When credibility gap yawns

AUGUST 7 ― Civil servants have been told by no less than Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak recently “to help improve and restore the people’s faith in the government.”

This is an implicit acknowledgement that for all intents and purposes the political legitimacy and ideological hegemony of the administration are under severe assault by Malaysians in general.

In recent years and months, several controversies have visited the Najib administration, such as the apparent flamboyant lifestyle of the prime minister and his wife that jars with the implementation of the much-maligned Goods and Sales Tax (GST), which incurred the wrath of Malaysians especially those who find difficulty making ends meet in their daily lives.

But the integrity of the government was put to a much rigorous test by the revelation of the controversial debt-laden 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fund. Government leaders are experiencing a credibility deficit in the eyes of concerned Malaysians, politicians and the civil society.

From the perspective of many inquisitive Malaysians, many questions pertaining to the 1MDB debacle are still left unanswered, and a few answers that were given did not really satisfy the curious minds of many as they felt that those responses were mere spin.

The questions posed recently ― such as, what was the money allegedly deposited in Najib’s bank account subsequently used for? ― by the son of the Johor Mentri Besar, Akmal Saufi Mohamed Khaled, are generally representative of what is on the minds of many people in the country.

This then gave rise to a situation whereby the narrative of the government leaders about the 1MDB controversy is only matched by the counter-narratives of many Malaysians. In other words, the government leaders, particularly the prime minister, are not on the same page as many ordinary Malaysians.

And public confidence in the government got shakier when Najib, shortly after dropping Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin as his Deputy Prime Minister, declared that what he valued most in order to function effectively as leader of his Umno Baru party is loyalty rather than “smart people.” Obviously, this is not the kind of compliment that the Cabinet ministers, many of whom come from Najib’s party, would crave for ― and flaunt.

Furthermore, the public antics and expressions of a few Cabinet ministers in recent months only reinforce public perception that the administration is composed of less intelligent, let alone honest, leaders. For instance, in his desperate defence of the prime minister pertaining to the 1MDB debacle, Barisan Nasional strategic communications director Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan reportedly asserted that he did not find it “unusual” for the huge sum of money found in Najib’s bank account to be used to fund the party.

Neither does it help to inspire public confidence when, for example, it began to initiate moves to suppress freedom of the press and of expression. The three-month suspension by the Home Ministry of The Edge Weekly and The Edge Financial Daily after their painstaking journalistic investigation of the 1MDB scandal only fuelled public suspicion.

The blocking of local access to the whistleblower Sarawak Report (SR) website by the monitoring Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission was largely seen as an attempt to curb the right of concerned Malaysians to information and their freedom to make their own judgement on issues at hand.

In fact, this blockade only aroused much curiosity among Malaysians about what is available on the SR website as shown by their relentless attempts to access alternative means to the SR.

Should there be error of facts in the information supplied by the SR, the government could have insisted on its right to reply or take a legal suit against the website as is the norm in a thriving democracy.

Furthermore, the government’s threat to control social media, which is popular among the young, activists, politicians and those who seek space for alternative information and views, is indicative of the nervousness of the ruling regime about the restlessness of the people pertaining to 1MDB, politics, economy and ethno-religious relations.

The recent announcement by the newly-anointed Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Salleh Said Keruak that the government was studying proposals to register online news portals confirms the government’s political jittery. If implemented, this registration of news portals is akin to the issuing of publishing permits of the mainstream newspapers, which in essence is their Sword of Damocles.

Media censorship, banning of publications, stringent controls of the Internet and, as a last resort, arrests of political dissenters, to name but a few, are indeed part of the playbook of any regime whose political hegemony is perceived, real or imagined, to be under threat by the very people in whose name it governs.

These regressive and repressive measures do not only curb democracy but also alienate the ruling regime from the people whose consent, to many of the things they did and plan to do, they clamour for. That is why the attempt to cast aspersions against imaginary “foreign enemies” and “white people” in the midst of the many controversies particularly 1MDB can be interpreted as a desperate and feeble endeavour to get as many ordinary Malaysians on the side of the ruling elite.

In other words, the rakyat in general are expected to be swayed to unite with the country’s leadership against the “evil foreigners” ― but on shaky ground.

However, as implied above, such an effort to gain the hearts and minds of the people has its limits especially when you have counter-narratives emanating from social media and online news portals. Seen in this context, pornography, online gambling and Islamic extremism are secondary to the government’s primary motive to control online news portals.

So where do we go from here? It's clear that the only option for the Najib administration is to be transparent and accountable if the nation is to move on and address the economic, political and sociocultural challenges that confront the Malaysian public.

It is also imperative that the weakened democratic institutions, such as the media and the judiciary ― the consequence of which has spawned a culture of corruption, concentration of executive powers and money politics, amongst others ― be given their due redress. Otherwise, the same mistakes of yesteryears, in which the fingerprints of former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad can be traced, will be repeated over and over again.

In this regard, the planned “808 Rally for Freedom of Information” tomorrow deserves public support to ensure the transparency and accountability of especially the government leaders and also the survival of our democracy.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.