(al-Quran image by Crystalina @ Flickr; gavel image by mrbill @ Flickr; Najib image source: cidb.gov.my)
NEW Malaysian prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak begins his administration with significant negative perception, as compared with previous power transitions. He realises this, and seems to be taking steps to counteract it, making symbolic gestures and speaking the language of reform. Yet the questions remain: how will all this translate into action beyond his first announcement on 3 April 2009? Will we see concrete change in the next year?
Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s administration was fairly level-headed when it came to religious issues. Islam Hadhari was an attempt at an inclusive, moderate form of Islam, even though it bears remembering that the concept was called a “political gimmick” and styled as a threat to Islam by political detractors.
With characters like newly elected Umno vice-president Datuk Seri Abdul Zahid Hamidi, who is taking a hardline stance against non-Muslim publications using the word “Allah”, likely to take position in Najib’s cabinet, the outlook for religious tolerance is dreary.
A just Islam
“The government must have the courage to adopt an inclusive and progressive approach. It is clear that a hardline stance on religious matters would not help in winning the hearts of Malaysians,” says Sisters in Islam (SIS) programme manager Norhayati Kaprawi, via e-mail.
“SIS hopes that the new leadership promotes progressive Islam, not only in rhetoric, but ensures that it is translated into real policies and actions,” she adds.
According to Norhayati, the women’s human rights group would like several things implemented: a standardised syariah law and court system throughout Malaysia; the appointment of women syariah judges expedited; and a child support agency set up at the federal level.
“SIS in particular hopes that the amendments to the Islamic Family Law 2006 will be tabled at the next parliamentary sitting in June,” she adds, saying that the law should be based on the principles of justice and equality.
The rise of Najib’s influence has coincided with a slew of violations to the rule of law. Opposition party newspapers Harakah and Suara Keadilan were suspended on the cusp of the 59th Umno general assembly and three significant by-elections. The use of the Sedition Act on bloggers and politicians. And more recently, the banning of discussions on Altantuya Shaariibuu and the Barisan Nasional takeover of Perak in political ceramah for the 7 April by-elections.
“The last is shocking, given that these are real public interest issues,” lawyer Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan tells The Nut Graph via phone. “It gives rise to the impression that those who issued the directive have something to hide.”
AmbigaAccording to Ambiga, such actions do not bode well for the rule of law. Its rejuvenation under a Najib administration will depend on whether our premier is sincere about reforms and insists on upholding the separation of powers, she adds.
“If he truly believes in the rule of law, he can ensure that these orders are immediately revoked,” Ambiga says. That would overturn the perception that Malaysians’ basic democratic rights are being eroded.
“He has done so in the case of Suara Keadilan and Harakah. So there should be no problem addressing the other issues,” Ambiga adds.
“A policy that Najib’s administration should carry on is the consultation with various civil society groups, and implementing their recommended changes.”
Implementation, so far, has been slow in coming. To date, the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC), which was recommended by the Royal Commission on Police in its 2005 report, has not materialised. Instead, the government has been adamant in pushing forth the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EAIC), a relatively toothless version.
“Deaths in police custody is a serious issue. The government is charging (DAP national chairperson) Karpal (Singh), instead of dealing with this,” Ambiga points out. This makes it obvious to the public that the government prioritised its own interests above that of citizens, she says.
“There must be respect for the independence of our public institutions. Our institutions should not be tools of the government,” Ambiga stresses. She says individuals who are independent of the government, and who are courageous enough to only act in the public interest, should be appointed to head bodies such as enforcement agencies and other important institutions.
Ambiga says she is happy for the 13 Internal Security Act (ISA) detainees who were released on 5 April, and is hopeful that the remaining detainees will also be released.
“I feel regret and sadness that these people had to spend 15 months of their lives in detention, without being charged in court,” Ambiga adds, saying that the legal community feels that the ISA should be abolished.
V Ganabatirau of Hindraf being brought out of the Kamunting detention centre by police on 5 April
(Pic by Raj Kumar, courtesy of theSun)
Various quarters, including the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), echo this opinion. Suhakam recommends instead a specific Anti-Terrorism Act, which would place detentions under the courts’ supervision.
“Such measures would be a strong message from the government and the prime minister,” Ambiga says. “It would show a commitment to change for the better. They must, as a government, learn to value liberty and life much more than they do now.”
Ambiga says the court cases involving the ruling BN coalition — such as those that arose during the Perak political crisis — are a litmus test on the independence of the Malaysian judiciary under Najib.
“We will be able to immediately tell whether the judiciary is above politics, depending on the outcome of these cases, and the manner in which they are handled,” she explains.
Of course, all the good Najib can do will smack of hypocrisy if he does not set affairs right in his own house. Everyone knows who Altantuya is; the opposition, in their by-election campaign, need not even mention her name. Alleged dealings from Najib’s time as defence minister continue to cloud his character with shades of corruption and criminality. The longer such questions go unanswered, the more they will undermine his effectiveness as prime minister in the coming months.
“He must address the issues, in relation to himself, that are of concern to the public,” Ambiga asserts. “Ignoring them will be like ignoring the elephant in the room.”
(Pic by Jean Scheijen / sxc.hu)
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