BY FARISH A. NOOR
OVER the past few months Malaysia has witnessed a number of popular demonstrations over the rise in prices of highway tolls.
What has angered many ordinary Malaysians, however, was the recent revelation that the Malaysian government had signed an agreement with a Malaysian company, Linkaran Trans Kota, marking yet another toll concession between the government and a private company. As highway toll prices skyrocket all over the country, the average Malaysian consumer now finds himself increasingly constrained by rising costs of everyday goods and services. Moreover, thousands of Malaysians today are forced to commute from the various satellite townships that dot the urban landscape of the country to get to work in their offices in the cities. Yet on January 1, the toll rates on five of the country’s major highways were raised from between 30 to 70 per cent, infuriating many. As such, a rise of toll prices would invariably affect thousands of ordinary Malaysians whose consumption power has been reduced as a result.
What worries and angers so many Malaysians, however, is the fact that the toll concession between the Malaysian government and the private company was done behind closed doors, and that the toll agreement itself was classified as a secret document under the Official Secrets Act (OSA). This, despite the fact that the Official Secrets Act as it was drafted in 1972 was originally meant to protect state secrets related to matters of national defence and security.
When several members of the opposition alliance in Malaysia revealed the document before a startled Malaysian public a few weeks ago, the Malaysian government reacted by declaring that the toll concession agreement was an official secret document and that the opposition leaders had broken the law. The net result of this has been the summoning of several prominent opposition leaders, including Dr Hatta Ramli of the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), Ronnie Liu of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Tian Chua of the People’s Justice Party (Keadilan) to the central Police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. Tian Chua’s house and office have also been raided by the police, in search of the crucial document that the government does not wish to be made public.
That the government’s toll concession agreement has been declared an official state secret is not new in Malaysia, where any document can be classified as a state secret document. Earlier the Malaysian people’s Coalition Against the Privatisation of Water had demanded that the state’s agreement with private water companies be made public too; but met with a similar response from the state. The Minister for Energy, Water and Communications simply responded by saying that such matters were classified as state secrets and could not be divulged to the public.
The persecution of opposition leaders like Hatta Ramli, Ronnie Liu and Tian Chua raises serious questions about the so-called ‘reform agenda’ of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) has raised the obvious question: “Is the Official Secrets Act (OSA) only used against whistleblowers and not against profiteers?” That Kit Siang can ask such a question today is evident when “we have a situation where the OSA is used to protect privatisation contracts from being exposed for its ‘lop-sidedness and short-changing the public’, but where OSA is not invoked so long as the details of the concession are used to flog for funds and investors in the marketplace?” After a series of angry public demonstrations – most of which were met by strong police reaction – Kit Siang’s question is being asked by thousands of Malaysians all over the country too.
When he first came to power, Badawi had promised a new era of transparent and accountable governance. Yet despite the froth and rhetoric of the current establishment based in Putrajaya the Malaysian public is none the wiser about government deals with the private sector that are being done behind closed doors. The skeletons that crowd the bursting closet of the Badawi establishment are now spilling out into the open, with allegations of numerous government cover-ups in high-profile cases of corruption and abuse of power.
How far is the Malaysian government prepared to come clean in its dealings with the private sector in the country, and how much information is the Malaysian public allowed to have access to, in order to know what the government is doing in their name? With additional pressure for reform coming from growing competition all across Asia and the steady flight of capital from Southeast Asia to rapidly developing countries like China and India, it would seem that the momentum of change is already in place. Foreign companies and foreign governments like the United States of America and Japan are clamouring for more accountability and transparency in the way that Malaysia manages its economy and development. And the Malaysian public – now increasingly wired-up by the internet and alternative sources of information and news – is also calling for more openness and change.
But several years into the administration of the Badawi government, it would appear as if nothing has really changed in the country and that business is being run as it has always been: In secret, behind closed doors and with the Malaysian public kept in the dark. Is this the new face of ‘moderate, modern, Islamic’ governance that Malaysia wishes to promote to the world? If so, judging by the standards on display thus far, the Malaysian model hardly seems to be one worth emulating by anyone.
Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist