DEMOCRACY MEANS TERM LIMITS FOR ELECTED OFFICIALS

Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser 31 March 2017

As the 14th Malaysian general election looms, it is almost comical to see aging politicians still trying to justify their “right” to stand for elections even while they clamour for “change” in the political order. They 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 (hardly the paragon of democracy) has changed party leaders five times! It is no coincidence that these long term political leaders exert control over their respective political parties to ensure all prospective party candidates is beholden to them. They argue that they are indispensable and even justify their right to selectively hold both federal as well as state seats.

The late Karpal Singh was a stern opponent of this grabby practice by established party leaders of hogging federal as well as state seats. His famous line when a former DAP stalwart left the party 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 Malaysians still do not appreciate the meaning of democracy. 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 honourable 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 place 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. 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 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 diverse opportunities to as many people as possible and especially to 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 aging leaders whose delusion of self-importance makes them cling to power?

Let’s face it, the number of available seats in the federal parliament and state assemblies are 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 wider choice of new people and new dynamic ideas.

Overdue democratic reform for Malaysia

Thus, this democratic principle of term limits for elected officials is to ensure that no one person can hold a position of control or power for an indefinite period of time. This is also to allow and encourage more young people to have the opportunity to become leaders in the political process. This urgent democratic reform for Malaysia should therefore limit the terms of ALL elected officials, 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.

VOTE ACCORDING TO ONE’S CONSCIENCE AND NOT THE PARTY WHIP

VOTE ACCORDING TO ONE’S CONSCIENCE AND NOT THE PARTY WHIP
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.

Democratic Practices must be Protected and not Punished

For Immediate Release
21st April 2016

Democratic Practices must be Protected and not Punished

Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) condemns the recent string of investigation against advocates and supporters of the Citizen Declaration (Deklarasi Rakyat).

Contrary to narratives by certain quarter, the call for the resignation of a public official following any scandal or dereliction of duty is a democratic right and not a threat against Parliamentary democracy and cannot be described as a seditious. Police reports made against these individuals and police investigations against them can only be described as frivolous and a waste of public resource.

If the authorities wish to proceed with the investigation of Azrul Mohd Khalid, Joe Haidy and others for their support and advocacy of the Citizen Declaration, it would be inevitable that members of the public will perceive such investigations as an attempt to intimidate the advocates of Citizen Declaration and would be supporters.

In light of the democratic implication, SUARAM calls for the investigations against these individuals under the Sedition Act 1948 to be dropped immediately.

In Solidarity,
Sevan Doraisamy
Executive Director
SUARAM

SAVING MALAYSIA: FROM REFORMISM TO OPPORTUNISM

SAVING MALAYSIA: FROM REFORMISM TO OPPORTUNISM
Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser 7 March 2016

Once again in Malaysia we have witnessed the announcement of that trite cliché:  “there are no permanent enemies in politics”. History has shown us that this is typically spouted by desperadoes and drama kings when opportunism raises its ugly head. The latest round in the Anti-Najib campaign has seen the unspeakable spectacle of former Mahafiraun being made the head of the “Save Malaysia” campaign.

The audacity of naivete

To even think that this declaration of intent by this strange collection of bedfellows can depose the evil regime is an exhibition of the utmost naivete and an exercise in futility. Do they really believe the structures set up by Mahathir to make the incumbents in UMNO impregnable will just give way, especially when the UMNO division chiefs are even more well-fed than before?

The downfall of tyrants and dictators cannot be achieved by declarations alone. History has shown that it can only be achieved by mass direct action involving the ordinary citizens of all ethnic groups. Will Mahathir or any of the other leaders lead this mass movement? Unfortunately, Pakatan Harapan has succeeded in pushing out their former allies PAS who at least provided the Malay masses in past rallies and demonstrations against the UMNO/BN regime.

Pakatan Rakyat representatives were elected because of their declared “reformasi” policies. They have just signed a declaration which seems to affirm UMNO/BN rule with some minor changes in order to “save Malaysia”(sic).

The post-Najib scenario

Presuming Najib is forced to leave the scene, what does this ‘Save Malaysia’ coalition hope for? Mahathir has already declared that his main objective is to “Save UMNO/BN” and releasing Anwar is not even part of the deal!

Does the Pakatan Harapan believe that Mahathir will want to or be allowed to make significant structural changes to the democratic institutions in this country while UMNO/BN is still in power?

Do they really think Zahid Hamidi and the others in UMNO/BN will accede to these reforms?

Real Reforms

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.

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. Racist and racial discriminatory policies were also entrenched by Mahathir in the early Eighties and further manipulated by Najib until today.

No impunity for old miscreants

Apologists for their new saviour, Mahathir, have already started their own “forgiveness” of this former authoritarian Prime Minister who had wreaked havoc on ethnic relations, mishandled the economy through corruption, enriched selected elites, detained innocent Malaysians without trial (including the author) and sacked the former Lord President. They have tried to create the delusion that ‘born again democrats’ who denounce the current Prime Minister can have their record wiped clean!

