by Dr Lim Teck Ghee
09 May 2012
In my note to Chandra on May 6 which he acknowledged, and which was sent well before this latest rebuttal, I had written:
“I hope we can have a sustained discussion on the important subject that you have identified. I don’t think a one-off debate is a good way to have that discussion. I know politicians and their supporters love it but we are not politicians.”
Chandra’s latest reply continues to insist on a one-off debate and argues that a prolonged discourse in lieu of a debate will “generate more heat than light”.
I disagree. So do the great majority of online commentators that have followed our exchange. Despite attempts by cybertroopers to disrupt feedback, many readers have encouraged us to engage over the Net that is an open and unfettered public space in which they can also contribute their say.
If I had thought that the scholar rather than the ex-politician in Chandra would prevail, I was mistaken.
Another reason not to have a debate
A few commentators also pointed to a key reason why a one-off debate is not in the public interest. This is because the intensive official media coverage of the event will, in all certainty, spin the debate in Chandra’s favour to ‘prove’ that the government has embarked on meaningful political changes as well as engage in the further demonizing of Bersih and the opposition.
Bitter experience has taught us that we have a media that is highly skilled in its ability to distort any story in favour of the government. Having a one-off debate covered by our dominant official media will play into the hands of the government and its numerous propaganda agencies (Utusan Malaysia, Berita Harian, NST, RTM, TV3, etc).
I am sure Chandra will not want to be an unwitting tool to any spin (of the debate) by the government. Hence I am appealing to him to reflect on his own media experiences when he was in Aliran and Parti Keadilan, and to accept my proposal for our forum to be held in cyberspace without further excuse.
To assuage his concerns that the Internet forum will generate more heat than light, I would like to propose that we have one of our eminent social science colleagues moderate the forum and for the two of us to be permitted extended space and time to continue our debate. On a matter of such national importance as described by Chandra, this commitment of time is surely the minimal that we can provide.
I am sure that Chandra’s employer the Universiti Sains Malaysia will not only give him recognition and time-off to lead the Internet forum but also that they will prefer a scholarly exchange rather than a one-off debate in which egos rather than substance may be more likely to be prominently displayed.
Speak to the Vice Chancellor and other colleagues on this proposal, Chandra, before you dismiss it out of hand.
The other parts of Chandra’s note are really quite sad and even poignant.
Firstly, with regard to his threat that he will reveal how I have “metamorphosed from Marxist to MCA intellectual to PR apologist” – that does not frighten me in the least.
Come on Chandra, you really don’t need to give me notice. You have my go ahead to do your worse. But let me provide some empirical data to give you pause.
Yes, I do have Marxist tendencies on an issue-by-issue basis – more pronounced when I was younger but still visible on some key challenges. (See my recent piece ‘Breaking up wealth concentration in Malaysia’ published on Feb 2, 2012 in CPI).
On being an MCA intellectual, when a replacement policy to the New Economic Policy (NEP) was being considered by the government in 1990, I was nominated by the MCA to sit in the National Economic Consultative Council (NECC) convened to prepare the post-NEP policy. This appointment was made arising from my position as an independent academic.
Prior to that, I provided inputs to the MCA’s report on ‘Deviations in the NEP’. I regard that NECC period with mixed feelings as I have always been and still am – both in private as well as in public – critical of the role played by MCA in the country’s political development.
The stint with the NECC, however, provided me the unusual opportunity and opening to work within the system so as to affect a breakaway from the dominant NEP paradigm and to help the country to a new path of development. As a member of the five-man drafting committee set up to break the deadlock over the final submission, I am proud that we were able to produce a national policy report which was well ahead of its time in terms of its merit-based, non-racial philosophy.
Although the Mahathir administration cherry-picked through the report in the follow-up national policy after 1990 and ignored our major recommendations relating to a timeline for ending the NEP, establishing an independent national policy monitoring mechanism and implementing a needs-based approach, our report was instrumental in liberalizing higher education and socio-cultural policy as well as in moving economic policy away from its narrow racial and stultifying approach.
Many members of the NECC have recognized my contribution in working against the odds over a three-year period to ensure the completion of a landmark report. I am sure they will be happy to correct or confirm any impression that Chandra may have of my role and contribution during that period.
I have written on this episode of my career in a chapter that will appear in a book assessing Abdullah Badawi’s contribution to the country as prime minister. I am happy to give Chandra permission to obtain the draft of the chapter from the book editors so he can scrutinize it to substantiate his threat.
Finally as to my final incarnation as a PR apologist, I have spoken in support of a PKR candidate at public rallies on two occasions and have provided comments on the country’s leadership in the way of Anwar Ibrahim’s impact which appeared in a 2009 article ‘The Malay Dilemma’ in the New Yorker magazine. This is the sum total of what can be construed as my service as a PR apologist – quite short and undistinguished, compared with Chandra’s.
I apologize for boring readers with these personal details. However, they are necessary to rebut the insinuations made. In summary, my intellectual positions have mostly (I cannot say always) been consistent both as a scholar and civil activist.
I have spent 26 years researching on poverty and rural development issues. Six of these years were as a graduate student mainly in the archives, whereas the many, many hours in the field were with fishermen, Felda settlers, Risda smallholders, paddy farmers and other marginalized communities.
Unlike those who have pontificated on the issues of “economic justice and equitable distribution of wealth” from the comfort of air-conditioned rooms or political pulpits, I have combined scholarly research with social activism when I was with the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) and Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM). I still do so.
My colleagues, who have worked in academia and in the NGO circles with me in the past can be interviewed, should Chandra or Umno or Barisan supporters be interested in digging up any inconsistency or other muck on me to be put out for public consumption.
