PM Najib’s Malaysia Day Speech recently is worthy of note and response. This is reflected in the fact that it had evoked varieties of responses from the public , or more explicitly, from the mass media representing various interests. The speech had been hailed as ‘courageous’, ‘reflecting political will’, ‘a man of his words’, ‘ stunning of oppositions’, ‘ a wonderful gift to freedom lovers’ and many more positive accolades of various shades on both sides of the divides. Then there are the cautious and cynical ones viewing it as ‘election sweeteners’, ‘election ploy’, ‘ sleight of hand’, ‘ making virtue of necessity’ ,‘ ‘condescending’ , ‘theatrics for gullible Malaysians’ or even downright ‘ making idiots of the Malaysian public’ .
With a view of personal assessment, keeping in mind the above responses, trying to see the truth in them, while carefully guarding against interested partisanship, I went through the text of the speech. I have the following comments to make, fleeting thoughts (and not learned legal scrutiny) crossing my mind in my cursory survey.
The discourse on our history and background to the nation’s development and progress is merely a backdrop to the point that the context was different then, necessitating those laws or acts being reviewed or removed. Those were terrible times, with many enemies of the people and nation, hence those laws had been promulgated. But as the argument goes, times has changed, so must our laws.
They had been rendered obsolete, irrelevant, meaningless, dysfunctional. Good times had been ushered in too, development and progress had been good if not spectacular, making those laws sort of less necessary now. Malaysians are better educated, with the assumption then they are now more matured politically.
Are all the assumptions made therein correct or accurate in relation to the place of those laws in our history? Are the ISA, the various emergencies, the checks on freedom of the press and publishing, freedom of assembly etc relevant only in times of under-development and in times when the people are less educated? This is a dangerous assumption to make in my opinion. The simple truth is that a well to do person, of the highest class, excellently educated or superbly qualified, can well nigh be a chauvinist, religious bigot, racist, terrorist or slimy rabble rouser of various moulds. Furthermore the very assumption that we had ‘developed’ and ‘progressed’ due to diligent ‘planning’ is an assumption which we should carefully scrutinized. Had we resolved all our developmental problems which had been our ‘fault lines’ in terms of ethnic relations continually?
Its rather stark that the only personality mentioned in the speech was the late Tun Abdul Razak, father of the speech maker. Tun Abdul Razak was caste in the mould of a freedom lover who had by circumstances to preside over the suspension of freedom. But the love of freedom prevailed at the first opportunity to restore democracy, when the late Tun chose to give up power when he could well cling to it.
When only one solitary personality is cited, and conveniently, concerning a crucial period in our history, when scores of personality, social groups, various parties, all had their role, were silently passed over, it raises questions or even suspicion. It gives a sense that this is the ‘crafted’ part of the speech which links to the role and script PM Najib has cast for himself in the speech. It conjures the picture of a ‘dynastic’ love of freedom and zeal for reforms and transformation. It gives a sort of ‘tradition’, ‘roots’ to what PM Najib is about to announce in the later of the speech. It evokes the image of a ‘great son’ continuing the great work of a 'grea father'. Is it effective in profiling great leadership with tradition, roots and national history behind it? I leave it to the Malaysian public for their assessment in this respect.
The speech and the political intents it foreshadowed raises many other reflections, queries. If the drift of the speech is that laws like ISA is irrelevant , obsolete or dysfunctional, why abolish it, and replace it with two other laws in due course. Does not this in a way indicate it continues to be relevant in some respect? Why not tweak the ISA to constitute necessary adaptation and contextualizing? Incidentally Singapore is maintaining its ISA, but has long modified it to smoothen some of its alleged ‘draconian’ aspects, like shortening the period of emergency detention, and instituting reviews and checks, involving legal opinions, advice and presidential decision. Frequent objections to our own ISA had been over its abuse or potentials for it. Why not then check abuses or opportunities for it, rather than abolishing the law and then having new ones in its place. If the concern is over abuses, laws are always open to abuses, old or new.
Concerning the law pertaining to freedom of assembly, the speech promised review, presumably towards greater leeway. But almost in the same breadth it emphasized strong principle against street demonstrations. Now we all know, this is precisely the context of recent contention on the issues of freedom of assembly. Given this fact, it does look like the issue would remain contentious even after the new law is put in place. Clearly the public seems to clamor for greater freedom to demonstrate (always professed to be peaceful in intention by them). Anyway, will the’ new freedom’ soon to be ushered in under PM Najib’s watch make street demonstrations an integral aspect of our Malay way of life?
Concerning the law on freedom of the press and mass media, on the circulation of ideas and publication, some formal changes would be ushered in, the essence of which is really quite strong in continuity rather than radical transformation. Annual renewal of license is no longer required. License is to be deemed granted, in force until revoked. Hence administratively it has been tidied, no annual work required or necessary, but the control is still in force, in place. The difference is really between the possibility of ‘license being denied’ and ‘lincense being revoked’ As to the substantive change between the two, it is for the public to assess.
The PM’s speech is heavily laden with liberal rhetorics, as many of his speeches are. As for their contextual relevance to today’s situation, especially our own nation, much had been said and written about by critics of classical liberalism as to their contextual or historical inadequacies for contemporary situation. ‘Philosophy of the people, by the people, , for the people’? Who are ‘ the people’ within the particular context of the speech? What is ‘will of the people’ functionally and operationally speaking? What is ‘development’ or ‘progress’ ? What is ‘developed ‘ and ‘modern’ nation aspired for? What is ‘freedom’ ? Checking carefully for the overall justification for ‘reforms’ in the speech, I discover that the ‘reforms’ of the laws is really meant to be in harmony with the change in economic policies announced years ago. The change in law is intended as ‘political change’ that ‘completes the economic changes’ announced. In other works it is all towards the declaration of Transformation, twinning political and economic changes really under the ambit of Transformation.
One notable feature of the speech to me seems to be the lack of personal conviction, or even party conviction in the speech and its ‘vision’ of Transformation and Change. The speaker adopts the voice of the compromising or accommodating personality. It is in the voice ‘this is what the people want’, ‘this what the nation desires’ and the like. The speaker speaks of ‘risks’ he is willing or has to take for ‘survival’ . The speaker touches on the question of ‘trust’ in people as the motivation for accommodating them? There is little to indicate the speaker's position or conviction on the issue of freedom, liberty, change. The speaker does not argue for freedom but 'grants'it to the people, puts the burden on the people or citizens to rise up to the occasion in uniting and forging a nation based on freedom granted.
I think it is this lack of personal conviction, combined with the tenor and style of thinking of the speech, peppered with rhetorical liberal concept of progress, development, people’s will, freedom, of unity, transformation and change, which colored the responses of the public. They sense the speech as an electioneering one, on both sides of the divide. They see the speech as either scoring points for BN or taking the wind of the opposition’s sail. But the issues raised is more vital to our nation and its survival, beyond election.I hope both the ruling party and the opposition see and understand this clearly. Freedom, its institutionalisation, checks and balances is by no means to be treated as dices in a political gamble.