For now, a healthy dose of scepticism

By Ong Kian Ming | Sep 16, 11

Many who read this commentary would accuse me of being unnecessary cynical, that I am not giving credit where it is due. Those who know me better would know that I am an optimist at heart. Which is why I want to caution everyone who is ecstatic over Prime Minister Najib Razak’s announcements tonight to take what he says with a large bucket of salt.

On paper, Najib’s announcement to repeal the Internal Security Act 1960 (better known as the ISA) and the less well-known Banishment Act 1959 as well as to review certain sections of the Restricted Residents Act 1933, the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and the Police Act 1967, should be applauded and welcomed by all who advocate for a freer and more democratic country.

But instead of reacting with glee and overwhelming optimism, I have instead chosen to take a more sceptical, and in my humble opinion, more realistic view of these announcements for three related reasons. These are:

(i) The experience of having too high hopes in the promises made by Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (Pak Lah), prior to the 2004 general election.

(ii) That Najib’s announcement is just that – a mere announcement until the proper parliamentary proceedings take place.

(iii) That nothing in Najib’s tenure as PM thus far has shown me that he is able and willing to take on the forces needed to implement these fundamental changes that will increase the protection of basic human rights in our country.

A litany of broken promises

Firstly, Pak Lah’s broken promises.

I still remember the tremendous sense of optimism I felt when Pak Lah, who was deputy PM and acting PM then, addressed the Oxbridge alumni in June 2003, where he lamented the ‘malaise’ that was our ‘Third World Mentality’ in the midst of our ‘First World Infrastructure’.

I still can remember quite vividly the euphoria I felt when it was announced, shortly before the 2004 general election, that the then minister for land and cooperative development Kasitah Gaddam, as well as Eric Chia, formerly of Perwaja Steel, were going to be charged with corruption.

And of course, the words ‘Work with me, not for me’ will be forever etched in my mind. The result, as we all know now, was a trail of broken promises left by our former prime minister.

I wonder how many of those who were so captured by Pak Lah’s promises feel similarly giddy after hearing the promises made by Najib earlier tonight? If you answer in the affirmative, I advise you to take a sober look back Pak Lah’s record as prime minister. And then re-examine Najib’s promises. I hope you would have come back down to earth after this exercise.

Secondly, I hope that you will remember that Najib’s announcement does not mean that the ISA has been abolished tonight.

On Saturday, if you are found donning a yellow Bersih T-shirt in front of Bukit Aman distributing copies of Mao Zedong’s little red book to the joggers who are assembled there, you are still liable to be arrested by the police under the very same ISA which Najib has promised (remember, it’s only a promise) to abolish earlier tonight.

We still have to go through proper parliamentary procedure in order to repeal the ISA and the Banishment Act and to amend certain sections of the Restricted Residents Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Police Act.

When the ISA is repealed in parliament, we also have to examine the two new laws which Najib has promised to introduce in place of the ISA in order to safeguard Article 149 of the federal constitution which pertains to ‘legislation against subversion, action prejudicial to public order, etc.’

When the other acts are amended, we need to examine the details in order to ensure that they do indeed strengthen basic human rights in our country. For example, while the amendment to the PPPA will take away the need of existing printed newspapers to renew their licences, will online newspapers such as Malaysiakini and Merdeka Review be given new printing licences?

Also, will the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) be given a new mandate (whether formal or informal) to allow the media greater freedoms to discuss politically sensitive issues?

But surely Najib is smarter than Pak Lah…

At this point, I can anticipate how some would counter my arguments thus far. In response to the first point, many would say that Najib is not Pak Lah.

He’s a much smarter PM and would not make the same mistakes as Pak Lah. He has shown insight, for example, in institutionalising agents of change within his government by creating the NEAC (National Economic Advisory Council), Pemandu, Talentcorp and Teraju instead of relying on a small team of people without the proper institutional mandate and support system.

In response to the second point, some would say that Najib has to deliver on his promises in order to win back support that he seemed to have lost after the Bersih 2.0 rally, indicated by his 59% support level in the recent Merdeka Center survey, down from a high of 72%, in June 2010.

I would respond to both counters with this point – that nothing in Najib’s career as a politician or in his 29 months as prime minister has shown me that he is capable of taking on the right-wing factions and groups who will undoubtedly be opposed to some of these legislative changes.

He was not willing to take on Perkasa after Part 1 of the New Economic Model (NEM) was announced which proposed that the needs of the bottom 40 percent of society be prioritised. Perkasa criticised Part 1 of the NEM because it failed to mention the New Economic Policy (NEP), not because it advocated for the NEP to be abolished or watered down. And this was when his approval rating was hovering around the 70 percent mark.

