Thursday, June 25, 2009

What, If Anything, Should Malaysia Learn From America?

Let's start having the real conversations we need to have. How do we create together our Malaysian Dream that will make us proud of ourselves & our Nation? This is too important a question to let the likes of Deminegara decide for us.

Recently, blogger Ninitalk posted a very thoughtful & inspiring entry entitled "E Pluribus Unum - Out Of Many, One!", which was highlighted at Rocky's Bru. In it Nini notes some parallels between Malaysia and the United States, and draws some lessons in race relations, and creating unity in diversity that we could learn from them. She writes:
"America does this wisely and systematically through a common language, a common education system, a common constitution and law. Lately common national pursuits like the fight against terrorism and the pledge to uphold democracy at home and abroad have united the American people and given them a relevant impetus and a modern identity as a nation."
Here are my thoughts, inspired by Nini's post:

While America & Americans have done much to define & promote democracy & freedom, we must never delude ourselves that they fully practice whatever they preach. Obama or no Obama, there is ample evidence throughout their history which shows that America often lacks the leadership, courage, will or integrity to live up to what they profess. Therefore we must never, by default, rely on them as the final arbiter of what is right or wrong; instead we must objectively examine each issue on its merits.

Nini is right in pointing out the similarities between us & America. It has been suggested elsewhere that our Jalur Gemilang was inspired by their Old Glory. Like them, we are of many cultures, religions & ethnicities. Like them, we too have struggled with troubled & sometimes violent ethnic relations. However, our similarities do not extend to all areas; evidence suggests that Americans are among the most proud and patriotic people in the world, while we, on the other hand, lag some way behind. Considering that after 52 years of Merdeka we are still telling each other to "balik" to wherever our ancestors came from, it's not difficult to see why. So, maybe there is something that we can learn from them (in this area) after all.

Is Uniformity & Homogeneity Everything?

Indeed, America does have a common language, education system, constitution and law. So does Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and France. Yet, in Thailand, to this very day, Malay minorities in the southern provinces are the victims of what some have called genocide. In Indonesia, Chinese minorities are the victims of racist riots, and violence between Muslims & Christians erupts in Maluku Province. In the Philippines, Chinese-Filipinos face racist riots too (e.g. in 1992 & 1998), and crimes such as kidnap-for-ransom, extortion and other forms of harassment. In France, minorities (especially from Africa & Middle East) are culturally, religiously & economically discriminated against & marginalised, also resulting in riots & violence. In those four countries, everyone spoke the official language, went to the same type of schools, had the same laws etc., but they still ended up hating each other's guts. Something had gone seriously wrong there.

Clearly, having a common language, education system, constitution and law is not sufficient by itself to bring about good race relations. Something else is needed. I believe that what set America apart from the others is how that common language, education system, constitution and law came to be, which in turn reflects each country's values & ethos.

Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines & France valued assimilation & homogeneity over individual freedoms. They were willing to force minorities to assimilate even if it meant trampling over their rights. Their ethos was that the majority culture was somehow superior or more worthy, and minority cultures somehow subordinate; anyone who wanted to enjoy the rights of a citizen had to adopt the majority culture & language or face sanctions.

In the case of Thailand, Indonesia & the Philippines, this forced assimilation was imposed on the minorities by autocratic governments which did not respect human rights very much anyway: Phibun Songkhram's fascist dictatorships (1938 - 1944 and 1948 - 1957), Suharto's "orde baru" (1965 - 1998) & Marcos' martial law (1972 - 1981) respectively. France was not much better.

How did these policies of forced assimilation manifest themselves? In the form of institutionalised & legalised intolerance, discrimination & suppression of minority language, culture & even religion. A common target was vernacular schools, which were either closed or had their curricula changed to limit the time spent learning minority language & culture. Minority languages were removed from public use. Minorities were obliged or "encouraged" to adopt names that sounded like those of the majority. Vernacular language media & press were closed down or had restrictive conditions placed upon them. Cultural practices, even ethnic clothing were banned outright or ostracised. Religious practices & facilities were restricted. In more extreme cases, even minority economic activity was restricted or curtailed by law. Those who did not comply were coerced, punished, fined, taxed, ostracised or denied opportunities. All this was done in the name of "national unity", "cohesion" & "patriotism".

Even when minorities were not specifically targeted by discriminatory laws, as in the case of France (that might change soon), by officially ignoring & denigrating minority cultural & religious practices (e.g. headscarf bans in schools, etc) and only recognising & promoting the majority language & culture, France too, in effect, forced assimilation on its minority populations.

But for all that, perhaps the policy with the most serious & insidious long term consequences was this: to gain political advantage & support for assimilation as well as to increase pressure on minorities to comply, politicians & governments demonised minorities, their culture, language & religion. Anti-minority sentiments and prejudices were whipped up with populist & nationalist propaganda. Minorities were stereotyped & scapegoated for the country's problems, even portrayed as treasonous fifth columnists. Is it at all surprising that the result, still evident today, is deep rooted discrimination, inter-ethnic & religious distrust & violence?

What About America?

