Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Lessons from Liberation Square, Suppression taking its toll!

Lessons from Liberation Square

Along The Watchtower By M. Veera Pandiyan

The protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world are a wake-up call for governments to look at themselves, identify weaknesses and check excesses.

MALAYSIA may have seen its share of street protests since independence, but it’s safe to say that this is still a country where a people’s power-style power grab is highly unlikely to happen.

As such, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s warning last week that the Government would not allow attempts using mass protests to usurp power in Malaysia was a tad surprising.

Among other things he mentioned at the national-level Chinese New Year open house at Miri City Fan Square was that the people had the freedom to choose the government, and that peace, equality, and unity must be paramount.

But as expected, his remarks, probably in response to unfair comparisons being made between Egypt and Malaysia, were quickly interpreted as a threat by the Government to use the Internal Security Act and other draconian laws.

Yes, there are indeed lessons to be learned from the new age of dissent and unrest taking place in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world where people are finally demanding political rights and genuine democracy.

It should rightly be seen a wake-up call for governments everywhere to take another look at themselves, identify their weaknesses and check their excesses.

Are they going forward by providing better governance, greater transparency and accountability or still indulging in political shenanigans and condoning corruption or abuses of power?

Are their policies tuned to garner political support or geared to meet the needs of the country in an ever-changing, highly competitive world?

Can their young people get decent jobs when they leave school or university with the kind of education they have had?

In Egypt, where the population grew 2.5 times over the last two decades to reach 80 million currently, about 40% live around the internationally-accepted poverty line of US$2 (RM6) a day.

Under President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year autocratic rule, Egypt moved from being a state-controlled economy to one that attracted foreign investment.

But corruption remained rampant, making the well-connected extremely rich.

All through this time, Mubarak kept the country a virtual police state under emergency laws, giving the government sweeping powers of arrest and detention.

Arbitrary arrests, abuses by police, and even torture of political dissidents were common.

The US turned a blind eye to Mubarak’s human rights violations because he was its key ally and safeguard against known and perceived Islamist enemies in the region.

Still, the country’s economy grew by an annual average of 7% for three years until the global financial meltdown in 2008 saw it going down to 5%.

The majority of Egyptians bore the brunt of higher food and fuel prices. The poor got poorer and hungrier.
As the anger and resentment grew, Mubarak’s government failed to either connect with the rapidly growing socially-networked urban working class or provide jobs to the large numbers of university graduates being churned out.

But if inequality and the gap between the have and have-nots are the main reasons for the protests in Egypt and the other Arab countries, these are not problems that are exclusive to the region.

The Gini Coefficient (or Gini index) is the core means by which economists measure income inequality, using the comparative ratio between the share of income levels and the cumulative share of income earned by a percentage of the population.

Under the index, invented by Italian statistician Corrado Gini, lower scores denote better equality. So the higher a country scores on the Gini index, the more unequal its society’s distribution of income.

The latest figures show Sweden has the lowest Gini coefficient at 23, Namibia the highest at 70.7, while Egypt’s is 34.4, which is comparatively better than that of many Asean countries, including Malaysia and Singapore.

Our index is at 46.1, Thailand’s at 43, the Philippines’ at 45.8, Laos’ at 34, Vietnam’s at 34.6, Cambodia’s at 43, Indonesia’s at 39.4 and Singapore’s at 48.1. There is no figure for Myanmar.

For the record, the US’ index is at 45, and it is ranked 42nd in the 134-country list while Malaysia is ranked 36th and Egypt 90th.

Would we have fared better without illicit financial outflows from the country over recent years?

The Washington-based financial watchdog Global Financial Integrity found that Malaysia’s outflows tripled from US$22.2bil (RM67.5bil) in 2002 to an astounding US$68.2bil (RM207.3bil) in 2008.

