Human Rights and Transparency in Malaysia

by Lim Guan Eng
Speech at Monash Asia Institute in Melbourne
19th September 2011

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for inviting me to speak at the Monash Asia Institute, an important research center at my alma mater. I would like to especially thank Professor Greg Barton and my dear friend Dr Wendy Smith as well as send my thanks to the Monash University’s leadership. As you know, Monash University has a sister campus in Kuala Lumpur and although it is sadly not in my state, the university plays an important role in educating future leaders of our country.

As a Malaysian, I am very grateful for this collaboration and hope we can strengthen ties between Monash and Malaysia further. On a personal level, as many of your know I received my economics and accounting degree here and was quite active in student politics. I was never an outstanding student but what little I gleaned has helped me to formulate new economic and industrial policies in Penang that is now acknowledged as the best run state in Malaysia with strong growth, record budget surpluses and record FDIs coupled with a labour shortage.

In short, Monash helped me to evolve as a leader and politician and this university will always have a special place in my heart for which I am eternally grateful. Not only did I learn the importance of studying and working hard, but the need to forge relationships and centrality of principles. I am sure Monash will train future Malaysian leaders and I look forward to many of you helping to chart our future and being the change you want to see.

It is these principles that I would like to speak of today in my speech entitled Human Rights and Transparency in Malaysia. The timing and location of this topic is quite fortuitous, given Prime Minister’s announcement late last week to review the Internal Security Act (known as the ISA) and Emergency Ordinance (EO), as well as other laws that violated the principle of due process. These draconian measures have long been issues we in the opposition have raised and are only a handful of many laws that violate basic human rights standards. The discussion of human rights also comes at a time where Malaysia’s human rights record has been considered by no less than Australia’s High Court with regard to the issue of asylum, as legitimate concerns have been raised about the condition of facilities and treatment of individuals in line with international standards for the treatment of refugees. In my view the Court made the right decision, and hope that careful thought will be given to reevaluate this initiative and further steps will be taken in Malaysia to improve the conditions in detention facilities.

I would like to draw attention, however, to specific challenges facing Malaysian citizens in the area of human rights and transparency. These issues have been at the core of my political party, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and central to the multi-ethnic opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat. I will describe the four arenas where problems have persisted, and lay out the steps that I as Chief Minister of the state government of Penang and a leader in Pakatan Rakyat have taken to address them. As Chief Minister there have been limits to what can be accomplished at the state level and the role we can play as the opposition at the national level. What is important to appreciate, however, is the fact that in winning over one-third in parliament, breaking the dominant party United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and its partners in the National Front’s hold of two-thirds of the seats, we are serving as a major check on abuses in the system. They no longer have a walkover on legislation and as a result the debate on issues and public accountability has improved. We hope to build on our record of strengthening representation and good governance in the next general elections, and deepening democracy in Malaysia.

Activist Malaysia

Ladies and gentlemen, let me begin by highlighting the major problems we face in human rights and over transparency in Malaysia. Before I do so, however, I would like to stress that the direction on human rights in Malaysia has been a positive one, especially since March 2008. While we in Pakatan Rakyat and in the DAP would like to take some credit for this, and we collectively should be acknowledged for placing these issues on the agenda, raising these issues in parliament, and been willing to stand for our principles despite personal costs, most of the credit of the new climate on human rights rests with ordinary Malaysians. I cannot emphasize enough the profound transformation that has taken root in Malaysia. The brave determination of ordinary citizens in the July Bersih 2.0 rally is the most obvious example. The anti-ISA measure is another. This activism and principled political engagement that represents the true spirit of Malaysia, often obscured by the reports of simplistic and hurtful racial diatribes and character assassinations, has become the core of a drive for change, a drive for a better Malaysia where every Malaysia – no matter where they were born or their heritage – can play their part. As we evolve in our political transformation, in our fight for a better Malaysia, we as leaders and Malaysian citizens are anchored in our faith and respect for our fellow countrymen and the spirit of activism that is rooted in principles and our common future. I continue to be humbled by this true Malaysian spirit of hope and stand tall knowing that what we do in Pakatan Rakyat and in government in Penang is for all of the Malaysian people.

