I would not celebrate. Not just yet. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s announcement to repeal the Internal Security Act (ISA) is welcomed. But I would have been happier if it came with no catch.
Whichever way I look at the announcement, it is clearly a victory for the people – the thousands who took to the streets demanding that ISA be repealed, the detainees who fought for the archaic law to be abolished as it strips people off dignity and the human rights activists who worked tirelessly, denouncing the Act.
But Najib is replacing ISA with two new laws. We are unsure of the ambit of these laws and it’s unclear if it would still make provisions for arbitrary arrests.
Whatever little we know now is enough to make me look at Najib’s “greater democracy” speech with suspicion. And especially as the government is tinkering with the idea of bringing in an  Anti-Terrorism Act which would mirror the US Patriot Act.
In the US, this Act dramatically reduced restrictions on law enforcement agencies to search financial, business, medical and telephone records, expanded the powers of these agencies, gave the immigration wide discretion to detain and deport immigrants suspected of terrorism-related activities and conduct surveillance on individuals suspected of terrorist-related activities even though they are not linked to terrorist groups.
In short anyone and everyone suspected to be linked to terrorist organizations could be nabbed, humiliated, subjected to long-hours of interrogation and charged at the prerogative of the government. And all because terrorism is a sexy word and one that is used to bulldoze through a person’s life.
Under the ISA, the Home Minister had the power to do just that. So where is the change, I am wondering.
And what media freedom exactly? As I look at it, the media organizations would still be under the watchful eye of UMNO and the Barisan Nasional government. Replacing a license which needs yearly renewal to a one-off permit that could be revoked if the media organizations did not dance to the tune of the government does not amount to further freedom for the media workers.
In fact, Najib made it even more difficult for the media organizations as there is no way to challenge the Home Minister’s decision to revoke a publishing license. In essence, it means that papers and TV channels would have to shut down if they wrote or reported on issues which the government is not happy about.
The premier, to make my suspicion worse, did not raise crucial provisions under the Sedition Act or Official Secrets Act. Both these laws limit the freedom of media workers.
Najib has promised amendments to Police Act to grant greater freedom of assembly but warned against street demonstrations. And we still need to write in for permits for peaceful rallies.
However hard I try, it’s incredibly difficult to give credit to Najib’s so-called slew of reforms for a better Malaysia. These policy changes are his boldest announcement since he came to power. In his speech Najib also said that heading towards a bolder democracy was risky but crucial for his government to survive.
Therefore, it’s obvious that Najib is making hasty decisions to bolster support for himself and UMNO ahead of the general election, which is widely expected to be held within the next six months.
Najib’s popularity took a dip following the way he mishandled the Bersih 2.0 rally. From a high 72% popularity rating in June 2010, the Merdeka Center survey showed a 59% support level recently.
Now Najib has a bigger headache to handle and it would be exciting to see how he pacifies the right-wing faction within his own political party, who were never happy with efforts to shake the status quo. Either that or the premier would, again, make a U-turn on these policy changes.
He was too weak to keep his promise of allowing Bersih 2.0 to use any stadium to hold a peaceful protest and unwilling to take on Perkasa for the rubbish dished out.
When I re-look at Najib’s speech text, it becomes clearer that he has done a Houdini. Without the specifics, this is nothing but mere hot talk.
The devil is in the details. And UMNO cannot be trusted.
The limited reforms announced by the Prime Minister tonight is a testament to the dogged, determined and noble struggle of countless dedicated activists, NGOs and opposition political parties over the past five decades, against the wide array of oppressive legislation maimtained by the BN.
To bring about tonight’s limited gains, many of these brave Malaysians suffered grievously (including long periods of detention) at the hands of the Alliance/BN government and its merciless security apparatus.
It is noteworthy that the Prime Minister offered no recognition whatsoever to the historic struggle of civil society and the political opposition in their struggle for a free Malaysia. That the government has finally given in and agreed to these reforms proves the justice and validity of the opposition’s long hard struggle against these harsh laws. In tonight’s speech, there was no admission or even recognition of wrongdoing in the usage of these laws against the rakyat for five long decades.
Two new laws but are they necessary
These reforms manifestly fall short and leave substantial undemocratic and oppressive powers in the hands of the government. The ISA is to be abolished; however two new laws are to be enacted providing for preventive detention. The ambit and wording of these two new laws are unknown. Further, these two laws are to be enacted under Article 149 of the Federal Constitution which provides for preventive laws to be enacted where ‘action has been taken or threatened by any substantial body of persons’ inside or outside the Federation.
