The Bar Council's International Malaysia Law Conference 2016 ("IMLC 2016") was held at The Royale Chulan Kuala Lumpur from 21 to 23 Sept 2016.
By Louis Liaw and Syahredzan Johan
The final — and arguably most anticipated — session of the second day of IMLC 2016 was the popular “Hard Talk” plenary session titled “Challenges of Enhancing Democratic Space at Federal and State Levels”. The panellists consisted of The Right Honourable Lim Guan Eng, Chief Minister of Penang; Dr Terence Gomez, Professor of Political Economy, University of Malaya; Maria Chin Abdullah, Chairperson of BERSIH 2.0 (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections); and Dato’ Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa, Chairman and Director of Islamic Renaissance Front. The session was moderated by Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan, the President of the National Human Rights Society (“HAKAM”), who formerly served as the 27th President of the Malaysian Bar.
The session commenced with YB Lim Guan Eng’s brief elucidation of the Penang State’s efforts in pushing back against the shrinking democratic space faced at both Federal and State levels across Malaysia. The Chief Minister stated that Penang is the only state in Malaysia to have a “Speaker’s Corner”, and took the opportunity to commend the Penang police for never having arrested anyone for speaking his or her mind.
He reminded the audience that Penang had passed the Freedom of Information Act to guarantee to the general public the access to information, on the only condition that the information is not used for commercial purposes. Penang’s attempts to strengthen democracy have not been limited to just social rights, but also economic rights, which include the State’s efforts in improving the infrastructure, especially digital infrastructure, of the State.
The next panellist, Dr Terence, focused on the monetisation of politics in Malaysia. He claimed that the funding of elections and political activities in Malaysia is problematic and lacks transparency, resulting in the erosion of free and fair elections in Malaysia. Dr Terence complemented his speech with infographics and charts detailing how companies linked to the Federal Government controlled the funding of elections, leading to certain parties enjoying an unfair advantage during elections.
He offered three major reform recommendations — formulating a Political Parties Act that, among others, bans secret and foreign funding; strengthening the Election Commission, which includes protecting its autonomy and independence; and lastly, enabling equitable access to funding through, for example, regulating private funding of politics. He, however, expressed his disappointment that the opposition parties themselves seem reluctant to take on these reforms.
The next speaker, Ms Maria, highlighted the shrinking of democratic space through more apparent ways, allegedly carried out by the current Government. Ms Maria gave the example of the recent questionable arrests of former journalist Sidek Kamiso and a blogger who goes by the moniker “Ratu Naga”. She stated that it seems that the Government is trying to control not only what we say, but what we think, and emphasised the
increasingly restrictive laws passed by Parliament, such as the National Security Council Act 2016.
She pointed out that the role of civil society organisations is to raise legitimate concerns to the Government, and the Government should address these concerns rather than retaliating through drastic measures such as arrests. The Government’s actions were intended to instil fear and inhibit critical thinking and dissent, and she
therefore urged members of the public to work together to fight against the oppression, and continue to reclaim their rights and freedoms.
The final speaker was Dr Farouk, who raised another facet of shrinking democratic space in Malaysia, namely in respect of freedom of religion and conscience. Dr Farouk reminded the audience that freedom of conscience is one of the most fundamental rights of every human being, and is encapsulated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Dr Farouk contended that Malaysia is facing the problem of increasing institutionalisation of religion. He pointed out that the State is trying to control how religion is interpreted and professed in this country, and is growing increasingly resistant towards diverse interpretations of religion. The Government, Dr Farouk argued, is not tolerant of differences of opinion on how people practise their beliefs, leading to animosity and divisiveness not only between religions, but even within a religion.
Dr Farouk concluded by stating that the fight against the diminution of public space for free debate and discourse should be spearheaded by intellectuals, who ought to constantly challenge minds and the status quo, rather than conforming to the dictates of the State. “We must be the change we want to see”, he quipped, quoting Mahatma Gandhi.
With the speakers having articulated their preliminary thoughts on the topic, the speakers were then given the third degree by Dato’ Ambiga.
Topics that were touched on included the bill that PAS President, Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, plans to table; local council elections; and action taken against dissenters through the State apparatus. The session became rather heated at one point as Dr Terence and YB Lim Guan Eng went he ad to head on the lukewarm attitude of the opposition parties with regard to reforms on political funding. Dato’ Ambiga also questioned the Chief Minister on the Penang Government’s efforts in implementing local council elections, stating that although the implementation of a formal local council election is not permitted by the Federal Court, the State could proceed with an informal election. The Chief Minister ultimately agreed to reconsider the issue, so long as a thor ough and holistic proposal is submitted.
The speakers then expressed their opinions on the one thing they would change if they became the Government of the day. Dr Terence would demand greater transparency in how political parties conduct themselves, while Ms Maria wished for a more representative and accountable election system, as well as the establishment of an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission. The Chief Minister said he would ensure the Government is one that upholds the Federal Constitution and the rule of law, while Dr Farouk said he would replace the Attorney General with one who is independent and honourable.
It might appear, from the tone and discussion of the session, that Malaysia is facing vast challenges when it comes to democratic spaces and practices. However, there is a silver lining, which was empathically stressed by Dr Terence and Ms Maria: as long as the people are doing their part, all is not lost.
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