Keynote address by Anwar Ibrahim, Opposition Leader, on the eve of Malaysia Day, 15th September 2014 at the Penang Institute
As we approach the 51st anniversary of the formation of our nation, we find ourselves asking the fundamental question yet again ‘what are we celebrating?’
Indeed, the term ‘independence’ is often used without a true appreciation of what it really means and signifies. Defined in our historical context, Independence for Malaya was freedom from British colonial rule officially granted on August 31st 1957. For Sarawak, it was the 22nd July 1963 supposedly given on the condition that Sarawak would, together with Sabah, join the Federation of Malaysia on 16 September 1963.
But that is the simplistic, if not entirely superficial, understanding of Independence where it is celebrated more by the appreciation of its form and colour and less by substance and true significance.
When the true substance of Independence is ignored or, when the powers that be consider it “…more honoured in the breach than the observance” then it is time again to take stock of things.
To my mind, independence has to mean among other things liberation fromoppression. In the historical context, it was liberation from the British colonial master. But history has not ended because we know that the post-war independence that was gained by most of the countries of Asia and Africa was eventually supplanted by a new-fangled oppression imposed from within by the powers that be.
So, for most of these countries, what was supposed to be the end of an era of oppression in reality saw the birth of a new era of tyranny and injustice, which turned out to be more insidious than the one it replaced.
How our independence went astray
For Malaysia, our attainment of independence was followed by the initial yearsof growth and development as a free nation.
However, it was interrupted by the outbreak of ‘Confrontation’ with Indonesiaand the mass arrests that ensued and subsequently that dark patch known as May 13. But the interaction between the Opposition and the ruling government saw intense and vibrant debates in Parliament, and our new found freedom wasas palpable as it could realistically be at that point in time.
However, as we moved into the last three decades, the path that should have taken us to the next level of political maturity and stability as a truly independent nation went off the track and took us instead to a new era of oppression, marked by harsh police crackdowns, mass arrests and detentions without trial and government lording over the people with impunity.
We cannot have true independence when repressive laws of the colonial era that should have been repealed with the passage of time still remain in our statute books.
Now, not only are these laws still in force, they are being used with a renewed vengeance and rigour. The Sedition Act, for example, is now employed as a newweapon of mass oppression.
To my mind, not only is this a negation of true independence, but the recent spate of arbitrary arrests and selective prosecution of Pakatan Rakyat leaders as well as lawyers doing their job and even academicians represents a gross affront to the democratic process and signifies a breakdown in the rule of law.
Hijacking democracy and the electoral process
It is a blatant and shameless attempt by the UMNO-BN government to hijack democracy by having duly elected law makers from Pakatan to be denied their legitimate representative capacities and disqualified from contesting in the subsequent by-elections. In doing so, they are attempting to stifle the voices of the rakyat.
Democracy is being hijacked and the electoral process is being undermined.True independence would mean that such abuse of power by the Executive will and cannot be tolerated.
It is an attack on the very foundation of our constitution which guarantees freedom from arbitrary arrests and prosecution. It violates the democratic process which renders elected representatives to be duty-bound to speak for the people against injustice and abuse of power.
Meanwhile, racist remarks and speeches by UMNO ministers and MPs aregiven full media coverage by UMNO’s propaganda network machine with complete impunity. Extreme right-wing groups and countless other racistorganizations continue to spread and incite communal hatred. Racists andpurveyors of religious extremism get off scot free while those who speak the truth for the sake of a better, more harmonious Malaysia are treated as criminals.
True Independence means that we must reject these archaic laws and that the maxim everyone is equal before the law must be observed strictly.
The concept of Federalism and Malaysia
Malaysia is in theory a Federation of states buttressed by the Federal Constitution. However, when we go through the Federal List, it would soon begin to dawn on us that we are more a unitary state.
The concept of federalism entails a division of power between the federalgovernment and the state governments while in a unitary state, power is centralised. A rather common misperception is that we cannot afford real federalism or decentralization because this diverse country will fall apart. Calls for decentralization are therefore often dismissed as conspiracies to undermine the nation-state or worse still, viewed askance as campaigns for separation.
Nothing could be further from the truth. True federalism ensures proportionate allocation of power so that all component states can work as separate unitswhile the overall federal structure remains firm and intact. This is essential to allow the Federal Government to move the nation forward as a sovereign state recognised in the international community.
To maintain cohesiveness as a multi-cultural multi-religious nation, all national policies must be inclusive and sensitive to the fundamental rights of the diverse communities.
Collective platform approach
True federalism can only be realised where there is a collective platform approach in first ensuring real independence.