Who are these politicians to declare which leader can be forgiven for their past crimes against the people of this country? They say that they “do not hate Mahathir…therefore they forgive”.

What’s hate got to do with it?

As Tina Turner reminded us: What’s hate got to do with it? If these politicians know anything about accountability and justice, they will know that the Malaysian people still want to ensure that these former politicians get their just desserts and repay their dues to the rakyat.

Mahathir has to this day not even apologized to all the victims of Operation Lalang or to the former Lord President whom he sacked in 1988 and now, without one shred of evidence of his own transformation, he dares to strut the Malaysian political stage as a “born-again democrat”!

The people must now demand that the Pakatan Harapan leaders come out and say categorically that when they come into office they will re-open the books on all the financial scandals since the seventies and eighties that have cost the rakyat billions of ringgit! 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.

In human rights, democracy and justice, there is no place for 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. We are familiar with impunity which is especially common in countries that do not respect the rule of law, that suffer from corruption and have entrenched systems of patronage, or where the judiciary is weak and the security forces are protected by the powers-that-be.

The First Principle of the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights through Action to Combat Impunity, submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on 8 February 2005 states that:

Impunity arises from a failure by States to meet their obligations to investigate violations; to take appropriate measures in respect of the perpetrators, particularly in the area of justice, by ensuring that those suspected of criminal responsibility are prosecuted, tried and duly punished; to provide victims with effective remedies and to ensure that they receive reparation for the injuries suffered; to ensure the inalienable right to know the truth about violations; and to take other necessary steps to prevent a recurrence of violations.”

SUARAM has, since the infamous injustice of Operation Lalang, been in the forefront of the struggle against impunity. We do not want to see impunity being entrenched in this country through the rehabilitation of “born again democrats” and we expect any future governments to bear this in mind. Those who have transgressed against the people must prepare to face the charges on their judgement day here on earth.

THREE VITAL REASONS WE OPPOSE THE TPPA

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

The Malaysian government insists that there are no good arguments for opposing the TPPA. For six years, very few knew the contents of the TPPA except for the corporate lobbyists that had been drafting it in total secrecy. All they said was that it was good for you, good for “free trade” and they just wanted you to support it. Critics were told to shut up on the grounds that they knew nothing about it. Meanwhile, the neo-liberal ideologues have maintained that the opponents of the US-inspired trade agreement do so based on “ideological” rather than substantive reasons.

This is surprising when we bear in mind that among the people who oppose the TPPA are a Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz and the world’s most notable public intellectual Noam Chomsky. Let us look at just three good reasons why we oppose the TPPA.

  1. US imperialistic design and MNCs’ domination

Lest anyone has any doubts, the main purpose of US President Obama’s two visits to Malaysia within the last year was to try and speed up the signing of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement that is so critical to US capitalism in its effort to check the growth of China’s trade relations in the region. It is naïve for neo-liberals to claim that this TPPA is in the interest of promoting free trade in the Asia Pacific when they blithely ignore the elephant in the region, namely China! The TPPA’s blatant exclusion of China from this trade agreement is clearly the next stage of the US’ ‘Pivot to Asia’ after their military encirclement of China with a noose of military bases and warships.

This article is by no means a defence of China or China’s interests in the region; rather, it is a condemnation of US imperialistic designs which are not in the interest of free trade and harmonious co-existence in the region. US imperialistic designs do not just take a military form; they stretch into strategic economic forays by US-based Multi Nationals in an effort to exclude China from this so-called “free trade” agreement.

The TPPA is clearly more than just a trade deal; it also imposes parameters on non-trade areas. This is the point stressed by Joseph Stiglitz. It sets new rules for everything from food safety and financial markets to medicine prices and internet freedom, requiring countries to maintain compatible regulatory regimes; facilitate corporate financial transactions; establish copyright and patent protections to govern intellectual property rights and to safeguard foreign investors.

The Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism is the extrajudicial process written into the TPP (Chapter 28), whereby governments can be dragged before tribunals by corporate lawyers if they think national (health, environmental, public policy) laws violate their TPP rights or limit the MNCs’ expected profits.   These corporate lawyers can decide whether our national environmental laws, safety regulations, public policy, or labor laws get in the way of the MNCs’ profits. Thus, it has been pointed out that when Egypt attempted to raise its minimum wage recently, a French water concessionaire operating in the country lodged an Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) suit against the Egyptian government.

Under the agreement, pharmaceutical companies, which are among those enjoying access to negotiators as “advisers” can challenge any attempt to make generic drugs more affordable by claiming that such measures undermine their new rights granted by the (TPPA) deal. In the financial sector, the agreement will water down regulatory safeguards put in place after the 2008 financial crisis and block any ban placed on risky financial products, including those toxic derivatives that contributed to the crisis in the first place.