He was not willing to take leadership to force the police to find a compromise with the Bersih 2.0 committee, by for example, opening up Stadium Merdeka for the supporters of this cause to gather peacefully.

He may have been sceptical of the attempts by the Home Ministry to blacken out certain portions of an article in the Economist pertaining to the Bersih 2.0 rally but he did not try to use his position as PM to instruct the home minister that such an action would actually be counterproductive.

In fact, the proposal to amend the ISA had been on the table since he became PM. The fact that the relatively simple amendments that were needed to change the focus of the ISA from detaining political dissidents to focusing on legitimate security/terrorist threats took such a long time is an indication that the PM was not willing to push these changes through initially.

The introduction of two new acts to replace the ISA was probably a sop to the conservative interests within the Home Ministry, the police and within his own party.

Finally, it is also possible that Najib may not introduce these legislative changes until after the next general election in order to postpone the inevitable fights from within. And, if enough people take Najib’s promises seriously, he may achieve the two-thirds parliamentary majority he needs in order to stave off a possible political challenge from his deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin.

If Najib is successful, then the impetus for him to follow through with these promises will be greatly decreased, just as the impetus for Pak Lah to combat corruption and to reform the civil service evaporated after he gained 91% control of parliament.

How can he convince the sceptics?

The cynical part of me says that Najib’s closest advisors were reacting to the negative aftermath of Bersih 2.0 and they managed to convince Najib that this was a necessary step for him to take in order to stop this downward slide in his popularity.

The cynical part of me also says that Najib is far from a committed believer in basic human rights and has difficulty in facing up to the conservative elements from within the administration and within his own party. This makes me want to wait until the proper legislation is passed and the ink is dried before I jump with joy.

Is there any way in which Najib could convince this skeptic of his seriousness in protecting human rights in this country? There are a few.

Firstly, to show his sincerity, Najib should ask the Attorney-General’s Chambers to drop all outstanding charges against those who were arrested in association with the activities of Bersih 2.0.

Secondly, Najib would have to show some consistency in insisting that the police and the Home Ministry do not exhibit double standards when it comes to public demonstrations. This would include not allowing Umno Youth or other groups from demonstration in front of the US embassy if groups advocating for human rights are not allowed to do the same in front of the PM’s office (or the Chinese or Iraqi embassy, for that matter).

Thirdly, I would like to see one concrete instance by the PM where he puts his foot down for the protection of human rights, where, for example, he reverses a decision by RTM to cancel a politically sensitive programme or where he openly criticises a government agency for taking an action which is seen by many as being detrimental to the protection of human rights.

I sincerely hope that my scepticism will be proven wrong. I am not hoping that Malaysia will suddenly become a beacon for human rights and civil liberties just because of Najib’s announcements.

Like most things and in most instances, change usually comes slowly. But what I do want to avoid is the temptation of getting overexcited at prospects which have been promised but which have not been delivered. If these promises are indeed delivered, I’ll gladly eat my hat or accept a pie in the face.

Until then, I will maintain a healthy dose of scepticism.
ONG KIAN MING holds a PhD in political science from Duke University. He can be reached at [email protected] and his twitter handle is ‘imokman’.

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Friday, 16 September 2011 - 1:45 pm

    I fully agree with Tony Pua when he said the repealing of the ISA could well be “old wine in new bottles” until we know what the two new laws (which will replace the ISA) entail.

  2. #2 by DAP man on Friday, 16 September 2011 - 1:51 pm

    Only a moronic optimist would believe Najib. Even Muhyiddin did not believe him. That’s why he was not present at the announcement last night!!

    Would you believe if a tiger tells you that he would want to become a vegetarian overnight?

    Why would anyone believe Najib when he could not even accept an innocuous Bersih 2.0 outing at a stadium.
    There was never a ‘positive build-up’ by BN or Najib towards dismantling the ISA since he took office.
    In any case the government could use the EO to detain any Opposition politician instead of the ISA. EO is also a law that allows detention without trial. Wasn’t it used against some “communist’ sympathisers recently?

    So is the DDA. Can the police plant some drugs on an Opposition MP and arrest him under the DDA. (Thinking aloud)
    I will tell Najib to go fly kite.

  3. #3 by bumiborn on Friday, 16 September 2011 - 2:27 pm

    Yes, do not get excited just yet. Remember the recent let down? when Najib announced Bersih 2.0 could meet at the stadium… and then kept very very quiet and choose to pass the buck to police? He should have acted “for the people” and asked police to control the crowd instead of locked people up!

