SINCE 2009, The Nut Graph has had its own Merdeka Awards in conjunction with Peninsular Malaysia’s independence and the anniversary of our publication. The award celebrates exemplary Malaysians, whether individuals or groups, who strive, often at great odds, to make Malaysia a better nation.
We originally had 10 awardees. This year, we have 14 who make us proud. They include individuals, civil society groups and community initiatives that have had to overcome state intimidation, social norms or other significant challenges in their bid to create a more just and inclusive Malaysia.
The list is not exhaustive and is in no particular ranking. We welcome readers who have their own pick of exemplary Malaysians to name them in the comments section.
Our pick for this year’s Merdeka Awards are:
History was created when nearly 85% of our 13.3 million registered voters showed up to cast their votes in the 13th general election (GE13) since our independence. The voter turnout was the highest ever in Malaysia’s electoral history.
While the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) retained control of Parliament, it garnered only 46.5% of the popular vote, the lowest in history. It was also the first time since 1969 that the ruling coalition lost the popular vote.
Peaceful Black 505 demonstrators
Despite winning the popular vote, the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) lost the 5 May 2013 elections due to, among other factors, documented gerrymandering and malapportionment of electoral seats. Post-GE13, the PR organised several Black 505 rallies nationwide to protest the polls results.
Thousands of PR supporters and citizens, outraged by the election outcome, attended the rallies. While the police warned that the rallies could turn violent, we salute the demonstrators for keeping them organised and peaceful.
Azran Osman-Rani and Air Asia X
The Air Asia X chief executive officer (CEO) and his company came under fire in May 2013 for his criticism of Utusan Malaysia and Perkasa on Twitter. Right-wing politicians and the Umno-owned media vilified him for describing Utusan Malaysia’s front-page headline “Apa lagi Cina mau?” as racist, and Perkasa as myopic.
Utusan Malaysia and Perkasa subsequently tried to pressure Air Asia X to remove Azran as CEO. We tip our hats off to Azran for speaking out against divisive race-based rhetoric and to Air Asia X’s board and shareholders for standing by Azran.
Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz
As a Muslim minister, he spoke out vehemently against legislation that allows one parent to convert a child to Islam without the other parent’s consent when even the prime minister remained mum. Nazri declared that the Administration of Islam (Federal Territories) Bill 2013 would be unfair to non-Muslims because of such a provision. The bill, known popularly as the conversion bill, was subsequently withdrawn because of public outrage and pressure.
Nazri also questioned the need to demolish a surau in a resort in Johor that had been used by Buddhist tourists to meditate in, saying the Buddhist Maha Vihara had already apologised for the incident. This was in stark contrast to the council and religious authorities that demanded for the surau’s demolition as if it had somehow been sullied by the Buddhists.
Nazri, who is also tourism and culture minister, had earlier in the year also opposed the Malacca government’s move to open up popular tourist destination Jonker Walk to traffic, a move that was seen as punishing Chinese Malaysian traders who had voted against the BN. By doing so, Nazri, a senior Umno federal minister, demonstrated that he could be above partisan politics.
The Ipoh High Court made a landmark decision on 26 July 2013 when it quashed the conversion of M Indira Gandhi’s three Hindu children, who were converted to Islam by their father without her consent. The judgement was a welcome relief following several other high-profile cases of unilateral conversion where the non-Muslim parent was left with no recourse for justice.
A month earlier, the Kuala Lumpur High Court also threw out the Attorney-General’s Chambers’ bid for a stay of a decision in favour of Borders bookstore. The court had ruled in April that it was illegal for the Federal Territory Religious Department (Jawi) to raid the bookstore and seize copies of Irshad Manji’s book Allah, Liberty and Love.
In another landmark ruling on 26 June 2013, the Kuala Lumpur High Court held the police responsible for detainee A Kugan’s death while in custody. As of 16 July 2013, there have been 12 recorded deaths in custody, nearly two deaths a month. In 2012, there were 147 known deaths in custody. Those responsible for these deaths have rarely been brought to justice.
Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) began as a non-governmental organisation to protest against detention without trial. Today, it also actively tracks deaths in custody in Malaysia. On top of tirelessly pressuring the government to set up the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission to keep the police accountable, this human rights group also provides support for the victims’ families.
According to its tagline, Pusat Komas “promotes and enhances democracy and equality through the use of popular media”. The organisation turned 20 this year after years of working with grassroots communities, including the Orang Asli.
