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Making room for the best candidates

in MALAYSIA, 30/01/2011

Malaysian Civil Liberties Movement, a newly launced political party in Malaysia, is ready to back up an openly gay or transgender candidate.

The Malaysian Civil Liberties Movement, launched late last year, does offer some different and interesting ideas but it really cannot be described as a third force in Malaysian politics.

SOME have described the Malaysian Civil Liberties Movement (MCLM) as a third force in Malaysian politics. But politically, it might not really be. It is supportive of Pakatan Rakyat. By offering its “candidates of integrity”, what MCLM is trying to do is force Pakatan parties to be more selective in their choice of candidates to prevent crossovers and a fall of government through defections.

It does offer some different and interesting ideas like allowing a candidate to be independent of a political party, which frees the candidate from needing to toe the party line.

In an interview with The Star, MCLM president Haris Ibrahim explains the rationale of the movement.

Q: Why did you launch MCLM in London. Why not do it from here?

A: We tried to register MCLS (Malaysian Civil Liberties Society) in 2004 or 2005, We had an inaugural meeting for that in KL and submitted the application to ROS (Registrar of Societies) and guess what? The application is still there (it’s not been registered) so that tells you why (we did it in London). We want to move on and it didn’t look like we were getting anywhere with the ROS so we thought ‘ok let’s get it done in London’.

Q: But isn’t there a fear it is elitist because London isn’t really where the man-in-the street goes to?

A: We could have a glitzy launch in Hilton and that’s gonna be seen as elitist. If you look at the launch that we had on the 12th of Dec, it couldn’t have been more low key. There was no fuss and no fanfare. Most importantly, it must seem obvious that while we had established in London that we are working the ground here so this is not a movement in exile. It is very much on the ground.

Q: What is the rationale for office bearers not to contest?

A: MCLM is intended - vis-a-vis the Barisan Rakyat independent candidate initiative - as the structure which we build for candidates and the machinery. We don’t want to see a scramble for position. We didn’t want MCLM to be used as a stepping stone to further one’s self or be seen as a vehicle where any John Doe reckons he can get in, position himself, profile himself, then become a candidate. There may be a perception if you are an office bearer, a president, deputy president - then all things being equal - you will be nominated as a candidate. So we want to neutre that at the outset. That is the rationale. Holding office in MCLM is actually an impediment to any aspiring politician. If you hold office in MCLM don’t even dream of candidacy!

Q: MCLM is planning to field a maximum of 30 candidates?

A: There is no magical figure, no mathematical calculation by which we arrive at 30. That is a figure plucked simply on the basis that the principle that we want is to see a new pro-reform government post the 13th general election. In my calculation. it cannot be Barisan. (Former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) Pak Lah gave us a whole host of promises and we haven’t seen any of those reforms like the IPCMC (Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission). So at this juncture, I am not convinced that Barisan can deliver to us the reform government. This means having to work with all other parties. Assuming that we get that reform government in the 13th general election, our biggest concern is a “frog” festival ala Perak crisis (defection). So what we have to do is try to get enough people in there of unquestionable integrity whom we hope will be able to hold the fort.

We can’t really come up with a precise number because if non-Barisan political parties are lackadaisical in their selection, even if we offered 30 candidates of integrity and if they picked 50 who are weak, that 30 is not going to help. But you’ve gotta draw the line somewhere. We reckon that 30 is probably a fairly safe number. If you have 30 whom you are confident will not bite any bait, then there’s very little likelihood of the new government keeling over by reason of crossovers. At the end of the day, even 30 might not be enough. We don’t know.

Q: So MCLM is not really a 3rd force because they are aligned, supporting and working with Pakatan Rakyat?

A: We are working with any and every pro-rakyat pro-reform party.

Q: But not Barisan Nasional?

A: No because we don’t see Barisan as being pro-reform pro-rakyat. I was asked what would you say if (PM) (Datuk Seri) Najib (Tun Razak) asked for your candidate. I’d say ‘very good, repeal the ISA, repeal the OSA, the PPPA’ and put in place a Race Relations Act, and let’s look at an affirmative action program that is not race-based and we’ll work with you. It’s got to show credit. Talk is cheap on both sides of the divide.

