Silver lining in the church attacks

It seems these unfortunate incidents are forcing many Malaysians into a time of introspection. The reset button on race relations will have to be hit. Hopefully cool heads will prevail over impetuous acts of bigotry. This could the the silver lining in this whole sad saga.

I feel sad for our neighbour, Malaysia, for what happened over the past few days, with four churches coming under arson attack, presumably linked to the controversial “Allah” ruling by the High Court. According to reports, this is the first time in the history of the country that churches have come under attack of this sort. Even through the turbulent period of the 1960s, including the 1969 race riots, houses of worship were deemed sacrosanct. All that has been shattered now.

The Metro Tabernacle Church, a 1,500-member Assembly of God church in the Kuala Lumpur area, had its first floor 80 per cent destroyed by the fire. According to the KL police chief, the perpetrators broke all the glass window panels on the ground floor of the building before pouring petrol into the building and setting it alight. Three other churches in the Klang Valley — the Catholic Church of Assumption in Kuala Lumpur, Life Chapel Church in Petaling Jaya and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Petaling Jaya — were also torched, although none seriously.

It goes without saying that these fanatical crimes deserve to be condemned in the strongest terms possible. I find it rather insensitive that demonstrations at some mosques against the High Court’s ruling still went ahead on Friday after the arson attacks happened, although according to Marina Mahathir, the turnout was lower than expected.

Despite the reprehensible actions of a few individuals, it is reassuring to see so many prominent Malaysians speaking out strongly against these attacks. PAS, the opposition Islamic party, has been particularly forceful in its condemnation. Their spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat said the culprits behind the attacks are committing a sin and will reap what they sow, while their president, Abdul Hadi Awang, called the firebombings “uncivilised” and against Islam. Prime Minister Najib Razak has announced a government allocation of RM500,000 to rebuild the Metro Tabernacle Church. Even UMNO Youth Chief Khairy Jamaluddin, who is better known for his firebrand comments defending Malay rights, said that this was a “despicable act” and that this is “not the Malaysia I know”.

It seems these unfortunate incidents are forcing many Malaysians into a time of introspection over how a dispute over semantics could have boiled over into attacks of this nature. The reset button on race relations will have to be hit. Hopefully cool heads will prevail over impetuous acts of bigotry. This could the the silver lining in this whole sad saga.

Merdeka Malaysia

On the eve of Anwar Ibrahim’s promised date for his takeover of the Malaysian government, it looks like all systems go. The takeover may not happen tomorrow, but judging from events in recent days, it’s not a matter of “if” but “when”.

First the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) started panicking and sent their MPs off on a “study trip” to Taiwan in a bid to prevent them from defecting on Sept 16th.

Then the Home Minister basically served the government on a silver platter to Anwar when he ordered the arrest of a young journalist, a prominent blogger and a senior opposition MP under the ISA. Journalists from normally pro-government newspapers arrived at the government press conference wearing black, in protest.

Even the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a component party of the BN has openly criticized the arrests. The Star, which is owned by the MCA, called them “most ridiculous”.

And finally, Zaid Ibrahim, the law minister today quit in protest at the ISA arrests.

Anwar has promised to dismantle pro-Malay affirmative action in favour of pro-poor affirmative action if he gains power. He has also promised to crack down on corruption, make government procurement more transparent, and free the judiciary and media from government interference, as well as ensure religious freedom.

If he manages to pull all that off, I have no doubt that Malaysia, with its vast natural resources, will have no problem catching up with its more prosperous southern neighbour in a matter of years. More interestingly, a politically liberal Malaysia could make staid Singapore look like a vestige of a past era.

I wish Malaysia and Malaysians all the best as they begin their next lap.

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Transcript of New Paper Interview

The New Paper (TNP) contacted me two days ago to conduct an interview regarding an article on the Malaysian elections and their effects on our country. In particular, the reporter was hoping to examine whether local bloggers would be able to use this online platform to enter politics, just as political bloggers like Jeff Ooi have in Malaysia. I was asked to comment in my capacity as a blogger who frequently comments on political issues.

The article came out today (12 March). I haven’t read it yet but here is the transcript:

TNP: Because of their highly-regulated media, many Malaysians have turned to political blogs such as Jeff Ooi’s as credible alternatives to mainstream media. Do you feel the same thing could happen with Singapore?

Gerald: The migration from TV and newspapers to the Internet is already happening in Singapore. I believe this is because there are so many ‘information and opinion gaps’ left by the mainstream media on local issues. Local media often fail to provide balanced reporting and commentary on events and issues that put the Government or the ruling party in a bad light.

Singapore’s media is as regulated, if not more so, than the Malaysian media. Is it any wonder that many Singaporeans are increasingly turning to socio-political blogs for news, commentary and analysis? And it’s not just young Singaporeans. I know of a number of older Singaporeans who are also regular readers of socio-political blogs.

