I had listened to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Malaysia Day address with skepticism. Part of the skepticism came after noticing all the qualifications made by the prime minister in the same speech. The so-called Political Transformation Program does not look so bold if one reads the fine print.
As we have learned in recent days, the actual reform does not meet the high expectations set by the prime minister himself. The manner at which the Peaceful Assembly Bill 2011 was rushed through did little to alleviate the skepticism.
In these days of skepticism, only actions command confidence. The nearly six years of the Abdullah administration justifies that attitude. The bravado of Parti Keadilan Rakyat only adds to the justification of skepticism. Indeed, political skepticism against all sides is a sign of maturity of ordinary voters.
While the scent of skepticism was strong, not all shared it. Not all ordinary voters are seasoned political observers after all. Many young Malaysians celebrated the announced reforms as if reform had already happened. And then there are other not-so-young Malaysians who willingly assume things in good faith. Because of this, the Najib administration gained some immediate political capital.
That was about three months ago.
However significant the political capital was, time is eroding it. The power of words can last only so long. The longer it goes unsupported by action, the less credible it becomes. Words are cheap. In order to arrest the skepticism and to ensure that the liberalization exercise will translate into votes for Barisan Nasional, the promised changes will have to be instituted before the next federal election. Action is required, hence the rushing of the Bill.
Within a week, the Bill was read twice. Members of Parliament were expected to read the Bill thoroughly, consult experts as well as their constituents and then debate it intelligently within the span of a few days. That was nothing less than an ambush on the liberal camp.
The ungodly rush suggests something else as well: the federal election is coming sooner rather than later. It suggests the tentative election date has been set and all Bills need to be passed before that deadline. If that is indeed the case, then the election presents a perverse incentive for the government to act based on a misunderstanding of criticism against the previous illiberal laws.
It must be highlighted that the criticism is against the spirit of the previous laws, and not against the laws per se. With the Peaceful Assembly Bill retaining the old illiberal spirit, it is no different from the old laws. To cite another example relating back to the Malaysia Day speech, the replacement of the Internal Security Act will still grant the government the power to detain a person without trial. Yet, the main criticism against the ISA was exactly the detention without trial feature. So, what exactly will the substantive change be?
One gets the impression that the government thinks all that is wrong is the names and the initials of a certain set of laws. Change the names and the initials to something more cheery and they expect the criticism will go away. That is a gross misunderstanding.
Based on that, the government would think that rushing the Peaceful Assembly Bill and other related ones will win it votes. No, it will not.
A substantive-minded government would take a more measured pace by making the Bill and others to come go through a thorough deliberative process. That possibly means pushing the next election as far as possible into the future and holding it only after a much improved Bill is ready for passing.
The reverse — setting the election date first and then targeting to pass the Bills before that date — will result in farcical Bills.
A rushed farcical Bill benefits no one. The voters will see through the farce and BN will not win any extra votes from it. BN in fact would lose votes because new voters and those who assumed good faith would think the ruling coalition has taken them for fools. Meanwhile, Malaysians will not see any improvement in their civil liberties.
In the end, what was the point of rushing it?