Weak press freedom in Malaysia is one important reason why the all-out war against corruption is fizzling out

Speech - National Press Club Dinner
"Malaysia’s 40th National Day - Some Reflections and Thoughts"
by Lim Kit Siang
(Kualal Lumpur, Tuesday):
We are in a period of many anniversaries. Recently, we marked the 30th anniversary of ASEAN. We will be celebrating our 40th National Day anniversary at the end of the month. Next year the world will be observing the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not without a lot of heat and controversy.

I thank the National Press Club for the invitation to be the dinner guest speaker and the liberty to choose to talk on what I want - probably a sort of making up for the failure of the Malaysian press to publish what I had said in the past three decades.

For most of the past three decades, there were some press which at various times regarded me as anathema, whose name could only grace their newspaper columns if it could be portrayed in the worst possible light, whether through distortion or concoction. I regard this as part of the nation’s painful process to reach maturity - and we have not yet completely passed this phase, as Dr.Syed Hussein Alatas suggested recently during the first Round Table on Corruption that the nation had only reached puberty.

I do not propose to create too much waves tonight or to make life difficult for my hosts. I remember in the late 1970s, I was invited to give a speech by the Selangor Graduates Society. After the speech, my hosts were interrogated by the police and statements taken from them, and I was arrested and charged on five counts under the Official Secrets Act. During my trial, my hosts had to attend court as witnesses for the prosecution.

I can assure my hosts that I will not reciprocate their hospitality tonight by securing invitations for them either from the police or the courts as happened to the Selangor Graduates Society two decades ago.

I propose to pick a rather anodyne subject tonight - "Malaysia’s 40th National Day - Some Reflections and Thoughts".

We can borrow from Charles Dicken’s opening for his famous work, A Tale of Two Cities, to describe the first forty years of our nationhood:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
We had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
We were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way

I do not propose a comprehensive treatment of the nation-building process in the past four decades, but will focus on a few subjects which I think deserve our attention.

The first issue is something which is closest to the hearts of all those present tonight - the issue of press freedom.

It is sad that when we plead for press freedom in Malaysia, we will be met with the stereotype response that we are advocating for absolute freedom and the advice that there is nowhere in the world where absolute press freedom to be found. There should be no need for me to justify the importance of press freedom in the company of journalists, except to quote Albert Camus: "A free press may be good or bad, but a press without freedom can only be bad. For the press as for mankind, freedom is the opportunity for improvement; slavery is the certainty of deterioration."

Do we have more press freedom today or less as compared say with the first or second decade of our nationhood?

The answer is quite straightforward, for the press today have to labour under laws which were not existent in the first or even second decade of our nationhood, such as:

There was only one short-lived period in recent history when there was some crusading spirit among Malaysian journalists around the mid-1980s, when some press took their fourth estate responsibilities seriously. Such springtime of freedom ended when three newspapers were closed down as part of a larger clampdown on civil liberties and human rights in 1987.

Although there had recently been some loosening up of the mass media, they are very limited. Last month, I was approached by TV2 to appear on a live morning television programme on corruption, but like the approach to me last year by the same television station to appear on a programme on Burma, the programme was suddenly postponed indefinitely without explaining why - although the reasons are very obvious.

In seven-week period in June and July when the Acting Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, gave top priority to the all-out war against corruption, the mass media was conspicuous by their lack of enthusiasm for the subject although they gave extensive coverage to Anwar’s various pronouncements against corruption - when the mass media should not be just bystanders against the war against corruption but full participants and warriors!

The few who had given more coverage in the news and features pages to the issue of corruption also clamped up when the Prime Minister returned from his official leave, and everyone felt the wintry change of climate - the end of another short springtime of freedom.

Anwar Ibrahim had raised the hopes of the people that the all-out war against corruption would not be just talk when he declared: "Now is the time to act…we will catch the big ones and we will catch the small ones.

However, the people seem to be heading for a disappointment, and it will indeed be most tragic if the all-out war against corruption - to finally catch the "big ones" involved in millions, tens and even hundreds of millions of ringgit of ill-gotten gains and who had all this while been immune from action - is to end up in a farcical fashion where it is just about souvenirs or gifts to politicians!

In retrospect, the Malaysian press and journalists should consider whether weak press freedom in Malaysia is not one important reason why the all-out war against corruption is fizzling out, and whether the press should play any role in the larger national effort to create a new culture of integrity in politics and public service with zero tolerance for corruption.

This brings me to the second issue of corruption. Even government leaders have admitted that corruption is very much more serious today that in the early days of nationhood.

Although a new anti-corruption law has been passed by Parliament, the Anti-Corruption Act, there is considerable skepticism that there is sufficient political will to launch an all-out war against corruption.

During the recent paliamentary debate on the Anti-Corruption Bill, there were Barisan Nasional MPs who were very upset that eminent Malaysian personages like the former Auditor-General, Tan Sri Ahmad Nordin and the first Director-General of Anti-Corruption Agency and former Federal Court judge, Tan Sri Harun Hashim, had taken part in Round Table Conferences on Corruption and the Anti-Corruption Bill which I had convened in my capacity as Parliamentary Opposition Leader, describing them as "opposition people".

