Advice to the PM


Farah Fahmy is based in London, and has written for the media. She is intrigued by trans- and international relations between Malaysia (ns) and the Rest of the World.

July 19, 2011

JULY 19 ó Dear Datuk Seri Najib Razak,

After your mishandling of the Bersih demonstration, I thought it only right that I offer you some advice. Of course, I am nothing more than just a citizen ó one who lives abroad, to boot. Still, hopefully youíll find my advice useful.

First of all, did any of your many advisers try to stop you from unleashing tear gas on those demonstrators? No? Well, my advice to you would be to sack the whole lot of them. You see Datuk Seri Najib, thereís one thing many people in Malaysia just donít seem able to understand (especially those in government!): demonstrations, in themselves, wonít tarnish the reputation of a country.

No, itís how the authorities respond to demonstrations that could hurt a countryís image.

How would I know? Easy. Iíve seen many a demonstration in Britain. People protesting against meddling in the countryside; people protesting against the war in Iraq; people protesting against student fees. Yes, there was public disorder during some of these demonstrations and allegations of police brutality, but you know what, none of it tarnished Britainís reputation. Why? Because the authorities here are accountable for their actions, and the police would be, and have been, called to account if there was even a whiff of impropriety.

Contrast this with the reputation of countries like Bahrain and Syria. Meeting demonstrators with violence is a recipe for disaster, and both countries have rightfully been condemned for the way they treat their own citizens.

And so, back to our own country. You claim that demonstrations are not part of our culture. Actually, whether demonstrations are our culture or not doesnít really matter, does it? What matters is the fact that there are Malaysians who are unhappy enough about the state of things to partake in a rally. Whether it was 6,000 or 50,000 is also a moot point ó forgive me for stating the obvious, but isnít it your job to serve all Malaysians, whether you agree with their views or not?

In any case, if you really want those foreign companies to invest in our country, threatening your own citizens is not the way to entice them in. Far better to show that we are a country thatís mature enough to embrace a whole host of diverse views, and that you yourself lead a government that is open to dialogue and discussion.

In fact, that was what you should have done from the outset. Great statesmen donít send in the FRU against demonstrators. Great statesmen listen to what people have to say, and are courageous enough to lead against popular opinion. A majority of Malaysians were against the demonstrators? So what? The acid test for a democracy is how it treats its minority: that minority isnít just those who are of a different race or religion, but also those who hold a different view from the majority. On that basis, unfortunately, if anyone was grading our country, weíd have failed miserably.

After all, what was the harm in starting a dialogue with Bersih? Their demands donít seem that outlandish to me. In fact, those demands would form the cornerstone of any electoral rule for a mature democracy. If the government still disagrees with Bersihís stand after discussions, then fine, come out and explain why. Weíre all adults, arenít we?

Following the demonstration, there have been plenty of accusations that Bersih is partisan. Again I ask: so what? What does it matter if an NGO is supported by the opposition? If what is being fought for is for the good of all Malaysians, then what does it matter whether that particular cause is supported by the opposition or not?

The Malays have a saying: buang yang keruh, ambil yang jernih. Not everyone who disagrees with the government is out to destabilise the country; some of us genuinely want to better ourselves and our country. In Britain the political parties are not above copying each otherís ideas (and anyone elseís, for that matter) if they think the ideas are good; in Malaysia unfortunately we seem to have fallen into the trap of thinking that anything that doesnít emanate from the government must be bad. In this, the path towards mediocrity and stagnation lies: how can we innovate and move forward if we donít question ourselves and embrace change where it is needed?

Holding a proper, independent inquiry would also help. I note that the Health Ministry will be investigating allegations that tear gas and water cannons were fired into Tung Shin Hospital. Well, thatís a step in the right direction, but even better would be an inquiry led by an independent body, not a governmental one.

As you were only just recently in the UK, you can do no worse than to see how the UK handles such things (not perfectly, but still better than Malaysia). If you read the news, you might even have noticed that Rupert Murdoch will be facing a UK House of Commons Culture Committee to answer questions on the phone-hacking scandal. The Commons Committee, in case you werenít aware, is made up of MPs from different political parties. Why not, as a first step to restore your credibility, establish a similar parliamentary body to investigate the Tung Shin allegations?

Alternatively, you could emulate David Cameron and establish a public inquiry into what went wrong. Did the police act without provocation, as some allege? Or did protestors instigate the violence, as others allege? Were people prevented from reaching medical help? Were the tear gas and water cannons necessary, or were there other things that could have been done to disperse people peacefully? Was it lawful to declare the demonstration unlawful, given that our constitution gives us the right to ďassemble peaceablyĒ?

These are all important questions that need answering. In the UK the judge leading the phone-hacking inquiry has the power to summon media owners, editors and politicians to give evidence under oath. Believe me, the reputation of our country would be enhanced, not tarnished, if we had a similar inquiry.

Finally, I would end my advice by quoting another Malay saying: Berani kerana benar, takut kerana salah. My advice would probably be highly unpopular in many quarters, and there will be those who say to do these things would be to invite questions on ďsensitiveĒ matters. I say, a true leader is one who convinces people to go along with him, even when many donít agree. So, forget the past and think about the future. Malaysians of today are not the same as Malaysians of 1969. Transparency, accountability and openness are things to be embraced, not feared.

Well, as I said, Iím only a citizen. Doubtless you will have plenty of advice, Datuk Najib. I only hope some of mine is of use to you, for the sake of our country.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.