In urban settings, it is currently most well known for its annual Freedom Film Fest. The festival, which is in its 10th year, provides grants for local and independent filmmakers to document human rights issues in Malaysia.
Three of their members were arrested on 3 July 2013 for the Kuala Lumpur screening of No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, a documentary of the war crimes committed at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009. For raising awareness of the human rights atrocities in Sri Lanka, Komas was accused by Utusan Malaysia of being a supporter of the Tamil Tigers and was harassed by the authorities.
Teh Yee Cheu
The Tanjung Bungah DAP assemblyperson is the first politician in Malaysia to appoint a transgender as his political secretary. He hired Hazreen Shaik Daud, 33, in July 2013. Teh is also pushing for a working committee on transgender issues to be set up in Penang to highlight the discrimination transgenders face in society.
Malaysiakini has also named the Penang legislator the “Green YB” for scrutinising the state’s policies on high-rise development.
Lim Guan Eng, Ong Kian Ming and Wong Tack
We would like to acknowledge these public personalities for having the integrity and courage to apologise publicly when a mistake is made, especially in a nation where few politicians in power are willing to be accountable for what they say or do.
Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng apologised for the dropping of the question-and-answer session during a July state assembly sitting, after his administration was criticised for it. Additionally, he appointed state assemblyperson Jagdeep Singh Deo to handle state assembly matters and ensure that the question-and-answer session would not be dropped in future.
Serdang Member of Parliament Dr Ong Kian Ming also issued a public apology on 14 May 2013 to an Indian Malaysian whom he had falsely accused as a dubious voter.
Earlier in the year, Himpunan Hijau spokesperson Wong Tack publicly apologised for threatening to burn down the Lynas rare earth refinery in Gebeng, Pahang.
Adam Adli and Safwan Anang
Both have risen to become icons of student activism over the past few years.
Adam Adli Abdul Halim first courted controversy in December 2011 for lowering a banner that featured BN chief Datuk Seri Najib Razak during a student protest in Kuala Lumpur. Consequently, he was vilified by the media and suspended for three semesters from Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris.
In May, both Adam Adli and Safwan Anang were arrested and charged under the Sedition Act for encouraging citizens to take to the streets to overthrow the BN. Safwan, a leader of Solidariti Mahasiswa Malaysia, had originally refused bail to protest against the charge. He was eventually released on bail after his wife and family posted it.
Both student activists continue to be vocal opponents against the BN government for restricting student autonomy and civil liberties.
Save Sarawak Rivers Network (Save Rivers)
A group of indigenous peoples set up the network in 2012 to oppose several mega dams the Sarawak government intends to build, among them the Baram Dam that will displace 20,000 natives from their ancient homes. The Bakun Dam, which began operations in 2011, evicted some 10,000 natives from their land.
Save Rivers should be applauded for highlighting the plight of the indigenous peoples of Sarawak, and demanding public consultation and transparency for all hydropower projects in the state.
Tonibung, Light Up Borneo and Barefoot Mercy
Sabah-based Tonibung has helped indigenous villages not just in its home state but also in Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia to install micro hydro systems since 1998. Unlike many national utility companies, Tonibung works directly with the communities. It teaches villagers located in remote areas how to maintain the micro hydro systems themselves.
Light Up Borneo is another micro hydro system-based citizen initiative that provides power supply to rural villages in Sarawak.
Founded in 2011, Barefoot Mercy is yet another non-governmental organisation that was set up by concerned citizens to provide electricity, clean water and other basic amenities to the rural poor and marginalised villages in Sarawak.
Friends of Kota Damansara
The coalition was formed to fight for the Kota Damansara forest to be gazetted as a permanent forest reserve. After the forest was successfully gazetted in 2010, the group morphed into a community organisation. It now works with other citizens and urban farmers to improve the living environment of low-cost flat residents in Kota Damansara.
Bersih Mama and Sunflower Electoral Education
Bersih Mama teamed up with Sunflower Electoral Education to publish a free paper, Sunflower Paper, in a bid to close the information gap between the rural and urban population.
The group successfully raised funds from online supporters to publish 650,000 copies for five issues – two in Malay and three in Mandarin – during the general election. Its Chinese-language editor, Chan Wei See, said mothers and youths volunteered to distribute the paper in their neighbourhoods.
The sporadic publication has highlighted issues such as corruption, Lynas, the use of cyanide at the Bukit Koman gold mine, and the health impact of telecommunication towers in schools on children. Post-elections, the paper will continue to be published, albeit with less frequency.