TNP: M’sian bloggers like Jeff Ooi have managed to enter the realm of politics and even raise funds through their blogs. Do you see this happening in Singapore?

Gerald: If you survey the socio-political blogs in Singapore, you will find many bloggers who love Singapore and want to change Singapore for the better. I’m sure at least a few of them will be willing to take the next step to enter politics. That could only be good for Singapore.

As for raising funds, I’m not sure if Singapore’s electoral laws allow online fundraising. But I definitely think online fundraising should be allowed. Even Barack Obama, the US Presidential candidate, raised a large amount from grassroots supporters through the Internet, instead of relying on big businesses for his campaign donations.

TNP: How far would you go with controversial and possibly politically-sensitive comments on your blog? Where do you draw the line?

Gerald: I would draw the line on any comment that is illegal, which is not in Singapore’s national interests, or which could get me terminated from my job. This, of course, does not mean that I will refrain from from expressing my opinions on policies that I feel are wrong for Singapore. I think so far I have been extremely cautious in what I write.

Malaysian Opposition video that would be illegal in Singapore

A friend sent me this video produced by Malaysian opposition party, the Democratic Action Party (DAP). Save the minor typo in one of the captions, I thought it was a pretty meaningful video, telling Malaysians that the DAP will speak out for those without a voice.

My friend informed me that the tall building that the little girl is running towards is the Dewan Rakyat — Malaysia’s Parliament. The man in the suit receiving the baton from the girl is the Leader of the Opposition, Lim Kit Siang. With him are fellow DAP MPs Kula Segaran, Chong Eng (the lady with the streaked white hair) and Teresa Kok (lady with the red skirt).

But folks, don’t try making this at home. A video like this if made in Singapore would be illegal — yes illegal! It would be considered a “party political video” under Section 33 of the Films Act, which states:

Making, distribution and exhibition of party political films

33.
Any person who —

(a) imports any party political film;
(b) makes or reproduces any party political film;
(c) distributes, or has in his possession for the purposes of distributing, to any other person any party political film; or
(d) exhibits, or has in his possession for the purposes of exhibiting, to any other person any party political film,

knowing or having reasonable cause to believe the film to be a party political film shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $100,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years.

Isn’t it good to know that our friends up north have more freedoms than we do in this respect?

But there is still hope. Foreign Minister George Yeo, who was Minister for Information and the Arts when Section 33 of the Films Act was enacted, explained on Channel NewsAsia on 9 January 2007 about the purpose behind this piece of legislation. He said that it was to prevent politics in Singapore from becoming “so commercial where it all depends on packaging and how much money you are able to put into producing a programme.”

He added that the Government at that time “did not reckon this new media which allows you to produce the programmes quite cheaply” and felt that the Government has “got to adjust that position”.

Even MM Lee Kuan Yew, when asked by TIME magazine in 2005 about a documentary made by filmmaker Martyn See about opposition politician Chee Soon Juan, which was banned, had this to say:

“Well, if you had asked me, I would have said, to hell with it. But the censor, the enforcer, he will continue until he is told the law has changed. And it will change…”

PM Lee is set to announce a Cabinet reshuffle soon. Dr Vivian Balakrishnan is expected to be appointed the new Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts. I hope one of the changes he makes as he takes up his new position is to repeal the laughable Section 33 of the Films Act from our statute books soon, and save our country from further embarrassment.

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M’sia’s bumi policy threatens ASEAN-EU FTA

Last week, Thierry Rommel, the European Union (EU)’s ambassador to Malaysia, openly criticised Malaysia’s New Economic Policy (NEP). The NEP (commonly termed the “bumiputera policy”) is a 37-year old affirmative action programme in Malaysia that favours ethnic Malays and other indigenous groups in government contracts and education.

While the criticism and the perfunctory backlash from Malaysian leaders is rather unremarkable, what caught my eye was when Rommel warned the NEP could “lead to problems” in free trade negotiations between the EU and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Malaysia is a key member. The EU and ASEAN agreed last month to launch free trade talks, which could raise ASEAN’s exports to the EU by up to 20 percent. Senior officials are expected to hold their first meeting in Vietnam next month.

While I believe that the NEP is something for Malaysians to argue about amongst themselves, I am concerned that this policy may affect a very important free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU, which is the world’s most important trading bloc. I do not think Rommel would have risked the wrath of Malaysia if he didn’t think this was a serious enough issue. As if ASEAN didn’t already have enough roadblocks to the FTA like Myanmar’s military junta and EU agricultural protectionism, now it appears Malaysia’s NEP threatens to be another roadblock to sealing this important FTA.

Links: Malaysiakini report