Monday, February 19, 2018

Reimagining Malaysia Part 2: Don’t Trust Politicians, Trust Institutions

If there is only one thing you could change in this country, what would it be? Because of my upbringing, my answer used to be education.

Six years in politics has made me realise that the most important aspect of any government is governance. Strong governance is the prerequisite to a good economy, education, social welfare and everything else. When the government is clean, taxpayer money is put to good use; when the government is accountable, its performance can be monitored and subsequently improved.

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. People do change, more so politicians, who are placed in high places. To quote Abraham Lincoln, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Throughout the years in politics, I have come to the realisation that even the most convicted and passionate politicians are sinners that are trying to do the right things for the country. Temptation will come in many forms and if left unchecked, even the most saintly politician will fall.

This is why we need a strong checks and balances system to safeguard the interests of the people against those in power. If you forget everything I am going to say, please remember this: Good leaders come and go, only good institutions remain. 


As of now, Malaysia’s insitutions are faltering, giving birth to kleptocracy in recent years. For the first time in history, Malaysia has been labelled a kleptocracy by the United States Department of Justice. It is unimaginable to think that we are now in the same ranks as countries like Zimbabwe. 

1MDB scandal has been reported all around the world and is being investigated in the US, Singapore, Switzerland and so on. However, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, whose personal account allegedly contained funds syphoned from 1MDB amounting to more than RM2.6 billion, remains strong in the highest position in the land.

The Economist puts it perfectly in the introduction to one of its articles[1], “A round of applause, ladies and gentlemen. Any typical leader of a typical democracy, when found with nearly $700m of ill-explained money from an unnamed foreign donor in his accounts, would experience a swift and fatal fall. Yet, nearly two years after news first broke…..Najib Razak high-wire act continues.”

Many people say that our country’s corruption problem would be solved as soon as Najib is removed as the prime minister. I disagree. The “Najib Razak Phenomenon” did not take place overnight; it is the product of non-functioning institutions that have lost its checks and balances capability. In this episode, I will discuss three aspects of checks and balances that we need to urgently restore.

Free and Fair Election

The most important aspect of a democracy is the ability to choose one political party over another. When a change of government is possible, those in power will be kept on their toes because they need to face the voters at fixed periods of time.

Malaysia is one of the very few “democratic” countries in the world that has not experienced a change of government. In fact, Barisan Nasional (BN) is now the world’s longest-ruling coalition in a democracy[2].

Changing the government has been made very difficult in Malaysia with the disproportional representation of election boundaries, commonly known as gerrymandering. The Election Comission has also repeatedly ignored election offenses committed by the ruling party Barisan Nasional, especially in terms of vote buying in the rural areas.

In short, the current election comission, which is the institution that is supposed to ensure free and fair elections in Malaysia, has shown outright favouritism for the BN. When the election can be rigged, the elected government will no longer fear the people.

Therefore, there must be electoral reform to return the power to decide to the people. The first step towards electoral reform is that the election comission must be made independent of the executive branch of government. They must be the guardian of the sanctity of our elections.

Only with free and fair elections will those in power fear the people and know who the real boss of the country is – the people of Malaysia.

Freedom of Expression

Even with free and fair elections, when there is no freedom of expression, the electorate will be made to believe that a certain party is better than the other. There are two ways the current ruling government controls the media – ownership as well as laws and government machinery.

In terms of ownership, the BN-linked Media Prima has an almost monopoly of the mainstream media in Malaysia. It owns TV stations (TV3, 8TV, ntv7 and TV9), radio stations (Fly FM, Hot FM, one FM and Kool FM) and newspaper outlets (New Straits Times, BH and Harian Metro)[3].

Not only that, with the RM100 million acquisition of Rev Asia in May 2017 by Media Prima Digital, Media Prima is now also the third largest digital media company in Malaysia after Google and Facebook[4].

In short, Media Prima through its ownership in both the conventional and new media, has enormous power to share public opinion.

Now let’s take a look at how government machinery is used against freedom of expression.