On the other hand, America seems to have had an altogether different set of values & ethos. Some of the first white settlers in America had fled Europe because their rights as minorities were not respected in their home countries. This awareness of the value of human rights & freedom was strengthened by fighting off British oppression in their War of Independence. The starting point of their Declaration of Independence was the recognition that everyone had the right to "life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness", and that governments were set up only to protect those rights & freedoms, never to interfere with them. Over time, this high value accorded to human rights & freedoms became the core of their national ethos, the American Dream.

Did America always respect minority rights itself? Hell, no. Slavery, oppression & discrimination of Native Americans, African Americans, women and other minorities took place on a large scale, and this is just one of many examples of how America forgot it's principles. However, having those values & principles in their "DNA" (and constitution, bill of rights, etc.) was vital because it allowed those minorities, aided by the justice system & visionary leaders, to eventually successfully fight for their rights (including to affirmative action). In comparison, this was never accomplished in those countries where human rights & freedoms were not as highly valued, and sacrificed for "national unity" or "cohesion".

So, what is this "American Dream"? In essence it enshrines (some would say fetishizes) the rights of all Americans (irrespective of race, religion, gender etc.) to make individual choices to gain an education, secure a livelihood, build friendships and family, and live in peace, free of oppression & undue government interference. In it one's success in life is determined by one's talents and hard work, not by one's family wealth or political connections.

How did this ethos affect how America dealt with minorities? Even when minorities were legally & economically discriminated against, there were no attempts to coerce them into adopting the culture, language & religion of the majority Anglo-Saxon American population. To this day, America does not have an official language. America never had an official religion, and never promoted a national culture based on Anglo-Saxon or Native American culture. There are no "national schools"; the American "common education system" means that parents can freely choose to send their children to public or private schools; they even have the option of homeschooling. Who decides policy in public schools? Ultimately, the citizens themselves; from Wikipedia: "Curriculum decisions in public schools are made largely at the local and state levels; the federal government has limited influence. In most districts, a locally elected school board runs schools. The school board appoints an official called the superintendent of schools to manage the schools in the district."

In short, minority culture, religion & language were never suppressed. Indeed the opposite happened; when some states tried to legitimize intolerance & oppression of non-English languages (prompted by racist sentiments arising from World War 1), the American Supreme Court, in Meyer vs. Nebraska (1923) established a precedent for, and legitimized respect for the language rights of minorities.

So, in spite of all this, how did integration occur, and English become America's common language? As German sociologist & linguist Heinz Kloss, (who studied minorities in America) wrote in his book The American Bilingual Tradition (his own italics):

"As our study shows […] the non-English ethnic groups in the United States were Anglicized not because of nationality laws which were unfavorable toward their languages, but in spite of nationality laws relatively favorable to them. Not by legal provisions and measures of the authorities, not by governmental coercion did the nationalities become assimilated, but rather by the absorbing power of the highly developed American society. The nationalities might be given in numerable possibilities for systematic language maintenance; the manifold opportunities for personal advancement and individual achievements which this society offered were so attractive that the descendants of the "aliens" sooner or later voluntarily integrated themselves into this society."

Naturally & organically, when minorities were confident that their culture, religion and language were not threatened, they learnt & spoke English, and integrated, because they wanted to, not because they were forced to. Today, there are African-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Greek-Americans, Arab-Americans, Indian-Americans etc. Does this make them any less American or any less patriotic? Not in the least.

So, Why Are Americans So Patriotic?

Next question: why are Americans so patriotic? Let's look at the results of the "National Pride in Specific Domains" survey by NORC at the University of Chicago that I quoted earlier. Americans topped the world in national pride in the following three areas: pride in their military, economy and science & technology. This is not surprising at all.

What is revealing is another category in which America tops the world: pride in their Democracy. In this it surpasses the rest of the world by a fair margin; the gap between America & the next country in this category (Australia) is the second highest gap among the 10 categories surveyed. Also interesting is another category in which America was in the top 3 in the world: their pride in fair and equal treatment of all groups in society.

Clearly, our faith & confidence in our democracy & how we treat all Malaysians fairly matters in promoting national pride. Less clear is this: how do we encourage all Malaysians to invest their talents, effort, resources, heart and soul into creating pride-worthy successes in the Malaysian economy, science & technology, arts & literature and sports?

The Americans seem to have found their answer to that question. What motivates them to strive for success in all fields is the American Dream itself. Their human rights & freedoms are protected by their democracy. If they succeed, they get to enjoy the fruits of their success; if they fail, they have only themselves to blame. Americans are patriotic because they have something worthy to believe in & fight for, not because they have been coerced or psycho-ed into patriotism.

Is This Difference Important?

Why is it important for Malaysians to understand this distinction between America on one hand, and Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and France on the other? Because it will make all the difference between a Malaysia that is united in diversity & a Malaysia that is rife with racial & religious conflict. As a result of the last general elections, Malaysia is now at a crossroads, from where, for the first time in a long while, we have a choice of taking a path to a future that we want for ourselves & our children. Not everyone is happy that we have this choice, because they would prefer that we return to the days before 8/3/08, and even further back to Mahathirism. Indeed, there are sinister moves afoot in Malaysia that, if we are not vigilant, will take us down the slippery slope to the Thai, Indonesian, Philippine and French model of "national unity".

