SOME of us may recall the day President Ronald Reagan of the United States was shot. It was 30 March 1981. He was immediately rushed to hospital for emergency surgery. At the time, Vice-President George (Herbert Walker, not “Dubya”) Bush was not in Washington DC.
Alexander Haig (Public domain)
A press conference was hastily called and someone from the White House press corps asked who was in charge. Then secretary of state, retired General Alexander Haig, stepped up to the microphone and uttered the famous words, “I am in control here.”
Haig (“Al” to his friends, like in the Paul Simon song You Can Call Me Al) was much berated subsequently for his statement. Even in the constitutionally-mandated line of succession, the secretary of state did not rank very far ahead. So it was all the more incredible for him to tell his country, on live television in the top leadership’s absence, that he was in control.
Events of recent days must, however, make some of us similarly wonder. In the midst of all the jockeying for power in Umno and the recently concluded party elections of MCA and Gerakan, is there anybody left in charge of running our country?
On again, off again
A Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) activist in Johor is arrested under Section 28 of the Internal Security Act (ISA) 1960, for allegedly spreading a false report likely to cause public alarm. The activist is then hastily released on police bail: a clear case of overreaction on the part of the arresting police officer. Adding insult to injury, the Home Minister then denied her the “badge of honour” of being called an ISA detainee.
An invitation is extended to an Iranian Nobel laureate to speak at a conference. The invitation is withdrawn, and after that the withdrawal of the invitation is withdrawn. On, then off, then on again.
It is reminiscent of an incident in 2007 when the Ministry of Home Affairs banned a book by an American theologian. But then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs went on to invite the very same theologian to speak at a conference. (The book ban continues.)
Finally, a road name is changed, and then the change of name is subsequently revoked. Interestingly enough, there is an Iranian twist to this story as well. Several years ago, the road next to Sogo Shopping Centre in Kuala Lumpur was renamed “Jalan Esfahan” as a city-twinning exercise with the city of Esfahan in Iran. (There is a “Kuala Lumpur Street” in Esfahan.)
(© Davide Guglielmo / sxc.hu)
I don’t know what consultations with local stakeholders took place then. But perhaps there was no protest because it was such an insignificant road and no postal addresses or businesses were affected. Such was the value we placed on our relations with the Iranians that we changed the name of a totally insignificant road in their honour.
Everyone seems so caught up with change in this country, yet the question has to be asked: Who is in charge of the change?
The same can be said of all the current talk about the New Economic Policy (NEP). Some want it to go, some don’t. The prime minister (PM) actually chided the opposition some time ago for continuing to talk about the NEP, because in his mind the NEP ended in 1990. And yet when the current deputy prime minister (DPM) talks about eventually ending the NEP, nobody corrects him, not even his boss. Does this mean that the boss isn’t really in charge anymore? The boss isn’t the boss?
A little respect
You may think it is disrespectful of me to question whether the PM is still in charge. After all, he will still be the PM until March 2009 (or is it December 2008, I forget). In my defence I would refer you to the ubiquitous Malaysian phenomenon of the political portrait banner.
One purports to advertise Malaysia as a tourist destination, but conveniently has portraits of the PM, the DPM and the Minister of Tourism at the bottom left corner. Another purports to support youth and sports and, not to be outdone, includes portraits of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the PM, the DPM and the Minister of Youth and Sports.
However, the prize in this category of strategic photo placement must go to the Federal Territories Minister. In a banner I saw in Brickfields commemorating Deepavali celebrations on 23 Oct 2008, there was a picture of the minister, his deputy and the DPM, who was the guest of honour.
Yes, there was no portrait of the PM (I suppose mainly because he wasn’t the guest of honour). Perhaps it was just the law of unintended consequences, but how cruel can fate be that one is dismissed as being irrelevant and unimportant while still in office?
Is this the kind of elected government that Malaysians voted in on 8 March 2008? What we are now seeing is an interregnum (a fancy word meaning “in between rulers”). One PM seemingly on the way out, another not quite in yet. And so while everyone is jostling for support, nobody of competence is being left to manage the country.
The cats are away, and all the mice have come out to play, making mischief wherever they can by deciding on policy. The only problem is that the policy decisions they are making have as many holes as emmentaler cheese. In the political and power outage, things are happening and they are only inviting the people’s outrage.
Emmentaler cheese (Source: GNU FDL)
So the time has come to put a stop to this. I call on the PM, while he is still PM, to show the country and the world at large that he is still the PM. He has to show that things still need to get done, and that he is the one who is going to get them done.
I’m not referring to the three pieces of legislation that he has promised to push through Parliament before he steps down. I am speaking more about the opening up of democratic space which we have enjoyed over the last five years. Today, 31 Oct 2008, marks five years of the PM being in office. What better way to commemorate this event than to announce specific measures to repeal the ISA, the Official Secrets Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act, to lift the four existing proclamations of emergency, and withdraw Section 27 of the Police Act?
Can Abdullah take the
lead to repeal draconian
laws while he is still PM?
Then, PM, you dare your successor to reinstate these repressive laws. Be bold, be brave, and cement your legacy in the hearts and minds of all Malaysians. Free us from these and other draconian laws which, in the hands of unprincipled leaders, will surely be used to once again subjugate us. Just like we were subjugated for the 22 years before you came along.
Is it that you won’t do it, which would mark you as unfair and unjust, or is it that you can’t do it? The latter then means that this is yet another case of power outage. And so the people will be left with no choice but to contend with their continued outrage. That can only work to the detriment of our country in the long term. As the British economist John Maynard (Lord) Keynes once said, “In the long run we will all be dead.” But does this mean we shouldn’t care?
Andrew Khoo is an advocate and solicitor in private practice, and an aspiring columnist and commentator.