Malaysia has continued to rank 140 and above out of about 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index[5] over the past few years. Thanks to the Printing Presses and Public Act (PPPA)[*], the government suspended the printing licenses of news outlets that published articles that did not favour them, among them news weekly The Heat in December 2013[6] after its cover headline “All eyes on big-spending PM Najib”, and The Edge in July 2015[7] after its huge exposè on 1MDB.

Constant media intimidation has led to a culture of self-censorship among media outlets in Malaysia, even those that are not politically-linked, because the company’s financial situation would be hard hit if the government revoked or suspended its publishing license.

In short, there is a serious lack of freedom in the mainstream media because of intimidation in the form of oppressive laws and the fear of losing livelihoods.

We used to take comfort in the thought that while there is no freedom in print media, the Internet is still relatively free. However, even Internet freedom is increasingly being suppressed.

We are seeing occasional abuses of power by the Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to restrict the dissemination of news that is not in favour of BN. An example of this is the blocking of Sarawak Report[8], a news site that carried a series of exposés on BN corruption scandals, especially 1MDB.

Even the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) news page with a story about Najib’s kangkung remarks in January 2014 entitled “#BBCtrending: Be careful what you say about spinach”, did not escape this fate and was temporarily blocked[9]. This has set dangerous precedent for the future of internet freedom.

Not only that, instead of repealing the draconian Sedition Act as promised in 2012 before GE13, the government has been abusing the law to crush dissenting voices. There have been more than 176 sedition cases from 2013 to 2016 compared to around 30 cases between 2009 and 2012.[10]

In universities, there is an increasing crackdown on dissenting voices with a growing number of student activists being imposed disciplinary actions by the universities when they become critical of the ruling government. University and University College Act (UCCA) has restricted the freedom of students from the tertiary institutions.

All of the laws that hinder freedom of expression, such as the PPPA, MCMC Act, Sedition Act, UCCA and many more, must be amended or abolished to allow people to speak and write freely.

In addition, there should be a revamp in Malaysia’s public service broadcaster Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM), which owns several TV channels and radio stations. Since RTM is funded by public monies, all its TV channels and radio stations should not be monopolised by the ruling government. Instead, it should offer equal airtime and objective reporting for all political parties. A good example of a public service broadcaster that RTM could emulate is the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

When there is freedom of expression, the public can voice their concerns without fear of the government they have elected. With a free flow of information, voters can be best informed of the options available and choose the government they want via the ballot box.

Separation of Power

The checks and balances system can only thrive when there is a clear separation of power between the three branches of government – the executive, legislative and judiciary. However, as of now, we are seeing an increasing centralisation of control in the executive arm of government.

The 1MDB scandal has given us an insight on this. Since Najib Razak’s RM2.6 billion personal donation scandal broke, the then Attorney-General (AG) Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail was unconstitutionally removed[11] while the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s (MACC) commissioner, Tan Sri Abu Kassim Mohommed, stepped down two years before his term ended[12]. Both were key members of a special task force set up to investigate 1MDB. Was it merely a coincidence?

Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chairman Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed, who was supposed to lead the legislative arm’s scrutiny of the scandal, was promoted to become the Deputy Home Minister in the sudden cabinet reshuffle of July 2015. Prior to that, Nur Jazlan was one of the few vocal BN members of parliament (MP) to speak out against the 1MDB issue. He quickly changed his tune after his promotion. Three other PAC members were also promoted to ministerial posts after the cabinet reshuffle[13].

Nur Jazlan was replaced by Datuk Hasan Arifin, who when asked by reporters whether PAC would call Najib Razak to appear before the committee, replied, “Janganlah, saya pun nak cari makan.[14] The present PAC chairman is, in his own words, a cari makan chairman.

The clearest example of how the legislative branch of power in Malaysia has become a toothless tiger can clearly be demonstrated by the rulings of Dewan Rakyat speaker Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia. In October 2016, he ruled that cabinet ministers did not need to answer questions related to the US DOJ’s suit in seizing RM4 billion worth of 1MDB assets in the US, arguing that it was sub judice[15]. The situation worsened in July 2017 when he banned all questions related to 1MDB in parliament[16].