An example of the kind of people trying to take us down this path is this group of Malaysian bloggers, whose manifesto seems to be:

"...Stop saying we are a multiracial, multicultural, multireligious nation. Stop reminding ourselves to be tolerant of other races, and to live harmoniously in our multiracial society. Stop talking race at every turn. Indeed, ban racial and ethnic classification and identification! We are Bangsa Malaysia, we speak Bahasa Malaysia. But remember, the Arca of this Bangsa Malaysia is the Orang Melayu, the founding fathers of the nation states dotting this Tanah Melayu plus the pribumis of the Borneo states. This unequivocal identity shall be the solid foundation of our nationhood.

Fundamentally, a member of the Bangsa Malaysia should speak the national language of the Federation, Bahasa Malaysia, fluently and as a primary language; be fully versed with adat-adat and tatasusila orang Melayu and other Bumiputras of the Federation; demonstrates respect and deference to Islam as the official religion of the Federation and exhibit traits and mannerisms acceptable to the Malays and other Bumiputras. Non-Malay members of this Bangsa Malaysia may speak in their own dialects in private and may practise their own cultures and religions in the private confines of their community. Also, Budaya Malaysia is based on the budaya of the Malays and other Bumiputras of the Federation – in their various representations.

And the Education System is based on a single, unified Sekolah Kebangsaan system with Bahasa Malaysia as the primary language of instruction

Later, upon satisfactory cohesion and amalgamation of the Malaysian populace into a truly united Bangsa Malaysia, then by law, ALL references to race and ethnicity in our daily activities should be forbidden..."

A few paragraphs later, they say this: "Measures must be conceived and implemented to forge this Bangsa Malaysia society. Perhaps more assertive measures must be implemented." Does all this sound like the Thai model to you? You are right; I have shown here how these folks have actually been inspired by the Thai Ratthaniyom, Phibun Songkhram's policy of forced assimilation of minorities.

Recently, they proposed "Satu Sekolah Untuk Semua" in a memorandum to the Education Minister, in which they accused Malaysian minorities of not being patriotic, and compared vernacular schools to a cancer afflicting Malaysia. They also proposed that the languages & cultures of Malaysian minorities be banished from all national & public roles and be confined to private community matters only. They claim that this "ghettoization" of Malaysian minority culture & languages is required by our Federal Constitution. In the memorandum, they also call for the outright abolition of all vernacular schools in Malaysia.

These people (whom Rocky somehow describes as "pro-unity bloggers" trying to create "a 'true' Bangsa Malaysia") misrepresent their Thai style forced assimilation as integration, and hope that we won't notice the difference. In the blogosphere, they have no qualms about manipulating public opinion using "false flag" tactics. They seem unwilling to discuss & debate their proposal thoroughly, but want it implemented hurriedly. Anyone who doesn't agree with them is deemed as unpatriotic or even racist. Their most recent proposal is to hold a referendum on the abolishing of vernacular schools; in their words, "A simple Yes-No answer". What was their response to the legitimate concerns raised by Malaysians concerning their scheme: "Why should the selfish indulgence of some elements within the 24+7 percent of the populace hold our beloved nation hostage to debilitating social fragmentation in perpetuity?". "Pro-unity bloggers" indeed!

While these people certainly have every right to propose their suggestions (as we have every right to oppose them), it would have been better if they had been honest about their intentions, instead of hiding behind a smokescreen of "patriotism" & "national unity"

In Conclusion

So what can we conclude for ourselves? Firstly, if we want to learn any lessons from America, let's make sure that we learn the right ones. How we achieve a common language, education system, constitution & law is just as, if not more important than merely possessing those attributes. Homogeneity by itself is worthless, and forced assimilation, as shown by the examples above, works against true national unity & cohesion. How we protect the rights & freedoms of all Malaysians, and give them something to work for & believe in, will determine how patriotic & proud we are of Malaysia

Let's not get distracted by the fancy campaigns, flashy branding, catchy slogans & glitzy logos. These are high on form but low on function; we have wasted too much time & resources on these already. Instead, let us focus on the substance, the basics. Let's start by developing our democracy & empowering our citizens. Let's start having the real conversations we need to have. How do we create together our Malaysian Dream that will make us proud of ourselves & our Nation? This is too important a question to let the likes of Deminegara (or his friend Rocky) decide for us.

There is one more, very critical way in which we are a lot like America. Like them, we too often lack the leadership, courage, will & integrity to live up to what we profess. I believe it's no use waiting for our politicians from any party to take us there by the hand. As Nini said, we can’t erase history but we can definitely remove the baggage of hate, vindictiveness and prejudice. Are we Malaysians prepared to step up & lead the way ourselves?

Malaysian Heart

Note: Please do visit all the links I attached to read the posting or article in its entirety. In that way you can judge for yourself if I have quoted them relevantly & in context.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Should France Ban Burkas?

Yesterday, French President Sarkozy made a speech in which he spoke out strongly against the wearing of the burka by Muslim women in France. Subsequent to that, The French National Assembly has appointed a fact-finding mission, consisting of 32 lawmakers, to look at ways of restricting the use of burkas in France.

