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Will PR be better than BN?

ON 4 Nov 2011, Penang became the second state in Malaysia, after Selangor, to enact a Freedom of Information (FOI) law. Neither the Penang nor Selangor FOI laws are perfect and both Pakatan Rakyat (PR)-led state governments have already been criticised for not doing better.

That’s no different from the public criticisms against the Barisan Nasional (BN) government over its Peaceful Assembly Bill 2011, which was passed by the BN-controlled Dewan Rakyat on 29 Nov 2011.

Or is there a difference? Not just between the two political coalitions but also between how each understands basic human rights? Additionally, what does it all mean for us as citizens?

International standards lacking

The Penang FOI law has been criticised for not adopting internationally-accepted standards in guaranteeing freedom of information. For example, the law does not provide for proactive routine publications of information held by the government. Indeed, this is actually something that some government agencies under the BN federal government, such as the Statistics Department, the Department of Environment, and the Communications and Multimedia Commission  are already practising.

Six civil society groups have also pointed out that the Penang law has removed a clause that stipulates a penalty for any information officer who destroys, alters or withholds information or if she or he intentionally denies access to information. “Such a preventive clause is standard inclusion in most freedom of information bills worldwide, including the Selangor Freedom of Information Enactment,” the groups said in a statement.

The lack of internationally-recognised standards is also apparent in the BN’s Peaceful Assembly Bill. Among others, the Bill, which has now been passed despite public objections, prohibits street protests. And as we already know, it also prohibits the participation of children in rallies, places too much power in the hands of the police and too many restrictions on rally organisers.

What’s the difference?

So, what’s the difference, from a human rights perspective, of having either a BN or a PR coalition in government?

The difference, if I may venture to argue, is that with at least the PR governments of Selangor and Penang, there is some inkling about what human rights is about.

The fact is, even though both the Selangor and Penang FOI enactments are imperfect and fall short of civil society groups’ expectations, the new laws were enacted to improve transparency. Citizens in Selangor and Penang now have recourse to a FOI law within the state. Prior to this, any information including about air quality, the causes for landslides, and water concession agreements could be and has been kept from public scrutiny under the federal government’s Official Secrets Act.

Conversely at the federal level, the replacement of Section 27 of the Police Act with the Peaceful Assembly Bill is meant to make things worse. No matter if the federal government denies it repeatedly. For example, the Bill prohibits “street protests” when these kinds of protests are already legally recognised in Section 27 of the Police Act.

President of Bar Council Lim Chee Wee (© Centre for Orang Asli Concerns)

President of Bar Council Lim Chee Wee, in the Bar Council-organised walk against the Peaceful Assembly Bill (© Centre for Orang Asli Concerns)

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak himself has stressed that the BN government will not tolerate street demonstrations.  “We say no to street demonstrations. It’s out. The point is, it will disrupt the peace and affect the livelihood of others,” he is reported to have said. It should come as no surprise then that the Peaceful Assembly Bill was a far cry from the premier’s Malaysia Day promise to make Malaysia more democratic.

Indeed, the Peaceful Assembly Bill should have been named the “Restrictive Assembly Bill”.

What do we do next?

What then are our options as citizens? Clearly, it’s not just enough to vote in a PR government. Both the Selangor and Penang FOI enactments demonstrate that the federal opposition parties, if in power, may attempt to make good on some of their election promises of greater accountability and transparency. But the proof of the pudding is that even PR-led states do fall short of instituting best practices in guaranteeing citizens’ fundamental liberties. Clearly, having PR in power doesn’t automatically guarantee us better laws and more rights. Indeed, much still needs to be done.

Still, what is apparent is that the PR governments in Selangor and Penang have at least a semblance of understanding of what constitutes upholding the right to information. PR Members of Parliament (MPs) also clearly reflected better understanding of human rights and separation of powers, compared to BN MPs, in The Nut Graph‘s MP Watch online project.

And as proven by the Peaceful Assembly Bill, the BN government, unfortunately or perhaps predictably, remains clueless about citizens’ rights to freedom of assembly and expression. The BN also remains resistant about meaningful public consultation, rejecting the proposal for the Bill to first go through a Parliamentary Select Committee before being passed. And in a moment of absolute irony, the police declared the Bar Council’s walk to Parliament on 29 Nov to protest the Bill as illegal. Indeed, the Najib-led government has been shown up to be more repressive than the Burmese junta in power with regard to street demonstrations.