If MPs, who are elected by the people to represent them, cannot make the Government accountable for the biggest scandal in our country’s history, who can? The institutions that are supposed to provide checks and balances to the executive arm in Putrajaya have clearly been overpowered and compromised. This is the reason for the blatant corruption in Putrajaya.

As for the judiciary’s independence in Malaysia, it has eroded since the 1988. Thanks to BN’s two-thirds majority in Parliament, Article 121 of the Federal Constitution was amended in 1988 to remove “the judicial power of the Federation shall be vested in a Supreme Court….” and replaced with, “High Courts and inferior courts shall have such jurisdiction and powers as may be conferred by or under federal law,” and others. The amendment of Article 121 effectively reduced the judicial arm to less than that of the executive and legislative arms as it is now subject to Federal law[17]. The country’s judicial independence has not recovered to date.

We must restore separation of power in Malaysia by strengthening both legislative oversight and the independence of the judiciary to provide checks and balances to the executive.

All in all, in order to strenghten our country’s checks and balances, we must work towards free and fair election, freedom of expression and last but not least a meaningful separation of power with legislative, judiciary and executive share equal power.

Remember, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

This article is extracted from a chapter of my book, "Reimagining Malaysia."

[*] Section 3 (3) of PPPA provides the home minister with the power to revoke a printing license.

[1] Najib Razak appears secure, but looks can deceive. The Economist. 5 Jan 2017 [cited 29 Aug 2017]. Available from
[2] Shamim Adam. The world's longest bull market faces an election test. Bloomberg Politics. 27 Jul 2017 [cited 29 August 2017]. Available from
[3] Media Prima Official Website. Abous Us. Corporate Structure. [cited 29 Aug 2017]. Available from:
[4] Jon Russell. Media Prima buys Rev Asia for $24M to create Malaysia’s largest digital media platform. Tech Crunch. 8 May 2017 [cited 29 Aug 2017]. Available from
[5] Reporters Without Borders. World Press Freedom Index. [cited 29 Aug 2017]. Available from
[6] Ram Anand. News weekly The Heat suspended indefinitely. Malaysiakini. 19 Dec 2013 [cited 29 Aug 2017]. Available from
[7] Praveen Menon, Emily Chow. Malaysia’s home ministry suspends top publications over 1MDB reports. Reuters. 24 Jul 2015 [cited 29 Aug 2017]. Available from
[8] Beh Lih Yi. Sarawak Report whistleblowing website blocked by Malaysia over PM allegations. The Guardian. 20 Jul 2015 [cited 29 Aug 2017]. Available from
[9] BBC Trending. #BBCtrending: #Kangkung spinach blog blocked in Malaysia. BBC. 16 Jan 2014 [cited 29 Aug 2017]. Available from
[10] Amnesty International. Malaysia: critical crackdown: freedom of expression under attack in Malaysia. 26 Jan 2016 [cited 29 Aug 2017]. Available from
[11] Hanis Zainal. Bar Council: Removal of Gani Patail as AG Unconstitutional. The Star Online. 28 Jul 2015 [cited 30 Aug 2017]. Available from
[12] Malaysian anti-corruption commission chief to step down. Channel News Asia. 23 Jun 2016 [ cited 30 Aug 2017]. Available from
[13] Hemanathani Sivanandam. Nur Jazlan: I didn’t sell out. The Star Online. 31 Jul 2015 [cited 30 Aug 2017]. Available from
[14] Zikri Kamarulzaman. 'Cari makan', quips PAC's Hasan on not calling PM. Malaysiakini. 18 Nov 2015 [cited 30 Aug 2017]. Available from
[15] Minderjeet Kaur. Sub judice to debate DoJ suits in Parliament, Pandikar Says. Free Malaysia Today. 17 Oct 2016 [cited 30 Aug 2017]. Available from
[16] Zikri Kamarulzaman. Parliament rejects more than 30 1MDB-related questions. Malaysiakini. 24 Jul 2017 [cited 30 Aug 2017]. Available from
[17] Andrew Khoo. Judicial independence: Gov’t position indefensible. Malaysiakini. 17 March 2011 [cited 30 Aug 2017]. Available from