I strongly believe that it would be very wrong for France (or any other government) to ban, discourage or restrict any form of ethnic or religious clothing (or practice), if they do it with the following niat:
  1. out of intolerance or hate for Islam, or the religions of any minority groups, or
  2. to force minorities to adopt the majority culture, thereby assimilating them.
If my religion requires the wearing of the burka, my religious community must be free to encourage & promote it without undue interference from government, as long as we respect just laws & human rights. The secular nature of a country must never, never be used an an excuse for the denial of anyone's religious & cultural rights.

However, we cannot deny that some women are still oppressed, both by their families & communities. Sometimes, this oppression is even justified in the name of religion, culture and tradition. An example would be the old Hindu/Indian practice of suttee, where a widow would be burnt to death on the funeral pyre of her husband. If France were to face a suttee problem today & ban it, I'm sure all of us would praise France, because we all (hopefully) realize that killing people violates their human rights.

Granted, suttee is a very extreme & old example, but there are many other examples of the oppression of women still existing today, such as forced marriages, "honour killings", female genital mutilation, "domestic" violence, exclusion from national & public life, subservience at home, unequal treatment, etc. We face similar injustices in Malaysia too.

So, In my opinion, the French burka issue must be decided based on 2 questions:
  1. What is the motive & objective of the French government? Do they have a hidden agenda behind this condemnation of the burka?
  2. What do Muslim women in France really want? Does the burka in any way oppress them & are they in any way being coerced into wearing it?
In order to find the answers, there needs to be respectful, open & honest dialogue, within communities & between them, with no prejudice & stigma attached to minority cultures & religions. At the same time, religious communities should take the initiative to engage with governments to discuss issues vital to national harmony. Most importantly, the views & wishes of Muslim women (who are directly affected by this ruling) must be heard & respected.

The end result must be the freedom to rightfully practice ones religion & culture, and the upholding of human rights. Each of us has the right to choose what we believe in, wear & do; therefore, if I want, of my own free will, to wear a burka, no government should ever unreasonably stop me.

Malaysian Heart

P.S. Graphics of various Islamic headscarf styles taken from here, where you will also find short descriptions of each style.

Monday, June 22, 2009

What Can I Do For My Country Today?

Dato' Ariff Sabri, who blogs at Sakmongkol AK47, posted this entry today: "The Dagger to our Freedom". While the conclusion of his argument does him much credit, I feel its premises do not. This is my response to him:

Dear Dato',

While I agree with the main conclusion of your argument, I beg to differ on some of its premises.

Firstly, JFK said: "ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country." (Video here)

We must never conflate and confuse our Country with our government. Doing so allows those to whom we delegate our collective power to claim, "L'etat c'est moi". This sort of thinking leads to corruption, cronyism & nepotism; it disempowers us and hampers our progress as a nation. UPDATE (Worse, it allows governments to claim that any opposition to them is "derhaka" & unpatriotic).

Milton Friedman's words are very true and should be taught in every Malaysian school; my gratitude to you for quoting them here. Any government is only a means to an end, they were never meant to lord over the Rakyat. Whenever a government begins to forget its rightful role, it should be swiftly reprimanded or replaced.

But our Country is much, much more than our government. Being a free person in our country is only sustainable if we respect, uphold and protect the sovereignty, democracy, freedoms, rights, unity and integrity of Malaysia and our fellow citizens. Granted, we could do this out of enlightened self interest or a sense of duty. However, I believe it is noblest, most effective & gratifying when we do it out of love. Yes, LOVE, the emotional involvement which I believe we sadly lack.

Every atom of our blood, muscle & bones, belongs to and was once the soil, water or air of Malaysia, and will return to Her some day. Those same atoms may well become part of other Malaysians; all of us are but borrowers, in debt to Ibu Pertiwi for our very substance. Is it not fair for Malaysia to expect a modest return on Her investment in us? Is it not becoming that we strive to help these atoms see a better Malaysia when they come alive again?

So, while we keep a close eye on our government with a rotan in our hand, and never let them (or anybody else) hijack our Country's name for their own purposes, let us always ask ourselves, as long as we are blessed to breathe Malaysian air, "What can I do for my country today?"

Malaysian Heart

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Poem for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on her 64th Birthday

Who is Aung San Suu Kyi?

Fresh jasmine in her hair,
Frail fingers, behind bars;
A smile, wistful but fair,
Tired eyes, and heavy heart.

Woman, feared by men in green,
Daughter, Hope, of people unfree;
Mother, Wife, with grief unseen,
But we’re still silent, holding the key.

Burma’s forgotten, faraway,
“Who’s this Suu Kyi?” you ask;
Look in the mirror, friend, then say,
Isn’t Daw* Suu Kyi really, us?

May God bless her, the people of Burma and all who yearn for Freedom, Justice & Democracy. You can send your birthday wishes for Daw Suu Kyi here: 64 for Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aung San Suu Kyi has now been imprisoned by Burma's brutal regime for over 13 years. is a website where celebrities, politicians and the public from all over the world are coming together to send birthday messages of support to the world's only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner. Learn more about her life & struggle here, here, here, here and here. Can we as Malaysians do more to help her (and ourselves)?