However a note of caution, whether the Malaysian BN government is undertaking a cosmetic electoral exercise to rebrand the ISA in another form, especially when the ISA will not be repealed in the coming parliamentary sitting this year, but the next. Is the Malaysian government merely pouring old wine in new bottles? There is public concern at the announcement that the ISA will be replaced not by one but two preventive security laws. Will there now be two ISAs instead of one?

First Generation Rights

Ladies and gentlemen, let me move to the first arena of concern for human rights in Malaysia, namely civil liberties. Touted as the first generation of rights associated with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, concerns from due process and free speech extend to religious freedom and the right of assembly. Najib Tun Razak’s speech last week on the ISA and EO dealt with some of the long-standing concerns about the use of arrest for political purposes and unfair implementation of the rule of law. I would like to draw attention to four other rights that continue to need protection. Foremost has been the right of free speech. More often than not, comments that are critical are deemed “seditious”. We have yet to have a political climate that allows criticism, with many an issue including most recently the discussion of history, deemed as “sensitive”.

The question of the application of the laws for political purposes has long haunted Malaysia. This was showcased internationally in the first political trial against Anwar Ibrahim in 1999 and continues today in the 2011 proceedings that have failed to follow basic legal standards in the handling of evidence, recusal of judges and more. I would like to thank the Australian parliamentarians who have stood on principles on this issue, calling a spade a spade, recognizing a political trial for what it is.

In the past few months attention has centered on freedom of assembly in Malaysia, in a record level of over 2000 arrests before and during the July 2.0 rally that featured tear gas and water cannons. People were arrested for wearing the color yellow in what was clearly an over the top reaction. The calls at the rally were simple. Allow me to share:

“As the coals that molest us rage higher
we shout still the message of Merdeka (independence)
for democracy as bright as the sun
as pure as dignity our purpose is one.

Deep is our worry – as democracy’s wounds
long is our sadness – as democracy’s woes
at arrogant democracy we scorn
for a strong free voice we dream”

Unggun Bersih
A Samad Said

Semakin lara kita didera bara –
kita laungkan juga pesan merdeka:
Demokrasi sebenderang mentari
sehasrat hajat semurni harga diri.

Lama resah kita – demokrasi luka;
lama duka kita – demokrasi lara.
Demokrasi yang angkuh, kita cemuhi;
suara bebas yang utuh, kita idami!

Dua abad lalu Sam Adams berseru:
(di Boston dijirus teh ke laut biru):
Tak diperlu gempita sorak yang gebu,
diperlu hanya unggun api yang syahdu.

Kini menyalalah unggun sakti itu;
kini merebaklah nyala unggun itu.

June 2011

These are the first two stanza of Malaysia’s poet Laureate Samad Said’s “Bersih Fire” who was arrested for this “seditious poem” in his call to come out and rally for electoral reform and clean government .

The rally highlighted yet another human rights problem in Malaysia, free and fair elections. While elections in Malaysia are largely fair, they are not free. Bersih 2.0’s demands in areas such as indelible ink and clean politics bring attention to the need for greater accountability in elections and checks on abuses of the system. In Penang in the past few months we are worried about the new voters that have mysteriously been added to the electoral roll. The issue of electoral reform is crucial in that it is about the right of people to control their own destiny, the right of Malaysians to make their own political choices and the system to respect those choices. Integrity in the electoral process is essential. We are engaging the parliamentary select committee on electoral reform, but worry deeply about the implementation of reforms, namely the independence of the electoral commission and checks on the system. The reforms cannot tinker with the system, they must address the heart of the problems by building in professionalism and autonomy in the administration of elections, while simultaneously allowing observers of polls and proper avenues for disputes. Malaysians deserve a fair system, in which every vote is respected and counted.

Ladies and gentlemen, the most difficult issue that has opened wounds in Malaysia in the last few years has been religious freedom. This issue has opened wounds and touched the hearts of communities. We have seen churches bombed, protestors feel the need to defend their religion, and intractable cases reach our highest courts as part of an intense constitutional debate on the role of religion. Time does not allow me to delve fully into the complexities of this emotive issue, but at the core are real differences on the role of religion in political life, different perceptions of the ability to practice religion and often sadly mischaracterizations of different religions and communities. We in Malaysia are all Malaysians no matter what faith we practice. We are brothers and sisters in our national community. We in Pakatan Rakyat remain committed to accepting difference and importantly instilling the values in governance that are central to all religions – tolerance, decency and humanity. Many have asked us in the Democratic Action Party – often mistakenly labeled as a Chinese majority party – how we can work with the country’s Islamic party, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia or PAS. What few really appreciate is that the values and principles of good governance cut across religions. We have shared goals – clean government and justice – and share a similar deep-seated commitment to a better fairer Malaysia for all. While we do acknowledge some differences, it is important to embrace difference and engage in respectful dialogue. Through the recognition of difference we appreciate the strength of Malaysia, its rich diversity.