When Malaysians who are opposed to corruption are regarded as opposed to the Government, then something is very wrong and it does not hold out much promise that the government is prepared to mobilise full support from all sectors of society, whether the professions, the religions, the mass media, the NGOs to create a national system of integrity.

Just now, I mentioned that this year is the 30th anniversary of ASEAN. Corruption and social inequity should also be an ASEAN concern. Two items illustrate this.

Firstly about social inequity.The latest issue of FORBES magazine listed the billionaire heads of states and among the first five topping the list are two from ASEAN. The wealthiest is the Sultan of Brunei, assessed as worth US$38 billion while President Suharto is listed as the third richest head of state, assessed as worth US$16 billion.

Secondly, about integrity in politics and public service. The 1997 Transparency International Corruption Perception Index (CPI) does not have a flattering ranking for ASEAN countries apart from Singapore, which is listed as the ninth least-corrupt nation.

Malaysia dropped from No. 23 placing in 1995 to No. 26 in 1996 and is now in No. 32. Thailand fell from No. 34 placing in 1995 to No. 37 in 1996, and is now No. 39. Philippines fell from No. 36 in 1995 to No. 44 in 1996 and is now No. 40. Indonesia fell from No. 41 in 1995 to No. 45 in 1996 and now occupies the No. 46th place.

The rankings by FORBES and Transparency International illustrate the grave problems of social inequity and integrity in political life and public service, and highlights the urgent need to build and strengthen civil society institutions in the ASEAN region to protect the interests and aspirations of the common people of ASEAN, apart from those of the rulers and the governments.

The Malaysian Press should consider taking a lead to strengthen civil society institutions in the region,including the spearheading the formation of an ASEAN Coalition Against Corruption (ACAC) to protect the people’s interests in the whole region against the evils of corruption.

There can be many criteria to assess the development of ASEAN in the light of the Bangkok Declaration to promote justice, freedom, peace and social progress in the region.

Economically, despite Thailand’s current financial crisis and general nervousness about Malaysia’s position, ASEAN had made great strides in the past three decades, although grave problems of poverty and social inequity persists in large areas of the region.

But it is in the area of human rights and civil liberties that ASEAN has lagged most behind.

The recent admission of the State Law and Order Restoraton Council (SLORC) into ASEAN is a great setback for the cause of freedom and democracy in South-East Asia.

Some ASEAN leaders have been talking about a new policy vis-a-vis Burma following the expansion of ASEAN-9, on the ground that ASEAN’s "constructive engagement" policy was for a Burma before it became a member of ASEAN, and now with her admission, a new comprehensive policy would have to be put in place.

However, there had been no explanation of what this new ASEAN policy on Burma to replace the much-discredited ASEAN "constructive engagement" policy would be about or what it would be called. Probably, the advocates of freedom and democracy for Burma should flesh out such a new ASEAN policy on Burma to ensure that it includes the important components of democratisation and national reconciliation. May be, if ASEAN is look for a new policy on Burma, it should be called "constructive intervention".

In this context, it is a matter of grave concern that immediately after the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Kuala Lumpur last month, calls were made for the review of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, questioning the universality of human rights and democratic freedoms.

It raises the question whether the admission of Burma into ASEAN would be used as a pretext to justify a new lowest-common denominator of "acceptable democratic norms" in international relations - the SLORC standards - and that SLORC has become the latest exponent of the "Asian Values" school of democracy and human rights.

Any proposal to review the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to justify the false choices expounded by the advocates of "Asian Values" between prosperity and freedom, development and democracy, stability and respect of human rights must be contested by Asians and South-East Asians themselves, so that it would not be seen as a battle between the East and the West.

Asian and ASEAN voices for democracy and human rights must make themselves heard - to ensure that calls for respect and promotion of democracy and human rights are not regarded as Western imports but as the universal aspirations of humanity.

What is probably needed on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of ASEAN is have a new vision in the evolution of ASEAN - the emergence of a strong ASEAN civil society where ASEAN is represented internationally not only by the official views of the governments in the region, but even more important, a separate and distinct ASEAN viewpoint representing the aspirations and dreams of the ordinary people in ASEAN for freedom and justice.

Let us ponder how to rise up to the challenge to develop a people’s dimension in ASEAN as at present ASEAN merely reflects the official stands of the various governments concerned, which do not represent the deep-seated aspirations of the people for freedom and justice.

This is particularly the case with regard to human rights and civil liberties and the time has come for the people in the various ASEAN nations to put pressure on their respective governments to adopt an ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights with a ASEAN Human Rights Commission to monitor human rights abuses.


*Lim Kit Siang - Malaysian Parliamentary Opposition Leader, Democratic Action Party Secretary-General & Member of Parliament for Tanjong