*Daw is an honorific in the Burmese language, similar to madam for older, revered women, literally meaning "aunt".

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

MUST READ Article from Aliran: "ACT NOW! - Vibrant democracy requires eternal vigilance"

Dear Readers,

I have just read best article regarding Democracy & Malaysia that I have ever read, perhaps even the best that I will ever read in my life. It is by Dr. Andrew Aeria from UNIMAS and you can read it at Aliran Monthly. It is entitled: "ACT NOW! Vibrant democracy requires eternal vigilance", and truer words have never been spoken. If you care for Democracy in our Nation, please read Dr. Aeria's article & encourage all your friends to read it too. Here is how he starts:

If we are passionate about Malaysia and our birthright, then we should ACT NOW to save our democracy, says Andrew Aeria.

In early March, University Malaya Law lecturer Azmi Sharom made a very pertinent observation in his weekly Star column that ‘Malaysians have this thing where they hope some mighty champion will sweep down from the mountains and solve their problems for them’.

His point was that instead of waiting for this ‘mighty champion’ to turn up and do the job for us, we should instead use whatever resources we have at hand and just ACT NOW if we want to mend our broken democracy and save it from our numerous ‘Bolehland-class’ politicians (defined as MPs, Aduns and party members who are either plain foul-mouthed, ‘tidak apa’, sexist, racist, lazy, corrupt, incompetent and even thuggish with only their personal and family’s material interests at heart). And by this, I also include many over-estimated opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) politicians and civil service bureaucrats as well.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding currently prevalent within our society that we do not need to do anything about our democracy since we have already elected PR (our ‘Mighty Champion’?) as our loyal parliamentary opposition serving King and country. As well, we elected them to govern in five states and so we have to ‘give them time’ to settle into the job. Unfortunately, this is self-deceiving and ultimately toxic to democracy. Simply because democracy is much more than just elections and what happens in parliament. And it certainly won’t flourish after merely being ‘given time’. ...

Please continue reading here. If you like the article, please consider supporting Aliran. In their words: "Justice was never won without personal sacrifice - whether measured in time volunteered, energy devoted to a cause, or financial support generously given. We need your support in our struggle for justice. Your contribution no matter how small will be like a droplet that builds up into a wave of change. Click here if you would like to contribute financially."

Malaysian Heart

Is the Malaysian Insider Spinning the News?

The headline of this article in the Malaysian Insider "Mukhriz plays safe on bridge", seems to be an attempt at spin, i.e. interpreting an event in a particular way so as to manipulate public opinion for or against a certain organization or public figure.

The expression "to play (it) safe" means "to avoid taking risks". In a political context, it can imply that the person involved believed in a particular policy or course of action, but lacked the courage of his convictions to advocate or execute it openly.

However, the article that followed presented no evidence to show that Mukhriz believed that the "third bridge" must be built somehow, but had dialled down his statement to avoid criticism etc.

So, is the Malaysian Insider indulging in spin? In my opinion, spinning the news is totally unbecoming of any news organization that wants to be trusted by its readers.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Tribalistic Self-Absorption

Glenn Greenwald, who blogs at, posted an entry yesterday entitled "Tribalistic self-absorption". In it he mainly refers to right-wing commentators & bloggers in America, but the first paragraph caught my attention for another reason. Here it is:
The most predominant mentality in right-wing discourse finds expression in this form: "I am part of/was born into Group X, and Group X -- my group -- is better than all others yet treated so very unfairly." This claim persists -- indeed, is often intensified -- even when Group X is clearly the strongest, most privileged and most favored group. So intense is their need for self-victimization -- so inebriating is their self-absorption and so lacking are they in any capacity for empathy -- that, for all the noise and rhetoric, the arguments they make virtually always have this tribalistic self-absorption at its core.
Does his description of tribalistic self-absorption remind you of the mentality of any Malaysian commentators or bloggers? I can think of a few who might qualify. If you would like to share why you feel a particular blogger/commentator fits the bill, please feel free to do so in the comments section below.

One proviso though. Let's have rational, evidence based arguments only, no unsupported assertions or dodgy logic please. Happy hunting!

Malaysian Heart

Friday, June 12, 2009

Pakatan Rakyat, Good Governance, Transparency and Accountability - Updated

Governments are elected & instituted by the Rakyat not as ends in and of themselves, but as the means by which the Rakyat's rights, interests, freedoms and safety are secured & protected. This is the only raison d'etre of any government.

Any government that seeks to serve the Rakyat must practice good governance, which according to the UNDP, is:
"The exercise of economic, political and administrative authority to manage a country's affairs at all levels. It comprises of the mechanisms, processes and institutions, through which citizens and groups articulate their interests, exercise their legal rights, meet their obligations and mediate their differences."
The characteristics of good governance are participation, rule of law, transparency, responsiveness, equity and inclusiveness, effectiveness, efficiency, accountability and strategic vision and consensus orientation. Good governance ensures that corruption is eradicated, the views of minorities are taken into account and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making and implementation. It is also responsive to the present and future needs of society, balancing between growth and distribution, present and future resource use.

