The opposition’s sparkling performance in the 12th general election so vividly signaled the rakyat’s burning desire for freedom from corruption, injustice and repression that I fancied for a while that even Barisan Nasional could hardly avoid seeing the light.
But the forces of darkness weren’t so much illuminated as dazzled, caught like roadkill in oncoming headlights. And when they regained their night-sight and realised they’d survived the onslaught, they reverted to their old reality-blinkered, blind-arrogant ways.
First burying their heads in the sand, then pointing their fingers at everybody but themselves for their electoral scare, and forming a "new-look" cabinet featuring incumbents with somewhat murky reputations, like Najib Abdul Razak and Hishammuddin Hussein, and that mysteriously recycled shady character, Muhammad Muhammad Taib.
They showed no sign of lightening-up in the heavy-handedness department, either, refusing to release the Hindraf Five from summary detention under the ISA, unleashing the police against the organisers of the celebration of the end of Anwar Ibrahim’s ban from electoral politics, then refusing to renew the publication licence of the Tamil newspaper Makkal Osai.
By this time, despite brighter prospects of honest and transparent governance in the five states won by Pakatan Rakyat, I was starting to feel that the election had been a flash in the pan when it came to sparking an enlightened response from BN.
Fully independent ACA
My gloomy sentiments were soon further dimmed by the government’s refusal to apologise for the 1988 judicial crisis, its attempt to buy the wronged judges’ forgiveness with ex gratia payments from the public purse, and it’s hazy-sounding promise to set-up a panel to "advise" the PM on the appointment of senior judges.
And then came possibly the dimmest post-election moment of all, the elevation of the notorious ‘bocor’ MP, Bung Mokhtar Radin, to deputy leadership of the BN Backbenchers Club. So you can imagine how my eyes lit up and my black mood lifted on the morning of April 21 when I saw the latest news flash on Malaysiakini: "PM: ACA to be fully independent."
I hardly dared read further in case the details snuffed-out the feeble flicker of hope that had been ignited by the headline. But no, the more I read, the more scintillating the story became.
In response to a written proposal from Anti-Corruption Agency director-general Ahmad Said Hamdan and his deputy Abu Kassim Mohamad that the ACA be freed entirely from government control, Prime Minster Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had announced a set of far-sighted reforms.
In summary, these include full independence of the ACA, reporting to a parliamentary Anti-Corruption Committee comprising both government and opposition MPs; a tripling of ACA staff numbers over the next five years; and the passing of new legislation to protect whistleblowers and witnesses.
"Brilliant," I thought to myself, for want of any more lucid or eloquent response, and immediately hit the blogs to see how wiser heads were reacting.
But Syed Jaymal Zahiid had got there before me, and produced an excellent summary entitled "Don’t get excited yet, say watchdogs." Syed quoted Lim Kit Siang as saying that "Reform measures to restore public confidence in the efficacy, efficiency, independence, impartiality and credibility of national institutions, whether (the) judiciary or the ACA, are welcome as they have been long-awaited by the people."
However, Lim reportedly warned that the new ACA should not only be independent nominally but must be spearheaded with the utmost commitment to eradicating corruption and must not become "a second Suhakam which is tasked to be an independent body to protect and promote human rights but is completely unable to do so without the necessary powers and wherewithal."
Moon Hui, co-ordinator of human rights group Suara Rakyat Malaysia, was quoted as saying that "people should not get too excited" over the announcement, and adding that the appointment of ACA staff must be done through public consultation via civil society groups, so that "the body can be held accountable directly to the people."
The anti-corruption group Gerak, headed by Ezam Mohd Noor, reportedly greeted the announcement with enthusiasm, calling it "the most significant move taken by the government since the days of reformasi" in initiating change.
The most detailed analysis of the situation that I found was by Nat Tan in his jelas.info blog, in which he remarked that the PM seems to be progressively enacting the PKR manifesto, made a great many thoughtful remarks pro and con accepting the PM’s announcement at face value, and stressed the point, as did many other commentators, that the Election Commission should also be rendered totally independent, and called for the repeal of numerous draconian laws, including the Internal Security Act, the Sedition Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Universities and University Colleges Act.
With freedom comes fleedom
I couldn’t agree more that there’s a very long way to go before Malaysia can emerge from the long, dark night of Barisan Nasional domination. But thanks to the prime minister’s announcements on reforms of the ACA, at least now there’s a gleam at the end of the tunnel that may well prove to be not the headlamp of the well-known train, but the blazing light of freedom.
One sure-fire sign of the approach of real freedom is what I suppose you could appropriately call "fleadom": the instinct that tells parasites when it’s time to start jumping from old hosts to fresh ones, as you may have noticed some of the editors and columnists of Malaysia’s mainstream press starting to do.
And when freedom is just around the corner, "fleadom" is followed by "fleedom": one-way flights to Perth, Queensland, New Zealand, India or wherever else ill-gotten cash has been stashed for when things get too hot at home.
I haven’t noticed much fleedom yet, but I’ll bet there are plenty of suspects seriously contemplating packing their bags. Now Malaysians have seen glimmerings of freedom from the depredations of corrupt police, journalists, politicians, civil servants and corporate cronies. And they know that if Barisan Nasional doesn’t deliver on its promise to liberate them from the clutches of these crooks, then Pakatan Rakyat will.