Most people do not need to recite ad infinitum how well balanced or consistent they are in their views on political or social change, or to repeat the same old tired stories to prove their consistency or scholarly integrity. Action proves louder than words.
When a person protests too much of how balanced, ethical and moral he is; how independent or full of integrity he is; he must expect Malaysians to sit up and take notice – especially when that person puts himself up in the public limelight as often as Chandra has done.
[Teck Ghee] accuses me of “intellectual gymnastics”, of changing my position, of doing a volte face. He is not the only one to do this. Many others have. Some have used vulgar and vicious language. In fact, every time an article of mine appears in cyber media, there would an avalanche of crude, coarse, sometimes cruel comments giving the impression that the assault on me is well orchestrated and organised.”
Firstly, let me assure Chandra that I am not part of a well-orchestrated and organized assault on him, and never will be. While I have problems understanding his recent turnaround on several major issues, I have kept them private – after all, we were good friends for 17 years and more.
Secondly, while I sympathize with his predicament, many will say that he has brought it upon himself. Those of his students, associates and even family friends who have written to express their disappointment and displeasure with his recent political positions have done so from the vantage point of close interaction with him, before and after his stint as an opposition politician.
In my view, that avalanche of critical comments (in the thousands) and assault on his integrity is not organized or orchestrated. It has cascaded spontaneously and in many cases, reluctantly and sadly, from many people who once admired his principled positions but who now cannot stomach reading what he has to offer. There is no plot against Chandra. The only one there is, is in his own mind.
In my own case, his unscholarly piece lambasting Bersih and in particular his final pronouncement on the movement’s leaders as “frauds and hypocrites without any sincere commitment to freedom and democracy” who “[t]hrough their politics of deceit and duplicity…continue to manipulate mass sentiments for their own diabolical agenda” was the last straw.
That article convinced me that he needed to be publicly responded to, and that silence or non-response would only embolden him and his supporters in their propaganda war demonizing Bersih and the opposition.
It is not surprising that Chandra’s allegation – though bereft of evidence or scholarly backing – has resonated with the government, its supporters and extremist groups especially. It is not surprising that the government has now gone on the offensive accusing Bersih and the opposition of plotting a coup and planning to overthrow the government through violent means – a claim echoed by former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and taken up by the police.
Advertently or inadvertently, Chandra has provided the government with the ‘intellectual capital’ to justify turning the clock back in the struggle for a more democratic and free country.
Since his unprofessional lambasting of Bersih’s leaders, he has remained quiet when asked for scholarly evidence to prove his charge. I urge Chandra once again not to dodge the issue and to put the record straight on his serious allegation as soon as possible.
‘Spirit of Merdeka’ concerns on human rights and basic freedoms
On progress made since the ‘Spirit of Merdeka’ declaration, I would argue that baby steps rather than far reaching progress has been made in the major areas of human rights and democratic freedoms discussed there. For example, the list on legislative freedoms in the declaration referred to abolition of the following:
• Internal Security Act 1960
• Public Order (Preservation) Act 1958
• Prevention of Crime Act 1959
• Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) Ordinance 1969
• Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance 1970
• Essential (Security Cases) Regulations 1975
• Dangerous Drugs (Special Preventive Measures) Act 1985
• Restricted Residence Act 1933
The ‘Spirit of Merdeka’ declaration noted:
“The Federal Constitution has been amended innumerable times since Independence. This has diluted tremendously the spirit of the original document. Important parts of the original Constitution, such as jus soli (right of birth) citizenship, a limitation on the variation of the number of electors in constituencies, and Parliamentary control of emergency powers have been modified or altered by amendments with the result that the present Federal Constitution bears little resemblance in many key areas to the original version.
“We [signatories to the ‘Spirit of Merdeka’] call for the review of various constitutional amendments that have effectively abrogated other constitutionally protected fundamental freedoms and rights. The rescinding of these amendments is a crucial step in the restoration of our democratic rights and freedoms.”
Other notable areas listed include independence of the judiciary, media freedom, fostering civil society (through reform of the Police Act, the Societies Act and the Trade Unions Act) and ensuring free and fair elections.
In all of them, little or no progress has been made since the time of the declaration in 2007.
Peaceful transition of power
I am glad Chandra agrees on the importance of this. Past history is of course no guide to future conduct. It would be more reassuring that a clear and unequivocal statement on the peaceful transition of power came from the prime minister and other senior Umno leaders rather than from Chandra.
In fact, I would have expected Chandra to also press Najib Razak to explain why he dodged the important question posed at the Royal Selangor Club luncheon early this year – “Mr Prime Minister, would you make the transition of the government for Pakatan a smooth one if the opposition wins the next general election?” – rather than engage in dredging up the historical data to show how scrupulous the Barisan record is in respecting the norms of parliamentary democracy.
‘Police state’ issue
I had provided Chandra with the name of the author, the title of his paper which was delivered at an international conference as well as the reference citing Chandra as being moved “[a]fter the events of 1987 and 1988… to use the term ‘police state’ to describe the situation in Malaysia.”.
The onus is on him – and not on me – to follow up with the author and to seek a clarification if he is unhappy with the attribution. He did not. Surely he does not expect others to go around doing this verification on his behalf.
Even if Dr Chandra declines to take part in the Internet forum, concerned Malaysians especially in academia can provide views and opinions on how meaningful are the political changes taking place, and how to make sure the clock is not turned back on the reforms undertaken so far.
Also, to readers following this exchange as well as commenting on the Internet: please exercise decorum and civility when providing feedback.