In critique of Pakatan’s first year, groups say pact lost momentum on rights and reforms

NGO representatives and academics hold up copies of the Article 19-Civictus report on Pakatan Harapan’s first year in governance May 6, 2019. — Picture by Terence Tang
NGO representatives and academics hold up copies of the Article 19-Civictus report on Pakatan Harapan’s first year in governance May 6, 2019. — Picture by Terence Tang

KUALA LUMPUR, May 6 — The Pakatan Harapan (PH) government has yet to deliver on its election pledges to reform allegedly repressive laws and uphold human rights despite a promising start, a panel of non-governmental organisation (NGO) representatives and academics said today.

The panel discussion took place after the launch of rights groups Article 19 and Civicus Monitor’s review report on PH’s first year in governance, titled “New Government, Old Tactics: Lack of progress of reform commitments undermines fundamental freedoms and democracy in Malaysia”.

“It started off very well initially, we (human rights groups) participated when the government formed the Institutional Reforms Committee,” said Article 19’s Malaysia programme officer Nalini Elumalai.

According to Nalini, rights advocates had been heartened when the committee accepted feedback and recommendations from NGOs.

However, this subsided when authorities began investigating individuals including Datuk A. Kadir Jasin, the media adviser to the prime minister, under the Sedition Act 1948.

The Sedition Act was among laws PH pledged to repeal or review, and for which it briefly introduced a moratorium on enforcement before this was lifted in December.

Another panellist, Civicus civic space researcher Josef Benedict said that while he understood the significant challenges faced by the government in implementing reforms, he noted that the pact has the necessary powers to do so in Parliament.

“We understand there are things that can be done quite quickly and should have been done, like reforms of legislation (such as the Sediction Act 1948, Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, and Peaceful Assembly Act 2012),” Josef said.

He urged the government to establish clearer communications and engagement with civil society and the people, pointing out that there is currently a lack of clarity over its future plans.

Fellow panellist, NGO Justice for Sisters founder Thilaga Sulathireh highlighted the continuing discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

Citing the March 9 Women’s Day march that drew criticism and attracted police scrutiny due to the expressed support for the LGBT, she such discrimination also affect other rights advocates as they were also championing equality for the group.

When asked if more hurdles to reforms will appear if PH cannot allay concerns among conservative sections of the country, University of Nottingham professor of media and communication studies Zaharom Nain said the government must first alleviate low-income earners’ financial burdens before they can be won over.

“[...] If you don’t deal with the economic issues, no matter what narrative you use, people are not going to believe it,” panellist Zaharom, who is also the university’s Centre for the Study of Communications and Culture director, said.

The “siege mentality” of some Malaysians regarding certain issues could be “whittled away” once the economic issues have been settled, he added.