Opinion: A Call for Democratic Reform in Malaysia

This weekend, Malaysia will have a mammoth 34-hour “Bersih 4” rally in the national capital Kuala Lumpur and regional capitals Kuching and Kota Kinabalu in East Malaysia. Hundreds of thousands are expected to color the cities yellow, echoed by the Malaysian diaspora in 56 cities worldwide.

“Bersih” means “clean” in Malaysia’s national language. It is the fourth rally organized by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih), a coalition now consisting of 88 civil society groups, which I chair.

The previous Bersih rallies held in 2007, 2011 and 2012, – all in yellow, our official color – had sought to advance Malaysia’s democratization process, by not only demanding for electoral reforms, but also catalyzing citizens to take ownership of their country.

This time, we are calling for clean elections, a clean government and the right to dissent, so that we may strengthen parliamentary democracy and save our ailing economy.

We are also calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak. He chaired a state development company, 1MDB, which is now RM42 billion in debt with dubious dealings. Funds related to 1MDB totaling nearly US$700 million were found to have gone into his personal accounts in Malaysia, before nearly all of it was transferred back to another personal account in Singapore, which was closed after the funds were transferred out somewhere overseas.

Najib and his ministers have been quoted in news reports effectively saying that the money was used as a slush fund to win the 2013 general elections. His coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) won the poll with only 47 percent of votes but 60 percent of the parliamentary seats due to extensive malapportionment and gerrymandering of the constituencies.

In any decent parliamentary democracy, a prime minister implicated in corruption of such scale would have been investigated for corruption and/or election misconduct by the police and charged if there is sufficient evidence.

But before that, the prime minister might have resigned, been ousted by his parliamentary caucus or defeated in the parliament through a vote of confidence. In the best scenario, with the consent of head of state for parliamentary dissolution, he would be fighting a fresh election.

Unlike executive presidents who enjoy full-term tenure unless being impeached, prime ministers in a parliamentary democracy serve only as long as they enjoy the confidence of the Parliament.

Najib has instead responded by disarming and silencing his critics. He threatened to sue the Wall Street Journal, suspended two local business dailies and blocked an investigative news portal for exposing the 1MDB scandals.

He sacked his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin and another senior minister for questioning him on the matter. The Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was paralyzed with ministerial appointments which effectively removed its chair and three other members.

A multi-agency special taskforce on the 1MDB scandal was dismantled, with the Attorney-General abruptly removed, and officials from the Central Bank and Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) arrested and investigated.

Already hit by the 6 percent Goods and Services Tax (GST) imposed in May to replenish the state coffers, Malaysia’s economy is on a free fall as the assault on public institutions hurts market confidence.

The Malaysian ringgit has depreciated below the levels of RM4 to US$1 and RM3 to S$1. The Malaysian and Singaporean currencies were on par in value when the two countries split exactly 50 years ago.

The Bersih 4 rally will end just before the nation’s independence celebration on Aug. 31. In Kuala Lumpur, the rally venue will be in the vicinity of Merdeka Square, where the first announcements of Merdeka –Independence – were made in 1957 by Tunku Abdul Rahman, the father of the country

But this is neither another Arab Spring nor another color revolution. Malaysia’s struggle for democracy is completely different from those of the Arab countries for two reasons.

First, Malaysia started off as a democracy in 1963 when four former British colonies – Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore – merged. Second, we are multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual while having a Malay-Muslim majority.

The first fact made us a Westminster parliamentary democracy with constitutional monarchs at both federal and state levels. The second fact, many pundits believe, poses a challenge to democracy or even statehood.

Najib’s institutional might to defy all democratic checks and balances stems from the dominance of ethno-religious politics in Malaysia.

His United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has ruled Malaya and later Malaysia in coalition since 1955, two years before Malaya’s independence.

When a Sino-Malay riot broke out in Kuala Lumpur after the ruling coalition suffered significant setbacks in the 1969 elections, his father and then Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Razak took the opportunity to turn the country into a de facto one-party state with elections.

The party-state has three pillars: electoral manipulation, suppression of dissent and the New Economic Policy (NEP) that privileges the Malay-Muslims to tie them to UMNO.

The one-party state morphed into personal rule under 23 years of Mahathir Muhamad’s premiership.

Dry Mahathir made the seat of prime minister more powerful than an executive president by sacking top judges, taming the Parliament, and creating a huge Prime Minister’s Department (PMD) that makes even the cabinet a rubber stamp.

Today, in Najib’s 37-member cabinet, 11 are placed in the Prime Minister’s Department and Razak also holds the powerful Finance portfolio, a convention set by Mahathir.

Mahathir, once Najib’s pivotal backer, has turned around to be his strongest critic. The former premier wants Najib to resign to save UMNO and revive his old-style authoritarianism.

For Bersih, we don’t want to just change a corrupt prime minister. We want to change a political system that produces corrupt, authoritarian politicians in the name of ethno-religious nationalism. We don’t want a revolution. We want a smooth transition from a decaying one-party state to a vibrant multiparty democracy. That cannot happen in another Arab Spring.

We have dared Najib to do two things. First, promise safety for the Bersih 4 rally so that he could dismiss us if Malaysians don’t support our call. Second, seek a vote of confidence in the Parliament after the rally – if he has the backing of the Parliament, then regardless of the rally’s size, we accept his right to stay in power.

Unsurprisingly, Najib has ignored our challenges. He instead falls back to communalism to defend corruption. His spin doctors are now saying the US$700 million is a donation from Arab royals to fight an opposition purportedly controlled by the Jews.

While the Inspector-General of Police threatens us with arrests, thuggish groups are making open threats to rough up Bersih protesters. We experienced both police violence and the threat of riots in the Bersih 2 rally in 2012.

Paradoxically, police violence has united Malaysians asking for democracy and good governance. Under fire of water cannons and tear gas, we realized we are not each other’s enemy despite our differences in ethnicity, faith, language and social class.

We went to the streets to seek democracy, only to find the nation we have long been denied, crying as we sang our national anthem Negaraku [My Country] in the streets. We felt we were truly independent, overcoming both our distrust of each other and our fear of government. Bersih has proved to be a vehicle of not only democracy, but also of patriotism.

This time we Malaysians will rise again to the occasion. We will prove that diversity is not an obstacle to democracy.

As corruption destroys us, where communalism divides us, democracy will unite and heal us. Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!

Maria Chin Abdullah is chairman of the Bersih political reform NGO. This was written for Asia Sentinel.