AMIDST the ethics debate that surrounds the possibility of defections by Barisan Nasional (BN) Members of Parliament (MPs) to the Pakatan Rakyat, a handful of civil society organisations have issued a qualified endorsement of a new government formed by crossovers.
The statement, released on 16 Sept 2008 in conjunction with Malaysia Day and the anticipated government takeover, was forged after a consultation between various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) a week earlier.
Although the NGO community is much larger, only 11 signed the document.
The joint statement begins in a hesitant tone. It says that the NGOs “view with cautious optimism the proposed plan” by the Pakatan Rakyat to lure over BN MPs in order to form the next federal government.
That the much-hyped takeover did not take place on 16 Sept as expected does not dampen the controversy stirred up by the sudden move by non-partisan groups to make a political stand.
One group that didn’t sign the statement, Sisters in Islam (SIS), says civil society groups have always been opposed to defections as a means to form a new government.
“That stand should not change now. We didn’t endorse the statement because we’re not convinced about the arguments used to justify the crossovers, no matter how cautious they are,” says SIS senior programme manager Maria Chin Abdullah.
Groups that did sign the endorsement, however, feel it is better to forge a position now, rather than after the defections happen, if they do at all.
The lesser of two evils?
The 11 civil society groups that signed the statement were the Borneo Resources Institute Malaysia (Brimas); Building Initiative in Indigenous Heritage (BiiH); Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ); Citizen Think Tank; Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia (JOAS); Jaringan Tanah Hak Adat Bangsa Asal Sarawak (Tahabas); Partners of Community Organisations (Pacos) Trust; Persatuan Masyarakat Selangor dan Wilayah Persekutuan (Permas); Pusat Komas (Community Communications Centre); Research for Social Advancement (Refsa); and Youth for Change (Y4C).
They note that defections are “not the most ideal path for a new democratic government to be formed”, but that there are mitigating circumstances that can justify it, such as the argument that it is more unethical for MPs to remain within the BN, “which continues to perpetuate racial and divisive politics, human rights and democratic abuses.”
The BN has failed to read public sentiment even after its losses in the 8 March general election and in the Permatang Pauh by-election, the NGOs argue.
Prime minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi confers with deputy PM Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak. Will the handover mean reform? (Pic courtesy of Merdeka Review)If anything, things seem to be getting worse going by Umno’s tip-toeing around former Bukit Bendera division chief Datuk Ahmad Ismail’s racially charged statements, and more recently, the use of the Internal Security Act (ISA) against blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, Sin Chew Daily journalist Tan Hoon Cheng, and DAP’s Seputeh MP Teresa Kok on 12 Sept. (Both Tan and Kok have since been released.)
The NGOs also reason that crossovers are nothing new in Malaysia, the colourful history of party-hopping between Sabah political parties being a case in point. It is also the compromising nature of politics that defections are the means to an end for politicians here as in other parts of the world.
CIJ executive director V Gayathry is sceptical of a government formed by crossovers, but her organisation still signed the statement. Change is urgent, she says, because Umno has begun to manifest its internal conflicts outwardly, and such actions affect society.
“They will use what they have at their disposal, like the ISA, as most recently seen. Also, the reality of the situation is that Umno is not going to reform soon. If change within Umno means merely handing the reins over to (deputy prime minister) Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak, I don’t see that as a signal for reform,” Gayathry tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview.
Pusat Komas facilitator Jerald Joseph feels the endorsement is for sound reasons that benefit the electorate.
Lay down expectations now, says Pusat Komas facilitator Jerald Joseph “Forming a government by crossovers is not a normal situation, nor a precedent we want to set; that is why we say we are ‘cautiously optimistic’. Our qualifier is that the crossovers must be for better human rights, better governance, a better Malaysia,” he says.
As such, the statement reads: “In order for the crossover to command long-term respect and legitimacy… (it) must be done for the right reasons — reasons that are ethical and consistent with the demands of democratic, nation-building and human rights ideals.”
Despite such lofty goals, SIS’s Maria and representatives of Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram), another NGO that didn’t sign the statement, maintain that it is difficult to justify the ends with questionable means.
Maria views the threats of crossovers and power-grabbing as pure politics, and something that civil society groups should avoid. Instead, she says NGOs should focus on calling on both the BN and Pakatan Rakyat to institute democratic processes in public institutions and through law reforms.
“This should be the priority for both sides of the political divide, especially after 8 March,” she says.