Second Generation Rights

While most of the press on human rights focuses on these hot button issues, there is another important arena for contemporary human rights; that is the second generation of human rights, economic, social and cultural rights. These were laid out in the 1968 UN Covenant. Historically, Malaysia has had a good record on reducing poverty. From 1970 to 2010, according to the World Bank Monitor report on Inclusive Growth released last year and based on government data, poverty levels have dropped to 4% from an estimated 50 in 1970. Yet, what is worrying is that this poverty in concentrated in East Malaysia, with 42% of it in Sabah alone. Fortunately, Penang has relatively low levels of poverty. We are working to address even these pockets, however.

The most worrying trend that stands out is economic inequality. After the 1997 financial crisis the gap between the rich and poor has widened, with the trend widening further. The World Bank 2010 report pointed out that “40 percent of households only make 14.3% of total income, and the top 20 percent of households control 50% of total income.” This gap is a real challenge, as economic growth is lacking the same distributive quality that Malaysia had in the past. What is important to realize that unlike the past where wealth and poverty was tied to specific ethnic communities, the divides within ethnic communities, within Malays, Chinese, Indians, Iban, Kadazans and more, are sharp and wider than between the different communities. Regional disparities in wealth, with some parts of the country facing more inequality, especially East Malaysia, are now even more pronounced. In the past there was

a sharp rural urban divide. Now we find people relatively poorer in the urban cities, and in the more remote long houses. Certain groups face steeper challenges, be it the elderly or single-headed households, usually headed by single mothers.

I often ask when will we reach a stage when we will understand that as a nation we need to work together, that we are a family, a family of all Malaysians. When will we understand that in order to move forward we need to embrace the future rather than be tied down to a forty year old policy that is holding us back? Moving forward requires bold leadership and principled leadership. As Chief Minister in Penang, I struggle with assuring all communities that the important principles of the past – inclusion and the need to address inequality – will continue to resonate and need a new approach to be effective. When we think of human rights in Malaysia we need to be cognizant of discrimination and simultaneously appreciate the need for new initiatives to bring about more equality and opportunity.

This issue of opportunity has been the cornerstone of my approach to govern Penang. Opportunity is also connected to the problem of inequality. One has to ask what are the reasons that the system of governance in Malaysia is not equal? The answer is starkly there – corruption. Malaysia continues to be ranked poorly by markers of corruption. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index or CPI has shown a decline in Malaysia’s standing since 2007, as it has fallen from 43rd in the world to 56th, from 5.1 to 4.4, where lower scores showcase worse performance. Penang has bucked this trend, with our absolute no tolerance of any practices of corruption. This has shown in our steady investment levels that have topped investment in the country for multiple years. The sad fact is that there is too much leakage in the system, and the cronies that are feeding off the contract coffers are sucking Malaysia dry; they are stealing the opportunities for others who in a more competitive and transparent system would create a more advantageous environment for growth and genuine social equality.

Third Generation Rights

Ladies and gentlemen, concerns with inequality and opportunity will continue to define the Malaysian political landscape. This is one of the greatest challenges leaders in the country face in a highly divisive polity. As leaders in Malaysia we grapple with how to bring about a fairer system that will both address the problems and move us toward a better future.

I would be remiss however if I did not highlight the third generation of human rights, namely the concerns with specific communities. The different agreements from the 1970s onwards have highlighted the conditions for children, women and most recently migrant labor. Malaysia has been especially been criticized for our treatment of domestic workers, some of which has spilled over to concerns about detention centers and refugee policy which Australians have learned about in recent debates over asylum. Human trafficking is a problem in Malaysia as we are a transshipment point. I would, however, like to give Najib Tun Razak’s government some credit here in working to tighten legislation and offer more protection of victims, although much more needs to be done.