Q: The MCLM launch has caused some discomfort and fear that it might split votes if it comes to a 3 cornered fight?

A: Let’s take Batu Sapi. There was no civil society involvement. You had SAPP on one hand and PKR on the other hand taking on Barisan. We urged the two parties to come to the table, sit together, evaluate their respective candidates and pick the better candidate but they didn’t. So even without any civil society involvement, there was a three-cornered fight. (MCLM candidate) Malik Imtiaz has said many time that whichever constituency he gets and as he works the ground, if one of the political parties offers a candidate whom he perceives to be better than himself, he will withdraw. All parties which claim to have this common agenda of seeing a reformed government in place should be prepared to take this position if my candidate happens to be better than yours.

There’s one litmus test that we can adopt. Hear the voters out. We will be conducting polls every 2 months.

Q: The presence of a viable opposition is quite new and the formation of Pakatan Rakyat coming together is something Malaysian saw only in the last election. With MCLM now in the picture, won’t this confuse the people?

A: I think we should give the average man in the street a bit more credit. There was a suggestion put to me in the public forum was that they might get confused with the symbols. Now why do people vote according to symbols? Because both sides of the divide only disclose candidates close to nomination and that means voters haven’t really a chance to know the candidates. We on the other hand are planning to deploy in March. So if Najib is going have elections say on 11/11/11 that gives us 8 months.

That’s 8 months of working the ground, 8 months of working the programs that we’ve planned for our candidates, 8 months of town hall forums, 8 months of inviting the MP to debate. They are going to play the role of shadow MP. I think come nomination day, we are not going to be perturbed with what symbol we’ll have to use if we are going to have to contest as an independent.

We’ve always said we open up to nomination day for any of the non-Barisan parties to say ‘alright we take you’.

We ll leave the doors open till then. If the sense we get from the voters is that we like you and want you then we’ll put you. I don’t see why the common man will get confused. On the contrary, the common man will be asking why isn’t my MP doing what my shadow MP is doing.

Q: How is this MCLM initiative going to work - you identify the candidate then the constituency?

A: There are 140 Barisan and 6 Barisan-friendly independent constituencies. So 146 is up for grabs because those are Barisan seats.

And it’s open for anyone to say ‘I’ve got this candidate’ and ‘he seems suitable here’. In that sense, we are not stepping on any opposition toes. Those aren’t opposition seats. I am also having a briefing for volunteers who are evaluating the 76 opposition incumbents. We are using a criteria developed by someone working for PKR. If any of the 76 fail, we’ll notify the party leadership and individual concerned . That is tantamount to a notice to the party to note that unless we are alerted of an improved candidate, we will be looking at that constituency to deploy.

We want to make sure that the opposition candidates are not an integrity risk and have the requisite MP aptitude.

Q: But you can’t put your candidates in rural seats can you because most of the issues MCLM is pushing for has to do with human rights?

A: Why not? Candidates would be going to the ground, working programs that we design for that particular constituency. Right now, we have a team of consultants doing demographic studies in practically all the peninsular constituencies so that we are able to best identify the candidates that we are coming up with the constituencies we are looking at. I don’t agree that the candidates we mentioned so far are necessarily viable only in urban constituencies. At the end of the day, it is all a matter of the programme you design and the work that you are prepared to do on the ground. I know there is this presumption that ‘ah they are going to target only the urban seats’. But not necessarily so.

Q: How are you going to ‘sell’ the MCLM candidates because they - except for Malik Imtiaz - are unknowns and don’t have a track record?

A: All the better. I don’t think you need a track record. I certainly would like to achieve something like this - let the average Joe who cares (do it).

If you talk about MP duties and what it takes, we will be conducting training sessions. It’s no great mystery. We think with a reasonable amount of intelligence , it can be taught. But integrity is something you can’t teach - either you were born or your family raised you well or they didn’t.

Our priority is integrity and an integrity candidate. The rest we think we can teach.

Working the ground is about understanding the demographics, understanding what they need and tailoring the program accordingly. That is what we are doing.