Regardless of partisan affiliation, a pre-requisite must be the sharing of the values that will form the bed rock for a nation to maintain true independence. These are none other than respecting and honouring the fundamental rights and liberties as enshrined in the charter for statehood; cherishing and defending justice for all regardless of ethnicity, regional background, social class or religious calling; and last but not least subscribing to the basic principles of democracy and rule of law.
These values are not to be merely proclaimed for political expediency, trumpeted about when the occasion demands or articulated wantonly in public forums for the sake of grandstanding.
They must be sincerely believed in, actualised through word and deed and when push comes to shove held on to even at the risk of losing political power. For power gained through unprincipled means will be illegitimate power and all actions derived therefrom will be likewise illegitimate.
For Pakatan Rakyat, developments in the last two months have demonstrated a case of acute consensus deficiency flaring into open disputes and unwarranted washing of dirty linen in public. They should have been resolved if all members adhered to the shared values on a common platform.
In respect of the states under Pakatan rule, it must be reiterated that true independence must compel us to subscribe to the rule of law and the established process of Parliamentary democracy as well as to honour and respect our system of constitutional monarchy.
The words and actions of Pakatan leaders must reflect this conviction. They must reflect what Pakatan is fighting for. And in all situations, they must reflect a faithful adherence to the precepts and principles of the Orange Book.
Admittedly, people are beginning to question whether our words and actions do indeed reflect these shared values and perspectives. On the contrary, some are convinced that the rhetoric that is being spewed out by some of the leadersactually run counter to our shared values.
The tyranny of the majority
Ours is a “majoritarian democracy” highlighted by a concentration of power in the hand of winners while the losers are excluded from participating in any kind of power sharing. The inherent problem of such a system is the possibility of tyranny of the majority.
It was Edmund Burke who said that “The tyranny of a multitude is a multiplied tyranny.”
But in theory, federalism in our system which incorporates the Senate representing state interests in our Parliament should have served as a good check to the majoritarian tendency and move us more towards an alternative, “consensus democracy”. Unfortunately, our federalism is overly centralized and our Senate is, with all due respect, essentially incapable of advancing the states’ interest.
Some stark examples of the tyranny of the majority have been unfolding and threatening the sensitive social fabric of our multi-religious and multi-racial society. We know the myriad problems caused by the insistence of certain members of one community on disallowing the use of certain words they claimto be exclusive to them; or the demand that the religious books of onecommunity cannot be translated into a certain language.
The community that feels victimised naturally insists on its fundamental rights. The more dominant group threatens retaliation. That is unwarranted and confrontational. There is no reasoned discourse. It is less about theology than about generating mass psychology.
Bahasa Malaysia as the national identity
Language identity as a nation cannot be separated from its sovereignty. Anyproposal to enhance federalism without giving pride of place to Bahasa Malaysia as the national unifying language for all Malaysians is doomed to fail.
Thus, the position of Bahasa Malaysia must not be questioned at all. This is a struggle not just for the champions of the language but a conviction for all of us regardless of our mother tongue. While no community may be denied its fundamental right to its native tongue, Malay is the only language that will bind us linguistically as a nation.
We should be guided by such an overriding principle so as to maintain unity in diversity while preserving national sovereignty as a nation and this can done without an overconcentration of centralised power.
Rather than being fixated on amassing power at the centre, the Federal government must seriously consider a general decentralisation agenda that will add invaluable economic synergies and cultural empowerment to the states regardless whether they are controlled by Pakatan or Barisan Nasional.
To ensure the preservation of the national statehood, essential matters covered in the Federal List such as national defence, internal order and security and raising revenue should never be compromised.
Governance and accountability
Often, the discourse on decentralization and true federalism proceeds without sufficient thought being given to the issue of governance and accountability.
This cannot be overstated for decentralization from the federal nexus of powercould lead to over-centralization to the respective states. This in turn may generate an overconcentration of power and the host of problems that will accompany power that is unchecked. Even without this devolution we can see the level and magnitude of power abuse and corruption in certain states where governance proceeds without the slightest regard to demands of transparency and accountability. Therefore, the devolution of central power must go hand in hand with putting in place a system of checks and balances.
To conclude, true federalism can only proceed from true independence. The notion that we cannot afford real federalism lest the country will fall apart has no basis in truth. Calls for devolution of power from the Federal government must never be associated with campaigns for separation. As true federalism ensures proportionate allocation of power, decentralization will enhance thestrength of the Federal Government and positively contribute to its consolidation as a sovereign state recognised in the international community.