Sunday, August 23, 2015

Prime Ministers and the Phenomenon of Power by Dr. Chandra Muzaffar

Given the situation in the country today, it would be useful for us to reflect on how Malaysian Prime Ministers have related to power. The attitude towards power is at the crux of some of the controversies that confront our nation at this point in time. 

It is not widely known that our first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, stepped down as Prime Minister for three months in 1959 in order to strengthen his party, the Alliance, for the Federal Election after it had lost two states, Kelantan and Terengganu, in the State Elections which at that time were held before the Federal contest. Giving up power in this manner which was extraordinary by any standard showed that the privilege of position was not central to his life. Tunku stated openly that it would be wrong of him to take his salary as Prime Minister when he would be concentrating upon party work. A few years later, in the wake of the Alliance’s electoral setbacks in the 1969 General Election, and amidst  growing criticism of his leadership, the Tunku decided that he would  relinquish his position as Prime Minister and President of UMNO, the mainstay of the ruling Alliance. He chose not to cling on to power. 

The Tunku’s successor, Tun Abdul Razak, exercised enormous power for a while as Director of the National Operations Council (NOC), established to restore law and order following the May 13th riot. Instead of perpetuating NOC rule --- which he could have --- Razak and other key leaders brought back parliamentary democracy. Razak preferred the limitations of democratic governance to the unfettered power of absolute authority. 

The third Prime Minister, Tun Hussein Onn, led the country for a little more than five years and had to quit because of ill-health. His graceful exit won the accolades of the people. 

Unlike his three predecessors, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, had a stronger attachment to power. He was Prime Minister for 22 years but even in his case he gave up his position voluntarily. It was a smooth transition to Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. 

Abdullah served only for five years and four months. The ruling Barisan Nasional’s failure to retain its two-third majority in the Federal Parliament and its defeat in five states made it difficult for Abdullah to continue as Prime Minister. He therefore chose to leave high office with dignity.

While in power, he created more space for dissent facilitated no doubt by the new media. Dissent in a democracy is the interrogation of power. His successor, Dato Sri Mohd Najib instituted specific democratic reforms through a Freedom of Assembly Act and by making some changes to the Printing and Publications Act and the University and University Colleges Act. Most of all, he did what none of his predecessors dared to do. He abolished the Internal Security Act (ISA) with its provision for detention without trial and the various Emergency Proclamations in September 2011.By doing so, he removed from the arsenal of the Executive some of its most powerful tools for dominance and control of society. Najib had subordinated power to principle.  

And yet in the last few months in the face of major controversies related to integrity and honesty, Najib has given the impression that he is determined to hold on to power come what may. Instead of facilitating and expediting investigations into 1MDB, he removed his two Cabinet colleagues --- Deputy Prime Minister, Tan Sri Mahyuddin Yassin and Minister Dato Seri Shafie Apdal --who were most vocal in demanding that the Cabinet fulfill its promise of ensuring that the truth about 1MDB be made known to the public. Najib and his allies have also stymied the work of various agencies entrusted with the task of uncovering the operations of the state-owned company by easing out former Attorney-General Tan Sri Gani Patail; transferring out and intimidating officials of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC); investigating Bank Negara personnel; and emasculating Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee by incorporating four of its members into the Executive branch of Government. What has angered and incensed a significant segment of the public even more is Najib’s  utter inability to provide an honest explanation for the 2.6 billion ringgit deposited into his personal bank account in 2013. Some of the ludicrous attempts by the Prime Minister’s friends to justify the huge amount in his account as a donation that has been utilized for UMNO and the BN and other good causes have done immense damage to his credibility.

Indeed, Najib’s credibility is at its nadir. Public confidence in him has sunk to a low level. There is a yawning trust deficit between him and the people.
To restore the people’s trust he should:-

1) Be honest and open about both 1MDB --- he is the Chairman of its Board of Advisers --- and the money in his account. A few of us have made this call a number of times. 

2) Publicly encourage the Auditor-General to complete his investigations as soon as possible and not wait till December.

3) Enable the PAC to resume its work immediately by completing the necessary processes without any delay.

4) Give full support to conscientious officers in the MACC to complete their investigations without fear or favor.

5) Publicly declare that since Bank Negara has submitted the results of its investigation to the Attorney-General and expects the AG to enforce its recommendations, the AG should act expeditiously. The AG should also act with courage on the recommendations of the MACC and the PAC when the time comes.

If the Prime Minister does not act in the interest of truth and integrity and the situation deteriorates further with all its consequences for the economy and politics, the calls for him to resign which are getting louder and louder will reach a crescendo soon.


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