Is there a real threat or just to customize laws to BN’s convenience
Where is there such a threat against the country at this time? What business has the PM to enact two more preventive laws when there is no such threat existing? While pretending to enter into a new era of reform, the PM is playing the old BN game of twisting the Constitution to pass every kind of oppressive law deemed suitable for the BN’s needs.
Why not cancel the need for a permit for peaceful assemblies if sincere
The PM also makes a vague promise to amend the Police Act 1967 to allow for greater freedom of assembly. But he gives no details at all of the drift and purport of the amendments. Indeed he accompanies this promise of reform with menaces against ” street demonstrations”. He should have declared the abolition of the requirement of a permit for such assemblies.
It is proposed that the current requirement of annual newspaper licence be replaced with a licence which will be valid until cancelled. This is not reassuring in the least. Why impose a necessity of a newspaper licence? This presupposes the right of the Minister or other issuing authority NOT to issue a licence or to cancel the licence at will. All that should be required of newspaper companies is a business licence.
What about IPMC, where is the independent judiciary
The government retains massive and dangerous arbitrary powers. There is no reform of the police force or the setting up of an IPCMC. No reduction of the almost absolute powers of the Attorney General under Article 145 Federal Constitution. No promise of a really transparent and independent judicial appointments mechanism.
Stranglehold remains
The governments stranglehold on our freedoms remains. It is particularly striking that the PM throughout his speech uses the language of oppression and underlying menace to declare apparent new freedoms. Every pronouncement is accompanied by warnings, caveats and restrictions. This does not augur well as a precursor to a new freer Malaysia.
In the past couple of days, Prime Minister Najib Razak has made a rash of contradictory statements that have further demotivated and even shocked many in the country. He not only gave the thumbs-up to continuing the grossly abused New Economic Policy, but even beefed it up, possibly widening the door to greater corruption in the name of ‘market-friendly innovations’.
Then he admitted the professionals in the country were underpaid, but did not go beneath the surface of why this was happening and had been allowed to happen. Was he pandering to the urban workers, whose votes he badly needs in the next general election?
But taking the cake was when he gave himself away by saying that the controversial Goods and Services Tax or GST would only be implemented after GE-13! In other words, Malaysians should sheep-like vote for his BN coalition and then wait to be slapped by higher prices once the polls are over!
Why are we plunging downhill
An export-based economy, Malaysia is heading downhill partly due to the weakening of the US economy, the decreasing petrol prices worldwide, the sluggish world economy and so on, but Najib – who is also Finance minister – seems to be lost in a world of his own. Clueless, he is clearly passing off more rhetoric than concrete solutions to address the woes Malaysians now face as a nation.
Increasing prices have placed a millstone around the necks of everyday citizens and having a government that is disconnected from the issues of the day do not help. Not surprisingly that for the April to June quarter, the Malaysian GDP growth stood at 4% compared to a year ago. The government can rant that this is a sign the economy is getting better but economists know that GDP is not a measurement of the standard of living in a country.
Neither is the health of the stock market, which Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Badawi, used to justify his diagnosis that the Malaysian economy was doing well under his tenure. The stock market is far better now than during Abdullah Badawi’s time, yet the standard and the cost of living is sliding down a slippery hill.
Money is spent on the incompetent and the unnecessary
Najib Razak has conceded that Malaysian professionals are underpaid compared with their counterparts in foreign countries. He said the state of affairs had somewhat deterred efforts to retain as well as attract good talents to work in this country.
“Although Malaysian professionals are competent, they are not being paid as well as those in other countries. I have been telling the private and public sectors to pay people salaries that commensurate with their skills and talents in accordance with international standards. So, it is my desire to see our wage rate move up steadily but with an eye on improving productivity as well,” he said at the 11th Forbes Global CEO Conference here Tuesday night.
Telling the private and public sectors to pay more is not a solution. How can higher wages be paid out to people when the companies and the government itself is suffering a shortage of money? How can income be generated when the economy does not permit increased revenue?
Malaysian professionals are not being paid as much as their counterparts overseas because their employers cannot afford to pay them. Instead, money is spent paying incompetent people who are clearly not capable of managing these corporations. Malaysian Airlines is a case study of paying the most incompetent people the most amount of money. Small wonder the smart ones leave the country and are recognized elsewhere, where they are usually paid much better and appreciated for their capability and competence.
