Guest Blogger: KIM QUEK
Almost by stealth, the government has just quietly introduced a constitutional amendment that will have an important impact on Malaysia ’s course of history.
On Nov 20, minister Nazri Abdul Aziz tabled for first reading the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2007 that seeks to extend the retirement age of members of election commission (EC) from 65 to 66. This bill will be tabled for second and third reading on Dec 11.
This lightning move to amend the constitution is obviously to enable current EC chairman Rashid Rahman - due for mandatory retirement on coming Dec 31 when he reaches 65 - to preside over a critical general election that may take place soon.
Rashid is a virtual UMNO functionary, having faithfully served to advance the political fortunes of UMNO led coalition Barisan Nasional through unabashed gerrymandering at every constituency re-delineation exercise in the past few decades. Our memories are still vivid of his shameful conduct as EC chairman in the Ijok by-election in April 2007 – an election so scandalized that it rendered election Malaysian style meaningless. Apart from committing every election sin imaginable in that by-election, BN’s open and massive bribery - spending tens of millions of public funds on a constituency of only 12,000 voters in a matter of days prior to polling – was virtually crying out for punishment. And yet, in the face of such blatant challenge to his authority, EC chairman Rashid not only fail to blow the penalty whistle as an umpire should, but instead had abetted the crime by endorsing such bribery as legitimate government expenses.
The mammoth street rally in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 10 to hand over a petition for electoral reforms to the King was the culmination of accumulated frustration and despair at the hopelessly biased electoral system that has gone from bad to worse, for which Rashid must bear major responsibility.
EC NEUTRALITY IMPERATIVE
Democracy cannot exist without elections. Similarly, a country with a critically defective election system that heavily favours one contestant to the deprivation of its opponent is not a democracy, for the simple reason that the winner is a fake. Such a fake does not represent the will of the majority – the very definition of democracy.
For the electoral system to work, it is imperative that EC remains neutral. For this reason, EC has been accorded the same degree of independence as the judiciary, by having its members’ terms of service decided by Parliament. Once appointed by the King, a EC member cannot be removed without going through the same elaborate process as that for the removal of a judge – by a tribunal appointed by the King.
In fact, our Constitution has shown even greater respect to the independent status of EC by having its members appointed by the King without the mandatory “advice” by the prime minister as in the case of appointment of judges. This ensures that the appointee is not obligated to the Exeuctive. In the appointment of chairman and members of EC, all the King needs to do is to consult the Conference of Rulers and to ensure that individuals so selected enjoy public confidence” (Article 114 of the Constitution).
Hence, there is enough constitutional protection to allow the EC to operate in comfort and security as an independent institution free from interference from the incumbent political power. There is certainly no justification for Rashid to adopt the mentality of being subservient to the Executive as revealed in his interview with Malaysiakini listed on 10th Oct 2003 . When asked whether EC was meant to be an independent body, Rashid answered: “ No, never ever. You look at the constitution, what does it say? That there shall be a commission that enjoys the public confidence. It does not say ‘an independent commission’”.
With such mentality, is there any wonder why EC has always been regarded as an indispensable instrument to perpetuate the political hegemony of UMNO?
And without an impartial EC, how can we ensure that the power to rule is vested with the people and not hijacked by the entrenched incumbent?
Rashid’s impending retirement has offered the nation a golden opportunity to kick start serious reforms in our electoral system. We therefore appeal to the King to exercise his power to appoint a new chairman that truly commands public confidence who can detach the EC from the clutches of the ruling party. For that, we respectfully suggest that the King should not confine his consideration to only the prime minister’s candidate, but would also cast his sight over the wide spectrum of civil society to select the most suitable person, on whose leadership much of our hope on restoration of democracy depends.
TRIVIALISING THE CONSTITUTION
Turning now to the impending constitutional amendment, the present attempt by UMNO to trivialize the Constitution through gun-shot amendment for political expediency must be deplored in the strongest language. Today, we are asked to approve an overnight constitutional amendment to accommodate Rashid. What if a future EC chairman has fallen out of favour - another lightning constitutional amendment to cut short his service?
UMNO must be reminded that the Constitution is the solemn agreement cementing the consensus reached among the country’s founding fathers who represent various racial and religious factions. It should not be lightly altered. Where alteration is desirable and inevitable, it should only be done with consensus after the widest consultation possible, so as to preserve societal harmony.
