Malaysia: Desperate times, disparate solutions

“If you say your system is fine and that it doesn’t need (electoral) reform before the 13th general elections, I dare you to bring in international observers. And let them determine if our elections are free and fair.”

By Kean Wong (New Mandala)

It’s probably been the busiest fortnight in Australia for Malaysian affairs all year. But you would have missed it if the Australian mainstream media was any guide, Radio Australia aside.

As Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s communications chief and state MP Nik Nazmi left the east coast after a successful speaking tour, Prime Minister Najib Razak and wife Rosmah Mansor flew in soon afterwards to Perth for the CHOGM show.

On the other side of the continent, Malaysia’s civil society icon Ambiga Sreenevasan was in the middle of her three-city, meetings- and dinners-heavy lecture tour of leading university law schools, while her colleague in the Bersih2.0 reform movement Dr Wong Chin Huat addressed Malaysians in Perth outside the CHOGM confinement.

Yet thanks to the Gillard government’s peculiar skills in conceiving and selling a ‘Malaysia solution’ to its vexed problem of asylum seekers and an electorate’s paranoia over Australia’s borders – and the Abbott opposition’s superior ability to use such alien tropes to thwart any federal government resolution – much Australian public discussion about Malaysia remains focused on a tawdry people-swap deal that’s worth nearly a billion ringgit to the Najib government.

The Australian deal is seen by many in Kuala Lumpur as a much-needed investment for prime minister Najib Razak’s campaign to stay in power, as Malaysians are consumed in a febrile political climate, anxious over early elections expected within the next six months.

Prime Minister Najib must have been pleased to share some Perth springtime at the CHOGM show last weekend, playing statesman with other leaders and meeting Malaysians at a picnic, while leaving behind however briefly Putrajaya, its usual jockeying for seat selection on the eve of elections, and rumours of internal party feuds over his leadership.

It’s also why both Ambiga and the oppositionist Nik Nazmi were quickly quizzed about the so-called ‘Malaysia solution’ in Australian media interviews, and PM Najib found it necessary to defend the deal and demand co-ownership of it in the Australian media on the eve of his Perth arrival.

Najib defended Malaysia’s reputation in its treatment of refugees and its broader democratic values in the Sydney Morning Herald, and explained the joint-venture project would “smash the business model of the people traffickers”.

Moreover, Malaysia was a “progressive, liberal nation”, that was not “some repressive, backward nation that persecutes refugees and asylum seekers”. His government treated “genuine refugees” with “the utmost dignity and respect while they await resettlement elsewhere”.

But these claims about Malaysia don’t stand up to scrutiny, said the Bersih2.0 leader Ambiga Sreenevasan, especially when Malaysians themselves are still denied many of their constitutional rights. The senior lawyer and ex-Bar Council chair has long fought for Malaysia to live up to its human rights rhetoric and obligations, and she said it’s particularly pertinent today when Malaysia continues to sit on the UN Human Rights Council.

In her four lectures at the law schools of Melbourne, Sydney, UNSW and the ANU, Ambiga raised the eight key demands of the Bersih2.0 movement for free and fair elections. She also recounted the systematic intimidation, death threats, and other attempts to delegitimise the Bersih2.0 coalition in the days leading up to the 9 July demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur. She shared some of the highlights of her discussions with Australian officials and parliamentarians in Canberra, and urged better Australian engagement with Malaysians’ quest for electoral reforms.

On behalf of Bersih2.0, Ambiga challenged the Najib government to invite foreign election observers for the looming 13th general elections, in light of the Prime Minister’s claims that Malaysia is a “progressive, liberal nation”. She urged the Prime Minister to make good his recent promises of political liberalisation, and allow the newly-formed Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on electoral reform to fulfill its tasks.

“You can see the demonisation that the government did over Bersih, but you can also see how the people really feel about Bersih – look at the disconnect,” Ambiga told the packed ANU lecture hall last week, as she read out some of the thousands of personal testimonies from Malaysians who marched for electoral reform that July day.

“We’re apolitical, we’re not aligned to any political party,” she said about Bersih2.0 and its supporters. “What we stand for is what is right. We want transparency – we want a better Malaysia. And we’re now prepared to stand up and ask for it.”

“We really are fed up with how our politics is run in our country. We don’t like the dirty politics, we don’t like the language of racism, we don’t like people running down others because of their religion and their race. We want a mature level of discourse, we want to see statesmanship.”

During the lively discussion period after her ANU speech, Ambiga said the “rakyat” (Malaysian people) overcame their fear of each other and united in the face of riot police, tear gas and other state-sponsored violence on 9 July.

Suppressing the contagious idea of free and fair elections will continue to be difficult for the Najib government to do, she said, more so in an era of ubiquitous social-media usage in urban areas and the damaged credibility of government-linked organs such as the licensed television networks and newspapers. Ambiga repeated her scepticism about the prime minister’s “reform” of the media laws, and said the promise of relaxing the licensing rules “was no reform at all – where is the concession there if they say they can revoke it at any time?”.

Answering a question about repairing and improving institutions such as the judiciary and the bureaucracy, Ambiga said rooting out corruption was a key way in addressing this challenge.

“There definitely has to be a ‘bersihkan’ process, a cleaning up that has to start now. There’s no point having the MACC (the anti-corruption body) and these institutions when at the end of the day, the people can tell the prosecutions are lop-sided – it’s selective prosecution.

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