  4. #4 by vsp on Friday, 16 September 2011 - 2:48 pm

    It’s just thunder and lightning. Until the spring rain does fall, it’s just a mirage. I don’t easily give credence to what Najib says. He is known to have flip-flopped too many times at the drop of a hat. If (I hope this IF is credible), he keeps his backbone straight, then there is hope. Until then, keep your fingers crossed and don’t open your mouth to praise too quickly or you would be disillusioned.

  5. #5 by Bigjoe on Friday, 16 September 2011 - 4:04 pm

    What do people think a Public Order Bill is going to look like? There is a long list of pro-BN judges from our broken judiciary who will sign any detention order put in front of them without even reading it..

  6. #6 by undertaker888 on Friday, 16 September 2011 - 4:10 pm

    Hehehehehehe promise made by umno. Hihijihihihihihihihihi

  7. #7 by yhsiew on Friday, 16 September 2011 - 4:18 pm

    It is true ISA-1 is repealed, but we will be back to square one if Najib uses the two new laws to create ISA-2.

  8. #8 by country for good malaysian on Friday, 16 September 2011 - 4:53 pm

    Hopefully, but very difficult to change.
    Not that simple.

  9. #9 by monsterball on Friday, 16 September 2011 - 5:09 pm

    For 2 years he has made endless promises and al his slogans are proven worthless.
    Now…we are going to believe he will do the right thing?
    Talk is cheap. Did he talk AND act ?
    It’s purely election campaign nonsense from him.
    His promises that should take a month or so need years and not one have shown true sincerity from him.
    Look at Teoh Beng Hock case.
    As long as he dare not declare he is Malaysian first….Malay second…and dare not go against his Deputy…this so call PM’s promises are not worth one sen.
    Just listen take note and have fun with his flip flopping.

  10. #10 by digard on Friday, 16 September 2011 - 5:40 pm

    The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so they say. As of now, we can’t try the taste of the new version of ISA yet. I agree, there needs to be some legislation against terrorism.
    May I propose a tangible show of seriousness by Najib? The easiest act to abolish without any need for replacement and one that would actually put Malaysia on par with the rest of the world: UUCA. Nowhere in the developed world does anything like that exist. Everyone in any developed country, having reached adulthood and the legal age to vote, may as student have a political affiliation and discuss it in- and outside of university.

    I for one challenge Najib on this one: I take you for serious and will even ponder to cast my vote for BN, when the UUCA is simply struck out. No transitional period, no replacement. We have all legislation in place to prevent things from running out of hand inside of the universities like we have them outside of the universities now.

    I would even propose to halt the discussion of the case ‘ISA’ temporarily. It is too complex, involves security of our country. Let’s take a lower gear, one that is level playing field with the developed world, 9 years before 2020. If Najib is willing to simply strike UUCA out, at the next possible date (parliament), we accept his resolve to get the wheels into a real modernisation of Malaysia into motion. Should he however fail in this respect, nothing can be expected from him. A leader who feels that politics must not be discussed on a campus, and any student doing so needs to be expelled, needs to be expelled.

    Will Najib accept this offer of a truce, and throw in a proof of his seriousness?

  11. #11 by tak tahan on Friday, 16 September 2011 - 5:41 pm

    Why only announced the reforms now?To show he so loves the people and country..nah!I believe one of his motives is so that the Opposition can no longer raise these issues in their campaign during the GE13.This king of flip-flop cannot be trusted at all..he sucks BIG TIME!

  12. #12 by Loh on Friday, 16 September 2011 - 6:59 pm

    ///Secondly, I hope that you will remember that Najib’s announcement does not mean that the ISA has been abolished tonight.

    On Saturday, if you are found donning a yellow Bersih T-shirt in front of Bukit Aman distributing copies of Mao Zedong’s little red book to the joggers who are assembled there, you are still liable to be arrested by the police under the very same ISA which Najib has promised (remember, it’s only a promise) to abolish earlier tonight.

    We still have to go through proper parliamentary procedure in order to repeal the ISA and the Banishment Act and to amend certain sections of the Restricted Residents Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Police Act.///–OKM

    Najib announced NEM and he had to say later that the letter M was spelt as P, and NEP remains.

    Najib used the special day to announce his plans. But how can we trust him?. He might just announce GE 13 before the next time parliament meets, and let voters vote BN with the hope that he would act as promised. Some would be fooled. After the election, Najib can do what he pleases. A person who would not redeem his father’s honour in rectifying what other UMNO President chose to negate his father’s promise cannot value what word of honour means. So Najib’s announcement is meant only to win votes.