Creating a new monopoly
Najib also made it clear the government needs to hang on to the New Economic Policy, although affirmative action has not helped the economy while creating a super-rich class of elite Malay businessmen. To think that a revamped plan to strengthen the Bumiputera share of the economic pie would in turn help the Malaysian economy is wrong.
The PM’s strategy of creating more opportunities for the Bumiputeras as opposed to imposing quotas on others is not really addressing the problem. Instead this would mean that more and more of the economic pie is blocked and locked-in for Bumiputeras. This is akin to the government creating a monopoly for itself, whereby it is up to them to determine who can do business and reap what profits.
Umno’s greatest fear – COMPETITION
A growing and competitive economy needs the one thing the BN government is most afraid of – competition. The market place has to be a level playing field where the economically-adept and business-savvy can excel. Providing clutches to those who are ill prepared for this playing field will not help the economy but instead disrupt.
If Najib is serious about seeing the Malaysian economy grow, he should work to remove any form of favoritism within the government policies.
But this would never go down well with the ruling elite in Umno, since all this while the party is of the opinion that the Bumiputeras are not able to compete with others for their share of the Malaysian economic pie. But the Umno elite are wrong and this is their treachery towards their fellow citizens.
Back to the wall, a flailing Najib has dumped the core principles in his  New Economic Model to please his colleagues in Umno. In doing so, he has made himself the most treacherous of the lot for giving false hope to the country and its investors, only to backtrack into disgrace and ignominy. And does he care, the greatest harm will be to the country, while he and his party mates increase their grip on the economy.
For Najib, it is clear any form of reform to the economy and any policy made has to benefit Umno and its hold on the populace. Even if this means keeping the people desperate and dependent on the government. It looks like the BN government is in the business of keeping Malaysians poor while they remain rich.
The imposing of the 6% service tax actually benefits the government directly, with the telcos passing on the cost to their customers. If they didn’t transfer the cost, their own profits would be hit, but the money collected from the extra tax launched by Najib doesn’t go into their pockets.
Oblivious to the wrongs of lying to the people
Another shocking statement made by Najib last week was that he would implement the much dreaded Goods and Services Tax or GST when the timing was “right”. He admitted this to Steve Forbes, the editor-in-chief at Forbes Media who was in town to host a business summit. “I guess when the time is right, in the near future, probably after the next general election, we will introduce the GST,” said Najib.
His comments created unease and grousing throughout the country. The GST has all the while been controversial as it will burden the people especially the man in the street as it is imposed on many consumer items. But Najib insisted it was “necessary” despite Malaysia having a 12 million workforce and only 1.2 million paid taxes.
Worst of all was his open deceit and apparent obliviousness that it is wrong for a PM to pull a fast one on his people.
“This is nonsense, it reeks of a lack of morals. The PM has so little respect for the people that he openly tells them that for now, he can delay GST because of the GE-13. But once it is over, once they have voted for the BN, he will implement and they suffer the pain of price hikes,” Batu Member of Parliament Tian Chua told Malaysia Chronicle.
Perhaps, the best way forward for the Malaysian economy is to just stop all the double-speak and immediately remove all manner of favoritism and monopoly, allow everyone to compete on a level field for their share of the pie, and provide real assistance to the poorest groups.
Only then can Najib and BN talk about being attractive – not only to their own countrymen – but also to foreign investors.
It was never a question whether or not President Obama can make a stirring speech. We’ve heard them before and I’ve tapped my foot to them. His failure lies in the delivery of those great-sounding items he outlines with inspiring rhetoric. We all know that in the Republican House of Representatives John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and the boys are going to tear apart Obama’s “American Jobs Act” like wild dogs ripping up a wildebeest carcass. They’ll throw on Obama’s desk the offal of the bill and deny him the good meaty stuff that might have made a difference in working people’s lives.
Obama and the Democrats are in trouble politically not because they did too much to help hurting Americans, but because they did too little. How else do you explain the President’s plummeting poll numbers in a solidly Democratic state like California? The huge Wall Street banks got a lot of tender loving care while struggling mortgage holders and unemployed workers were left to fend for themselves. There’s no clearer example that oligarchic corporate interests have “captured” not only the regulatory agencies of government, but the government itself. A lot of this misplaced Tea Party rage at government is because of the fact that the government has become a tool to impose an agenda that is great for ruling corporate and banking elites but terrible for everybody else.
