What reforms in Malaysia look like

Mustafa K. Anuar

The writer says a reformist government must be open to discussion of certain issues or ideas, considered by some as controversial, in the public domain so that it would be instructive for the layperson. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, November 28, 2023.

Commentary by Mustafa K. Anuar

WE are in an era where information can be easily accessed by a click of a button, thanks to the rapid advancement of information and communications technology.

And yet, our current government appears to still think that confiscating books, particularly communist-related ones, from bookstores is an effective way of dealing with communist ideology, apparently with the aim of stopping its perceived spread.

Home Ministry officials recently confiscated eight books from independent bookstore GerakBudaya. The books were written in Chinese and were related to the communist insurgency in Malaya.

Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail reportedly said the seizure was conducted based on supposed public complaints on the books’ contents violating the law.

Not too long ago, the ministry also made a similar move.

In mid-August, the ministry seized two books from the Toko Buku Rakyat bookstore owned by local author Benz Ali in Kuala Lumpur.

The books, which are not even on the banned list, are “Marx the Revolutionary Educator” (Marx Sang Pendidik Revolusioner) written by Robin Smalls and “Masturbation Poetry Collection” (Koleksi Puisi Masturbasi) written by Benz himself.

Incidentally, communist-related books that are written in English seem to have escaped the government’s attention for reasons only best known to the ministry. One wonders whether poor grasp of the English language among Malaysians could be one of the reasons.

For a wider perspective, the ministry had, last August, banned Swatch watches with LGBT theme and their related materials, including boxes, wrappers and accessories under the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984.

In 2015, the home minister at the time prohibited Bersih 4 yellow T-shirts.

Be that as it may, we would expect the Madani administration in general and the ministry to not react in a knee-jerk manner to certain quarters making complaints about such printed materials.

In this particular case, a government supposedly informed by reformist ideals should be bold enough to break with past practices that were essentially sparked by Cold War fears.

A reformist agenda would see to it that the sitting government is willing to swim against the tide by not seizing or banning such reading materials.

Apart from the fact that such materials can be accessed on the internet, the threat of communism as an ideology fizzled out decades ago. Communism does not appeal to most Malaysians and rightly so.

To be clear, this is not an attempt to advocate or condone communism.

What we are saying is that a reformist government must be open to discussion of certain issues or ideas, considered by some as controversial, in the public domain so that it would be instructive for the layperson.

This approach would provide the much-needed opportunity for people to make an informed judgment as to why certain ideas are considered good or bad.

Unlike censorship, civil conversations in public go a long way in preventing the dumbing down of ordinary Malaysians. That would be intellectual progress.

We should also be aware that extremist ideas can be spawned out of sheer ignorance.

As intimated above, a government committed to social change would be confident and courageous enough to make changes in the face of initial resistance from certain quarters. There are times when you need to blaze a trail in order to make a difference in society.

Certain reforms, as Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim argued recently, may take a longer time to take shape. But there are at least certain types of reform that are “low-hanging fruits”.

For starters, the government should consider repealing, say, the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and reviewing the Official Secrets Act 1972, Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 and Sedition Act 1948. These are related to freedom of information and expression.

This is in addition to making such significant reforms as introducing a 10-year term limit for prime ministers and chief ministers or menteris besar.

There is also a dire need to provide equal funding to all elected representatives without them having to change political stripes in order to get sufficient funds.

People who voted for change in the last general election are hopeful that at the very least the low-hanging fruit would be plucked as soon as possible. – November 28, 2023.

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