2011 is going by in a flash, and yet it has felt long and intense. The political temperature has been kept on the high side, first with the Sarawak elections, then the Bersih 2.0 rally, endless speculation about the next general election, and most recently, inter-religious tensions involving allegations against Christians.
Malaysians certainly have had a hodgepodge of issues and emotions to deal with. While many of our public leaders have disappointed, there are others who have given us hope. Most inspirational of all are the Malaysian rakyat who have done extraordinary things, as this listing of our third annual Merdeka Awards will show you.
This week, as we welcome 54 years of Malaysian independence, The Nut Graph celebrates, in no particular order, 13 individuals, groups and initiatives. We have gone beyond our usual 10 choices because we feel that all on this list deserve recognition for their efforts in shaping Malaysia into the nation we know it can and deserves to be.
This list is not definitive or exhaustive in any way, and there will certainly be others out there who have escaped our attention. Readers are welcome to include theirs in the comments section to make the picture complete.
Transparency International Malaysia is no stranger to the public for its longstanding work on accountability. In 2009, it turned the spotlight on political financing, which it saw as an important element in the practice of cronyism and corruption in Malaysia. It launched the book Reforming Political Financing in Malaysia in May 2010.
TI-Malaysia has since followed through with meetings with parliamentarians and a nationwide campaign to promote proposed reforms, such as prohibiting the ownership of media by political parties, and imposing an expenditure limit on their electoral activities. TI-Malaysia is on our list for its work on cleaning up political financing, and its continuous efforts to make transparency and integrity a way of life in the country.
Tan Sri Bernard Dompok
For saying “What’s wrong with having a Christian for PM?” And indeed, it would not be illegal, for Article 43 of the Federal Constitution does not stipulate the race or religion of the prime minister. In saying this, Dompok emphasised the supremacy of the constitution over the politicking of rabble-rousers who alleged a conspiracy to make Malaysia a Christian county. Utusan Malaysia drew the ire of many for its unsubstantiated report based on a blog that claimed the DAP was conspiring with Christian leaders to take over the administration and abolish Islam as the country’s official religion.
While the prime minister, who also heads the Barisan Nasional (BN), kept silent on the false reporting and the resulting outcry, Dompok, a cabinet member and president of a BN component party, proved to be the voice of reason by sticking to the constitution. “If an Iban, a Bidayuh, a Kadazandusun, Murut, Kelabit, a Chinese or Indian Malaysian can satisfy the provision of Article 43 of the constitution, he can be the prime minister of the country,” Dompok said. “As for the question of a Christian prime minister, what is wrong with that, although I do not see this happening in Malaysia,” he said.
For the cool use of facts in the face of provocation, Dompok is a Merdeka Award winner in our books.
The Truly Malaysian History (Kempen Sejarah Malaysia Sebenar or Kempen SMS) committee
For fighting bias in school history textbooks. Kempen SMS prepared a comprehensive independent report on the country’s school history textbooks. Spending hours of their free time and receiving no payment, it was all for the sake of historical accuracy and a concern over the country’s future if children today only knew a slanted version of history dominated by one ethnic group.
This campaign for a factually correct history curriculum comprises academics, parents, and individuals from civil society organisations. Aiming to work with the Education Ministry, the committee wants to ensure that the history being taught to students is accurate, based on a broad spectrum of social movements, and recognises the contribution of all races to the development of Malaysia.
Equally important is emphasis on the history of Sabah and Sarawak instead of being peninsula-centric. As committee member Andrew Aeria puts it: “[We want] to present a well-researched, substantive, informed, coherent and persuasive argument that the history taught in our schools should focus on the role and contributions of all communities.”
For their tireless work in ensuring free and fair elections. Bersih 2.0 was demonised and branded an “illegal organisation”, despite the fact that they were a coalition of over 60 non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Bersih 2.0 staff were harassed by the police, while their leaders were threatened, some with gang rape and death.
Armed with eight demands, unwavering leaders, and a strategy with steadfast clarity, Bersih 2.0 did more than just see through their peaceful rally on 9 July; they showed Malaysians what commitment to a cause means. Beyond the cause for clean elections, Bersih 2.0 united Malaysians of all backgrounds as they faced tear gas and chemical water together. Just read the many personal accounts online of Malaysians finding hope in their fellow citizens of different races.
For their fearlessness, consistency and calm in the face of adversity, and for reviving the spirit of what standing together as Malaysians means, we salute the leaders of Bersih 2.0.
Malaysians who went to rally peacefully in Kuala Lumpur on 9 July
Malaysians young and old, of all races and backgrounds, thronged the streets of Kuala Lumpur for the Bersih 2.0 rally on 9 July. Whether it was in support of Bersih 2.0, for free and fair elections, or just to join their fellow Malaysians, those who headed into the capital that day braved personal fears, a strong police presence and intimidation to exercise their constitutional right to “assemble peaceably and without arms. Some faced the heavy-handedness of the police, who used teargas and water cannons to disperse the crowds, others shook the hands of police personnel as a gesture of peace. It was clear that Malaysians who rallied that day showed that they were undaunted and unafraid to stand for their rights.
Without fanfare, this 10-year-old organisation works quietly but tirelessly to document and keep alive the traditional Malaysian arts, bringing Mak Yong, wayang kulit, Main Puteri and more to Malaysians across the nation. They have even brought some of these performances abroad.
Among their many performances and workshops, Pusaka Malaysia brought 25 students from the urban jungle of Kuala Lumpur to Kelantan for a taste of the Kelantanese traditional arts last year. This year, they concentrated on the Main Puteri project, showcasing and training youths in the tradition of Kelantan’s age-old traditional ritual art of healing. Pusaka Malaysia is on our Merdeka Awards list for ensuring we do not forget the beauty and spirit of our traditional arts as we move forward.
