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Malaysian politics according to Zaid

DATUK Zaid Ibrahim is convinced that Umno, the dominant party in the Barisan Nasional (BN), will not have the political will to reform and change in the interest of greater democracy for the country.

The former Kota Baru Umno division chief and one-time Kota Baru Member of Parliament (MP), was previously suspended for 18 months for speaking up against the party’s disciplinary board. But despite being dropped from the March 2008 general election by the party, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi appointed Zaid as minister in the prime minister’s department to implement judicial reforms.

However, Zaid’s tenure as minister was short-lived when he resigned from cabinet in mid-September 2008 to protest against the use of the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for indefinite detention without trial.

Known for his candid and bold statements, Zaid tells The Nut Graph what he thinks about recent political developments. In this first part, he says the imminent takeover of the party leadership by Datuk Seri Najib Razak from Abdullah may not necessarily lead to reforms for the party or the country. Zaid also admits that he is unlikely to remain in Umno, but is not yet looking to join another party.

In part two tomorrow, Zaid responds to accusations against him by former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in his blog, and talks about the development of political Islam in Malaysia.

TNG: Now that Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi has announced he will not be defending his party presidency and wants his deputy Datuk Seri Najib Razak to assume the mantle, will the party be able to close ranks and focus on reforming itself?

Zaid Ibrahim: The party will close ranks in the sense that whenever you have a new leader, there’s always that sense of excitement and you tend to gravitate around the new leader. But about reforming itself, that’s another question.

You don’t think it’s possible? Why not? You don’t think Umno is capable of having that kind of self-reflection?

Well, they can have self-reflection. But at the moment, the party election will consume their time and energy. Some people think that it’s desirable to change and reform, but it will be difficult because it will undermine their style of leadership, their philosophy, their penchant for power. When you reform, you must be prepared for accountability, you must be prepared for dilution of some aspects of power because the whole idea of democratic reforms — you have checks and balances. But that would undermine the very core of their power, so why should they? No, I don’t think they will.

Does Najib have the political will to make a
good PM?
Okay. Do you think that a government that is led by Najib, assuming that Najib eventually becomes prime minister, will be able to respond more effectively to some of the rakyat’s demands and also that of the world economy?

Well, I do not pretend to know him well. And I don’t want to prejudge. I think he’s obviously a clever man. I mean, he’s smart. I think he knows what needs to be done. I think he’s a decisive sort of person.

But my only concern is whether he will have the support, especially of the old guard; [and] the political will. Because, over the years, he’s never taken any controversial positions. He’s never really talked about reforms. So based on his track record, he may not be the reformer that we all hope for.

About the economy — this will be a tough test for him, because like law reform, the economy requires structural change as well.

But having said that, I hope that I’m wrong. Because he knows the issues, because he’s smart, and if he can summon from somewhere the will to transform and change Umno itself, that would be good. But I doubt it.

In July 2007, Najib was the one who reiterated that Malaysia is an Islamic state. And that was when Abdullah had to backtrack and say: “No, no, we’re neither a theocratic nor a secular state.” So, it’s not just the economy or political reform that we’re considering at the moment.

Ya, of course, it’s the whole gamut of issues that the country has to grapple with. You know, when Najib said that, he was probably aware that it was not correct, legally or constitutionally. But as PM, he needs to be more careful on issues such as this.

Would you also say it’s not in his interest to bring about these reforms?

I think it’s not in his short-term interest to unravel the system. But if he thinks about the long term, then he must be prepared to take some risks. Because the BN’s viability and Umno’s own viability is at risk. So, somebody has to take some risks.

But that’s as far as I can say.

Do you think there are any other leaders in Umno who are capable of initiating reforms? Do you like anyone in Umno still?

Well, I have high regard for (Datuk) Shahrir (Samad) and (Tan Sri) Muhyiddin (Yassin). I think they are the kind of leaders in Umno who will be able to do things, undertake reforms and so on.

Tengku Razaleigh (Source:
There’s been a proposal by Tommy Thomas for the setting up of a national unity government, and he says we can set this up as a way to solve the uncertain political scenario that we are faced with. Tengku Razeleigh Hamzah  himself has come out to support this idea. What are your thoughts on the setting up of such a government?

I think we can set up any government we want as long as we have the support of the people. And setting up a coalition — “national unity” is just another name for a coalition government. But we already have a coalition government. I mean, the BN is a coalition government. So, another permutation is okay. It’s the same principle. So I’m all for that.

Except that this national unity government would be uniting both the BN and the Pakatan Rakyat.

To me, it doesn’t matter. Any government of the day must have the support of the people and follow the proper process.

Do you think it will help solve some of the political impasse we are facing right now?

Perhaps. You see, for this national unity government to have a really good chance of success, some people in Umno must want it. Because Umno still has the biggest block. That’s what I think. So if they want it, good. But if Tengku Razaleigh alone wants it, it may not work. So Tengku Razaleigh must be able to bring in substantial support to make it work.

