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Whither institutional reforms?

Construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 (Public domain; Wiki commons)

WALKING can be political. East Germans tried crossing the Berlin Wall for the 28 years that it existed. Many eventually moved to the West through Hungary and Czechoslovakia after August 1989, and took to the streets in East Berlin en masse three months later. They eventually brought down the wall on 9 Nov, 20 years ago.

On 10 Nov, two years ago, Malaysians took to the streets in Kuala Lumpur to echo the calls for electoral reforms made by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih). That was the second of the three mass rallies in late 2007, preceded by the Bar Council’s Walk for Justice and followed by the Hindraf rally.

A year after the fall of Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany officially buried the Soviet-backed de jure one-party East German state.

Four months after the Hindraf rally, Umno’s electoral one-party state was severely eroded by the 8 March 2008 political tsunami, which swept away its two-thirds parliamentary majority and five state governments.

Citizens of Germany are now taking stock of their nation’s progress since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Perhaps it’s time for Malaysians to take stock, too. How much have we progressed since 10 Nov 2007?

The three rallies that year highlighted three main aspects of reform: good governance, democracy and ethnic relations.

Have the 2008 election outcomes stimulated vigorous competition from both sides of the political divide on these grounds?

Hindraf supporters on the one-year anniversary of the November 2007 rally

Ethnic relations

The answer is a qualified “yes” on the issue of ethnic relations. Notwithstanding the standard communalist antics of Umno-controlled Malay-language daily Utusan Malaysia and individual politicians, Umno is moving quickly back to the “middle ground”.

Not unlike its post-1990 liberalisation measures in the name of Vision 2020, the Barisan Nasional (BN) is now introducing a series of economic and cultural liberalisation measures under Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s “1Malaysia” banner. These range from race-blind scholarships, special aid to Indian Malaysians, and his reaching out to Malaysia’s 60 independent Chinese secondary schools.

I will not be surprised if Najib announces the official end of bumiputeraism and all New Economic Policy (NEP)-style measures before the next elections. He can easily replace them with some form of a broad-based welfare state policy that still prioritises the rural Malay Malaysian constituency without expressly referring to ethnicity.

In a way, Najib is practising what Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) have been preaching the past couple of years but have no power to implement. With the federal government’s abundant resources to dispose of, Najib can also buy off opponents of these policies within and outside his party.

This is in turn how the race to the centre is capped. Once “owning” the issue of ethnic relations, the PR now finds it difficult to do more in dismantling ethnic or religious discrimination without being accused of selling out the Malay Muslim community. This partly explains the fading support for the PR among Indian Malaysians.

While PAS parliamentarians like Khalid Samad and Dr Dzukefly Ahmad are standing firm in defending the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, other PR leaders have opposing priorities. For example, Selangor executive councillor Datuk Dr Hassan Ali (from PAS), Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) parliamentarian Zulkifli Noordin, and PAS Youth chief Nasrudin Hassan are more interested in playing the role of Malay-Muslim champions by trying to ban alcohol, apostasy and concerts.

Mohd Asri
In a way, while non-Muslim, non-Malay Malaysians now have a better deal after 8 March, the policing of the morals and minds of Muslim-Malay Malaysians seems to be on the rise. The recent arrest of former Perlis Mufti Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin for preaching without a permit shows that even a former state mufti may not be spared. Another alarming sign is the demonising of Muslim feminist organisation Sisters in Islam by both Umno and the PR at different times.

Good governance

Arguably, both sides of the political divide have also been competing on good governance.

Competence, accountability and transparency has been the rallying cry of the PR state governments, especially in Penang, Selangor and pre-coup Perak. These states, together with PAS’s long-time stronghold of Kelantan, have outperformed their BN predecessors and current counterparts in other states.

In this context, Najib’s heavy emphasis of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and other management jargon is a response to the PR’s reforms.

While the electorate is enjoying better services or more financial benefits from both the BN federal and the PR state governments, there is no competition with regard to institutional reforms.

For all of Najib’s preaching on performance, he has refused to free the press so that the politicians and bureaucrats may be better monitored by the media and civil society. He has completely cold-shouldered ongoing calls — including from a former Inspector General of Police — to set up the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC).

Sketch of Teoh Beng Hock
Neither is he willing to reform the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) even after the mysterious death of political aide Teoh Beng Hock. His concession to public wrath is the MACC’s prosecution of a few lightweight BN politicians alongside those from the opposition.

