COMMENT Last night I attended an interesting panel discussion on people’s protest or Parliament as the vehicle for democratic changes in Malaysia.
Malaysiakini hosted this panel discussion at their premises, which was also live streamed through their web. The impressive panel of A Kadir Jasin, Saifuddin Abdullah, Gan Ping Sieu and Maria Chin Abdullah made no apologies for their views.
Each of the speakers answered the question: Is democratic change possible through street demonstrations or via Parliament?
All of them said that both vehicles and strategies are necessary and they complement each other, rather than it be seen from an exclusive position, or either or.
All recognised that we are now in a serious political and economic crisis and are in danger of becoming a failed state due to abuse of power and poor handling of both the politics and the economy.
One point that struck home was that the panel was convinced that Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak must step down from his position.
They also recognised that this was not by the overthrow of the government but through a democratic process of expressing dissatisfaction with the current political leadership. If leadership change does not take place now, then the current government is in danger of losing the next general election.
The panel expressed their views that peaceful assemblies are rightful expression of the ordinary people, sending a message to the political leaders that they are unhappy with their leadership, especially in the handling of the 1MDB matter and the way the investigations have been undertaken.
They all recognised that these issues have now resulted in the wider political and economic crisis, which has caused the people of Malaysia to lose not just their confidence in the leadership but also trust in their ability to handle the affairs of the nation.
Saifuddin spoke of the process of how political leaders are “membodokan kita” (making us stupid) through their reasonings.
‘People must rise to show their displeasure’
On the Bersih rally, Gan called it as the people’s referendum. Saifuddin called it the event that will determine the moral compass of the nation, namely the people reclaiming the moral ground.
For Maria Chin, the other channels have failed to stop the abuse of power and therefore the people must rise to show their displeasure. There must be the collective voice of the people for change.
For Kadir, he does not see Najib stepping down as a result of the Bersih street protest, or that the opposition will be able to secure a majority in a no-confidence motion against the prime minister in Parliament.
Nonetheless, he believes the Bersih rally will send a message to the leadership, especially the 222 MPs, that they will have to face them in the next general election.
There was a question from the floor on why street protests and why Dataran Merdeka?
Maria (photo) gave a good reply that this location was a historical one and the rally must be seen not negatively but as the people’s expression of their patriotism for the nation on Merdeka day.
Another question to Kadir about institutional failure and the weakening of the democratic institutions, which took place since Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s era, drew an honest and humbling response that Mahathir too was guilty and that he was now seeking forgiveness for past sins.
Kadir also noted that he was pessimistic but that many others were more optimistic, especially the younger people.
All the panel speakers called for a great appreciation of the multicultural nature of our society and called for a shift from race-based politics to common concerns in building a better Malaysia.
This political discussion made me reflect on three key essential aspects.
The first is that the democratic institutions must be strengthened. In this context the constitutional provisions for separation of powers, namely the executive, legislature and judiciary.
Check and balance has to be strengthened
The independence, including check and balance must be strengthened. There must be a clear understanding of democracy and democratic rights and responsibilities. There must not be state capture of the other institutions by the executive.
The discussions called senior people to voice their concerns, especially retired politicians, civil servants and private sector and community leaders.
The current political party process, especially that within the ruling coalition, is unable to bring changes towards building greater trust or confidence due to money politics and abuses of power. The audience was told that we all have become victims of power and money, including greed.
The second aspect is reference to other democratic institutions as abuse of power is coming from the leaders and their disregard for the mechanisms of check-and-balance, such as the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, Suhakam, Election Commission and the Integrity Commission (EAIC).
These must be led and allowed to undertake their work without fear or favour, knowing that at the end we all have to face the Creator on Judgment day. A greater compliance with human rights based on universal standards and benchmarks is of utmost necessity.
The third is that the people cannot continue to remain silent and passive. It is within their powers as voters to demand change, either of the government or the way the government is managed.
It must be for the interest of the nation as a whole. Political leaders holding public office are accountable to the people. Ultimately they have to face the people and the reality of politics has changed in Malaysian society.
The 1MDB issues have now led to serious questions pertaining not just to good governance but on our democratic systems and institutions. The future is in our hands and therefore every Malaysian must take this seriously this Merdeka-Malaysia Day.
DENISON JAYASOORIA is secretary-general of the Society for the Promotion of Human Rights, Malaysia (Proham).