Going back to the national unity government: there are some people who feel that if it happens, it’s just a way of co-opting the opposition so what you have is a governing coalition that’s very big, and then in Parliament you perhaps have only Parti Sosialis Malaysia and the Sabah Progressive Party as the opposition. How does this bode for democracy? Because the BN, as we now know it, is the result of the formation of a so-called national unity government after 1969…

Ya, it is okay to me if the country is facing some difficult issues, and we are aware of these issues, and we are in agreement as to what to do with these issues. Then yes, the most logical thing to do is to find the solution, get together and work together for the country.

But it is not as easy as that. Because if Umno thinks they can run things their own way, why would they want to share? It is the opposition that wants to share, because the opposition can’t do it on its own. And Tengku Razaleigh is suggesting it because he also can’t do it on his own. [This is] unlike Tun Abdul Razak’s day: when they decided to do this so-called national unity government after 1974, it was because the Alliance felt they needed to sit down, even with PAS, to resolve some of these issues.

And you must remember, even with the NEP (New Economic Policy), from the first conception to the working level, it was done with the support of the MCA and the other communities. So that’s different. There was consensus and discussion in that day. There was a realisation then that national unity means national interest, not sectoral or group interests. I don’t know whether we have that realisation today. I doubt it. So I don’t want to pour cold water on the idea. It’s a good idea, but it’s not going to work until Umno decides or realises that they can’t do it on their own.

Do you think it’s ethical for MPs to cross over to form a new government?


It is?

Because the law allows it.

Ya, that makes it legal, but it doesn’t make it ethical.

But mostly what’s legal is ethical, in the context of politics. Because politics, my dear girl, is not about what is ethical or desirable, but what is practical and acceptable. I mean, you can talk about ethics in the classroom. It’s different, you know, we can talk about it as a subject or a discourse or as an idea, but I’m talking in the context of political play, of political values.

Do you think the Sabah government today is ethical? Because it stems from crossovers as well. The whole Barisan idea, the whole Barisan government, is the product of a crossover. If you view it very strongly that it’s bad, then… I earlier suggested anti-hopping legislation because I thought it’s not desirable, so you should not allow people to cross. But nobody in the BN wants that, either. So if you don’t want this and you don’t want that, that means you really want what we have today, which is a system that allows for crossovers.

Politicians want it. I’m not sure everybody wants it.

No, because we also have a constitutional amendment — that is thanks to Mahathir again — that once an MP resigns, he cannot contest for five years. So that limits his choice. If the constitution has made it so difficult for an MP to resign, then it is only fair for the MP to be allowed to cross over.

Another reason why crossing isn’t such a bad idea is because the MP has a mandate from the people to do certain things, including crossing over if that’s what the people want.

One of the justifications is that it’s a necessity now because it is impossible to win any other way. But even with all the restrictions that have been in place by the BN government in the last elections, we still saw four new states fall to the opposition; we still saw the BN denied its two-thirds majority in Parliament. So the ballot box is still very powerful. Why justify crossovers if this can still work?

To cross over is the right of the MP. You must not assume that the MP doesn’t have a duty that he must discharge in a certain way. You must not assume that you know better than him. He is an elected Member of Parliament with the people’s mandate.

If the people in a particular constituency do not want a particular policy, and they say to the MP: “You must oppose it.” What does he do? He can’t resign, because he has a duty to the people to oppose the policy. But if the mandate from the constituency is: “We allow you to cross”, then the MP has a duty to consider his constituency’s demands.

You cannot assume that the crossing is done “purely for personal reasons”. I mean, you must also be fair that not everybody crosses “purely for personal reasons”. It could be because the people in the constituency want the MP to do it, and the MP has his own judgment.

There’s still power in the ballot box (© Billy Alexander/
Isn’t it as legitimate to play a strong opposition?

Yes, it is. But it is equally legitimate to cross if the situation dictates it. Of course, you can, say, wait after three years…

Ya, I mean, what’s the hurry?

Ya, but that’s substituting your judgment. Why not [cross]? It’s different if you jump because of money; it’s different if you jump because of some inducement.

But there’s no way the rakyat will ever know if there was money or any other kind of inducement involved…

Then make it (crossing) illegal.

And that’s what you tried to do, right?

Yes, but my point is that if it’s not illegal, so why… why are you, you’re also making suppositions, you are assuming things. An MP must have his rights. You cannot assume that he’s doing it for money.

It’s not really a supposition. It’s more like we don’t know, and we don’t know how it can be checked…

So if you don’t know, you must allow it.

No, that’s too much of a blanket. And you know by the same argument, like you say it’s not illegal — the ISA isn’t illegal either, but it is there and it is unethical, right?

So that’s why I’m asking for a repeal [of the ISA]. You see, Parliament is a system, and you cannot just judge by what you see here. In other parliamentary systems, they allow crossovers. So if other countries see it fit… Of course, some countries don’t allow it, there are some countries that have anti-hopping [laws], one or two countries. But most mature democracies allow it. So you have to look at the parliamentary system as a whole, so if they allow it and they think it’s not so bad…

Which other countries, Datuk, allow it?