For this reason, the constitutions of democracies are rarely amended. Take the case of US. In its 231 year history, it has only amended the constitution 27 times (mostly single amendment), the last being in 1992. And in Singapore , which has similar historical background as Malaysia , the constitution has been amended only 4 times, the last being in 1991. In contrast, Malaysia has already amended its constitution well over 40 times (mostly multiple amendments) consisting of not less than 650 individual amendments. These figures speak for themselves as to the low priority our successive BN leadership has placed on the sanctity of law and the preservation of rule of law.
COMING ELECTION CRITICAL
Why did I say earlier that the coming election is critical? This is because Malaysia has never descended so low as under the present leadership of Abdullah Badawi, while the opposition is well poised to mount the challenge for power under the leadership of Anwar Ibrahim who is generally accepted as a viable and more desirable alternative to the incumbent. An impartial EC at this moment will certainly help to reduce the extreme lop-sidedness of the present playing field, thus offering the country the first real chance in breaking off from antiquated corrupt rule of UMNO, which is gradually but surely bringing the nation to the precipice of calamity.
Just look at the incessant titanic scandals that have been bombarding our senses in recent days. To name a few, on the corruption front, we have the nation’s top crime busters – deputy home security minister, IGP & ACA chief - simultaneously investigated for corruption and exonerated dubiously; the RM 4.6 billion “Ghost Town” in Port Klang; the RM 6.7 billion naval vessel contract defaulted; Sarawak chief minister’s embroilment in logging corruption suits. At the judiciary scene, we were shocked by the release of Eric Chia of the RM 13 billion Perwaja losses fame, after one decade of investigations and trial; the grisly Mongolian murder with links to top political hierarchy and its subsequent sham investigations and trial; the Lingam video clip that reveals manipulation of justice and judges at the highest level.
While the nation is battered by an endless stream of scandals, the prime minister’s spin doctors are merrily spinning “economic corridors” everywhere – to the south, north and east coast, and very soon across the ocean to Sabah and Sarawak . With corruption and the rule of law deteriorating by the day, these “corridors” will eventually meet the same faith as their predecessors in the Mahathir era – evaporation into thin air. The only difference is: Abdullah calls these “corridors” while Mahathir called them “economic triangles” such as Johor-Singapore-Batam triangle to the south, Malaysia-Thailand-Sumatra triangle to the north, and Malaysia-Phillipine-Kalimantan triangle to the east. These “triangles” are of course never heard of nowadays.
Meanwhile, the quality of our education system continues its unrelenting slip, as for the first time, none of our twenty odd public universities could squeeze into the top 200 of the prestigious THES World Universities Rankings (Times Higher Education Supplement).
The ruling power may be unfazed by these bad news, nestling in the thought that they are well insulated from the wrath of public opinion through the protective shield of local press and TV, which often act as the regime’s propagandists. But market forces are merciless. They mete their punishment to a governance run foul through crippling economic competition and hollowing out of investment.
For the first time, Malaysia’s FDI outflow equals FDI inflow for 2006 (inflow USD 6.1 billion against outflow USD 6.0 billion), as reported in World Investment Report 2007 published by UNCTAD (United Nation Conference of Trade and Development) on 16th October 2007. This is most unusual for a developing economy, and it signifies the troubling scenario of capital flight arising from dwindling investment opportunity due to loss of competitiveness. In contrast, the FDI outflow/FDI inflow ratios for our neighbours are: 36% for Singapore , 8% for Thailand and 61% for Indonesia . It is pertinent to note that even in an advance economy like Singapore, its FDI outflow is only one third of FDI inflow, which stands at USD 24.2 billion – 4 times ours.
Malaysians who regularly get their ration of news from the Internet – as distinct from those only read the local press and watch the local TV - should have no problem understanding why Malaysia continues to slip against its neighbours in competitiveness. The inevitable conclusion is: the UMNO led anachronistic conglomerate of racial parties has long outlived its legitimate political life-span. It is time that we turn to a new leadership to check the present regression and steer the nation towards the path of genuine integration and growth.
And the restoration of neutrality to the election commission at this stage is one big step towards realizing this objective, for which we must put our full weight to ensure a competent EC chairman is appointed.