Call for the abolition of the division of Malaysians into bumiputeras and non-bumiputeras to pave the way for a Malaysian civil society and a Bangsa

Speech by Parliamentary Opposition Leader, DAP Secretery-General and MP for Tanjong , Lim Kit Siang, at The closing of the Seminar on “Civil Society and the State” organised Chinese Resources Centre at the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall on Sunday, September 10,1995 at 5.20 p.m.

Call for the abolition of the division of Malaysians into bumiputeras and non-bumiputeras to pave the way for a Malaysian civil society and a Bangsa Malaysia

There can be no argument that there is a need to promote a “civil society” where apart from the “public sphere” of government institutions, there is a greater role for the “private sphere” where the “third sector” of voluntary organisations and independent associations can play an effective role to strengthen free, democratic, accountable and transparent institutions in the country.

With ethnic divisions in the country, there is going to be a challenge as to whether there could be one “civil society” for all Malaysians in the country or there would be separate “civil society” reflecting the racial divisions in Malaysia.

I would therefore call for the abolition of the division of Malaysians into bumiputeras and non-bumiputeras to pave the way for a Malaysian civil society and a Bangsa Malaysia.

A “civil society” envisages a check on the State institutions but this will pose a problem in Malaysia, as the trend in Malaysia since Merdeka in the past four decades is the undermining of the doctrine of the separation of powers among the Legislature, Executive and the Judiciary and an ever-increasing concentration of power in the Executive, and particularly in the hands of the Prime Minister, at the expense of the other two branches of government.

In Parliament, for instance, there is now a proposal to make drastic and draconian amendments to the Standing Orders which will gravely undermine the principle of Cabinet accountability to Parliament by slashing from 20 to five oral questions which a MP could ask in a parliamentary meeting – laying the conditions for irresponsible Ministers and lazy MPs.

At the last discussion group, one speaker defended Ministers on the ground that at times it was the bureaucrats who made the decisions, and suggested that participants should all see the famous BBC long-running series “Yes, Minister” . “Yes, Minister” is a parody of how although Cabinet Minister are in name very powerful, they are often manipulated by civil servants.

Weak Ministers’ support the drastic and draconian amendments to the Standing Orders for they dare not appear in Parliament to answer questions.

The theme in ‘Yes, Minister’ of how civil servants hide behind the secrecy of the civil service to exercise real power and manipulate Ministers is a universal problem applicable to all countries. A strong Minister who has command of the subjects under his Ministry, and who dare to stand up and fight for his policies and views, would not be so easily manipulated by the civil servants.

The question is how many strong Ministers are there in Malaysia vis-à-vis the civil service. I remember that some years back, there was a ludicrous spectacle of a Deputy Education Minister leading a delegation from his party to meet an Education Ministry official on an education issues, when this Education Ministry was in fact his subordinate!

One way to find out whether a Cabinet Minister is strong or weak is to see whether he dare to go to Parliament to answer questions during the question hour.

During the question time in Parliament, the Minister will read out the answer which had already been prepared before hand. However, his test comes during supplementary questions, when he is completely on his own, as it would be too late for his Ministry officials to come to his rescue. It is at this critical juncture that Ministers could disgrace themselves by exposing their ignorance or even stupidity.

This is one reason why many Ministers have avoided parliamentary questions like the ‘plague’, leaving this most important parliamentary duty to their Deputy Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries so that if anybody should make a fool of themsevles, it would not be them.

The Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, the Minister for Energy, Telecommunications and Posts, Datuk Seri s. Samy Vellu had appeared in Parliament regularly to answer parliamentary question, but I cannot say that MCA Ministers have been appearing in Parliament to answer parliamentary questions.

May be this is one reason why “weak” Cabinet Ministers support the drastic and draconian amendments to the Parliamentary Standing Orders, particularly slashing the number of oral questions that a MP can ask at a parliamentary meeting.

Another drastic and draconian amendment is to give the Speaker and Deputy Speakers the enhanced powers to suspend an MP for up to ten days, when they have at present to suspend a MP for one day, without a Ministerial motion.

This is a gross infringement of the democratic right of the voters to be represented in Parliament with their own MP to safeguard their interests.

Malaysian MPs are very well-behaved and orderly when compared to their Parliaments like Taiwan and India, where their legislative proceedings often degenerate into fisticuffs with the Speaker becoming the object of physical attacks. This has never happened in Malaysia.

However, even in Taiwan and India, there are no provisions for their Speakers to suspend MPs for up to ten days at a time – which would mean depriving Malaysian MPs the right, to attend entire parliamentary meetings which sometimes meet for only ten or 12 days.

Ong Ka Ting is the Editor-in-chief of the Chinese newspaper editors-in-chief
In the earlier discussion, there was considerable concern on the lack of a free press in Malaysia – particularly on the changing role of the Chinese newspaper.

There is no doubt that over the years, the Chinese mass media have come under more stringent control. When after the 1990 general election, a MCA parliamentary secretary in the Home Ministry was appointed for the first time, there were mixed reaction.

By now, the feelings in the Chinese mass media should be very clear as to whether the appointment o Ong Ka Ting to the Ministry of Home Affairs, now elevated to Deputy Home Minister, is a blessing or a disaster!

It is not without reason that Ong Ka Ting has been called the Editor-in-Chief of all the Chinese newspaper editors-in-chief!

I will give one example to show that the Chinese newspapers have become more timid than in the past.

A few days ago, I released to the press the contents of the Rent Control Amendment Bill which would abolish rent control affecting 40,000 pre-war premises within the next five years.

This should be front-page headline news because it affects the livelihood of one million people and would create a social catastrophe, particularly as there is no massive government low-cost housing programme to rehouse the one million people to be affected from the rent decontrol legislation.

But no Chinese newspaper dare to give prominent coverage or carry the contents of the Rant Control Amendment Bill because of their fear of the Official Secrets Act.

My explanation as to how I had obtained possession of the Rent Control Amendment Bill also did not allay the OSA fears of the newspaper.

I had not stolen the Rent Control Bill, which had been the subject of government study over two decades.

The bill was distributed to all MPs on August 14, the first day of the August Parliamentary meeting and every MP should have a copy, which meant the Bill would he passed after being taken through all three readings in the August Parliament.

But the MCA Housing and Local Government Minister, Datuk Dr. Ting Chew Peh, must have developed ‘cold feet’ in presenting the Rent Control Bill in the August Parliament fearing its adverse impact on the MCA chances in the Bagan parliamentary by-election on September 9 and wanted to withdraw the Bill.

This however had its dangers as he must have realised that asking MPs to return the Rent Control Bill would focus even greater public attention on it, and he decided to pretend that the Bill had never been distributed to MPs.

The fact is that the Rent Control Bill has come into my hand by proper and official means which does not attract the operation of OSA – yet the press are so frightened by this law that they dare not give proper coverage to the contents of the Rent Control Bill!

A centre for Malaysian Civil Society should be formed to promote the development of a civil society

Huazi Resource & Research Centre has made a positive contribution in organising this Seminar on “Civil Society and the State in Malaysia” to explore this important subject.

It is not enough to talk about a “Civil Society” as action must follow talk. I therefore suggest that as a follow-up to this Seminar, a Centre for Malaysian Civil Society should be formed to promote the development of a civil society in Malaysia.