It was fifth in a list of 10 Asian countries, registering the highest illicit financial outflows in the last decade.
China topped the list with an illicit outflow of US$2.18 trillion (RM6.6 trillion) followed by Russia with US$427bil (RM1.3 trillion), the Philippines with US$109.3bil (RM332.2bil), and Indonesia and India, both with US$104bil (RM315.8bil).

Going back to the protests in Egypt, perhaps there is one immediate thing that Malaysians can surely learn from Tahrir or Liberation Square: religious unity.

The country’s majority Muslims and minority Coptic Christians came together as Egyptians first, just as they did during the protests against British colonial rule in 1919.

Christians may only comprise about eight million or 10% of the population but they were united with their Muslim brothers, protecting each other during both protests and prayers.

According to an AP report, one priest gave a sermon on Sunday during which he said, “In the name of Jesus and Muhammad we unify our ranks… We will keep protesting until the fall of the tyranny.”

Christian and Muslim leaders issued a joint statement affirming that the revolution of Egyptian youth had instilled a new spirit of national unity, especially in the wake of tensions and fears of sectarian war following the bombing of churches during the New Year.

There were also placards reading “Muslims + Christians = Egypt”, complete with the crescent moon and cross symbols.

Will there be a time when we see such signs or speeches of religious tolerance and unity here?

Associate Editor M. Veera Pandiyan likes this quote from Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel: There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest

Suppression taking its toll

Brave New World By Azmi Sharom

Ruling with an iron fist may work as long as a country is relatively prosperous, but if good governance, accountability and fairness are gone it will only be too easy for poor decision-making and corruption to come in.

I WAS, to use that wonderfully Malaysian term, outstation, last week. The hotel I stayed in did not have any Malaysian channels on its telly, so all I had to watch was CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera.

For the entire week I was there, it seemed that the only news in the world were the protests in Egypt. Oh, and Fernando Torres joining Chelsea.

Watching the Tunisian-inspired protests on Tahrir square convinced me even more about the importance of democracy.

Egypt has been ruled by Hosni Mubarak for 30-odd years. In that time, political dissent had been quashed, elections rigged and democracy sidelined in favour of so-called stability.

This may work as long as a country is relatively prosperous.However, in general, a lack of democratic principles will only lead to poor governance.

With the elements of good governance; transparency, accountability and fairness gone, it is only too easy for poor decision-making and corruption to take root. Not exactly the right ingredients for prosperity.

Egypt has been mismanaged to the extent that 40% of its people live below the World Bank poverty line.
Food is expensive; Egypt has to import a large amount of its grains from abroad and is far from self-sufficient.
Amid this suffering, the people see a group of politicians entrenched as leaders and who are tremendously wealthy to boot.

Without the usual organs of a democratic state there is little chance for the citizenry to ensure changes of government and to see justice being done when there is corruption or incompetence or both. This lack of empowerment will lead to frustration.

Such frustration can of course be suppressed by an iron fist; in the case of Egypt, the Mukhabarat or secret police. However, such suppression can only last so long.

We have seen it before in Indonesia, in the Philip­pines, and currently in Egypt and all over the Middle East.
When the pressure gets too much, people will revolt. In this part of the world democracy is often portrayed as the opposite of order.

If people are free to speak their minds, if governments are tied to laws that limit their power, we are told that this would lead to chaos and a government too weak to take actions that it thinks are necessary for the good of the nation.

The term that used to describe this philosophy was “Asian Values”. It is as though we Asians do not “value” our human rights and our civil liberties and the inherent dignity that comes with the power to freely choose who leads us.

It is all of course a great fallacy to think that we simple Asians want to be led by the nose by our glorious leaders.

Just as it is a fallacy to believe that without a true democratic system; a system that will keep government in check, dispense justice fairly and transparently, and empowering the people to have a voice in their own destiny; somehow peace and stability will be ensured.

Egypt, along with numerous other nations, has proven this to be not true.

Dr Azmi Sharom is a law teacher. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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