Of these characteristics, I would like to touch upon just two key ones where I believe that Pakatan Rakyat governments are sorely shortchanging the Rakyat; namely transparency and accountability.

Case in point is the issue of the awarding of waste management contracts in Selangor by Alam Flora. On 21 & 25 May '09, PKR's Petaling Jaya Selatan division’s deputy chief and PJ City Councillor Mr. A. Thiruvenggadam, claimed that:
1. "No job offers have given to the Indian community. No contracts have also been allocated for the Indian businessmen in the state"
2. "the state government divides waste-concessionaire Alam Flora contracts to political parties - 40 per cent to PKR, 30 per cent to PAS and 30 per cent to DAP"

First, let's get some things straight. Mr. Thiruvenggadam is wrong to call for special treatment for one community. He was appointed to represent PJ citizens of all communities, not just those of his own ethnic group. One of the key deliverables for PR (please correct me if I am wrong) is replacing the racial politics of BN with a new Malaysian politics. Mr. Thiruvenggadam's demands go against that key deliverable.

Furthermore, how much is awarding contracts to a vendor from a particular community going to help the whole community? I don't mean to impugn Mr. Thiruvenggadam's motives, but did he have any preferred vendor in mind?

Government contracts are to be awarded transparently based on merit in accordance with good governance to maximise the benefit to the Rakyat. They are not to be divided amongst the party faithful as the spoils of electoral victory. Even if affirmative action to benefit the underprivileged & marginalised is a government policy (as it should), there still should be transparency & accountability. Indeed, as Mr. Thiruvenggadam himself alludes to in his statement, there are humongous issues about balanced development & marginalisation which need to be urgently addressed by the State government. However, to think that a race based spoils system will solve those problems is worse than folly.

In that respect, although YAB Tan Sri Khalid could have been more diplomatic in dealing with stakeholders, his principled stand & his political secretary Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad's statement to Malaysiakini is commendable. Clearly, PR needs to ensure that all its leaders understand the aims & principles of their struggle, and they should start by reading & understanding their respective manifestos first. No more gravy trains ala BN.

Enough about demands for special treatment. My main concern here is about Pakatan Rakyat leaders & how they operationalize good governance. Has good governance ever been in their agenda? Is the Pope Catholic? From day one, PR has been banging the drum of good governance as a tenet of their campaign, and as a unique selling proposition to differentiate themselves from BN. Let's look at the evidence of this (bold emphases are mine):

1. PKR's manifesto mentions good governance 2 times & transparent/cy 8 times, and promised to "Promote a fully transparent culture of openness in the awarding of government contracts and tenders, and granting awards based not on connections, but on competitiveness and track records."

2. PAS' manifesto mentions transparent/cy 7 times, and promised to "Put in place Best Practices in all Government departments, agencies and Government-Linked Companies as to provide transparency and accountability to uproot graft and corrupt practices. Public procurement must undergo open tender and those that involve mega projects must be subjected to an Independent Tender Board placed under the jurisdiction of the Parliament."

3. DAP's manifesto promised to "implement open and transparent tenders for all government contracts"

4. In the heady days after 8/3/08, this is what newly elected Petaling Jaya representatives had to say after their first meeting with the mayor and the heads of departments of the Petaling Jaya Municipal Council:

YB Elizabeth Wong: “We also informed MBPJ that our new state government is run on the basis of greater transparency and that is something we expect to see from the local council in terms of awarding contracts, tenders and development projects,

YB Sivarasa Rasiah:“Our new state government is built on a platform of more governance with zero-tolerance on corruption,”.

Obviously, there is no shortage of talk in PR about good governance & transparency. How about the walk? Let's see how they have responded to Mr. Thiruvenggadam's allegations:

Selangor MB: Show proof of impropriety in contracts allocation
PKR: Solid waste management allegations untrue
PKR rubbishes secret pact to dish out Alam Flora contracts
Contracts awarded on merit, says Liu

PR leaders' reactions to Mr Thiruvenggadam's allegations do not reflect their promises for transparency & good governance. No concrete actions (to my knowledge) have been taken as yet. Basically, all they have done is to deny any wrongdoing, assert that contracts are awarded on merit, and ask for proof of impropriety. In my humble opinion, this is woefully insufficient & inadequate. Mr. Thiruvenggadam's credibility notwithstanding, his allegations are too serious to be brushed aside with mere denials & assertions.

What is infinitely worse is this: Sivarasa: No harm making recommendations to Alam Flora. Although here (PKR denies Alam Flora contracts dished out to parties) YB seems to be against politicians choosing vendors, five paragraphs later he says this:"Individuals, and including leaders of political parties will make recommendations and we see no harm in that absolutely. That is quite normal and not a problem for us." In effect, YB Sivarasa seems to be saying that it is OK for politicians to recommend vendors to the contract awarding bodies. With all due respect YB, I beg to differ. It is immaterial that "This is a situation unlike a tender system in which firms with the lowest quotation gets the contract" or that "The decision-making at the end of the day lies in Alam Flora’s hands". Any selection of vendors and contractors is a situation where corruption can potentially occur. Therefore it must be done by the appropriate competent authority & must be done transparently, accountably & with the Rakyat's interests foremost, without undue interference from politicians. Incumbent politicians & elected reps favouring one vendor over another (and making it known to the authority via their recommendations) is interference in the selection process and is the first baby step down the slippery slope to political patronage, corruption, cronyism & nepotism.

