Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser, 14 May 2016

Who can forget the number of times the DAP have called on BN wakil rakyat to “vote according to your conscience” and not the party whip? Whether it was for the formation of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) or voting against the Hudud law or over countless other BN-proposed motions, this admonition to BN representatives has been the stock-in-trade of debates in the Malaysian Parliament for decades while the DAP has been in opposition. The prime example of the DAP’s call for all wakil rakyat to breach the party lines and to “search your conscience” is seen in the current attempts to “Save Malaysia” from the corruption-stained Najib administration.

Now that we have a DAP-led state government in Penang, the tables are turned and such timeless admonitions to vote according to one’s conscience seem to be lost on the DAP leaders. Five Penang PKR backbenchers had abstained from voting in the motion supporting the state government’s land reclamation project at the last state assembly sitting in November and this has led to charges of treachery against them by the Chief Minister. Consequently, this has even led to two of these PKR leaders being relieved of their posts in the State-owned companies.

The PKR deputy president Azmin Ali has since waded into the controversy by saying that it is important for backbenchers to play a role in supporting the state government’s policies. But we do not know whether the PKR president concurs with her Deputy President on this issue or with his invitation to PAS to join Pakatan Harapan, and also his working with Mahathir to “save Malaysia”.

Land reclamation is a public interest issue

What is at stake for the people of Penang and Malaysia is not inconsequential. The motion on the impending land reclamation in Penang is too important to be belittled as an “UMNO motion” for this massive infrastructure project is of great public interest. It will not only bring serious environmental, economic and social consequences to Penang Island but will further erode land assets belonging to the people by transferring into private hands. This trend of increasing “privatization of the commons” by both the BN and Pakatan state governments in the name of neo-liberal necessity must be stopped as it is contrary to the interest of the people. Already access by the people to public beaches in Penang and elsewhere in Malaysia, has been restricted through private development of luxury hotels and other such properties.

Full and transparent public consultation

At this late stage of the project, the Penang state government has still not released in full the report done by the SRS on the Penang Transport Master Plan. Instead, it has only made available to the public very selective and superficial parts of the study.  As the Penang Forum has pointed out, this is not acceptable for a state that professes to practice “competence, accountability and transparency” (CAT) given that the report was given to the state in November 2015. The Penang NGOs have complained that the public sessions conducted are mainly top-down briefing sessions by the consultants with little follow-up on how the questions and concerns raised are to be addressed:

When several NGOs provided written feedback, instead of getting together to professionally discuss the concerns raised and going through the objections and facts scientifically, a press conference is called to debunk the NGOs who are accused of not doing their homework. There is no positive engagement. Among the fundamental issues raised are the population and ridership assumptions, the costs of the different public transport systems, and the lack of financial feasibility studies for each of the proposed public transport systems

“it is more difficult to manage and run them efficiently and in a financially viable manner so as not to plunge the public into huge debt as has happened in many places, including the LRT system in Kuala Lumpur, that had to be bailed out by the government. Hence, we have been asking that a detailed financial feasibility study be provided to the public for each of these proposed systems. This includes not only the construction costs, but the operation and maintenance costs, the depreciation costs, the replacement cost, the ridership forecast, the projected revenue, the financial break even analysis, the expected profit or loss, how much the state would have to subsidise yearly, etc.”

What participatory democracy Pakatan?

‘UBAH’ was the cry in the general election to vote out the BN. Thus, under Pakatan, the public has every right not only to know what is happening but also to participate meaningfully in such decisions that affect their lives. In return, the State has every obligation to provide accurate and full information and to make the process as transparent as possible. This is the true meaning of the participatory democracy that we expect from the Pakatan government.

Given the multiple potential impacts of such a massive land reclamation project, it is imperative that a thorough process of dialogue via public hearings takes place long before any projects are decided upon and finalized.  And all NEW reclamation projects must be postponed until detailed oceanic, environmental and social impact studies are completed and made public. If such a huge land reclamation project is found to have a negative impact, it should be abandoned.

This land reclamation issue in Penang is clearly one that cuts across party lines. It calls for the each wakil rakyat to vote according to his/her conscience after weighing up the facts in order to uphold good governance and to safeguard the peoples’ interest in sustainable and equitable development.

Reform the legislative process

How often have we seen articles by Pakatan leaders full of sound and fury, pontificating about the need to reform Parliament? And yet they are speechless when their Dear Leader blasts these PKR leaders for having voted according to their conscience!

If voting in the legislature is based on the conscience of an individual, it will reform the legislative process into a more meaningful decision-making vehicle. Under such procedures, the lawmakers would need time to study the law or bill and to listen to the views of the people. They can then vote according to the wishes of the people and based on their own judgment and conscience.

People who want to see authentic democracy in practice wish to see lawmakers exercise their votes according to conscience. Such a “conscience-based” culture and environment is in fact what Pakatan parties have been courting Barisan politicians to support in their call to eliminate corruption and for Najib to resign. It is thus patently an indication of double standards that when some of their members chose to support or abstain from the Umno motion, they were criticised and punished.

There is indeed an urgent need for more public hearings and participation on this important issue concerning land reclamation in Penang and the right of the wakil rakyat to make decisions on the basis of what is best for the public. We urge the state government to honour its CAT promise and not to rush into signing this multi-billion project that will destroy Penang’s natural endowments, sell off the peoples’ assets to private hands and burden Penang rate payers for generations to come.