Dr Lim Teck Ghee’s reply to Dr Chandra Muzaffar’s invitation

by Dr Lim Teck Ghee
CPISunday, 06 May 2012

I thank Chandra for responding to my commentary on his lambasting of Bersih 3.0.

Although the Center for Policy Initiatives (CPI) is reproducing his response in full, there is really very little new in the engagement.

Basically Chandra has rehashed his arguments on the far-reaching changes to human rights and political and civil liberties that he sees taking place in the country.

In his initial article he was very emphatic on these changes maintaining that

“[I]t is an irrefutable fact that through these legislative reforms [Peaceful Assembly Act, ISA repeal, etc] the space and scope for the expression and articulation of human rights has been expanded and enhanced as never before.”

Disappearance of “Irrefutable Fact”

I had challenged this argument and pointed out that these reforms need implementation and confirmation from the ground to ascertain what has been gained and whether they are substantive in the context of a regime which has an extraordinary capacity for employing dirty tricks in order to remain in power, including manipulating the electoral process.

I had proposed that should Chandra, after conducting rigorous social science research – publish the results confirming this “irrefutable fact”, it may perhaps help convince sceptics that there have been “far-reaching changes to political and civil liberties”.

Although he has not yet conducted the necessary research, it is good to note that the term “irrefutable fact” has now disappeared in his latest opinion piece. Perhaps Chandra now realizes that his initial depiction was not only inappropriate but also indefensible.

Meaningful political change

Chandra now terms the political changes as “meaningful” and has invited me to debate with him on the subject “Are the political changes that are taking place in Malaysia today significant?”

His new suggestion touches on an important topic and I welcome it. My own position is that it is premature to read too much in the changes to date. There are many examples from history of authoritarian regimes taking one step forward and two backwards, and engaging in foot dragging, sabotage and even more extreme forms of resistance in response to democratization pressures.

Our own history has taught us to be cautious in being over-optimistic with the current reforms. The Prime Minister (see my article: Peaceful transition of power: Open letter to all political parties), senior Umno leaders, and other extremist nationalists have served notice – sometimes subtly; on other occasions more openly – that all means may be used to prevent the peaceful transition of power. The possibility of these political reforms being tactical and a ruse aimed at buying time is entirely plausible.

Many other political analysts and ordinary citizens have also been sceptical that these changes that Chandra has written about are sufficiently deep and game-changing. Questions have been asked if they have fundamentally altered the authoritarian system imposed by the Barisan Nasional and if they reflect changes in the anti-democratic character of some of the BN’s leadership. It is here that Chandra and I differ profoundly but unlike him, I do not think it is an issue that can be resolved over the debating table.

I must also put it on record that even if the opposition were to come to power during the next elections, pressure would have to continue to be exercised on the new government to build a more robust parliamentary democracy.

In the Spirit of Merdeka declaration of 2007 which was endorsed by a large number of civil society organizations, there was a call for the establishment of a strong democracy in which the separation of power of the executive, legislative and judiciary is maintained, and checks and balances preventing the monopoly or abuse of power by the executive branch are in place.

The declaration also called for the enhancement of human rights and basic freedoms that are based upon values of participation, accountability, transparency, equality and diversity. Six major areas of reform were identified.

If we compare the reforms undertaken recently with the full list identified in the declaration, it can be seen that we have a long journey ahead in the struggle for human rights and democracy. In particular, areas such as the establishment of political and administrative neutrality in key institutions such as the judiciary, the civil service, police, Election Commission, the Attorney General’s office; and ensuring independence in a host of other institutions and processes in the society, and not just the electoral process, are still lagging.

How useful would an open public debate be?

Chandra has noted that “on both the electoral process and political changes, Teck Ghee and I, it is obvious, have different approaches. Instead of continuing to air our views through the cyber media, I invite him to debate with me in public on what I think is the most fundamental question facing Malaysians today. Are the political changes that are taking place in Malaysia today significant?”

