Living In Trying Times

By Fathol Zaman Bukhari

Political Expediencies

As citizens of a country that not only practises but preaches democratic values, it is our right to demand a clean and efficient government. One that abhors corruption and abuses by those in high places. We expect the government to uphold the rule of law and be receptive of the diverse views and interests of the rakyat. Is this happening in Perak?

If the fracas at the Perak State Assembly on March 30 and 31 is anything to go by, we are far off the mark. Our elected representatives, instead of deliberating on issues concerning our well-being, deemed it appropriate to partake in a shouting match which culminated in a walkout by the Opposition. This is the third time in a row. Fancy a legislative assembly sitting, supposedly to last at least a week, ended prematurely after only two days. We are living in trying times where norms and practices are being hijacked by the very people whom we have placed our trust in. It is indeed a shame. Political expediencies now take precedence.

Little wonder why Winston Churchill described democracy as being the worst form of government. He denounced its virtues but adopted a pragmatic approach in expounding its concept, “it is not exactly great but it is the best of a bad bunch”. It will be the best of the bad bunch provided the people entrusted with the responsibilities play by the rules rather than by their rules.

Political Tsunami

After the political tsunami of March 8, 2008, advocacy groups and the rakyat began to clamour for openness and accountability from the ruling party. With the loss of its two-third majority in Parliament, Barisan Nasional is beginning to feel the heat and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun has no alternative but to institute reforms to liberalise the economy and to bridge the ever widening gap between races in the country.  He has set his administration’s heart on combating rent-seeking and patronage politics, two major ills that have dogged the BN Government since socioeconomic re-engineering, known by its acronym NEP, was introduced in 1971. His 1Malaysia pledge, however, is not making much headway as there is still doubt as to its relevance, given the kind of negativity it has engendered.

But will his reform agenda succeed when resistance is stiff, especially by those who have enjoyed the bountiful largesse? While waiting for the inevitable to happen, it is business as usual for our politicians here in Perak. Only difference is, there seems to be a little more urgency in the way things are being handled presently.  Acceding to demands by pomelo growers for farming land, rejuvenation of the once dormant Sultan Azlan Shah Airport, recognising minorities’ rights, financial aids to national-type schools and legitimising the illegal shoe-making industry in Menglembu, to name but a few.

More could be done but it is difficult to reform an habitual offender because habits die hard. It is not easy to change the mentality of the civil service which has been subjugated by an autocratic regime hell bent on controlling the masses through political indoctrination. During a brief by a senior official from the Home and Local Government Ministry recently, the poor chap could not fathom the relevance of the third-tier government election.

Seminar and Workshop

It is against this backdrop that a collection of NGOs, led by Komas and financed by the Commonwealth Foundation, organised a 3-day seminar cum workshop entitled, “Lobbying for Local Government” at Armada Hotel, Petaling Jaya from March 29 to 31.  The Commonwealth Foundation, incidentally, is funded by Commonwealth governments. It works with civil society in enhancing the working capacity of their organisations. And one area of interest to the Foundation is Governance and Democracy.

Fifty participants from all over the country partook in the forum aimed at imparting skills in lobbying for the reintroduction of local government. Local council election was suspended in 1965 following fears caused by a belligerent Sukarno-led Indonesia. The passage of the Local Government Act 1976 was to placate the rakyat over the loss of this people-centric balloting. Although some are of the opinion that this third-tier voting could be revived, by virtue of contradictions in the Act, the general feeling is that it is difficult given the stance taken by the Prime Minister and the Election Commission. Penang and Selangor, however, are exploring ways to circumvent the regulations.

Mob Rule

One other subject deliberated was access to information. Laws such as the Official Secrets Act 1972 and the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 restrict the free flow of information. As such, rumour-mongering becomes a favourite pastime with Malaysians.

Najib, in wanting to encourage transparency in the awarding of federal tenders, introduced the MyProcument website on April 1. But the veracity of the information given is fast making the portal a sham.

Having said that, maybe Thomas Jefferson’s description of democracy is more apt considering all of the above. “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one per cent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.”

However in Perak, it is the forty-nine per cent that is calling the shots.