Flashback '07: The year of debates




Friday, 28 December 2007, 07:36am

Lingam TapeDemonstrations make rousing re-entry

©The Sun (Used by permission)
by Zainon Ahmad

We have reached the closing days of 2007, the year Malaysia − often touted as an exemplary country in diversity − celebrated its 50 years as a nation. But it is also the year when the very beliefs and values that bind it as a multiracial and multicultural nation were severely challenged but which many hope is part of a learning process.

Indeed it has also been an exciting year marked by more tumultuous events than just the re-enacting of the lowering of the Union Jack and the raising of the national flag at the Merdeka Square.

It is also the year when the great guessing game was at its most intense and where all the mavens and pundits have lost much credibility. August, October and November came and went and December has only three days to go but no general election.

But above all, Malaysians will probably look upon 2007 as the year of the great debate where encouraged by the openness of the Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi government, provoked by events and circumstances and taking advantage of opportunities that came their way they discussed everything.

Part of the debate, unfortunately, took the form of street protests and this year certainly saw a number of them − something new to the authorities as well as the people and something both would have to learn to cope and manage peacefully.

The year opened with several thousands people still sheltering in flood relief centres all over the country where Johor bore the brunt and where damage was estimated at several billion ringgit. Debate over what caused Johor to be badly inundated is still inconclusive a year after the calamity − in which all kinds of controversies abound − even as the state is experiencing another of its wet year-end while bracing itself for another wave of flooding.

Luckily for the ruling BN there was no by-election in Johor immediately after it was ravaged as it would have been deluged with calls and demands by its opponents for a full public accounting. It would have won that by-election, no doubt, like it did in Batu Talam, Pahang, in January; Machap in Malacca in April; and Ijok in Selangor in the same month but it would be a tough fight considering that the opposition parties would capitalise on anything and everything.

Batu Talam will be a landmark of sorts as the Opposition announced it was boycotting the polls. Indeed it would have been the first time had the independent candidate involved in a straight fight with the BN hopeful received no help at all from those boycotting. The BN knew it was a walkover contest but did not want to be embarrassed by a distressingly low voter turnout because of the boycott. So much of the campaigning was to get as many voters as was possible to the polling stations. The turnout was 67%.

Machap was an abject lesson for the main opposition parties DAP, PAS and Parti Keadilan Rakyat. They have to be more united − now a self-declared task of PKR leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim − if they hope to challenge the might of the BN and to pare down its dominance.

Ijok was fiercely fought but in the end it was more a duel between the two commanding generals, Datuk Seri Najib Razak of the BN and Anwar who was leading his party¡¯s bid for a voice in the Selangor state assembly for the first time.

While few doubted the BN¡¯s chances, they provide − especially in Machap and Ijok − open forums for many of the issues that were hitherto mostly discussed in private and in whispers. Thus, all kinds of interpretations were made at the ceramah of issues like freedom of religion under Article 11 of the Constitution, the growing assertiveness of Islam, the assertiveness of Umno in the BN, New Economic Policy, the plight of Indians, the Iskandar Development Region and the 9th Malaysia Plan and who benefited and the murder of Mongolian interpreter Altantuya Shaariibuu and its alleged links to those in high places.

All these issues were further discussed and elucidated by socio-political bloggers who came into national prominence after two of them were sued in January by the New Straits Times over postings that were deemed defamatory.

Generally they have become government gadflies with their postings, accurate or otherwise, of happenings under-reported or completely ignored by the mainstream media.

While former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad seemed to have withdrawn somewhat from his high profile criticism of his successor in the past years, his place this year seemed to have been taken over by the former deputy he sacked in 1998.

Anwar, who was freed from prison in September 2004 and who returned early this year from stints as visiting lecturer to several universities, declared his return to the political arena in March.

His sodomy conviction was overturned but his conviction for corruption still stands, barring him from seeking public office until April next year. It is this ban that fuels speculation that the general election would have to be before then.

This, however, did not prevent him from officially assuming complete control of PKR − even though his wife Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Ismail is president − as de facto leader. And he became, besides parliamentary Opposition Leader Lim Kit Siang, another gadfly of the government.

Under his leadership, PKR was involved in a number of public protests starting with the anti-toll hike demonstrations in April. But his biggest contribution was the bombshell release of a video clip in September which enlivened the flagging national debate over the state of the judiciary, the sacking of former Lord President Tun Salleh Abas two decades ago and the PM¡¯s anti-corruption war.

The clip shows senior lawyer V.K. Lingam discussing top judicial appointments on the phone with someone assumed to be very senior in the judiciary. There was a public outcry and lawyers marched to demand a royal commission investigate the allegations thrown up by the telephone conversation. A three-man panel was appointed to determine the clip¡¯s authenticity and following that a royal commission was recently formed.

As said by Minister in the Prime Minister¡¯s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, after the government withdrew the bill of the much-altered independent police complaints and misconduct commission recently: ¡°The government is a listening government. It respects public opinion.¡±

But debate and discussion on national issues were not limited to campaign speeches and ceramah, public forums and talks organised by NGOs and opposition parties or even in the blogs but also in assemblies of BN parties.

The Gerakan, following the lead of its outspoken and plain speaking elder statesman Datuk Seri Dr Lim Keng Yaik, who stepped down in April as party president after 26 years at the helm, seemed intent on keeping the spirit of ¡°the right to rebut¡± alive.

For instance a youth delegate when speaking at the party general assembly in October drew laughter when he wielded two styrofoam keris in parody of Umno Youth leader Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein¡¯s waving of the traditional Malay weapon during his party¡¯s youth wing assembly.

Gerakan youth vice-president S. Paranjothy also criticised some Umno leaders for inciting racial sentiments to gain political mileage while another prominent member Dr Tan Kee Kwong dared to criticise Perak Mufti Datuk Seri Harussani Zakaria for his comments about Christians.

Not to be outdone, the MCA too is making known its feelings publicly and that, among other things, is its insistence to be treated as a partner in the ruling coalition and to be consulted on all policies.

In February, for instance, its president Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting said that members who feel they must speak out must do so without fearing that they might be accused of raising political issues. The party youth chief, Liow Tiong Lai, said the movement will not countenance extreme racism and said that it was better to wave the Federal Constitution than to wave the keris.

Even in the MIC, there are those who sympathised with the street protesters but who are generally restrained from speaking openly due to the party¡¯s strict discipline.

It is thus appropriate for the prime minister to close the year of the great debate with an insistence that the moderates must lead the fight against the fanatics as otherwise extremism will prevail. ¡°If the moderates don¡¯t speak up, they will allow the fanatics to occupy centre stage to push their extremist views,¡± he said at a Christmas tea party on Tuesday.

As the great British thinker, Edmund Burke, said: ¡°The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.¡±

Zainon Ahmad is political editor of theSun and writes a fortnightly column What They Say. Comment: feedback@thesundaily.com.