A caveat, not an endorsement
Mindful of being perceived as partisan, the NGOs have stated their expectations of any new government formed through defections.
For one, all MPs who defect must pledge that “they have not obtained or been promised any form of unlawful monetary and personal gains.”
To be inclusive of East Malaysian interests, the NGOs also call upon MPs to uphold agreements signed in 1963 during the formation of Malaysia, along with reforms that bring about “more equitable political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights in Sabah and Sarawak.”
Adrian Lasimbang: Sabahans are all too familiar with unfulfilled promises (Source: International Institute for Sustainable Development)JOAS president Adrian Lasimbang, who is from Sabah, says endorsing the statement is a way to hold defecting politicians accountable to the promises they have made.
He says Sabahans are all too familiar with unfulfilled promises that come with regime change in the state. Memories of the 1986 riots in Kota Kinabalu and other towns after Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) defeated Berjaya in state elections the year before are a painful reminder of how citizens can become collateral damage in political feuding. PBS was formed by a faction that pulled out of Berjaya about a month before the elections.
“We are very cautious about the use of desperate tactics and moves to instigate unrest should crossovers happen this time. Hence, our reason for signing the statement is to call for a responsible changeover and to make MPs think twice before doing so,” says Adrian.
With such conditions laid down, Joseph views the statement as “not an endorsement but a caveat” to hold defecting MPs accountable.
“It may happen, or it may not. But if it does, then this is what we expect of them,” he says.
Gayathry: This is not a political standAs for whether NGOs can be considered partisan with this endorsement, CIJ’s Gayathry denies this.
“Whether an NGO can be considered as partisan is the extent to which it mobilises support for a particular party. In this case, we’re not making a political stand for the Pakatan Rakyat, but we support their aims to install more democratic processes, and that is not a bad thing.”
Banking on promises
With an ever-changing dateline, and with lukewarm support for crossovers from PAS and DAP, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)’s Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is not exactly inspiring confidence that he can take over the government.
So what makes NGOs think he’ll be able to institute democratic reforms should he take over? What if he replaces the BN regime with one of his own?
Pusat Komas’ Joseph says if Anwar turns out to be a disappointment, the statement will provide grounds to criticise a new Pakatan Rakyat federal government for failing to bring change.
CIJ’s Gayathry also feels Anwar has enough politicians who are pro-reform and who have been under the ISA to know the kinds of democratic changes Malaysia needs.
“These people would be his check and balance while civil society continues to play its watchdog role,” she says.
Can Anwar be trusted to implement reforms? (Pic courtesy of Merdeka Review)Hence, the first thing NGOs want the Pakatan Rakyat to do is to hold fresh elections within a year from the date of takeover, and within this period, to reform institutions like the police, the Attorney-General’s Chambers, the judiciary and the Election Commission.
Is this enough time? Gayathry thinks so; any longer and the Pakatan Rakyat’s integrity would fall under question.
And PKR seems to have realised this as well: its vice-president R Sivarasa made a statement at a forum on After Permatang Pauh: Is 916 an Opportunity for Change? on 11 Sept that elections could be called in six months after Pakatan takes over.
In short, the qualified support these groups are giving the crossovers is based on mere promises. Notwithstanding Anwar’s own rubber timeline, Pakatan Rakyat state governments have also been struggling to fulfill their own mandates.
Gayathry says Pakatan Rakyat-led states have been making attempts to institute reforms, but are facing challenges because states do not have total independence from the federal government.
“They face limitations because of this federal-state relationship, and we must recognise that their challenges are real.
“Also, the Pakatan Rakyat is still learning how to govern; many of their representatives have no experience as local councillors, and they are dependent on a state structure and a civil service that is still pro-BN,” she says.
Many say fresh elections are the legitimate way to form a new governmentThis is one of the reasons SIS is against rushing into forming a new government without fresh elections. The opposition MPs should learn to govern in the time they have until the next general election.
“Why not wait until the time comes for a fresh mandate? We have a problem in justifying any crossover with the reason that it’s nothing new in Malaysia. Just because it has happened before does not mean it ought to be done again,” Maria says.
Civil society groups want change, but their differing stands on how to achieve it continues to be hotly debated. That only 11 civil society groups signed the statement, and with so many caveats at that, is a telling indicator of the ambivalence many are feeling over what is turning out to be a long night before the dawn of any new government is in sight.