I say again: politicians & elected representatives are there to ensure that the Rakyat's rights, interests, freedoms and safety are secured & protected. They have no business recommending any one party over another for contracts, jobs, titles, awards, sinecures, free nasi lemak, or any other favours. In some countries it is even against the law to do so.

DAP has made a statement calling for transparency & open tenders:
DAP: We would be no different from BN
DAP calls for competitive tenders in Selangor
Media Statement by Tony Pua in Petaling Jaya on Tuesday, 9th June 2009

That's a start, but DAP is a partner in Selangor's coalition government, with 3 out of 10 exco positions and 13 out of 36 PR state assembly seats. They need to do a lot more than just issue statements like a third party neutral observer. As for PAS, as far as I am aware, they have been missing in action on this issue.

Some of those statements by PR's leaders (especially YAB Tan Sri Khalid's request for proof, which is eerily reminiscent of old BN attitudes) seem to suggest that they have forgotten that they are accountable to the Rakyat. So, here's a thought. How about you (PR government) show us (the Rakyat whom you are supposed to be serving) why we should believe anything you say? Justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done. The onus is on you, PR, to prove to us what you assert. Nothing but full transparency & disclosure will convince us.

You can start by doing this:
1. Make public the details of all waste management contracts awarded during the tenure of PR governments & the last BN government. Include the details of successful vendors including their political affiliations and contributions (if any). How many contracts were awarded by BN & PR respectively?

2. Make public the contracts, relations & transactions between PR state & local authorities and Alam Flora regarding the awarding of waste management contracts, including the contract terms, matrix of responsibilities & accountabilities. How many percent of contractors are chosen by Alam Flora & State government respectively? Who choses for the State government, the politicians or civil servants? Where does the buck stop?

3. Make public the entire procurement process for waste management services, including pre-qualification criteria & selection processes, as well as any & all attempts to influence those processes by elected representatives and PR leaders. Expose the "tremendous competition to get the contracts renewed, with many firms unabashedly trying all ways and means, including using the political route and instigating state assemblymen and other politicians". Disciplinary action must be taken against those proven guilty. If everything is above board (as you say it is), prove it & clear your names.

4. Fully implement what you promised in your manifestos as well as the recommendations of Transparency International, as contained in the handbook "Curbing Corruption in Public Procurement" available here, for all public procurement in PR governed states. For goodness sake, realize that you will never get good results by fiddling around with a flawed legacy system. Cut the Gordian Knot, uproot the corruption & plant good governance, as you had promised. And if Alam Flora or any other concessionaire or party places unreasonable obstacles to this, please be so kind as to let the Rakyat know about it. We are not as stupid as politicians seem to think we are.

Complete steps 1, 2 & 3 within 5 working days. Complete Step 4 within 3 months from now. Can you do that?

Everyone knows that it's not easy changing a system that has been going on for 50 years. But PR leaders must never forget that is exactly the reason why we voted them in - we want them to lead the change. That we are in this situation more than a year after PRU-12 is simply unacceptable. PR need to quickly get their act together & deliver on their promises, or else they must step aside and allow others who are more committed and/or capable to do the job!

Malaysian Heart

UPDATE 18:15 12/6/09
Report from The Nut Graph - Audit committee to monitor contract in Selangor:

- The Selangor government will form an audit committee to monitor its waste management contracts to ensure that Selangor citizens are provided with value-for-money services

- ... this would curb the unhealthy and unethical practice of awarding contracts to brokers instead of genuine operators, which he said was rampant under the previous administration.
This is encouraging news. The Selangor state government must ensure that:
  1. the workings of the audit committee are open to public scrutiny & oversight
  2. There is no hint of political patronage in the awarding of contracts
  3. state officials, civil servants, elected & appointed reps & political leaders do not interfere in the contractor selection process
  4. good governance, transparency and accountability are fully implemented in the state
The Rakyat will be watching...

Read reactions from others here:
The Barisan Nasional disease
Selangor MB: Open tender system cannot be implemented within a year
Alam Flora contracts

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Dear Tun - Racism Vs. Demagoguery

Tun Dr. Mahathir posted an entry entitled DISHONOURING UMNO in which he wrote:

1. Why is it that when I defend UMNO or the Malays I am labelled a racist but not when others speak up for Chin Peng?

2. If speaking up for the Malays is considered racist then are the Malays to be denied their right to speak for themselves?

3. Liberalism is fine but it should not benefit only certain people and not others. By definition not benefiting certain people contradicts the very concept of liberalism.

4. I really don't think openly slugging it out on racial issues in Malaysia is healthy. But if that is what Malaysians want then they should be prepared to slug and be slugged.

