By Michael Backman The Age
November 21, 2007
THE Government of Australia will probably change hands this weekend. There will be no arrests, no tear gas andno water cannons. The Government of John Howard will leave office, the Opposition will form a government andeveryone will accept the verdict.
For this, every Australian can feel justifiably proud. This playing by the rules is what has made Australia rich and agood place in which to invest. It is a country to which people want to migrate; not leave.
Now consider Malaysia. The weekend before last, up to 40,000 Malaysians took to the streets in Kuala Lumpur toprotest peacefully against the judiciary’s lack of independence, electoral fraud, corruption and a controlled media.
In response, they were threatened by the Prime Minister, called monkeys by his powerful son-in-law, and blastedwith water cannons and tear gas. And yet the vast majority of Malaysians do not want a change of government. Allthey want is for their government to govern better.
Both Malaysia and Australia have a rule of law that’s based on the English system. Both started out as colonies of Britain. So why is Malaysia getting it so wrong now?
Malaysia’s Government hates feedback. Dissent is regarded as dangerous, rather than a product of diversity. And like the wicked witch so ugly that she can’t stand mirrors, the Government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi controls the media so that it doesn’t have to see its own reflection.
Demonstrations are typically banned. But what every Malaysian should know is that in Britain, Australia and othermodern countries, when people wish to demonstrate, the police typically clear the way and make sure no one getshurt. The streets belong to the people. And the police, like the politicians, are their servants. It is not the other wayaround.
But increasingly in Malaysia, Malaysians are being denied a voice — especially young people.Section 15 of Malaysia’s Universities and University Colleges Act states that no student shall be a member of or inany manner associate with any society, political party, trade union or any other organisation, body or group ofpeople whatsoever, be it in or outside Malaysia, unless it is approved in advance and in writing by the vice-chancellor.
Nor can any student express or do anything that may be construed as expressing support, sympathy or oppositionto any political party or union. Breaking this law can lead to a fine, a jail term or both.
The judiciary as a source of independent viewpoints has been squashed. The previous prime minister, MahathirMohamad, did many good things for Malaysia, but his firing of the Lord President (chief justice) and two other Supreme Court judges in 1988 was an unmitigated disaster. Since then, what passes for a judiciary in Malaysia hasbeen an utter disgrace and the Government knows it.
Several years ago, Daim Zainuddin, the country’s then powerful finance minister, told me that judges in Malaysiawere a bunch of idiots. Of course we want them to be biased, he told me, but not that biased.
Rarely do government ministers need to telephone a judge and demand this or that verdict because the judges areso in tune with the Government’s desires that they automatically do the Government’s beckoning.
Just how appalling Malaysia’s judiciary has become was made clear in recent weeks with the circulation of a videoclip showing a senior lawyer assuring someone by telephone that he will lobby the Government to have him madeLord President of the Supreme Court because he had been loyal to the Government. That someone is believed tohave been Ahmad Fairuz Abdul Halim, who did in fact become Lord President.
A protest march organised by the Malaysian Bar Council was staged in response to this, and corruption among thejudiciary in general. But the mainstream Malaysian media barely covered the march even though up to 2000 BarCouncil members were taking part. Reportedly, the Prime Minister’s office instructed editors to play down the event.
Instead of a free media, independent judges and open public debate, Malaysians are given stunts — the world’stallest building and most recently, a Malaysian cosmonaut. Essentially, they are given the play things of modernitybut not modernity itself.
Many senior Malays are absolutely despairing at the direction of their country today. But with the media tightlycontrolled they have no way of getting their views out to their fellow countrymen. This means that most Malaysiansfalsely assume that the Malay elite is unified when it comes to the country’s direction.
Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a former finance minister and today still a member of the Government, told me severalweeks ago in Kuala Lumpur that he could see no reason why today Malaysia could not have a completely freemedia, a completely independent judiciary and that corrupt ministers and other officials should be publicly exposedand humiliated.
According to Tengku Razaleigh, all of the institutions designed to make Malaysia’s Government accountable andhonest have been dismantled or neutered.
It didn’t need to be like this. Malaysia is not North Korea or Indonesia. It is something quite different. Its legalsystem is based on British codes. Coupled with traditional Malay culture, which is one of the world’s mosthospitable, decent and gentle cultures, Malaysia has the cultural and historical underpinnings to become one of Asia’s most civilised, rules-based, successful societies.
Instead, Malaysia’s Government is incrementally wasting Malaysia’s inheritance.