Some reforms require time and consensus-building

Is it time for voters to take to the streets to rally and agitate for reforms?

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Published by Malay Mail, image from Malay Mail.

Is it time for voters to take to the streets to do what was done to the Umno-BN government: Rally and agitate to pressure for reforms, and if need be push for regime change?

Activist and lawyer Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan has been reported as urging the government to implement key reforms by June of this year, otherwise voters might engage in street protests again like the Bersih rallies.

She has urged the government to pay closer attention to what the people want and that the reforms process should no longer stall.

The two priorities which Ambiga identified are the setting up of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC), and the abolition of the death penalty.

The IPCMC Bill is set to be read the second time as part of the legislative process only in March of this year after being deferred. There is no guarantee however that the Bill will survive unscathed.

Most likely the proposed legislation – which provides for the setting up of the eponymous IPCMC – will go through drastic watering-down or critical revision before being passed by Parliament.

This is due to trenchant antagonism from the PDRM and its associations such as the Senior Police Officers Association, police veteran associations such as the Retired Police Officers Association of Malaysia (Respa) and not least the opposition, Muafakat Nasional in particular.

The objections have to do with replacing the current Police Commission provided for under Article 140 of the Federal Constitution with the IPCMC.

With a completely different set-up, clause 45 of the IPCMC Bill renders punishment imposed by the IPCMC to be final and not susceptible to challenge and appeal.

Detractors also fear clauses 57 and 58 which gives the IPCMC full power to take over investigations from the IGP as well as intervening to thereby stop any investigations being carried out by the police. They further claim that this would also contravene section 4 of the Police Act 1967 on the authority of the IGP over the PDRM.

The concerns and objections voiced by detractors are not entirely without merit, as according to the IPCMC Bill, the role of the IPCMC is to

  1. promote integrity within the police force;
  2. protect the public interest by dealing with misconduct of police member;
  3. implement a mechanism for detection, investigation and prevention of misconduct;
  4. advise the government to make recommendation on appropriate measure to promote police integrity; and
  5. exercise disciplinary control over all member of police force as provided by IPCMC Act or any laws.

This is why the postponement was to enable further improvement and fine-tuning of the Bill.

Be that as it may, to eventually row back on the provisions of the IPCMC or even abandon it altogether will definitely make the PH government look weak and unstable, especially to its potentially erstwhile urban voters who constitute the “base” and much of the bulk of its support.

Although the same could not be equally said on the abolition of the death penalty per se.

The government has recoiled from the abolishing mandatory death penalty as covered under the Penal Code and the Firearms (Increased Penalties) Act (1971).

However, the reversal of the decision was mainly because of public pressure. The government fears that outright abolition will put the public at risk of rising crime rate.

The question that should be asked, therefore, is Datuk Ambiga truly reflecting public sentiment on these two issues? Is it not the case that as these are not exactly bread and butter issues, at most only urban voters would be concerned about these two issues?

And even among urban voters, arguably there would still be a minority who favour the status quo, especially on the issue of the abolition of mandatory death penalty.

And so, would the triggering of street protests really have an impact on the viability of PH? Perhaps yes, enough to crucially divide support for PH among its core base.

The IPCMC Bill will have to be modified to include a provision which assuage and allay the concerns of the PDRM.

We have to remember that the honour and pride of the PDRM is also at stake here, notwithstanding the very legitimate and cogent concerns of the civil society and victims of police misconduct.

Modifications could take the form of ensuring that the composition of the IPCMC includes high-ranking members of the PDRM with vetoing powers in certain cases.

On the death penalty, what PH could do is to stick to its guns by pointing out its later decision is actually consistent with its manifesto.

Furthermore, surveys have shown strong support for the government’s approach in only abolishing mandatory death penalty, not death penalty per se.

At the end of the day, what is important is for the majority will to be upheld and at the same time, for the minority wish to be respected and accommodated but within the existing or current constraints.

Datuk Ambiga’s issuance of the “threat” of street protests is, in the final analysis, uncalled for.

Precisely for two reasons.

Firstly, the definitive outcome of the IPCMC Bill is not really certain yet, pending the Second Reading and subsequently the passage of the rest of the legislative process.

Secondly, the will of Parliament should still be respected even if the demands and expectations of civil society is not met. Extra-parliamentary measures such as street protests are only ever so justifiable under extreme circumstances.

Modifying the provisions of the IPCMC Bill and abolition of only the mandatory death penalty are not the evils that must be resisted through extra-parliamentary measures.

In fact, such measures risk undermining respect for the sanctity and integrity of our parliamentary democracy. For it gives the distinct impression that the minority is willing to agitate forcefully to hoist their own agenda on the majority when things do not go their own way, giving rise to the phenomenon of an “alternative government”.

Politically speaking, this could spell the death-knell of the quest to build a Malaysia Baru, which requires consensus-building and if, for example, the will of the majority is side-lined or ridden rough shot over, the reforms agenda risks becoming narrowly sectional (“sectarian”). Ironically, this would probably contribute to Pakatan Harapan becoming a one-term government.

So, whilst some reforms definitely could be implemented “immediately”, others like these two key issues of the IPCMC Bill and the abolition of mandatory death penalty requires time and consensus-building.

What is important is not to give up hope and, yes, to keep the faith.

Jason Loh Seong Wei and Chia Chu Hang are part of the research team at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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