Dennis Ignatius: A new deal for Malaysia?

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The December 16 MOU signed between the political parties that comprise the unity government has come in for strong criticism. 

Bernama

The Opposition argues that Article 4 of the MOU – which stipulates that government MPs must support the prime minister on certain specific parliamentary motions and procedures or face automatic resignation – is unconstitutional, a prelude to dictatorship even. Not a few lawyers have opined that it may also not be legally binding and that it could set a dangerous precedent that could weaken rather than strengthen our democracy.

But Article 4 aside, the rest of the MOU is quite an illuminating document. It goes beyond the mechanics of consolidating and stabilizing the government’s majority in Parliament to making some far-reaching promises to all Malaysians by speaking to their hopes and addressing their anxieties head-on.

It promises, for example, to find the right balance between the rights and privileges of Malaysia’s different ethnic communities – emphasising the centrality of Islam, the Malay rulers, Bahasa Melayu and Malay rights while insisting that the rights and freedoms of others will not be neglected or sidelined.

It seeks to turn the page on decades of corruption and governmental abuse of power by promising a government that will uphold the rule of law, respect the independence of the judiciary and the fundamental rights of citizens including freedom of thought, speech, assembly and association.

Other areas covered under the MOU include a fair deal for the people of Sabah and Sarawak consistent with MA63, education reform, women’s rights, protection of the environment and helping all Malaysians on the basis of need rather than race.

Much of what is contained in the MOU is, of course, not new but what is refreshing is that Anwar Ibrahim has chosen to begin his term of office as prime minister by laying before the Malaysian people a set of promises by which we may judge his government’s performance.

No government before this has dared or cared enough to lay out such an agenda at the start of its term. And he has done so without the usual recourse to extreme racial or religious narratives.

No doubt, there are questions aplenty. Many will be sceptical, and with good reason too. MOUs are, after all, a dime a dozen in Malaysia. We all have a role to play in holding the government accountable, in ensuring Anwar lives up to his promises. We cannot afford to assume that this government is immune to the corrupting influence of power. We cannot be so afraid of it falling that we close our eyes to its misdeeds when they occur.

But if Anwar lives up to his promises, if he can convince especially the Malay electorate that his vision for Malaysia as outlined in the MOU is good for them and for the nation, I daresay that Malaysia might well be a different country by the end of his tenure.

He would have bought Malaysia the time and political stability it needs to begin to overcome legacy issues of race and religion, rebuild national unity from the ground up, reform the economy and strengthen its democratic foundations. At the very least, he would have stayed the hand of the extremists whose vision for Malaysia is too terrible to contemplate. – Dennis Ignatius