Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser 31 Dec 2018

What was the worst news item of 2017?

For me and for many progressive people in Malaysia, the most shocking item was the news that Pakatan Harapan had chosen Malaysia’s infamous autocrat Dr Mahathir as their “interim Prime Minister” should they come into power after GE14. Besides being a slap in the face of the Reformasi Movement that had emerged in 1998 in response to Mahathir’s sacking of Anwar Ibrahim and his 22-year autocratic rule, the appointment of the 90 year old former UMNO politician as their candidate for PM reveals the political bankruptcy of Pakatan Harapan. Is this what PH means by “the audacity of hope” for the nation?

I have written enough about PH’s political backsliding and Mahathir’s political baggage of yesteryear which a hollow apology cannot obliterate. Here, as we say goodbye to 2017, I would like to remind our elderly politicians to know when to say goodbye.

I have also read the news that another elderly politician, Lim Kit Siang is recuperating from an operation to remove a cancerous tumour. I wish him a speedy recovery and hope that this will be a wake-up call for him to reflect and explore other aspects of our mortal wisdom that he may have missed through his decades-long political life as an MP.

Remember Karpal said ‘No one is indispensable’

 “If you don’t know when to get off the stage, then you know you have stayed too long…”

This piece of show business advice should be learnt by our elderly politicians. As the 14th Malaysian general election looms, it is almost comical to see these elderly politicians still trying to justify their “right” to stand for elections even while they clamour for “change” in the political order. They even cite political conspiracies by their political opponents to justify hogging their electoral seats. Some have been in Parliament since the era of the Tunku – half a century ago! During that time, UMNO (surely not the paragon of democracy) has changed party leaders five times!

It is no coincidence that these political leaders control their own political parties and all prospective candidates in the party are beholden to them. They also hog the federal as well as the state seats using the justification that they are indispensable.

The late Karpal Singh was a stern opponent of this grabby practice by established party leaders to hog federal as well as state seats. His famous line when a former DAP stalwart left the party in 1990 was: “No one is indispensable.” That surely applies to everyone in the world, or are some people exempt from this mortal truism?

Why are term limits vital for democracy?

Clearly, many Malaysian politicians still do not appreciate the meaning of democracy but this is no excuse for the leaders of a party that calls itself the “Democratic Action Party”.

During the historic Paris Commune of 1871, elected officials were subject to immediate recall.  In ancient Greece more than 2000 years ago, many offices were term limited so as to limit the power of individuals, a practice that was seen as vital for the greater good of society. Even in other democratic countries, we see responsible and honorable politicians resign at the slightest failure of judgement on their part or when their term has reached a convenient point for some other younger leader to take over the party.

Many modern republics employ term limits for their highest offices. The United States places a limit of two terms on its presidency while some state governors and state legislators also have term limits. The Russian Federation likewise limits the head of state to two terms; any further terms cannot be consecutive.

The democratic justification for this term limit is simply that elected officials can over time obtain too much power or authority and thus makes them less representative of all the citizens. The democratic principle behind term limit is that no one person should have too much power nor for too long. Thus, the concept of term limits minimizes the amount of power any one person can gain over a period of time.

Preventing chances of corruption

As we have seen only recently, even within the two-term service, corporate interests including those in property and finance can provide inducements to the incumbent Chief Minister especially when they have developed familiar relations over time. There is clearly a correlation between the length of time a politician serves and the degree to which he/she has opportunities to engage in corruption. The principle of term limits has always been applied to the civil service which is why civil servants and police personnel are transferred every so often to prevent the acquisition of power and inducements to corruption in any one post.

Term limits would make this less likely since there is less time that a politician can be influenced by the power of the office that they hold. Corporate interests cannot become as entrenched when term limits are in place. With term limitations, corporate influence still happens, but not to the extent that it can when such interests develop unhealthy relationships with career politicians who are in office for a long time.

