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The Star - Sharing the Nation - Music to the ears (8 July 2018)
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EVERYDAY I wake up in this new Malaysia, thankful for the courage of Malaysians to bring about change. I am beginning to watch local TV news, discovering local hosts and learning more about the newly-elected MPs, and being most impressed by the fluency of DAP Ministers and MPs speaking in the national language.

The Council of Eminent Persons and the Institutional Reform Committee are working tirelessly on a daily basis, meeting stakeholders and listening to all points of views to gather inputs into their recommendations to the new government to institute the urgent reforms needed to set this country on the right path to prosperity, stability, transparency, accountability and to strengthen democratic institutions that have been battered after decades of one-party dominance.

I like this new emphasis on an inclusive Malaysia, where we are Malaysians first and foremost. Lim Guan Eng set an instructive tone when he answered a press question on how he felt about being the first Chinese Finance Minister in 44 years. He pronounced simply, “I am Malaysian”.

Of all the new Ministers and MPs, the DAP leaders are coming across most impressively with their seriousness in getting down to business. Some Malay friends, fed on a diet of the DAP being the enemies of race and religion, but voted for change this time, were surprised at the earnestness with which they are taking to their tasks, their eloquence in Bahasa Malaysia and not least Lim Guan Eng’s respectful pause at a press conference when the azan (Muslim call to prayers) was heard.

Eh, they are not so bad after all, said one friend, anxious that this new government gets it right.

I like that those who had obviously voted for Pakatan are the first to speak out at any appearance of transgressions. Be it the Prime Minister taking on two portfolios, the Council of Eminent Persons meeting two Federal Court Judges, the use of a government jet by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his family for a visit to the Kelantan royal family, the Minister for Rural Development announcing that Pakatan-ruled states will get priority for village development grants, the lesser allocation of RM500,000 given to Opposition MPs for constituency work, compared to RM1mil for Pakatan MPs.

Ironically it was UMNO and PAS MPs, who expressed their gratitude to the government, noting that the Barisan Nasional MPs used to receive RM5mil each and gave none to the Opposition.

The right signals are being sent that no one will be spared. When Datuk Seri Anwar waxed lyrical over Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in Turkey as a victory for the Muslim world, his party colleagues, academics and others criticised him for embracing an autocratic leader who is entrenching his power and has detained tens of thousands in the civil service, academia, and media. What is happening in Turkey is antithetical to what this new reformist government stands for, they reminded him. It is Malaysia, not Turkey, that has reclaimed its standing as a model to the Muslim world.

I like this new age that criticism is coming from within and without. And there are those in the new Opposition, who do not just criticise, but are also willing to acknowledge what good the government does.

I like the fact that the youngest Minister ever, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman had the wisdom to acknowledge that he had been the beneficiary of youth programmes implemented by the past government and was open to learning and working with his predecessor and youth leaders of UMNO and PAS.

It is a breath of fresh air to hear the new Foreign Minister, Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, pledge immediately that the government will ratify the six additional core international human rights treaties that for over 15 years Suhakam had pushed for ratification in vain. He has also promised to establish a consultative council of experts to advise Wisma Putra on policies and priorities to rebuild Malaysia’s fallen international standing. Given an absentee Foreign Minister in the past several years, Wisma Putra needs to urgently recalibrate Malaysia’s foreign policy in a complex multipolar world, and more importantly to extricate itself from its embrace of certain countries which compromised our long-standing belief in neutrality and equidistance.

It is for real that the Education Minister, Dr Maszlee Malik, has called on the university authorities to lift all restrictions on student activities such as debates and forums which too often in the past were cancelled or invitations to speakers withdrawn because someone powerful was upset or might get upset.

The Minister wants intellectual freedom to flourish in our universities. That is the only way a university can be what it is meant to be, a place to discover, pursue, and disseminate knowledge to better our communities and our society at large.

This government promising a new Malaysia is off to a good start. My disappointment, for now, is the fact that it has not delivered on its promise of 30% women in the cabinet. It is within the control of each component party and yet its leaders dropped the ball. While five women ministers is better than past appointments, there is no excuse for failing to fulfil its promise given the quality of women MPs elected. Obviously, experience in government is not a priority criteria as almost all Ministers are equally inexperienced.

And I have one big concern, the same concern that DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang articulated last week. There must be no witch hunt. This government must acknowledge the good, honest, hardworking, competent people leading some of the GLCs and government agencies. The good should be kept, their talents recognised. It does not befit a government committed to transparency, accountability and good governance to be seen to embark on any form of wholesale purging of all those associated with the past government, tarnishing the honest and the dedicated with the same brush of corruption and abuse of power.

The Pakatan Harapan government must set new standards and new traditions to deal with transgressions in a fair and just manner. A witch hunt today means a revenge witch hunt when another change of government takes place.

That’s why this new Malaysia must work hard to ensure its system of checks and balances are strengthened. For decades, our Parliament has been emasculated and has not played its proper role to provide oversight and be the guardian of the people’s interest and rights. Parliament plays a critical role to ensure good governance, accountability and transparency. I hope the many young, smart and energetic Backbenchers in this new Parliament will push for the establishment of permanent Parliamentary Select Committees for each ministry, where Ministers and senior civil servants will be called to answer questions on policy and implementation.

Parliamentary Select Committees on particularly intractable issues such as gender equality, race relations, and inter-faith matters should also be established. Such a bipartisan approach to resolve long festering problems and discriminations will help build trust across party lines and depoliticise the search for solution to issues that affect the national sense of well-being.

Parliament is already being given an expanded role with several commissions that should have been independent to start with, now being moved from the Prime Minister’s purview to Parliament. But for Parliament to play an effective role, it must have the necessary competent expert staff and financial resources, and most importantly, it must be led by a strong reform-minded Speaker. Many of the financial scandals and abuses of power committed by several top leaders in the past administration could have been avoided if our Ministers and civil servants had been held accountable by bipartisan Parliamentary Select Committees that would have held hearings to investigate wrongdoings at the first sign of trouble.

Malaysians are still pinching ourselves that we have voted in a reform-minded government. Waking up to good news on a daily basis is a new experience. Switching channels between RTM 1, TV3, Astro Awani and Bernama TV is a new experience. Finding Ministers and ruling party politicians expressing the values you believe in and speaking your position on policy matters you have championed for decades is a new experience.

We live in hope, alert to any whiff of wrongdoing. We shall not make the same mistakes again.

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