Former ambassador Dennis Ignatius laments what a disappointing year it has been, with hope now turning to despair.
It’s been more than a year since our “new” government came to power. I was there outside the gates of Istana Negara, alongside thousands of other excited Malaysians, waiting for Dr Mahathir Mohamad to be sworn in as prime minister that May night. There was so much hope and excitement that we had finally turned the page on decades of corruption, the abuse of power and disrespect for human rights.
Mahathir later captured that sense of excitement and hope in his UN speech when he said that Malaysians want a nation that “will firmly espouse” the principles promoted by the UN including “truth, human rights, the rule of law, justice, fairness.” And then he gave a pledge to an admiring world that the new government of Malaysia would “ratify all remaining core UN instruments related to the protection of human rights”.
What a disappointing year it has been! Hope is now turning to despair. Today, it’s hard to even imagine that some of these Pakatan Harapan (PH) politicians were the same ones who campaigned last year on a platform of democratic transformation.
During the election campaign (and in its manifesto), PH politicians repeatedly pledged to repeal oppressive, anti-democratic legislation that had been introduced over the years essentially to keep Umno-BN in power. Several PH politicians were themselves victimised and incarcerated by Umno-BN under these laws.
It didn’t take them long, however, to renege on these promises. In office, they suddenly became defenders of the very laws they once opposed. Even Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo, once fearless in his opposition against all things undemocratic, became a defender of the status quo. He was quoted as saying (in January this year) that the government chose to lift a freeze on several controversial security laws because there is “concern over the threat to national security, public order and race relations.”
How many times have we heard Umno-BN politicians offer the same excuses to justify laws that ought to have no place in any democracy worthy of its name?
Of course, Umno like, he also sought to reassure the public that the government will only use these laws “in exceptional” cases, but don’t these PH politicians realise that the issue is about putting an end to such anti-democratic legislation so that no government, present or future, will ever be able to terrorise the people again the way Umno-BN did?
And enough has been said about their spineless retreat on ICERD and ICC. So much for solemn pledges.
Earlier this week, we were also treated to yet another example of our new government’s utter disdain for human rights and justice. After stonewalling and dragging their feet for months, the home minister finally announced the formation of a rather nebulous “task force” to look into the enforced disappearances of Amri Che Mat and Pastor Raymond Koh.
Shockingly, the task force was stacked heavy with former police and government officials despite the fact that the Suhakam enquiry clearly implicated the police in the disappearances. There wasn’t even the pretence of impartiality and independence. Even the choice to head the task force immediately set off alarm bells.
And yet the prime minister summarily dismissed these concerns with an offhand remark that “we cannot please everyone.” It’s not about pleasing anyone; it’s about meeting minimum standards of justice, impartiality and integrity without which any investigation is meaningless.
Is this an effort to bury the truth or uncover it? If the families of Amri and Koh can’t find justice in Malaysia Baru, all the talk about reform and change means nothing.
In the same week that the meaningless task force on missing persons was announced, Minister in charge of religious affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa was touring China’s restive Xinjiang province. After going on what was certainly a “guided tour” – where you see and hear exactly what they want you to see and hear – he gushed about how wonderful China’s “vocational and training institutions” for Uighurs are and how they carry out “industrial training activities and teach a variety of skills such as sewing, legal class, arts and flower arrangements.” Can anyone be so naïve?
Credible reports from multiple sources indicate that more than a million Uighurs are languishing in vast concentration camps. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, the Chinese government has embarked upon a systematic programme of intimidation, arrest and torture of its Uighur population. Their religion, language and culture are being suppressed while their ancient lands are being overwhelmed by migrants from other parts of China.
What is happening in Xinjiang is nothing short of a crime against humanity and yet a minister of Malaysia Baru allows himself to be used as part of China’s efforts to whitewash it. His insinuation that reports of Uighur mistreatment were simply “fake news” must have been music to the ears of his hosts, the Communist Party of China. No doubt they will now use his visit to further justify their oppression of the hapless Uighurs.
His “imbecilic” (to quote one respected local observer) statements are an affront to all Malaysians who care about human rights and human dignity both home and abroad.
It has become the norm for PH leaders to respond to criticism by pleading for more time but time is not the issue; it’s their commitment to human rights that is now in question. Where once they were staunch in their support for human rights and justice, they now stand meekly behind Mahathir grinning and nodding as he abandons one promise after another.
Don’t get me wrong: I have no regrets about voting for PH – for all their faults, they are better than Umno-BN but I can no longer hide my disappointment with their performance, especially on the human rights file.
And once again, I find myself wishing that we had a genuine and credible alternative to the ruling party. The truth is power corrupts; it makes once staunch human rights advocates forget their own struggle for freedom, forget the promises that were made, forget the hope that brought them to power. What a difference a year in power can make. – FMT
The views expressed are those of the author.