BY GURDIAL SINGH NIJAR
(Deputy President, HAKAM)
As we usher in the New Year, it is time to reflect on the state of the nation – our hopes and our disappointments. We have much to be thankful for. After all, our nation is certainly not a seething cauldron of instability.
But at the same time there are disturbing trends, which if left to run their course makes for deep concern.
In this context I was reflecting on a piece by the conservative UK-based Economist magazine (“Stick-in-the-mud”, December 5, 2015).
It cited critics as identifying three “big risks” facing Malaysia. Let me set them out.
First, an erosion of the integrity of Malaysian institutions, from the judiciary to the central bank. Second, a more frequent resort to repression to stifle criticism. Finally, an ever-increasing (negative) role for race and religion.
When presented to several colleagues, their response was – well these are hardly startling revelations.
One said – look, our body politic is no longer perceived as before. Almost imperceptibly contamination has crept in – and coloured the vision of our nation. We are high on the world corruption index. There is ethnic scapegoating and increasing distrust of institutions.
If we are indeed a shadow of our past glory days, is there any prospect of moving beyond mere empty rhetoric to salvage the soul of the nation?
There has been optimistic note of good cheer by our leaders in their New Year messages.
But does the leadership need to do more – to mitigate, if not cure, the perceived ills.
The recent flurry of activity in Parliament to create a plethora of new laws suggests that there can indeed be swift action by our leaders. They can step up when they see it as necessary.
But then these laws are seen not as a panacea – but as feeding even further cynicism and despondency. Because they are seen as bestowing even greater powers to the decision-makers at the expense of the wider citizenry.
Alarmingly, suddenly mob rule has raised its ugly spectre. And there is of course the record number of criminal prosecutions against politicians, academics, cartoonists, social commentators and the like – under a law our erstwhile colonisers used to deal with a restive population striving for independence.
Many are getting rueful. If left to run its downward spiralling course what could happen?
Will standing idly by – and clicking our tongues in regret – bring any desirable change?
Perhaps one fruitful start may be to signal our wish list for this coming year.
Let’s start with three.
First, a wish that the law-and-order officialdom curb swiftly those who raise the ugly spectre of race and religion; and proceed against these social deviants with a vehemence deserving of those who would rip society apart for their narrow selfish ends.
Secondly, to restore the independence of the key institutions that safeguards the integrity of our country. Give them free play to fulfil their mandate – without let or hindrance.
In this context, the courts too need a vibrant resurrection. It’s time to measure the quality of justice. Is it, like the quality of mercy, seen as “falling as a gentle rain from heaven, upon the place beneath”, as Portia pleaded in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”?
Many of us still hark back to the halcyon days when judicial integrity formed the silent but firm bedrock on which stood the judiciary.
Also does not the abrupt removal of high officials jettison values that we have been upholding so assiduously these past many years?
As a Malay saying goes – a years’ sunshine can be wiped out by a days’ rain – although rain at the right season may shower blessings too – hujan rahmat!
Finally perhaps there is a need to review the charges of serious crimes – like sedition punishable with long jail terms.
In the public perception there is a wonderment why such inordinate time and effort of the police force and courts is tied up bringing to book ordinary folks trying to express themselves – no doubt sometimes a little too enthusiastically.
Do all this – and our blessed country can start on a high note; and lift the pall of doom and gloom. Then we can safely dissipate the “big risks” that other naysayers are predicting for us. – January 7, 2016.
Gurdial is professor at the Law Faculty, University of Malaya, and HAKAM Deputy President.