge them. They are not going to go away, and that is the truth,” he says.

“There has to be a structure in place that allows us to address things in a way that needs to be addressed.”

Which is why Malik Imtiaz feels that independent candidates like him can help push the process along.

The advantage is that because they don’t belong to a political party, toeing the party line and political baggage would not get in the way.

And they “can say the things which need to be said” without political impediments or trappings.

For him, the presence of what he describes as “centrist independent” MPs in Parliament would allow for a healthier debate, for new ideas being put out and discussed in Parliament.

“I am tired of hearing so much complaining about everything but seeing very little being done about it. We can carry on doing this or start doing things differently.

“And I’ve come to this point in my life where it’s time for me to step up and be counted,” adds Malik who says he has an idea how to move forward on the issue of Malay special rights, fashioned within Article 153 of the Federal Constitution, so that no one race would feel their rights are being violated.

“I can share that with the public. It may not be the best but it is a solution. If you put an idea out on the public domain, then people can say ‘oh this will work or that will work’. At least it will enrich public discussion and show people maybe there is another way to look at things.”

While MCLM candidates are independent of a political party, it is no secret which side of the political divide Malik is and wishes to work with.

“I am pro-Pakatan. I think it can achieve some form of reform if it pushes through the reform agenda,” he says.

He doesn’t think Barisan can do that because the lines between politics and governance are so blurred that “the extent which the Cabinet can move depends on political parties and what the party wants.”

In the 2008 general election, one of the Pakatan parties made overtures to Malik to contest but he turned it down.

So why is he prepared to contest now?

“I am concerned about the reform agenda. I wouldn’t give a d*#@ who runs the country as long as it is run the way the constitution requires it to be run, in accordance with the rule of law and fairly.

“I am not interested in politics for politics’ sake. If Barisan was doing a good job and running it fairly, then there would be no need to get involved. But I get this sinking feeling in my gut every time I think about where the country is going,” he says.

Evasion of issues

Pakatan, comprising PAS, DAP and PKR, came together as a loose coalition after the 2008 general election when they swept a significant number of parliament and state seats, and took over Penang, Selangor, Kedah and Perak (a series of crossovers later led to a Barisan take-over of the Perak government.)

Why then doesn’t Malik Imtiaz just contest as their candidate in the next election?

Because, for him, the position Pakatan takes on a number of issues is “insufficient, ambiguous and politically convenient”.

And there is also the reluctance of some in Pakatan to address head-on issues like the Islamic state and the jurisdiction of the Syariah vs. the Civil Court which doesn’t sit well with him.

“Depending on who you talk to in Pakatan, you get different answers. One reason is that it’s been slow in getting together a more concrete common manifesto for itself.

“Good things are happening in Penang and Selangor but at federal level, so much time has passed with so little traction there,” he says.

Since the 2008 election, he points out, people have had time to reflect, assess and observe.

And Barisan, which lost quite a lot of support in 2008, has been going all out to woo voters and win back support.

So where does that leave the voter? Malik Imtiaz says he has been hearing regularly from people in the urban constituencies that they now do not want to vote for either side.

He says some older voters who are retired civil servants and traditional Barisan loyalists also took a chance by voting for the opposition in the last election.

“It was such a big step and a major sacrifice that they were talking about it for days!

“But now those I am speaking to are saying ‘I am very dissatisfied’. I tell them maybe they expected too much from the political tsunami.

“Their uncertainty emanates from the in-fighting in PKR. People are very nervous. They need to feel the sacrifice they made was worth it.

“If you are talking about rocking the boat significantly and giving the Government to a different party, people need to be able to put their trust in those parties. The essential question is, has enough been said and done for the average Malaysian to be able to support Pakatan?”

Which is where, he believes, the MCLM fits in.

“Maybe we can add another voice to the discourse. We thought, maybe, it is time to try something new in the mix.

“Pakatan has been given its opportunity and it’s running at the speed it is. Perhaps this (MCLM) can support or bolster it.”

But there are those who are angry with MCLM for its “experiment”. They fear that if it comes down to a three-cornered fight, votes for the opposition would be split between Pakatan and MCLM, which would hand a victory to Barisan.

Malik Imtiaz stresses that this is not MCLM’s intention.

“In principle, I am opposed to a three-cornered fight. But what if it is not us who is ‘three-cornering’? Whatever we do will have taken into consideration the possible impact (to Pakatan).”

The plan is for MCLM to actually offer its independent candidates of quality to Pakatan parties with the belief that they will not cross over to Barisan if they win.

By announcing candidates early, MCLM hopes to have them working on the ground in the identified constituencies by March. That way, there would be enough time to get to know the voters and their needs and tailor programmes accordingly. For the voters, they would have the opportunity to meet their potential MPs and know the issues they would be championing.

As their independent candidate, says Malik Imtiaz, he will use the MCLM platform and machinery, organise meet-the-people sessions and do informal polling of voter sentiment.

But he personally will not take funds from MCLM for his election campaign, he says.

Given his views on religious freedom and the cases he takes on, it makes sense for him to stand in an urban constituency.

“If I went into a rural constituency, I’d be eaten alive,” he says.

Nevertheless, he is mindful of the possibility that even in some urban constituencies, there may be conservative Muslims who may be uncomfortable having him as a candidate.

He says a number of Muslims in urban areas think his position on religion is perfectly acceptable and he is able to correct their misperception of some others.

“The Federal Constitution never said Muslims do not have freedom of religion and can’t convert but if they want to exercise that right, they have to do it through the Syariah court,” he explains.

But for the most conservative types who may make trouble, Malik says this is something he is thinking about.

“I am not going to be arrogant and say it doesn’t matter. Obviously, it’s something I will take into consideration. If I run, I don’t want to lose the constituency for the wrong reasons.”

So he will take into consideration the demography and choose a constituency where he would be able to make people see his point of view.

“I am hoping that there would be sufficient numbers of people who understand that we are not fighting for the now but for the long run,” he says.