Frankly there would be very little value added in a one-off public debate. In my view, an open debate as a one-time event is too fleeting to permit substantive discourse – witness the Lim Guan Eng and Chua Soi Lek exchange. Also there may not be much interest in just the two of us flogging our views to an audience. What differences we have towards political change is clear from our commentaries. Our opinions have already reached Malaysians through the cyber media. In fact Dr. Chandra, through his favoured status with the mainstream media, has had much greater print and electronic coverage for his views than I can ever hope to achieve.

This is not to say that I am averse to scholarly discussion and analysis on the breadth and significance of the political reforms undertaken. I have never run away from a good scholarly discussion. If Chandra is insistent on having this exchange take place, I would like to propose a more intensive discourse over the CPI website (www.cpiasia.net) as well as over his JUST and Yayasan 1Malaysia websites, or even over the Universiti Sains Malaysia website. That way the academic and concerned public interested in the subject of political change in Malaysia can participate in the cyber forum.

A cyber forum will not only broaden the audience but can also bring about a sustained and higher quality of discourse. Chandra and I can agree on the terms of reference for the public discourse and provide the opening cases. We can use his initial suggestion of subject as a starting point and if we work quickly, I am hopeful we can implement this ahead of the coming elections.

Should my counter proposal receive the go-ahead, I expect Chandra to use his influence as the chairman of the board of trustees of Yayasan 1Malaysia to have this debate disseminated – in as unedited a form as possible – in the mainstream media as well as all over the 1Malaysia network. I will similarly use my (more limited) influence to see if the discourse can be further disseminated more widely.

Chandra has suggested too that our public debate be conducted in the national language. I agree that it is important to reach the Malay audience. I would like to propose that Chandra, for a start, arranges for the translation of our exchange into Bahasa Malaysia by his Yayasan 1Malaysia staff, and to disseminate this exchange in the Malay print media as a prelude to an enlarged forum.

Malaysia as a Police State

In his note too, Chandra has referred to our encounter as to whether he had ever made a statement with regard to Malaysia being a police state. I had raised this point during a public forum organised by PCORE (an NGO) in November 2010, and he had asked me to provide proof during that meeting. I recall that in my reply, I had stated that I had obtained this information from an article by a local scholar. I may have said that I apologised if this information was untrue.

Subsequently, we had an exchange over the e-mail initiated by Chandra in which he asked me to “e-mail [him] the essay which cites me describing Malaysia as a Police State.” I responded by providing him with the full reference to the author of the academic paper written in 1991 as well as the following footnote from that paper:

“Widely quoted social critic Chandra Muzaffar (1986) was to complain even before Operation Lallang of ‘a highly controlled, severely limited, democracy in Malaysia.’ After the events of 1987 and 1988, he, as well as YM Tunku Abdul Rahman Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, and Malaysia’s leading elder statesman, were moved to use the term ‘police state‘ to describe the situation in Malaysia.” (p.23)

I subsequently pointed out to Chandra in our e-mail exchange that while there is a difference between “a highly controlled, severely limited, democracy”, a “police state” and a “fettered democracy”, it is not simply semantics, and “it is important for you to explain this.”

I also suggested that “an explanatory article on the above topic in the NST will – I am sure – be enlightening to the public, as well as to me; and will generate much food for thought for all of us.” That turned out to the last occasion when Chandra communicated with me on the topic of the “highly controlled, severely limited, democracy” we live in. It was followed by a deafening silence on his part.

Final words

Chandra has been at pains to show that he has been consistent over the past decades in his stance on the major issues facing the country.

Chandra, my friend, there are many, including your Barisan Nasional allies, who are bemused by your intellectual gymnastics to justify your recent political transformation.

* Dr Chandra Muzaffar’s invitation to Dr Lim Teck Ghee to debate with him can be read here.