The people who were snookered into predatory mortgage loans got nothing while the bankers and the lenders who did the snookering got a fat federal bailout and a huge chunk of free money from the Federal Reserve. There’s no justice in that and it has a great big “D” stamped on it. No amount of eloquent speechifying is going to change that.
The political wizards around Obama do not understand how demoralizing the Obama presidency has been for his most enthusiastic supporters. Their candidate turned out to be a Chicago pol with a veneer of populism. Running for reelection in 2012 as “at-least-I’m-better-than-the-Republican” candidate is exactly the Tweedle-Dee narrative Obama’s supporters had hoped he had broken out of in 2008.
Why did Obama allow the Republicans to define him? And why did he surrender his political capital to Republicans like Olympia Snowe and “Democrats” like Max Baucus and Ben Nelson? These characterless hacks could never win a national election. They should have been forced to bend to the interests of the person who won the election of 2008 by 10 million votes, not the other way around. Which brings me back to the “Jobs Bill.” The only piece of the bill that’s likely to pass is a national version of “Georgia Works,” which looks to me like another program designed to beat up unemployed people by forcing them to work for their unemployment checks. A national “Georgia Works” program will do nothing to address the unemployment crisis while undermining labor unions and putting more downward pressure on wages. Republican politicians love “Georgia Works,” that alone should breed suspicion about its merits for working people. When Obama first became president right-wing talk radio hosts were making noises about him wanting “reparations”; instead, if he signs a national “Georgia Works” scheme into law it’ll be more like imposing a new form of slavery.
In the bigger picture the nation already tried all the bedrock Republican social policies — call it “right-wing social engineering” — and they failed miserably. Every time Obama embraces Republican policies as part of yet another compromise he undermines his own political position because those policies are also doomed to failure; hence, he’s standing in quicksand.
The Bush years were all about terror alerts, fear, and war; the Obama years have been all about austerity, foreclosures, and rolling back public institutions.
The high unemployment, increasing povertyforeclosures, Gilded Age inequality, and the destruction of vital public services relating to health and education marches on year after year, with little more than apologetics from elites tied to both major parties and the corporate media.
And here’s the good news:
With luck this sorry state of affairs will produce a legitimation crisis as the failed economy and our failed political leaders continue to grind us into dust. After many years of this depressing environment more and more people will begin to question the legitimacy of the “free market” system. After the tax cuts for the rich and corporations bear no fruit in the form of “job creation,” when the privatization just leads to more exploitation of average working people, when the denuding of public services produces more lost children and destroyed lives — after this continues for a while, and the Tea Party is played out by witnessing its policy prescriptions make everything worse for the average person, then we might have a chance for “Change” where a real labor party could emerge with a real leader.
Looking to our neighbors in South American who have abandoned en masse “free market” prescriptions and IMF austerity measures because they not only failed, but gutted their middle classes, we might find a glimmer of hope. (One of the most amazing things I heard Republican presidential candidates say at the recent “debates” was that the United States should do to Social Security what the government of Chile did to its similar system! Maybe someone from the RNC should email some Chileans and ask them how that privatization scheme worked out.) Any politician today, from Barack Obama to Rick “235-executions” Perry, who calls for more austerity, more deregulation, more privatization, amidst these terrible economic conditions is simply wearing his or her failure as a badge of honor.
The other piece of good news is that Elizabeth Warren might become a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. That would be a great development because perhaps she could be the one to tap into the legitimation crisis that’s going to hit American capitalism hard in a few more years. Maybe she could run for president in 2016 against the incumbent Republican.
The fact is our political leaders from both parties have facilitated an assault on the American middle class and are currently using its dismal aftermath as an excuse to further rip apart public institutions that give working people a leg up. They’ve constructed a protective shield around the Big Banks so they’ll never have to accept responsibility or face the consequences for doing more damage to the United States of America than Al Qaeda ever could. “We’ve seen the enemy and it is us.”
The so-called Arab Spring also has much to teach Americans (like the rejection of neo-liberal economics in Latin America). Direct democracy involving citizen action still has meaning. Even the Israelis seem to have learned something from their Arab neighbors and have begun their own “spring” with mass protest against the growing social inequality in the Jewish State. It’s kind of ironic that inspiration for Americans to climb out of the abyss our failed politicians have led us into would come from nations that not long ago, before their people rose up in protest, were seen as being perpetually subordinated to the dictates of global corporations and banks. Maybe there’ll be an “American Spring” someday, or an American leader with strong labor ties like Luiz Lula da Silva. But until then, we’ll be watching the slow motion train wreck go on.

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