Q: How much rumblings have you have heard from the PR parties over the MCLM initiative?

A: Raja Petra has been speaking to some of the leaders and I have been speaking to some of the leaders. Their biggest concern is that while they appreciate the intention, they are also concerned about repercussions with the grassroots. and I can understand that. You talk about a division leader who has been waiting in the wings who suddenly has been told that he has to give way to this civil society candidate. Those are problems they will have to deal with.

What I indicated to them it is a problem we understand and we are prepared to work together with them to go to ground to explain. We think it is a necesarry rehabilitative process where the worst possible thing that could happen is that we win with a razor thin majority and see the government collapse on account of crossovers. It is for that reason that we are proposing this.

I have suggested to them I’d be very happy to work with them and go down to the grassroots to explain to them. But there has not been such huge rumblings. Certainly I’ve not had it put to my face.

Q: Why now. Why not before the 2008 election. What was the event that got you all to set up MCLM now?

A: It wasn’t one significant event but certainly when we saw what happened in Perak (the fall of the Pakatan state government to Barisan through defections) and then one realises that last year, with five Pakatan MPs crossovers in a row who declared themselves independent - had another two gone over - Barisan would have its two-thirds majority (in parliament).

When you look at all that, we said we can’t postpone this anymore.

Q: Is MCLM a reaction to PKR candidates. A lot of those who jumped were from PKR?

A: Keshwinder (Singh) was from DAP, Hee (Yit Fong) was from DAP, Hassan Ali who has been causing havoc is from PAS. I don’t think we can pin it entirely on PKR. Last year if you look at the 5 frogs they are all from PKR but it’s overstating the case to say it’s essentially a reaction to PKR.

The party leaders itself too have been fairly candid. In the run up to the 12th general election, they didn’t themselves have enough candidates and have been candid enough to admit it. Anwar himself has admitted he has made mistake. I think that is good of him. We’ve noted that and we also note the politics of partronage on both sides of the divide. That’s a serious problem the politics in Malaysia faces today - the politics of patronage. With all this mind, if you are going to sit back and wait and hope that the political party will up their own standards, it might not happen. We have got to force their hands. We are forcing their hands when we deploy in March and candidates start working the ground. Voters may begin to ask why all these years have they been subjected to the 11th hour introduction to candidates rather than have them made known to them earlier.

If the political parties themselves begin to notice that working 8 months before, gives our candidate a head start - they might begin to think that the days of disclosing at the 11th hour are numbered.

We used to be told the reason they didn’t disclose earlier is because Barisan would come and buy them off. And those are the very ones we want to avoid.

Q: There has been name calling between MCLM and PKR like Raja Petra saying some of the PKR candidates are ‘not fit to walk the dog’. What is that about when you all are on the same side?

A: It’s like a father who takes out a belt and belts his son - it’s because he loves the son. So when Raja Petra hits out at Pakatan, it’s because he cares. When I criticise them, it’s because I still think they are viable. If I didn’t think this, I wouldn’t even bother. When we lash out it’s because we think they are still viable and we are criticising them in hope they will pay heed and give thought to it.

Q: In the event there is a reform-type of government in place whom do you see as PM?

A: All things being equal, assuming there is no change in the current leadership due to any circumstance, then I suppose (Datuk Seri) Anwar (Ibrahim) will rise to that office.

Q: But how much of impact would MCLM have when you are talking about a maximum of 30 seats? The candidates might have integrity but without numbers you can’t push reform through?

A: If you do have 30 in parliament that is a number that cannot be ignored. But if we took 30 and Pakatan is able to able to muster 90 seats, they still don’t have enough seats to form a government on their own. But a coaliton between Pakatan and MCLM gives you 120 seats and a majority in parliament. You may need to take 30 people of integrity on board to form a government. So you can’t say 30 is insignificant and not have any clout. 30 in that case become critical.

Q: What issues appeal most to the rakyat most ?

A: Bread and butter issues. We will go down to the ground and help teach him to fish rather than give him the fish.

Q: But MCLM is always talking about liberties like freedom of speech, the judiciary and these don’t resonate with the man-in-the-street?