If nothing else, the comparison between two governments in Malaysia must convince us that leaving things to politicians alone is not the answer if we want a better Malaysia. Indeed, if citizens are not vigilant about what our governments do, there could be little or no difference between having a BN or a PR government in power.

KLCC protest (© Seorang Anak Bangsa Malaysia)

Approximately 400 people gathered in protest against the Peaceful Assembly Bill in KLCC on 26 Nov 2011 (© Seorang Anak Bangsa Malaysia)

And for this reason, it’s encouraging that so many citizen initiatives are holding both the PR and the BN governments accountable for not living up to their promises. From critical statements about the FOI enactments in Penang and Selangor, to the street protests in KLCC Park, the Bar Council-organised walk and the Hello MP initiative against the Peaceful Assembly Bill, Malaysians are stepping up to the plate.

This, for me, is what citizenship means — we do not give up our power to politicians to determine what rights we have in our democracy. And this, for me, is what will make Malaysia a better democracy. Not the grand promises of a “moderate” and “reformistprime minister nor the pledges of an opposition coalition waiting to take over Putrajaya.

And the more we exercise being citizens, the more likely we will get exactly the kind of leadership that this incredible nation of ours deserves.


Jacqueline Ann Surin is appalled at the lack of coherence and consistency in the Najib administration. She wonders why the Bar Council has to first register as a political party and its chairperson Lim Chee Wee has to first be elected as an MP before the Bar can provide its expert views on any Bill.

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13 Responses to “Will PR be better than BN?”

  1. Kong Kek Kuat says:

    @ Jacqueline

    “She wonders why the Bar Council has to first register as a political party and its chairperson Lim Chee Wee has to first be elected as an MP before the Bar can provide its expert views on any Bill.”

    You are joking, right? Because if you are not, then it is a joke.

    • Adam says:

      Yes, she wonders and laughs at those politicians who have called for the Bar Council and its chairperson to be political entities first before commenting on the Bill. It is like asking you and me to be politicians first to be allowed to comment. It is indeed a joke.

  2. KW Mak says:

    At the local government level, I have often found that information is withheld simply because people do not know how to ask for it, with the council giving the information only when I or some politician intervene.

    Maybe I should tell some of these stories… hrmmm.

  3. Shanker says:

    “Clearly, having PR in power doesn’t automatically guarantee us better laws and more rights. Indeed, much still needs to be done.”

    I wish to analyse PR’s performance from two levels. On one level, PR at present is very much focused (and “efficient”) on bringing many national issues to the forefront; whether it be the NFC, or Syabas water issue, or tainted electoral roll, etc.

    I suppose the “efficiency” is alright; it clearly appears that the main focus is to drive Umno/BN out of Putrajaya. However, on another level – local and day-to-day issues that affect rate/taxpayers – PR still has some way to go. And this then brings into mind the quality of a number of their MPs and ADUNs. Talk to a number of individuals who are driving civil reform initiatives, and they would readily admit that the service and quality level of Pakatan MPs leaves much to be desired. I am sure many can related.

    A letter that appeared recently in The Malaysian Insider caught my attention, and if what the writer contends is true, then he/she is right in pointing out the obvious that Pakatan MPs were sleeping when the Finance Bill 2011 was passed. Ref http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/sideviews/article/how-did-our-mps-miss-this-one-joe-taxpayer/. I tweeted a few well-known Pakatan MPs to get their input on this matter, last weekend. Sadly, none of them replied.

    And this is where I think the PR is underestimating the response from urban voters. While many urban voters are aware of the issues plaguing this country, it also appears that the PR is taking their votes for granted; in other words, they are depending more on the average voter’s despise towards Umno/BN to win the next GE, than they are in responding to voters’ bread-and-butter issues. And that could very well spell some measure of folly on the PR’s part.

  4. pencinta negara says:

    It’s funny that the Bar Council likes to interfere in matters like this [...] Is the Bar Council is just another opposition toy? People are watching you, Bar Council!

    • Adam says:

      Yes, people are watching the Bar Council. As lawyers who are conversant with our laws, they should and must be the eyes, ears and conscience of the people. If they do not speak out against any unfair and unjust bills, they would have shirked their duties as defenders of our Constitution.