    Najib would be too presumptuous that he would return to power. He should make all the changes when he still has the power. The next government might not be too eager to make those changes, and Najib might have time to regret.

  13. #13 by monsterball on Friday, 16 September 2011 - 7:26 pm

    Now so many who were detained unlawfully under ISA are demanding apologies and compensations.
    No matter what Najib try to do to keep fooling Malaysians for votes…each subject he wishes to say ….bring good news for Malaysians to hear..there will be lots of things he must do or undo .. to prove he is a man of his words.
    From day one…he was appointed by UMNO b as PM…a back door PM with so many back doors ministers…his slogans.his wheeling dealing…and openly offer bribes to voters…his threats…his insults..his provocations…Najib cannot be trusted at all.
    Ex detainees are laughing and have a field day to playing along his nonsense and pushing him to a corner.

  14. #14 by cskok8 on Friday, 16 September 2011 - 8:13 pm

    Does that mean we can say Al******a now??

  15. #15 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Friday, 16 September 2011 - 11:06 pm

    Hello, I don’t need so many words to say that najib is a no-brainer. Period.

    I would probably make him my office clerk or, maybe, just a little better, an executive but certainly not a prime-mover or startegic thinker or leaeder. No way. He is not cut out for big things. Period.

  16. #16 by tak tahan on Friday, 16 September 2011 - 11:45 pm

    Since Najis is a no-brainer i would probably make him to clean office desks,chairs,floor,windows,cups and plates,computers,cabinet(note:make sure he does not put skeletons in),toilet and senior staffs’s old parents’ pooh pooh.If that no-brain job still can’t be performed by him i’ll send him to a retarded home and have my conscience and mercy cleared and done for him.God bless this spoilt child..amitabha

  17. #17 by sheriff singh on Friday, 16 September 2011 - 11:59 pm

    Its a lip-gloss I tell you. Durian flavour.

  18. #18 by negarawan on Saturday, 17 September 2011 - 12:09 am

    What UMNO is doing is just re-labelling ISA. They think the rakyat is blind. UMNO can always use EO to the same effect as ISA as they did recently on a group of innocent activists. Never believe in UMNO and what Najip says – just plain lies. A bad tree will bear bad fruits. Let’s kick out UMNO in the coming GE!

  19. #19 by tak tahan on Saturday, 17 September 2011 - 12:40 am

    Well,will those indoctrinated and ignorant Malays willing to forgo the cursed tongkat.Up till now how many of them are really getting thorough information and political awakening call to face up the reality of this competitive global world?PR must move faster and focusing to penetrate into rural areas to facilitate them for UBAH.Remember ABU so must be PR lah..ayoh.Unite for ABU!!

    PS:What the hell is with captcha.You want me to get special focus lens or a course to master this weird captcha?How many times must be said..crackpot!

  20. #20 by cemerlang on Saturday, 17 September 2011 - 12:45 am

    It is too good to be true. Listen to what the men on the street said to RTM when interviewed. They want something to replace ISA which means it is no abolishment cause if it is, why do you need another different kind of ISA ? Why are the ordinary men still not confident of the country’s keselamatan ?

  21. #21 by Cinapek on Saturday, 17 September 2011 - 12:51 am

    A leopard cannot change its spots. NTR has proven more than once that his words cannot be trusted. The best example was the Bersih stadium offer. Then there was that grandstanding visit to the Vatican and what does he do the moment he came home? He threatened the Christians that they must first respect the Muslims before the Christians expect their faith to be accepted.

    Ibrahim Ali has already voiced his disagreement with NTR’s announcement. If NTR cannot even stand up to Perkasa’s opposition to the NEAC proposal, we can expect where NTR will slink to with his tail between his legs once Perkasa flex its muscle at him.

    This announcement is all an election ploy. He will drag the alternative laws proposed until well after the election that is expected in Nov. If BN loses or does badly at the elections, he is finished anyway so it makes no difference what he promised.

  22. #22 by pulau_sibu on Saturday, 17 September 2011 - 12:57 am

    no more flip-flop, please

  23. #23 by tak tahan on Saturday, 17 September 2011 - 1:06 am

    Good on him to make fool of themselves(BN) and the more the merrier for Rakyat to laugh and realise their stupidity.Lets focus what more nonsenses will this piggy idiot create for PR to use as the most powerful nuclear missile to attack them before the next Election campaign.Wakakaka

  24. #24 by boh-liao on Saturday, 17 September 2011 - 2:04 am

    Of cos mah, must hv a healthy dose of scepticism, HOW CAN trust NR 1?
    Has d big FLOM, d real PM n power monger, spoken on TV?

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