IT’s hard to trust the prime minister, no matter if public approval for him has risen following a slew of government handouts. It’s not just because the seasoned journalist in me has seen more than my fair share of untrustworthy politicians. Trust, as we often hear and know to be true, has to be earned.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, however, seems to think that it is enough to get people to trust him just by making announcements that are geared towards making people feel that the Barisan Nasional (BN) government is listening and sensitive to the rakyat’s woes. Najib’s latest feel-good announcement was that the government would work far more closely with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) through “smart partnerships”.
Why should we trust that Najib means every word he says? And what will it take for our premier to really earn the trust of an increasingly critical and engaged citizenry?
Too little, too late
On 4 March 2012, Najib urged NGOs to work with the government “for the people’s well-being” after officiating at a 1Malaysia Social Welfare Programme in Bukit Jalil. He also stressed that it was important for the government to reach out to these grassroots organisations instead of waiting for the NGOs to approach the government.
At face value, and if one hasn’t lived in Malaysia beyond a week, here is a prime minister who seems to genuinely want to work with NGOs to make Malaysia a better place. Yet, those of us who have lived in Malaysia longer than a week or who follow news on Malaysia know that words are cheap. And they are even cheaper when one holds public office and has the public platform to magnify messages of sweet nothings.
Why are Najib‘s words cheap and, I would even say, reflective of a lazy and ineffective leadership? Because the evidence in hand is that the BN government has no interest in engaging NGOs to make Malaysia a fairer and more just democracy. If it did, BN would have engaged Bersih 2.0 in ensuring that the extensive electoral reforms that Malaysia needs to ensure free and fair elections are implemented.
Instead, what did the Najib administration do? It galvanised all its state apparatus to villify, threaten and arrest the many Malaysians who called for a fairer and more transparent electoral system. Indeed, under Najib, the crackdown was far more brutal than what Bersih experienced in 2007 under then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
And then there was the banning of Seksualiti Merdeka, a festival that was meant to highlight the need to protect people of different sexual orientations from violence and discrimination. Really, if Najib actually meant what he said about having “smart partnerships” with NGOs who work tirelessly to ensure the rights and protection of marginalised groups, he should have offered the government’s endorsement instead of letting the Umno-owned Utusan Malaysia maliciously describe Seksualiti Merdeka as a deviant sex fest.
And if Najib truly believed in the leadership of the grassroots and the impact of government policy on people’s lives, he would listen to Sisters in Islam and pay heed to the numerous Muslim experts on the issue of Muslim children born within six months of their parents’ marriage. Instead, the BN administration chooses to implement an unjust policy that makes it impossible for these children to carry their father’s name, hence making them illegitimate, because of the advice of a 1971 fatwa that isn’t even binding or enforceable.
And then, there is Najib’s Information, Communications and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim who announced last week in Parliament that the government did not see the need to repeal the Official Secrets Act and enact a Freedom of Information Act. Funny how it would seem that even as Najib declares a willingness to work together with NGOs, his minister is clearly kicking sand in their eyes for wanting a more transparent and accountable administration.
Beyond feel-good statements
What does Najib need to do to convince a thinking electorate that his words carry the weight of authentic leadership?
For starters, he can start telling the state apparatus he controls – from the police to the government-owned and controlled mass media – to stop threatening, demonising and thwarting the NGOs who work on public interest issues that are meant to make Malaysia a more resilient democracy. It’s not about handouts that are spent within a couple of months just in time for the next general election, Mr Prime Minister. It’s about making structural changes that will strengthen this country in the long-term.
The prime minister can also start getting his administration to endorse civil-society led initiatives that are working towards creating a Malaysia that upholds good governance, free and fair elections, and human rights and equal opportunities for all. That means speaking up against and distancing oneself from those who threaten the likes of Bersih 2.0, such as Perkasa and a silat group, instead of defending them and having his wife attend their events.
It also means being willing to open or at least send a representative to a festival such as Seksualiti Merdeka, instead of getting the police to ban it without any legal basis. It means supporting the Wanita Suara Perubahan movement that has called for several measures to ensure Malaysians get the clean government they deserve. And it means getting all BN candidates to take Transparency International Malaysia’s election integrity pledge that was launched on 17 March 2012.
And finally, Najib can prove he means every word he says about supporting NGOs by ensuring they have some of the funds they need to continue doing the work they do, instead of spending money on all 1Malaysia-related gimmickry. The fact is, even the small number of NGOs I have mentioned in this column struggle to raise funds to pay their underpaid staff and to run programmes in support of their public interest causes. And when these NGOs have no choice but to resort to foreign funding, the government swoops in to accuse them of being Western agents out to topple the government.
Will he or won’t he?
My bet is that Najib won’t do any of these things. It is far easier to make pronouncements and give out goodies like vitamins to the rakyat under the guise of 1Malaysia than it is to shake things up. My bet is Najib will take the cheap route and prefer to use other people’s money, i.e. taxpayers’ money, to fuel his feel-good campaign than take decisive action to make Malaysia a better place.
It goes without saying then that we would be fools to trust the prime minister. After all, trust needs to be earned. And so far, the Najib administration has done squat to prove that when he speaks, citizens can trust he means exactly what he says.
Jacqueline Ann Surin wishes Umno, including the party president Najib and his deputy, would not insult the rakyat’s intelligence over minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil‘s “sacrifice” that she is “resigning” from cabinet because of the National Feedlot Corporation scandal in which her husband and her family are implicated. As it has been pointed out, once Shahrizat‘s senatorship expires in April, she is no longer eligible to hold a cabinet position.