The Sarawak Report/ Radio Free Sarawak team.
With articles and radio streams still being churned out about the Penan community and illegal logging activities, Sarawak Report and Radio Free Sarawak are still going strong after the Sarawak Elections in April 2011. The state election, which saw the BN securing a two-thirds-majority win, may have been their focal point, but the team continues its work undaunted.
Despite a small setup and operating from a distance, the team has proven themselves a force to be reckoned with. They got an international campaign going on Sarawak’s environmental degradation and corruption, and involved foreign news agencies in the action. Their campaigning and publicity blitz has borne fruit: the Swiss president has ordered the Swiss Financial Markets Supervisory Authority to investigate Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud’s assets in Swiss banks, and there is now a Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission probe on him.
The Pesta Chow Kit gang
All too often Malaysians are bombarded with mammoth official campaigns and events that are pomp-filled, VIP-centric and more about style than substance. A group of civil society activists showed us this year how small is beautiful, with their amazing Pesta Chow Kit project. With a focus on empowerment, the team has brought local teens and youths together in a multiphased community-mapping project to showcase life in Chow Kit through their eyes. More than that, the project also teaches the youths art, research, history and creative thinking. Pesta Chow Kit is a great example of how small community projects can sometimes prove more meaningful and effective than ministry-led projects backed by big money.
Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah and Senator Gan Ping Sieu
Two politicians have stood out among their peers for speaking their minds and for going against the grain in hotly debated issues this year.
Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah has offered calm rationale and consistent arguments against the Universities and University Colleges Act, saying students should be allowed to participate in politics. He seems to have a tag team in Deputy Youth Minister Gan Ping Sieu, who has similarly been vocal about pushing for amendments to the Act. Saifuddin, also an Umno supreme council member, has weathered criticism from his party colleagues, but remains convinced about the “new politics” he thinks the nation needs. Both also showed that this was no one-off act, with Saifuddin and Gan again standing out from their parties in their measured and reasonable responses to the Bersih 2.0 rally and other issues.
Gan, who is also MCA vice-president, spoke against Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad when the former premier said Malaysia was Tanah Melayu and thus belonged to the Malay race. He urged Dr Mahathir to be more “unifying and constructive”. Recently, Saifuddin said comparisons of the Bersih rally to the UK riots were “shallow” and reflected badly on the BN government.
For their dedication to youth empowerment and student rights, the courage to speak their minds, and their preference for intellectual and rational discourse, Saifuddin and Gan get a salute in our Merdeka Awards.
Creative social networking initiatives
No longer is debate on national issues dictated by the powers that be, the traditional media or by politicians. Malaysians have found a way to inject their own take on things through creative social networking initiatives. From groups like Nasilemak2020 and Curi-curi Malaysia, to the individuals who filmed their own educational videos for first-time rally participants, there is no shortage of humour and wit in their approach. Through social media platforms, they engage the public in fun and accessible ways, allowing them to comment on political and national issues. For giving us something serious like political education in not-so-serious ways, and just because they make us laugh, the efforts of these Malaysians are on our list this year.
The Save Malaysia Stop Lynas group
The Save Malaysia Stop Lynas protest group has been as creative as they are committed. More than online campaigns, they have organised events varying from scientific talks and solidarity walks, to Car Ribbon campaigns, exercise outings and Father’s Day protests.
The group is resolute and unflappable in their main goal – protesting the proposed rare earth refinery in Gebeng, Pahang. They have also held protests in Parliament, at the Australian High Commission, and even organised a mission to Sydney and Canberra. Earlier this month, the group insisted it would be setting up an international panel to investigate the plant further. Despite the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluding that the rare earth plant would be safe, the protest group pointed out a report that the refinery is “plagued by environmentally hazardous construction and design problems”.
For determination, organisational skills and forward planning that would put some NGOs to shame, the group earns a spot in our Merdeka rankings.
UKM4 and LoyarBurok
Students and lawyers pair up to earn a spot in our awards for their tenacity in fighting for students’ rights to participate in politics. The four Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia political science students, known as the UKM4 – Hilman Idham, Woon King Chai, Izan Shafina and Ismail Aminiddin – have fought the Universities and University College Act (UUCA) since being accused of campaigning in the Hulu Selangor by-election in April 2010. Although police charges were dropped, their university began internal proceedings. On 21 July 2011, after a sustained campaign on their plight with the help of LoyarBurok, the university dropped disciplinary charges against the four.
LoyarBurok, a group which promotes legal and human rights issues, was the first to draw attention to UKM4’s plight in their blog. Both the group and the students have brought the issue of student rights into the limelight, generated debate and even garnered international attention. The students’ application to the High Court to declare Section 15(5)(a) of the Act as an unconstitutional violation of the freedom of expression may have been dismissed, but they have filed an appeal with the Court of Appeal and the fight for student freedom continues.
The states of Penang, Malacca and Selangor
Malaysians have become used to populist policy-making and decisions. This past year, however, we have seen the states of Penang, Malacca and Selangor pioneer some policies that, though unpopular at first, have long-term public interest at heart.
Penang has persevered in its all-state green campaign, Malacca has introduced smoke-free areas in a bid to promote healthier living, and Selangor has introduced the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. For certain, these bold initiatives are not perfect – Malacca’s smoke-free zones have been questioned, no-plastic-bag initiatives have been opposed, and Selangor’s FOI law criticised. Still, these are first-of-their-kind steps and deserve to be lauded for their far-sightedness.
The Nut Graph is proud to be Malaysian.