Was the Reformasi movement a mere engine for regime change?

A CABINET with a minister, the Umno president, facing multiple corruption charges and the prime minister making himself the finance minister have come as rude shocks to civil society activists who have fought for meaningful reform since 1998. 

A prime minister who controls the Finance Ministry is a return to the Dr Mahathir Mohamad era and also sets the conditions which facilitated the looting of 1MDB by Najib Razak. The 1990s, during which Anwar Ibrahim was finance minister, also saw fabulous financial scandals with Dr Mahathir, Daim Zainuddin and Anwar each having their own favoured “Bumiputera capitalists”. Kleptocracy in Malaysia certainly did not begin with the 1MDB affair. 

If basic good governance precepts are not adhered to, what reforms can we expect from the new “convenience government”? To add insult to injury, Saifuddin Nasution, the mob leader who attacked the Apcet conference, is now the home minister while the “hero of the Reformasi demonstrations” took it upon himself to encourage Anwar to appoint the corruption-tainted Umno head as the deputy prime minister.

More recently, US International Republican Institute president Daniel Twining in a self-congratulatory message, said the organisation has been funding the opposition in Malaysia since 2002 through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Civil society activists must wake up to the fact that the partly NED-funded Reformasi movement was really just a vehicle for regime change. Twining was proud to declare that one of the first things the new Pakatan Harapan government did after coming to power in 2018 was to call a halt to China’s Belt and Road contract with Malaysia, much to the satisfaction of the US government.  The role of the NED in the funding of the recent demonstrations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang has also been exposed.

One of the important reforms we have fought for all these years is for political funding.  Parliament must know whether Pakatan Harapan has continued to receive funding from the NED right up to the 2022 general election.

Now is the time for human rights defenders to reflect on the decades-long Reformasi struggle.This is the time for reform-minded Malaysians to reflect on what the Reformasi and Bersih movements were all about. What kind of reforms do they demand and to what extent are they different from Barisan Nasional policies? When PH took power in 2018, we saw the co-option of civil society leaders into the administration. How could the reform movement advance when their leaders were openly opportunistic and happily co-opted into the exploitative state? Did civil society protest over PH stalling on democratic demands in the its manifesto? Civil society expects serious transformative reforms to reconstitute the democratic institutions and improve the lives of Malaysians.

At the state level, this includes:

1. An end to race-based policies

We expect race-based policies to be replaced by needs-based measures that truly benefit the lower-income and marginalised sectors.

2. Addressing the climate crisis

It is within the state’s jurisdiction is to gazette all permanent forest and wildlife reserves and to regazette those that have been degazetted. We want renewable energy projects that simultaneously preserve and protect forests and Orang Asal land. We reject nuclear power and other toxic industries. The state government is expected to develop renewable energy and not rely on the private sector for projects that are environmentally harmful and socially destructive; it must also enforce recycling measures, responsible waste disposal, and enact laws to protect animal welfare.

3. Prioritising Orang Asal rights and livelihoods

We must put the rights and livelihoods of the Orang Asal at the top of the national agenda. We must recognise their rights over the land that has been their domain for centuries and prohibit logging on it. All Orang Asal villages must be equipped with adequate social facilities and services. The autonomy of the Orang Asal must be respected and they must participate in policy making involving their interests. Laws must be introduced to comply with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

4. Bringing back elected local councils

It is time to bring back local elections that were suspended in 1965. There should be no lame excuses such as lack of funds to conduct such elections.

5. Enacting a federal freedom of information act

This is because people have the right to know.

6. Zero tolerance for corruption

Every discrepancy in the annual auditor-general’s report must be accounted for. The officers and politicians responsible must pay for negligence or corruption. Leaders who have been charged with corruption must step aside while their case is pending in the courts.

7. Progressive economic policy

State-owned enterprises should be open to democratic control by the people and directed to implement good labour and environmental policies. There should be no political appointments in state enterprises. We also want a strong and fairly distributed public sector health, education, housing, and transport services. Our small- and medium-sized enterprises, farmers and fisherfolk need adequate support for food production and industry.

8. Fair education policy

Education is not a political football but it has been treated as such since Independence. A fair and level playing field provides equal opportunities for all without racial discrimination in student enrolment in all schools, including tertiary institutions. Alongside building national schools, in which Bahasa Melayu is the main language of instruction, mother tongue schools for the various ethnic groups must be built, preferably in education precincts with shared facilities to promote integration, proportionate financial support and adequate teacher training. Schools should also be built where they are needed under the respective elected local councils and they should receive fair allocation of resources.

9. Defending workers’ rights and interests

 It is the universal right of workers to unionise. We want a progressive, guaranteed living wage for all workers, including migrant workers. They must be allowed freedom of association and full employment, retrenchment, and pension benefits. Workers’ representatives should be part of decision-making in enterprises. We want a retrenchment fund for laid-off workers and a universal pension for citizens aged over 70 years. The state should promote self-governing workers’ cooperatives to produce goods that are useful for society.

10. People-centred social policies

Institute a housing development board managed by elected local councils for effective low-cost public housing programmes, for rent or ownership, with space for community activities, recreation, and green areas. We need to prioritise the public transport system in the country for the benefit of the majority while regulating highway construction and motor traffic in city and town centres. We also want childcare and creche facilities in the public and private sectors for working parents, and homes and daycare centres for the elderly and disabled, benefits and support services, including access to mobile healthcare. – December 5, 2022.

* Kua Kia Soong reads The Malaysian Insight.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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