It is in this spirit of positive successes that I would like to highlight the story of Malaysian women. The adage runs, behind every man there is a great women. It is true. I would like to recognize my dear wife Betty, whose support has been instrumental in my efforts to bring about a better Malaysia. Malaysia’s success as a country has very much been the product of its women. Over the last few years, nearly half of Malaysian women, 46 percent, participate in the formal work force. They make up the majority of university graduates. They also serve as the main caregivers and take care of our children. Their contributions have been invaluable to Malaysia. Despite these contributions, across the board, women make lower wages, from clerical workers to senior managers. A new report by Penangite scholar Cecelia Ng shows that the wage differentials are higher at higher levels, with men making approximately a third more than women at higher levels.

The political gains for Malaysian women are more promising, with Malaysian women comprising 28.8 percent if Senate, Parliament and State assemblies. The majority of these women are in Pakatan Rakyat and the DAP has benefitted tremendously by fielding women candidates. The greater participation of women has enhanced our political representation and deepened our engagement, making this success a win not only for our legislative bodies, but also policy and governance. We believe that the steps forward are making progress in other areas such as domestic violence and health. Malaysia has become one of the leading countries in Asia for political representation, tied closely to the expanding role of Pakatan Rakyat.

The fourth arena where critical changes have to be made is transparency. This practice in international circles has been tied to basic elements of good governance. The link between transparency and corruption is serious, as the failure to allow for open information and access to government undercuts the economy and basic right of the public who pay taxes and make national sacrifices. Malaysians deserve the right to review how their money is being spent. They also should have the opportunity to bid in an open tender system. Too much continues to happen behind closed doors, without proper checks on abuse and accountability.

Penang’s Record

With the March 2008 election, we have moved from the opposition into government. We are now in control of four state governments, two of which Selangor and my state Penang comprise 50 percent of the economy in Malaysia. From the onset in Penang, I have remained committed to improving human rights across the board. Allow me to highlight some of the modest successes we have had at the state level, as we have served as a role model within Malaysia.

We began our government with the core principles “Competency, Accountability and Transparency” or CAT. The main area where we have been able to bring about changes involves the allocation of state funding. Our open bidding process has saved millions and attracted record levels of investment. This core has served to rebuild Penang’s reputation in the international community. By standing firm on no corruption we have made a difference for all Penangites.

In the arena of civil liberties, we opened a speaker’s corner and have been extremely tolerant of protests, who often come directly outside of our offices. With the only Speaker’s Corner in Malaysia we have proven that Penang enjoys not just freedom of speech but also freedom after speech, ensuring no one will be penalized for their criticisms of either PR or BN. No other state government has had to face the same level of open protest. While in some cases many of these protests are politically motivated and provoked, we do listen to concerns and importantly allow the grievances to be raised.

Along with our Pakatan Rakyat partners we have called for local elections, and stated that we believe in the need for more accountability in local government. We are working to make sure that the electoral process in Penang is fair and the votes of Penangites are properly accounted for.

We have introduced a freedom of Information bill into the state assembly and hope that we can overstep the legal obstacles for its passage and implementation.

With regard to religious rights we have distributed record amounts of funding to religious schools, especially Muslim schools, as a recognition of the important role that these schools play in Malaysia. We work to protect religious institutions. Penang features one of the most diverse and richest range of religious institutions, where people of different faiths practice alongside of each other in harmony.

On poverty we are engaging in a series of studies to assess poverty and inequality in Penang to enhance the targeting of assistance and opportunity creation. We are widening our microfinance schemes, especially for single headed households. Our social safety net programs at the state level have increased assistance to the elderly in the Warga Emas or Senior Citizens Appreciation program. We have increased funding to support students who enter public university and recently introduced a baby bonus scheme to help new parents. Our social safety net policies are modest, but targeted toward individuals in need and at critical points when families face increased costs. Targeted policies in the areas of the birth rate and education are steps at the state level that provide short term support but simultaneously have long term goals for the overall prosperity of Penang. After all, education and wellbeing underscore Malaysia’s future.

In building opportunity we have centered in on small and medium enterprises or SMEs as the backbone of our economy. We have adopted a three prong approach of an free advisory service that provides guidance and expertise, SME Smart Center that provides lots at low-rental rates for 2 years to technological start-ups who can then graduate to a SME Park to build their own factories . We have identified niche areas such as halal foods.