      It is not funny if the Bar Council does not interfere in such important matters. It would be considered a criminal breach of our trust in them.

  5. ellese says:

    FOI in Selangor? The Selangor government still has not been transparent on how they fund the water subsidy, and Selcat is keeping quiet. According to the AG’s report, state investment arms suffered hundreds of millions due to this. Khalid never even bothered to have an internal audit – in fact, no audit committee exists.

    FOI cannot be in name only. Why is all this information buried by the state?

    • Pei Ling says:

      Hey ellese, the fund for the 20 cubic meter free water programme comes from the state’s coffer. Selangor investment arm KDEB is merely paying Syabas on the state’s behalf. (see http://bit.ly/uMOAfE)

      And just to illustrate Khalid’s three-year-old administration’s superior financial governing skills compared to past BN administrations:

      1) This year Selangor recorded its highest cash reserves in the past 28 years, RM1.2bil (despite KDEB “losses”).
      2) While the BN-led federal government continues to record higher and higher deficit, the Selangor govt tabled its 4th balanced budget last month.
      3) In Selangor’s 2012 RM1.9bil budget, RM300mil (funded by GLCs dividends and bad debts collected by MBI) have been allocated to fund social and civil rights programmes, in addition to the RM600mil already allocated for development expenditures.(http://bit.ly/sl12AO)

      None of these points were highlighted by mainstream media. But this information is out there if you care to look.

      And the Selangor state assembly does have a select committee, but not Selcat, that probes into state-owned and -linked companies. In fact, it is this very select committee, led by PR reps like Saari Sungib, that exposes the mismanagement and cronyism in PKNS in 2010 (http://bit.ly/vuomv5). (Try imagining Parliament’s PAC doing the same with Petronas or Khazanah)

      I’m not saying Khalid’s administration is perfect, it is fair game for citizens to scrutinise governments, but I think credit should be given where it’s due too.

  6. Adam says:

    Going by the current standards set and the good results obtained by the two PR states of Penang and Selangor, PR will most definitely be better than the BN in the governance of our country.

    Just like shareholders in a company, if the employees, which include the MD, are having secret deals and enriching themselves and their relatives and friends, the shareholders have every right to open up the books and sack or charge those misappropriating the company’s business.

    On the contrary, if the company is well run with consistent good returns and profits, the shareholders may not even want to know the details if proper check-and-balance rules have been set and the company affairs are open to scrutiny at any time.

    The crux of the matter is that as equal stakeholders of our country, the citizens have every right to question and to have access to the various deals, projects and even plans of the government of the day. No other way to look at it.

  7. desmond says:

    Lets be realistic. PR will never be the perfect panacea to the Umno/BN regime. Far from it! But that doesn’t mean that we should not therefore support PR in our wish (and dreams) to be rid of the Uumno/BN regime as the federal government of Malaysia. What is the alternative if Malaysians wish to do so by the next GE? I see PR as a next step,and maybe one step forward only, in our wish to move the country forward to better things. The more important thing is that we move forward and cross that bridge before it collapses! Once on the other side, we must then continue to search for greener pastures.

  8. Aoaoao says:

    Give PR some years to clean up the filth that the present party has brought on us. 5 years is not possible. To throw out, dispose rubbish, to mop, to air, to repair, to restructure, to build, to extend. Rapat Rakyat!

  9. Pak Pandir says:

    BN has been ruling the roost for far too long. This has led to complacency, and now arrogance. Personally I am not too sure if PR will do any better at the federal level. However, if the states ruled by PR are any indicator, then it would seems that they can’t do any worse.

    What is important is for the rakyat to realise that the real power is in their hands. I would give PR a chance. If they can’t perform, then we, as the voters, can always kick the out in the next round.

    For BN to make a comeback, they would have to put up better candidates in the following election. Likewise for PR if they aspire to remain. I don’t expect the government, whoever that might be, to be clean, transparent and efficient immediately, because these are too deeply rooted over years of decay. However the process of sieving the bad from the good will eventually result in a responsible government – one that is answerable to the people. This is what we want to leave behind for our children and their children.

    For us to make this country a nation, we must make our stand now. We must not let fear drives our objectivity. We must make all the politicians know that we are the masters, that they are answerable to us. Just as we can put them there, we can easily put them out. The power is in our hands.


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