However, the PR has not been any more proactive. With the exception of Selangor’s Select Committee on Competence, Accountability and Transparency (Selcat), no major institutional reforms have been set in place to promote good governance.

Most PR states have turned a deaf ear or are lukewarm to the calls of establishing an Ombud Commission or enacting Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation at the state level. Even the most enthusiastic state on FOI, Selangor, has met with internal objections from both bureaucrats and politicians.


If the BN-PR competition on good governance gets a mere passing mark, their competition on democracy is an outright failure.

Instead of democratisation, the BN has resorted to a constitutional coup to wrest back the state of Perak, and continues to discriminate against opposition-run states such as Kelantan. The BN’s abuse of state apparatus in by-elections is simply rampant. It has arrogantly rejected the call to repeal the Internal Security Act (ISA), which is now a national consensus. And of course, none of Bersih’s demands have been agreed to thus far.

But does the PR offer us a clearer road map? No. Their standard excuse is: “We cannot implement reforms because we do not control the federal government.”

The truth is, they do not need federal power to implement FOI or introduce local elections at the state level. And four state governments can set a decentralisation agenda to rally public support and pressure the BN. Why have all these not been done?

Sabotage, inertia or reluctance?

It is very clear why the BN under Najib is willing to check on racism and corruption, but reluctant to implement institutional reforms that prevent racism and corruption in the first place. A good system reduces the electorate’s dependence on “good politicians”. It rules out the need for a benign dictator to reign in on “bad politicians” or corruption. It allows and encourages competition. Most importantly, the dictator can no longer make sure that he or she, or his or her favourites, would be exempt from scrutiny. In this sense, a good system promoting democracy would be the end of Umno’s electoral one-party state.

The million-ringgit question is: Why is the PR not keener to offer institutional reforms?

Is it because of sabotage by its own politicians and bureaucrats who secretly support Umno’s agenda? Is it inertia, due to the PR hoping to get along with the federal government? Or is it reluctance, because either the PR also thinks it is sufficient to have “good politicians”, or it secretly hopes to inherit Umno’s electoral one-party state someday?

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University (Malaysia). Serving Bersih as its resource person, he believes public demand for institutional reforms must be vigorously cultivated.

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4 Responses to “Whither institutional reforms?”

  1. Taras Bulba says:

    Why lead off with something like this? TNG needs to focus on political news stories, news analysis and news features in that order. Next would come pop culture. Other things should come third. Tell us something new that will make a difference, not a rehash of known facts and unnecessary details.

  2. KW Mak says:

    Reforms will only happen when enough people make noise. The people cannot expect politicians to give them what they want. They must demand for it. Loudly.

    (And that is all I am allowed to say as a councillor. Such is my frustration.)

  3. Shaun Kua says:

    Thank you, Chin Huat, for the enlightening article.

    From personal experience, I believe that such institutional reforms should be accompanied by gradual reform of mindsets and mentalities. After all, throughout history (not just Malaysia’s), we have seen the best laws and policies been corrupted to serve the ends of those with the power to manipulate them.

    Perhaps, the public (myself included) shares a portion of the responsibility. One unfortunate fact is that the role of elections in Malaysian democracy has been overplayed over other elements, to the extent that many equate democracy with elections. Thus, many justify the status quo by claiming that Malaysia is sufficiently democratic simply because it holds elections …

    Perhaps we all need to return to the roots of demos-kratos — or people power. We need to recognize that ideal democracy lies in the spirit of organisation and dialogue at the citizen level, and that elections are fundamentally constructs compensating for the lack of said consensus by quantifying voters as numbers. Simply put, voting a person into office without any input but the crosses on our ballots will not suffice.

    As such, I applaud efforts by bloggers, columnists, or anyone at all to promote a deeper, more nuanced, and more acute public consciousness of this multidimensional thing called democracy.

  4. Fikri Roslan says:

    Institutional reform? Well, it is easier said than done in this country. It could be done more easily, perhaps when the politicians and the people are ready for it. I am sure it could be easier if the whole rakyat belong to the bumiputera category only. It could also be easier, I think, if the descendants of immigrants who are now citizen of this country, follow the behaviour of babas and nyonyas. Under the current situation of the country, the institutional reforms as discussed could just be a dream and, I am afraid, you are dreaming.

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