A: The rakyat reform agenda essentially covers 3 parts. A restoration of the institutions of the state back to the rakyat - this is quite irrelevant to the man who is down-and-out. An independent judiciary, the repeal of so many laws, introduction of laws like the Race Relations Act - it is la-di-da - for the man-in-the-street. The one that would matter most to the man-in-the street is the social inclusion agenda which is the affirmative action program. It’s essentially addressing the needs of the marginalised. That would appeal most to the man in the street who has bread and butter as his issue.

Q: Would candidates be from around the area they are contesting?

A: That would be ideal from so many perspectives. Otherwise logistically it becomes a headache. But I don’t think it’s fatal if you aren’t from the area. We do make a point of asking the candidates if you had a free hand where would you want to contest and why. So at least we have an idea of their own thoughts. At the end of the day, we are working with some very good professionals who are studying the constituencies and we’ll leave that decision till the end. The candidate must have a say. We get recommendations from the consultants and we would like them to share with us why they are matching so and so with that constituency and we’ll share with the candidates the reason.

Q: What do you think of Kita and will you be working with them?

A: Don’t know. We said we’ll be working with anyone who is pro-rakyat pro-reform. I haven’t got time to think of anything else except what we are doing. At their launch, our chairman sent someone from here because we had the invitation and Raja Petra said go find out what it is all about.

Q: What is your response to those who say that MCLM is a bunch of disillusioned Pakatan supporters?

A: I am not going to waste my time even responding. Come March, the candidates will go to the ground and we have to let that initiative do the talking. Personally, I have never been a Pakatan supporter. We’ve always said we’d work with anyone who is pro-rakyat. When I’ve had to I’ve hammered Pakatan - be it DAP, PKR or DAP - in my blogs.

Q: Barisan says they are pro-rakyat but MCLM won’t work with them?

A: The last few days, we’ve heard of the possibility of expanding the Printing Presses and Publications Act to online news portals. That doesn’t sound like reform to me. It sounds like regression. What about the ISA? They are talking about amending it! Where’s the IPCMC? We’ve just had a few more deaths in custody. I just saw the Teoh Beng Hock inquest (outcome). And nothing has come out of the VK Lingam Royal Commission of Inquiry. I rest my case.

We’ve heard a lot about abbreviations - the KPIs and NKRAs and what have you. But ask the man on the street how much a roti canai cost today compared to last year. Bus fares cost more, the quality of canteen food has gone down.

Q: People had high expectation in 2008 when they took a chance and voted for the opposition but Pakatan Rakyat hasn’t deliver its promises?

A: It is not fair to put it that way. Let’s understand that state power and federal power are two different things. Pakatan may have made promises on the basis that if they took Putrajaya. I don’t think Sept 16 (to take over Putrajaya) was Pakatan’s promise but rather one man’s (Anwar) agitation. If you talk about pre-election promises, what they could have delivered is at state level. The media is one thing that I’ve personally been rather unhappy about.

Under Section 25 (1)of the Printing Presses and Publications Act, state governments do not need a permit so the state governments could have come up with a newspaper. Also, they could have had local council election especially in Selangor. There were proposals for simulated local council elections in MPPJ or Subang. We have not seen any attempt at that. I think the other side of the coin is that the public expectation has also been unrealistic.

Pakatan doesn’t have federal power so there is only so much they can do. People want so many things fixed without quite appreciating that they are new and bound to have teething problems and more importantly they don’t have the requisite instrument ie power (at federal level). It is also unfortunate there has been instances of sabotage by the state civil service. And the governments has not made this information available to the public at large.

There was one instance this guy was trying to get his petty trading license and he was lamenting at the counter and the guy at the counter said ‘well those (Barisan) days you pay RM50 and you get the license within a week. But you were the one who wanted the Pakatan government and now everything we have to check and check’. So that chap goes off and thinks ‘oh I made a mistake’ That’s not to say that Pakatan has been perfect but it’s work in progress.

A lot of criticism that has been thrown to them is warranted but we have also got to be fair to them.