This is my response to him:

Dear Tun,

Racism is defined as:
  1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
  2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
  3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

Therefore, until & unless it is shown that you indulge in any of the above, no one can justifiably call you a racist. Similarly, if you (or anyone else) believes that those who speak up for Chin Peng are racists, you need to show how they meet any of those same three criteria. As far as I am aware, they have made no such arguments, but I will stand corrected if anyone can show otherwise.

I too believe that "openly slugging it out" on any issue is not healthy. However, that must not mean that issues of National interest are decided behind closed doors by the elite few. All Malaysians need to be able to discuss these issues (even sensitive ones), calmly, rationally, with goodwill and without trying to incite racist sentiments, or succumbing to them. Leaders & statesmen (including your goodself) can help this by leading through example and encouraging Malaysians to look beyond communal one-upmanship to seek dialogue and consensus on shared concerns.

Sadly for Malaysia, some politicians, ex-politicians & media seem to believe that they will be more powerful by returning to the days before PRU-12 and even further back. Therefore they frame all issues in racial, religious or communal terms, and portray others as the enemies who seek to victimise & disposses.

While such actions and words are not necessarily racist, they constitute demagoguery, i.e. a strategy for gaining political power by appealing to the prejudices, emotions, fears and expectations of the public — typically via impassioned rhetoric and propaganda , and often using nationalist or populist themes. May God save us from such politicians, because in the end their message is just like that of the bully and the gangster, that Malaysians should shut up and comply or risk being "slugged".

I wish you and all in your family good health & happiness.

Malaysian Heart


Dear Readers,

Please join me in endorsing the following statement in order to protect and promote the right of all Malaysians to freedom of opinion & expression under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


We the undersigned are deeply disturbed by the call on the part of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) to have Sisters in Islam (SIS) banned and its members rehabilitated should its activities be determined to be contrary to the Islamic shariah. It is apparent to us that in making the call in the manner that it has, PAS has already formed the view that SIS should be banned and its activities brought to an end.

While we respect the freedom of members of PAS to associate in a manner that they consider appropriate or warranted as well as their freedom to express a view in association on such matters as they see fit, the members of SIS, or any other organization for that matter, are equally guaranteed those freedoms. No one person or organization has a monopoly over the right to express views on matter of public importance. The call to silence SIS and send its members for rehabilitation is an act of violence against those freedoms and their constitutional underpinnings. It also lends itself to further closure of the already narrow space of public discourse and debate that a slew of anti-expression laws have allowed Malaysians.

For Malaysia to mature into the democracy that Malaysians aspire to, it is vital that diversity, even of views, be protected and nurtured. Respect for the freedoms guaranteed to all Malaysians by the Federal Constitution, be they members of PAS or any other organization or simply individuals, is crucial to this endeavor.

The demand for action against SIS culminating in a ban is not easily reconciled with PAS public rhetoric in favour of a more democratic and inclusive Malaysia. On the contrary, the demand is wholly anti-democratic. We reiterate that though members of PAS are entitled to their views, the call for the banning of SIS is wholly unacceptable. As a matter of principle, the question of banning any organization purely for their views should not arise at all. Differences of views must be respected and, if at all, be resolved through constructive engagement.

In view of this, we urge PAS to reconsider its position and take such steps as are necessary to retract the call for action against SIS.

Signed by:


Please feel free to widely circulate this Statement to your contacts
for their endorsement as well.

Please send back your endorsement by 12 noon, Wednesday 10 June 2009 to HAKAM, c/o Azareena Aziz (, or fax it to +603-7785-8737

Read more here:
SIS says PAS ‘ban’ move anti-democratic
SIS (Sisters In Islam) Press Statement
Public petition against PAS resolution
Please endorse this by noon today 10/06/09
Joint Statement by Malaysian civil society on PAS resolution to ban Sisters in Islam (SIS)

Friday, June 5, 2009

Why is Lim Guan Eng not Respecting Press Freedom?

Some very disturbing news from Penang:

Utusan reporter asked to leave
Guan Eng tells Utusan reporter to leave

Why is Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng not respecting the freedom of reporters to do their job without fear or favour? Not so long ago DAP supported press freedom & was quick (& rightly so) to condemn any encroachment on these freedoms. Let's look at some evidence of this:

1. Press statement by Lim Guan Eng: DAP condemns the media blackout imposed by the government over the 20%-60% toll rates hike
2. Opposition parties call on Govt to free the press
3. DAP's 2008 election manifesto condemns that "...kerajaan terus menyekat kebebasan hak asasi manusia melalui ISA dan cengkaman kawalan media."
4. Press freedom and right of reply — Lim Guan Eng where he wrote: "I believe in an unfettered media that is free to speak and to inform but not free to lie or not give the right to reply."

Dear YAB lim, it is not for politicians & public servants to decide if a media outlet is lying or not. If you believe a particular media is lying, or not affording you the right of reply, expose their actions in the public eye, let the courts punish them if necessary, but never, never undertake prior censorship.

Please practice what you had preached to others, or else we will have no reason to trust your next manifesto. May I suggest that your administration adopt the ethos & suggestions of this letter by the Centre for Independent Journalism.

Malaysian Heart