Chapters 9, 10, 11 of the TPPA provide a free rein to the operations of international finance capital via the dismantling of capital controls, prohibition on financial taxation and by undoing the stabilizing tools set up in certain economies to counter the 2008 financial meltdown. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has warned that the TPPA presents “grave risks” as it “serves the interests of the wealthiest”.

  1. Negative impact on Malaysian SMEs

According to the Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) study of the impact of the TPPA on the Malaysian economy and society,

“there is potential for negative impacts on Bumiputera businesses and SMEs but these impacts appear to be largely mitigated based on the concessions secured by Malaysia. The potential negative impacts are mainly due to Bumiputera businesses being domestic oriented, and dependent on Government contracts and vendor programmes. However, there is a need to transform Bumiputera businesses and SMEs to reap the full benefit of the TPPA…Despite the concessions; there is a need for programmes to increase the competitiveness of Bumiputera businesses and SMEs, especially in the areas that will be open to foreign competition.”

According to the same study, only 38 % of the SMEs in Malaysia are Bumiputera owned while the majority are Non-Bumiputera owned and operated. While it is not clear how Bumiputera businesses which are not dependent on Government contracts and vendor programmes are expected to cope, as usual the Government does not elaborate on how, if any, the 62% of the Non-Bumiputera-owned SMEs will be assisted during the onslaught by these multi-national corporations after the TPPA is in place.

In recent years, SMEs in the services sector have been affected by increasing international competition. This is a major concern for SMEs which have not been able to develop their capabilities or to grow when the sub-sectors were liberalised. It is therefore surprising that the Chinese community, especially the mainly Chinese-operated SME sector has not been more vocal in their response to the TPPA.

  1. Erosion of democracy and human rights

The TPPA does not look good for democracy and human rights in the participating countries. First of all, the secrecy of the TPPA negotiation process itself was an affront to the principles and practice of democratic governance.

It has been claimed by the US government that the TPPA will be in the interest of Malaysian workers because the Malaysian government will have to abide by the stipulations relating to labour standards. Organized labour in the United States has criticized the TPPA, arguing that the trade deal would largely benefit big business at the expense of workers in the manufacturing and service industries. Noam Chomsky has also warned that the TPPA is “designed to carry forward the neoliberal project to maximize profit and domination and to set the working people in the world in competition with one another so as to lower wages”.

The White House has said that the TPPA is “a high standard trade agreement that levels the playing field for American workers, and businesses, supporting more made in America exports and higher paying American jobs”. In fact the logic of neoliberal trade agreements like TPPA is to drive jobs to wherever they are the cheapest without a care for labor rights and labor protections as has been clearly evident in the record of MNCs all these years.

Since when have the MNCs championed international standards for workers’ rights throughout the world? Have MNCs suddenly developed a soft spot for “Trans-Pacific” workers compared to workers in the rest of the world? Would the Malaysian Government and MNCs like us to believe that the anti-union laws and policies that have been in place in this country since the Free Trade Zones were established in the seventies will give way to a new deal for all workers in Malaysia once the TPPA is ratified? Can the government spell out in no uncertain terms what workers can expect in terms of organization and workers’ rights when we ratify the TPPA?

The chapter on Labor and labor rights (Chapter 19) offers nothing substantive or meaningful, merely fluffy minimal enforcement of worker’s rights, and mandated “cooperation” to diffuse adversarial relations between workers and employers. It also contains provisions that allow foreign companies to bypass Malaysia’s industrial courts during labour disputes by the setting up of a ‘labour council’ to mediate such disputes, and if a resolution is not reached in 60 days, the case can be referred for arbitration through the ISDS system.

It has also been pointed out that the TPPA will facilitate corporations’ control and possession over what people all over the world have come to expect as their “commons”. Hence, the internet will be increasingly privatized and subject to surveillance while the right to privacy, open communication, reporting, comment, teaching and research will be curtailed. The restrictive interpretation of US Copyright and Intellectual Property laws would become the global standard. This has grave consequences for the freedom of expression and right to information.

The human right to health will be curtailed when the TPPA reduces access to basic life-saving generic medicines and medical procedures while public health measures will be privatised and medicines and medical services become unaffordable. And according to Food & Water Watch, under a TPPA regime, “agribusiness and biotech seed companies can now more easily use trade rules to challenge countries that ban GMO imports, test for GMO contamination, do not promptly approve new GMO crops or even require GMO labeling.”

Thus, the human right to a safe environment and the sovereignty of our nation will be curtailed when the MNCs can sue the local government that tries to put a moratorium on mining or other resource extraction that are hazardous to health of the local community.

We demand full public consultation on TPPA

It is instructive that with the election of the reform-minded Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Canada, the Council of Canadians has demanded a full public consultation before Trudeau goes any further with the deal. They have cited concerns over how the TPPA would impact human rights, health, employment, environment, and democracy. Since our Prime Minister has often professed to be likewise concerned about reform and transformation, we call on the Government to undertake a full public consultation on this potentially disastrous treaty and to answer the questions we have raised.