Preventing careerism

In a democracy, elected representatives are supposed to represent the interests of the citizens. As most politicians will tell us when they are interviewed, their work is supposed to be a service to society as a whole. Being a Member of Parliament or State Representative is not a profession even though it has become a career for many people. In fact, elected officials should operate on the understanding that they are only serving the people for a period of time until it is someone else’s turn. Term limits ensure that their representatives focus more on representing the public than on hogging the office and power.

Providing leadership opportunities for others

Democracy and organizational development are about providing opportunities to as many people as possible and especially empowering the young, women, indigenous people and the marginalized. In our society, there are so many individuals with untapped potential for leadership as if that is not clear for all to see. In recent years, we have seen the surge of many young capable leaders in politics, including women from various ethnic origins.

Even the ancient sage Laozi could appreciate what true leadership is: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” Isn’t this a far cry from the elderly leaders whose delusion of grandeur make them cling to power?

Let’s face it, the number of available seats in the federal parliament and state assemblies is strictly limited. To have served four terms in parliament is a reasonable limit and allows new candidates to make themselves known to their constituents and have a go at representing the people. Term limits will create the opportunity for younger people to get elected to public office. Modern society needs service-oriented young people in different elected positions, providing diversity and strength to the citizenry. A wider pool of candidates also gives voters a bigger choice of new people and new dynamic ideas.

Overdue democratic reform: Term limits for elected representatives

Thus, this democratic principle of disallowing any one person from holding a position of control or power for an indefinite period of time is for the common good and should be an urgent democratic reform for Malaysia.  The terms of ALL elected officials should be limited, namely, that of the Prime Minister, Chief Minister or Menteri Besar to two terms, and that of Members of Parliament and ADUNs to four terms.

I have always said that standing for political office is like having a go on the merry-go-round. Who does not loath the bullies who refuse to get off in order to allow others have a go?

Let us hope that 2018 and GE14 will bring forth exciting young leaders who can transform our gloomy,  tired and neo-liberal political scene and lead us into a progressive, just and democratic future…


Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser 1 Jan 2018

Before I could respond to Mahathir’s supposed apology, he had already “de-apologised”! All the excited crypto-Mahathiristas who had hailed this mother of hollow apologies were quickly left disappointed…

Before his de-apology, Mahathir’s supposed apology was executed in the manner of the ritual ‘maaf, zahir & batin’ that Malays express during Hari Raya Puasa. Anyway, we subsequently heard from the horse’s mouth that his apology was expected of Malay custom and that he was not saying sorry for any mistakes made during his 22-year rule. Any autocrat, any kleptocrat could easily do the same. If Najib does the same ritualistic apology tomorrow without even mentioning 1MDB, will he also be forgiven by the crypto-Mahathiristas?

But the suffering he imposed on individuals, families, communities and Malaysian taxpayers in general is precisely what Malaysians want him to apologise for…

So far, it has only been lawyer Aziz Bari from Pakatan Harapan who has rightly clarified that even if Mahathir apologises, it does not mean that he is absolved from prosecution for past wrongdoings. Indeed, in terms of human rights, democracy and justice, miscreant autocrats and kleptocrats cannot get away with impunity. Impunity means “exemption from punishment or loss or escape from fines”. It refers to the failure to bring perpetrators of human rights violations, rule of law flouters and the corrupt to justice and constitutes a denial of the victims’ right to justice and redress.

Mahathir must prove he is a born-again democrat

Before Mahathir embarks on the GE14 campaign trail, he needs to demonstrate his credibility as a truly ‘born-again’ democrat. Otherwise, the trumpeted reforms he professes in GE14 will have no credibility at all. If he has indeed undergone a democratic transformation rather than merely wanting Najib out so that his son can rise up the political ladder, it is vital that he engages in a process of reconciliation and seeks clarity about the democratic space Malaysians are seeking. Thus,  Mahathir needs to tell us how his thinking has changed from the time he was PM and now and what that means for democracy. First of all, does he even accept that there were terrible violations of human rights and financial scandals during his term in office?

