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.
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.
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.
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 “reformist” prime 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.