This public private partnership aims to build synergy to create jobs and ultimately address the economic inequalities. I remain confident in the ability of Malaysian entrepreneurs and know they are competitive. I urge you to come to Penang to forge partnerships. Our SMEs are selling durian to China, and halal foods to Turkey, among many of the new successes.

This focus on building the value chain in the economy has been reinforced by state-led programs on job creation and talent hunt in our newly formed CAT Centre. Penang has a labor shortage, especially among skilled workers and professionals, and we welcome human talent wherever they may be whoever they are in our aspiration to be an international and intelligent city.

A last, but not final success, I would like to showcase involves women. I have appointed a record number of women to office in local government, making Penang the leader in promoting greater equality in gender representation. . For the first time in history, both local governments are headed by women. We have also created a Women’s Council at the state level to highlight issues and engage the state government over policy.

Our Common Future

In Penang as the government we understand that it is not enough to make promises on human rights or to raise the problems. It is necessary to actually implement changes, to translate the problems into solutions and real change. Real changes are being made. Our approach has been one of implementation and initiative tied to a fundamental appreciation that what we do is for our people. Respecting human rights and safeguarding transparency are critical steps not just for Malaysia, but for assuring that the fight for human rights expands globally.

One of the most difficult struggles we now face is working with the institutions that are to protect the rule of law, the police and judiciary, and assure accountability, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission or the Election Commission. We want our legacy to be building institutions and making Penang a green state with more green spaces. We want Penang to be known as a location of choice where one does not need to go through a middle men or third party to get things done, you need not know anyone, just know the law. There are real concerns about the political independence and professionalism of these bodies. We need the international community to join us in our efforts to protect rights and transparency. Australia has always stood for these principles and we thank you.

Ladies and gentlemen, Malaysia is moving forward. It has not been an easy path and I expect there will be obstacles ahead. Now is the time to translate the agenda and promises of political reform into real changes. Pakatan Rakyat has long upheld the reform agenda that has been embraced by our premier and we will continue to press on for substantive changes no matter what the cost. We believe that in fighting for human rights and calling for greater transparency we are protecting our country from abuses of power and securing a more prosperous, harmonious and safe environment for our children. Penangites, Malaysians and Australians deserve no less.

Penang is the only state in Malaysian history to be praised by Transparency International for implementing open tenders and fighting corruption. American investor Warren Buffet’s once said, “ In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” Rest assured that you will not be killed by a lack of integrity in Penang.

Thank you very much for your time and please come to Penang. You are most welcome.

  1. #1 by megaman on Monday, 19 September 2011 - 5:23 pm

    A well-written piece of speech but a bit angkat bakul.

    I wish that Guan Eng had discussed more on how the students can contribute more and participate in changing the country.

  2. #2 by yhsiew on Monday, 19 September 2011 - 6:22 pm

    I wonder why some topics relevant to Malaysian students were left out in Guan Eng’s speech, e.g. right to education, right to participate in politics as student, Malaysia’s brain drain problem and recruitment of foreign talent (its pros and cons).

  3. #3 by limkamput on Monday, 19 September 2011 - 9:13 pm

    Sorry Guan Eng, you have to learn to write better speeches or you have to get a better speech writer. So boring and lengthy. No oomph, not punchy. Sentences are too long and vague. Ever read Obama’s speech?

  4. #4 by monsterball on Monday, 19 September 2011 - 9:45 pm

    So why don’t you put out your example of an oomph….punchy speech to let all readers and Lim Guan Eng learn from you….limkamput.
    The speech is sincere and direct…and no politics involve.
    He is so proud to speak at the University he was graduated.
    It is a speech full of soul searching and humbleness.
    Please don’t go back to your braggart mentality again…judging others.

  5. #5 by boh-liao on Monday, 19 September 2011 - 11:31 pm

    1/4 way through reading LGE’s speech, d new Hon PhD sounded Zzzzzzzzzz …………

  6. #6 by tak tahan on Monday, 19 September 2011 - 11:44 pm

    Everyday we are selling products,policies,talents,movies,dubur(in saiful’s case,ect ect.In this particular speech by LGE,the CAT is his selling point and he had done well,in fact,much better than the so-called talent corp.I believe in near future he will lure more brain drain to come back and work together with PR’s good governance to bring about changes and develop our nation to an advanced country-socially,economically and politically.

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