Does he, for example, acknowledge that grave injustices were committed during Operation Lalang? Does he acknowledge that harm was done via the incarceration without trial, of key contributors who served the community in multiple ways? Does he acknowledge the hardships and psychological damage experienced by the detainees’ families? Does he acknowledge that many lives were destroyed even though some robotic politicians treated their detentions as “chilling out” time away from political work?

Does he acknowledge the lasting damage he was responsible for with our democratic institutions, such as the Judiciary, and which affects all Malaysians, to the present day.  Najib has merely inherited Mahathir’s handiwork and then made the concentration of Executive powers even more fool proof!

If these PH politicians know anything about accountability and justice, they will know that the Malaysian people still want to ensure that former politicians get their just desserts and repay their dues to the rakyat. Is Mahathir willing to come to the table and be held to account?

Apologise to the many, not the few!

Let us not forget that some of our elite did rather well under Mahathir – some got favoured contracts including legal contracts, others gained from Mahathir’s privatisation policies in all areas including private higher education; politicians who were not physically tortured under Operation Lalang actually earned a badge of honour from their ISA detention which boosted their political careers. They might even want to thank Mahathir for his reign. As one of these PH leaders has recently confessed to being a crypto-Mahathirista while condemning Mahathir for decades: “Under Mahathir, we could hold our heads high, now under Najib…”

No, Mahathir may not owe these elite any apologies. He owes an apology not only to all the victims of Operation Lalang but also to the former Lord President and the Supreme Court judges that he sacked in 1988 and to the Malaysian rakyat for all the financial scandals since the seventies and eighties that have cost the rakyat billions of ringgit! Mahathir can be seen as the Father of Crony Capitalism in Malaysia. According to the social scientist Barry Wain, Mahathir squandered close to RM100 billion during his reign as Prime Minister. The leader of the Opposition knows of these scandals more than anyone else in this country – during the Eighties, he called Mahathir’s privatisation of our national assets, “piratisation”!

This is not to mention the billions lost through the Proton fiasco and its costs to the environment and the failure of a public transport system in the country. And don’t forget the RM5 billion arms deal that Mahathir signed with Margaret Thatcher in 1988 also led to allegations of “commissions” paid to UMNO which led to the “Arms for Aid” and “Buy British Last” furore in 1994.

Actually, if I had to say what was the worst thing that Mahathir did during his term in office, I would say it was the forced displacement of 10,000 indigenous peoples from 15 different ethnic communities from their Bakun ancestral lands. It was a wicked thing to do at a time when the Bakun dam project had been suspended as a result of the financial crisis in 1998. Then there were the hundreds of plantation communities and urban settlers displaced through Mahathir’s privatisation policies. These have been thoroughly documented through the years in SUARAM’s publications including our annual Human Rights Reports.

GE14 is about real reforms, not opportunism

Opportunism in its crudest form can be seen when politicians target an individual and not the political regime and political economic system that oppresses, divides and exploits the people. This so-called “Save Malaysia” campaign to only expel Najib but maintain rule of the same racist and exploitative dominant party is nothing short of pure opportunism. Does Mahathir’s “Pribumi” party intend to cleanse Malaysia from the racism and racial discrimination that we have suffered from since 1971?

Reforms that do not target the neoliberal economic policies that were set in fast motion by Mahathir in the early Eighties are not serious reforms. Taxes on the rakyat will continue and income disparities will continue to widen while the working class will continue to bear the burden of so-called development.

Najib has merely made more extreme the structures created by Mahathir to entrench the powers of the Executive, emasculate the democratic institutions and provide the means for private enrichment of the elite in this country. Mahathir’s legacy lives on in the racist and racial discriminatory policies that were entrenched during the early Eighties and further strengthened by Najib until today.