In England you can hop, you can cross, you can resign. That is the mother of all democracies.

But also, I think, more importantly, you can take a position that is different from your party’s position, which then makes it easier for MPs to vote by their conscience.

So there are a lot of other issues. We can’t take one model, one piece of… in the context of Malaysia, it’s very restrictive.

Do you think you still have a future in Umno?

In the next life.

So what are your plans going forward?

I’ve started my foundation, you know, to foster closer relationships among the people. I want people, young people especially, to feel that they have a future and a stake in this country. I want to impart positive values to the people, on human dignity and rights and so on. I’m going to work hard; I’m working hard to set this up, to reach young people, really. To reach out, to do things together, to understand issues better. I’m looking at some models, still early days.

But don’t you already have a foundation?

That’s true. I started a foundation for the disabled 10 years ago in Kelantan. In fact, the proceeds from my book go to it. So this foundation has helped the disabled community a lot, and now it’s running smoothly. So that’s why it’s time to start a new foundation.

We have a very divisive society, as you know. So, any small thing I can do to help. But it doesn’t mean I’m out of politics altogether.

In terms of your political career, are you going to remain in Umno?

It is unlikely that I will.

So which party are you looking at?

I don’t know yet. That’s why I’m saying, there’s no hurry. My foundation takes precedence.


See Part II: Zaid responds to accusations made against him by former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad

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8 Responses to “Malaysian politics according to Zaid”

  1. Robert Teh says:

    What Zaid Ibrahim said regarding cross-overs or hopping is correct – the law allows it and it has to be morally right. Can we or our country allow immoral laws or keep immoral laws? Definitely, not!

    So cross-overs are legal and moral. If an MP wants to cross-over, who are we to say he or she is crossing over for money or position? Who are we to morally judge others? Leave that to the Almighty.

    To Zaid, salam Aidil Fitri, best regards and keep fighting for what you believe in – a better and fairer Malaysia for all Malaysians.

  2. Zedeck says:

    Hello Robert Teh:

    I differ from you in reading what Zaid said with regards to party crossovers. He said:

    “Because politics, my dear girl, is not about what is ethical or desirable, but what is practical and acceptable.”

    That sounds, to me, like an acknowledgment of politics’ subservience to expediency: politicians do what can be done, not what should be done.

    I can accept that. But it becomes problematic for me when this acceptance — that politics memang benar macam itu; we have to be realistic — becomes an excuse to ignore a correlating reality: that things are never black and white, never just “the law allows it and it has to be morally right”.

  3. vp says:

    An educated person who is an Umno member, has been a minister, and says he has no future in Umno and is unlikely to stay in Umno. It’s telling us no matter who becomes the head of Umno, this person will fail at reform. Why? Because the majority of Umno members will not support reforms, afraid that their “benefits” will blown away.

    No more hope in Umno, no more hope in BN. I wish that other BN members would join their hands to say “No” to Umno, then we may have reforms.

    Chinese people say, “No see coffin, no cry.”

  4. Foong Yue Kee says:

    Very heartening to know we do have a very moderate senior Umno member around. He should fit very well in Pakatan Rakyat should Anwar manage to take over the government in future. Thumbs up for him. He is a person to respect.

  5. Wanuno says:

    During the last elections the ruling government did not foresee such a devastating outcome. For the next elections they will be better prepared and they might add more undemocratic and/or unethical tactics to win. In every election since 13 May 1969 they have used undemocratic and/or unethical methods to secure their stranglehold on power which is used to cover their ill-gotten wealth.

    Two examples in history illustrate how certain means, though not purely ethical, need to be employed if justice is to see the light of day. One is with the trading of slaves by England. Try as they might with their effort to pass anti-slavery laws they failed miserably. They eventually succeeded by getting a law passed that indirectly affected the makeup of parliament which was previously packed with pro-slavery MPs. Another example is Al Capone, an infamous and ruthless mafia boss, who was ‘eliminated’ not by convicting him of mafia involvement but by convicting him of tax evasion!

    I say use every legal means to secure our freedom, the freedom of all Malaysians, to live in peace and justice.

  6. D Lim says:

    If only more Umno members have the breadth of thought and heart for the country and society irrespective of colour and religion. May God bless a good man like Zaid.

  7. Robert Teh says:

    Hi! Zedeck,

    A little clarification if you could allow me – when I referred to the ‘laws’, I mean the laws made by man (people) not by God Almighty. In this strict context, laws made by man are not necessarily or truly morally right and cannot be said to be a moral perfection.

    Since humans are not perfect, how can laws made by humans be perfect. That I must agree with you.

  8. khairi ali says:

    So you have this mature democracy in your political soul. The way I see it, this mature democracy isn’t that mature, but a form of hypocrisy in search of political power, be it in Malaysia, or other advanced countries.

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