  1. #1 by sheriff singh on Monday, 7 May 2012 - 3:39 am

    Come on, lets have a dog fight.

  2. #2 by monsterball on Monday, 7 May 2012 - 8:57 am

    Ignore Chandra as we are ignoring Mahathir.
    Chandra is a nobody….but scholars like to learn how a man can be bought and perform.
    That’s Chandra that money can buy his royalty….simple as that.
    If one reads what Chandra was saying 30 years ago for years..and now…especially after 13th GE..he is a BORN AGAIN frog.

  3. #3 by negarawan on Monday, 7 May 2012 - 9:02 am

    Chandra is crippled in his morality and integrity, to be turned into a paid mouthpiece for UMNO. He has lost his self-respect.

  4. #4 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Monday, 7 May 2012 - 9:27 am

    The laws? Oh yes. Yes the laws. The laws, those newly passed ones, allowed this and that. Yeah. I know. Well believe me. I do know alright. I read online news. See the thing is umno and jib. They are the problem. They are above the laws whereas we are not. BTW, they also own the judiciary. And the police. And and the attorney general. But of course yes yes. We have laws. And the laws gave us this and that. Yeah.

  5. #5 by Jeffrey on Monday, 7 May 2012 - 9:27 am

    The only thing valid in Chandra Muzaffar (“CM”)’s rejoinder is CM’s comment that “on both the electoral process and political changes, Teck Ghee and I, it is obvious, have different approaches” with different approaches being as what CM said, that Teck Ghee airs his views in cyber space whilst he, public forum/debate – but like the proverbial bottle filled half with life sustaining drinkable water (with the water representing metaphorically improvement of the electoral process and much needed political changes), Teck Ghee looks at the ½ empty part and asks why its still not filled after all this time whilst CM looks at the bottom half that is filled (by repeal of ISA or promulgation of Peaceful Assembly Act) and asks what are you guys complaining about, its already filled much better than the vacuum way before! The other part CM has not been taken to task is whether the ½ part full that he argues is supposedly filled is actually drinkable water as it is advertised to be or something else that looks like it but it is kerosene and not it!

  6. #6 by Winston on Monday, 7 May 2012 - 11:30 am

    Well, well, well.
    A government that’s desperate will resort to all sorts of tricks to stay in power and this government is very desperate!
    And the easiest way is to get the support of so-called good guys to give their “trust” to them.
    With the vast resources of taxpayers’ money at their disposal, “turning” such people around isn’t that difficult at all!!!
    Even foreign Parliamentarians are at risk when they are perceived as posing the slightest threat to the government.
    It’s good to excoriate such turncoats but an even more beneficial activity would be to campaign for voters for the PR, especially in the rural areas to change their voting patterns.
    With the endless scams and scandals, there is no lack of ammo for anyone who wishes to do so.
    There’s very little time left and action is far more better than words to achieve Malaysians’ wish for a better future.

  7. #7 by Bigjoe on Monday, 7 May 2012 - 12:18 pm

    I read good writings regardless of their point of view and Chandra Muzzafar is a skilled writer. BUT i don’t even bother to look at Chandra Muzzafar’s work anymore because the content is so bad, it really don’t matter what his skill is. Just so sad but he made his choice long time ago..

  8. #8 by waterfrontcoolie on Tuesday, 8 May 2012 - 7:17 am

    What changes is he talking about when all the OBVIOUS WRONGS are being swept under the carpet? Hence, all the so-called changes are only for Utusan, Star, B. Harian. The PEOPLE have enough of all these propaganda as propounded by Chandra! When a PM cannot act on all the KNOWN WRONGS, like PKFZ, Cowgate, and what more the 2nd hand Submarines, what’s more??

  9. #9 by rockdaboat on Tuesday, 8 May 2012 - 8:43 am

    Dr. Lim, just ignore this so-called scholar, we need your time on more important issues.

You must be logged in to post a comment.