Q: Like it or not, support is said to have returned to Barisan when Najib took over as Prime Minister? And that the anger of 2008 has eased.

A: If it’s true, I’ll work harder. There is so much fluidity in all that is happening. A month and a half ago, it was that elections was imminent and then we had the Wikileaks then everything got held back.

There’s another rumour of there’s going to be another round of Wikileaks which is going to hurt some in government so elections is being held held back again. How much of this swing is real. How much is so sound and solidly grounded that it won’t swing back again with the slightest rumour of another crisis. How sustainable is this swing. But if it’s real, I’ll have to work harder.

Q: How would you assess the performance of Pakatan since the 2008 elections?

A: (Lim) Guan Eng has done well in Penang, (short term Perak MB) Nizar (Jamaluddin) never quite had a chance. Selangor leaves much to be desired. Kedah needs a new MB, Kelantan has not changed much and its still same-old same-old (Datuk Seri) Nik Aziz (Nik Mat). As a coalition that is looking to take federal power, a lot of us really wanted to see a shadow cabinet. That would have been good but unfortunately that has not been forthcoming.

It would have been good to see a shadow cabinet come up with its own policies, propose policies. I think that would have augur confidence with a voting public that this is a as a coalition that is readying itself. A lot of people are looking and asking ‘are they really ready?’ Pakatan needs to look at bolstering the confidence of voters.

Q: Is MCLM prepared to put a gay candidate for a seat?

A: Yes. If he’s not a closet gay and is prepared to come out. Our concern is a closetted lifestyle makes you susceptible to extortion and bribery. I really don’t care who you sleep with but you need to be open about it. If you are gay and prepared to tell the voting public that ‘hey, look i am gay” and “I am offering to serve you in parliament and if you’ve cleared all the other criteria, I’ll back you. We will also back a transgender candidate if we get one. It’s also about changing Malaysian mindsets.

Q: But is Malaysia ready for that. Would such a candidate win ?

A: It’s a question of finding the right constituency then tailoring the right programme. If you give me a gay, give me a right constituency, I can confident we can go down. I think it’s worth the money even if we don’t win. In those kind of constituencies, MCLM will be going in to make a point. The process is about educating the public.

I’d rather a gay or a transgender who is honest than a heterosexual who’s got his bloody hands on the rakyat’s money! If the voters are left with a similar choice - here’s a transgender who’s got a track record that speaks heaps of his integrity opposing someone who’s got a track record of fraud and cheat and what have you. - you make your choice. I’d vote the transgender.

Q: What about someone who is a womaniser or a Muslim candidate who drinks - would they be candidates?

A: I’ve no issue with this as long as you are not a closet womaniser and you are not going to cave in when someone brings a video and says ‘I’ll shows this to your wife’.

Q: But some would argue a womaniser especially if the person is married is a question of integrity. Wouldn’t people would see this as a lack of integrity?

A: We ourselves know too probably many numerous instances where people stay together when the marriage for all intent and purposes have fallen apart. Even in my our family, aunts have lived with husbands for reasons other than love and that their marriage for all intent and purposes is a sham. I am not going to moralise here because I don’t know what’s going on with that husband and wife and what’s gone wrong.

Should that be part of a matter of integrity that we look into? I don’t think so. At the end of the day our concerns of integrity is this instance is specific. Is there anything in the resume or character of the individual that leaves us suspectible to a crossover. That’s our concern here. So if you happen to be a womaniser and make no secret of it, I think the risk of that is removed.

Q: That makes me think the target group of voters that you are reaching is more liberal middle class type. Are they?

A: If we do offer a gay or transgender, it would be really about making a statement. I do agree with you that it would be hard to sell such a candidate but we will certainly try. I am still the infernal optimist thinking that if you get the right constituency with the right programme that you have fighting chance. Even if we thought we were going to lose, those are contests that we are thinking to have to make a statement. And let’s not forget that we are about Malaysian civil liberties.

Q: But let’s not forget you are working with Pakatan and offering these candidate to those parties?

A: I am dead certain none of the parties are going to take that individual. So in all likelihood that individual would be standing under the kunci, burung or some other symbol. But we will still push it.

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