Sunday, December 6, 2009

Government of the individual, by the individual, for personal clients?

The Star dated 4 December 2009 carried an interesting news report on the front page with the caption ‘Mother’s tears pays off with citizenship for girl’. It recounts how, Mrs Chong , a distraught mother waited for eight hours to meet Datuk Seri Hishamuddin personally at the UMNO generally assembly in October to plead the case of her daughter’s  citizenship. Her persistence had paid off, with her 17 year old daughter being granted Malaysian citizenship on 3 December 2009.

Shedding tears of joy, the 45 year old mother recounted her story: ‘ I met the minister at 6 pm on that day and at 7 pm, I received a call from his press secretary to enquire about my daughter Vivien Wong’s application.’ She continues with evident and justified gratitude: ‘Her citizenship application was approved in less than a month, thanks to Hishamuddin”

I am happy for Mrs Chong and her daughter Vivien Wong on their success. Kudos to Datuk Seri Hishamuddin for his attention in clearing the matter.  As human story, the episode is indeed touching and heartwarming. It portrays a mother’s love and devotion, the wonderful gift of precious citizenship to a young girl and the gallant act of a political leader while in office. It bespeaks of  benevolent leadership and a caring government, augering well for the nation.

And yet the story strikes me precisely how our democratic Malaysian nation should not be! A democracy and its institutions should be about impartial laws and policies, accompanied by due process in their implementation. The doctrine of the rule of law ensures all parties are clear as to their responsibilities and rights, be it with the leaders as well as citizens. The laws and principles function objectively or justly, where the citizens can expect some measure of reliability and certainty as to their hope and expectation.  Of course there are always some grey areas for judgment- call and discretion on the part of the executive, but in great measure the rule of law demands impartiality and objectivity in its operation based on clear principles.

In this regard, to my mind, the case of Mrs Chong and Vivien raises many questions as to the soundness of our democracy.  Why did she had to beg and plead the case in those circumstances before being accorded the due attention and necessary action. It took more than a decade before she could make any headway and even then it was through her resolve and desperate act of which we read. Would Vivien’s citizenship application have been processed in not for the act of personal pleading or ‘begging’ on the part of Mrs Chong?  Could there be many other similar cases pending for decades simply because other mothers had not seen the light to plead their case in similar fashion as Mrs Chong?

To me, the case should have been a straight forward one, to be decided on clearly defined laws, policies and principles. It is either Vivien was entitled to citizenship or  she was not, to be decided impartially or objectively according to due process of the law or policy, leaving a minimal ground for personal arbitrariness. Accordingly, Mrs Chong pleading and desperation should not have been necessary, nor would the ‘gallantry’ of Hishamuddin in ‘bestowing’  citizenship.  In other words, in my understanding the decision should have been arrived on ‘democratically’ and not ‘personally’.

Mrs Chong’s said something which does not auger well for our democracy. According to her she met Hishamuddin at 6 pm, and by 7pm she received a call from the Minister’s press secretary enquiring into her application and appeal. Wow! That’s immediate attention and service for you. But just what had  happened throughout the decade that had gone by? Why should Mrs Chong desperate act make all the difference? The case should either be a legitimate one, which should have been given due attention and deliberation more than a decade ago, or it is not legitimate, in the case of which personal pleading or ‘begging’ should not radically alter the status and the merit of the case altogether. Which is which? Would the case have been buried for another decade had it been otherwise? As to the political secretary, would he have been equally concerned and diligent in his exercise of duty if the circumstances had been different?

This case and the surrounding human story touch on a major malady of our democratic Malaysian nation. Our leaders as well as citizens have the mistaken notion that power is personal and arbitrary, which can and ought to be wielded thus by the individual office bearer. The consequence of this mistaken notion is a weak notion of the rule of law, due process of law, the legitimate extend and limit of power, public accountability, citizens’ duties and rights, indeed of the democratic spirit itself in general.

I chose to highlight the case in the belief that has greater significance for our nation well beyond it. It reflects a serious flaw in the working of our nation. To those bold enough to admit, in Malaysia in many areas of life, a lot depends on personal networking, on whom you know, with whom one rubs shoulder with, on family ties, on ‘pulling strings’, ‘knowing lobang’, ‘golfing partners’, ‘kakis’, ‘drinking buddies’, and many other modes of personal ties and relationship forging patronage and client relationship between office bearers or power holders and the public. This has been the fountain spring of corruption, nepotism, cronyism, favoritism, highhandedness,arbitrariness,precariousness that scourge our national life. It has been the force that undermines our democratic spirit and understanding, and derails our democratic progress from its proper path.

I pray we can combat this malady together as Malaysian citizens, genuinely concerned for the restoration and advancement of our genuine democratic understanding and spirit. We need to do this because it is downright impossible to have a working democratic system while the spirit animating and guiding it runs counter to democracy and its guiding principles.   




  1. Dear Sir,

    We should highlight this case as much as possible. Maybe you would be kind enough to get more details? or point to the readers the links to read the details?

    Handing out citizenship is no small or light matter. This is very serious matter. We would like to know how Hishamuddin did this, on what ground? What were the circumstances that led to this citizenship application? Did she or did she not, at least, eligible to apply for a citizenship?

    We dont want a Minister, just because he is the Minister incharge, to treat this country as it was his!

  2. Dear Kenn,

    Thank you for your comment. I share your sentiment in saying that the exercise of power or authority by leaders in our democracy should not in principle be on a personal or arbitrary basis, as a matter of democratic principle. I regret however I don't have the sources and capability to go deeper into the case, beyond what's reported by the Star.

    Best wishes