By Jacqueline Ann Surin
IN the last general election, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi sent a letter that was personally addressed to me. The March 13 letter was mailed to a family home address in Penang. My family’s excitement was palpable all the way in Petaling Jaya where I was at work.
My parents didn’t think I should wait till after the March 21 elections to see the Prime Minister’s letter, so my father rode his motorbike to my uncle’s office to have it immediately faxed to my office, while my mother chatted excitedly with me on the phone about the “new Prime Minister”.
It’s understandable that Abdullah managed to secure a resounding victory for the Barisan Nasional (BN) government in the last elections. He seemed like sunshine and fresh sea breeze after 22 years’ of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s often cantankerous leadership which did not suffer dissenting views.
In his letter to me, Abdullah promised he would fulfill his duties with honesty, integrity, fairness and efficiency. He stressed that he was not just the people’s servant but also God’s, and that he would be judged by both. He promised to listen and to be Prime Minister for all Malaysians.
Of course, Abdullah’s letter didn’t just go out to me. Scores of others received the same letter but the fact that it was personally addressed to each citizen was enough to convince people that he cared about the rakyat. Indeed, Abdullah’s reconciliatory demeanour and his election promises even managed to impress my more critical family members.
Truth be told, as a citizen who is cynical and skeptical of any public relations exercise because of the nature of my profession, even I had a little hope. It was that flicker of hope that made me sit down during dinner on the night of March 21 to pen a postcard to Abdullah, after he led the BN to win nearly 64% of the popular votes and nearly 91% of parliamentary seats.
As part of the “Tell it to the PM Campaign 2004” that was initiated by KrisAman, a creative communication outfit, postcards of a smiling and waving Abdullah had been distributed in public places. The message on the card read: “We assure you, he will listen”.
And so, I wrote to Abdullah:
“Dear Prime Minister,
Please repeal the Internal Security Act (ISA) which allows for detention without trial. Surely you and other peace-loving Malaysians can appreciate that detention without trial is unjust and goes against every religious belief that we hold dear in this country. If you really believe that God is your ultimate judge, then you know that detention without trial should be repealed.
Please also repeal the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) so that the media can regain its credibility and integrity. As a journalist, the kinds of control that the media faces makes it difficult for me to do my job well and honestly.”
I even affixed a 30 sen stamp to the postcard but my cynicism must have snuffed out whatever flicker of hope was ignited by Abdullah’s promises, because I never sent off the postcard. I think it must have been the intuition I had about the postcard campaign being a public relations exercise. And that our Prime Minister had to do much more than make promises. Still, so as not to be presumptuous, I wonder what would have happened if I had sent that postcard? Would Abdullah have read it? Would he have listened?
Since he became Prime Minister, Abdullah has clearly demonstrated at least two things. He’s not about to review or repeal the PPPA which gives absolute powers to the minister to shut down the press. Indeed, between 2005 and 2006, Malaysians saw political interference in China Press for inaccurate reporting. Under Abdullah’s leadership, we also witnessed the non-renewal of Suara Keadilan‘s publishing permit; the suspension of Sarawak Tribune and Berita Petang; and the two-week suspension of Guang Ming Daily. There were also threats against the New Straits Times and TV2 over images related to the Danish cartoon issue, and the closure of the Chinese-language talk-back radio programme on state-owned station Ai FM.
Indeed, Abdullah himself publicly declared in June last year (see http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2007/6/29/nation/18165820&sec=nation and for his full speech go to www.thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2007/6/29/nation/20070629075851&sec=nation) that there was a need to keep such press-restrictive laws, likening them to the cane on the wall to remind children to be good.
He’s also demonstrated no inclination whatsoever to repeal the ISA, and had no qualms using it, most recently against the Hindraf 5, even though detention without trial is clearly unjust because it’s open to abuse and does not recognise a person’s dignity, and hence, is un-Islamic. Indeed, the continued use of the ISA makes a mockery of Abdullah’s Islam Hadhari which promises to promote a just and fair Islam for all.
I’ve no doubts it’s not easy being Prime Minister. I’m even more certain that it’s astronomically difficult to manage the demands of different interest groups, especially in a country where race-based politics is the name of the game. But some standards can and must be expected of the people we place in power over us. At the very minimum, we must hold them to the promises they make.
And I’m confident we’ll hear more promises this general election. Indeed, Abdullah has already reiterated his 2004 promise of being “PM for all Malaysians” just this Feb 17 while in Penang (see http://www.thesundaily.com/article.cfm?id=20784). He also repeated the Quranic exhortation to be honest and fair, and to have integrity, and reiterated his principles as a God-fearing Muslim.
But making promises is easy. We all know this. This general election, voters must be a little more discerning of our politicians’ promises, no matter how affable they may seem while campaigning for our hearts and minds.
Really, until we see action that matches a politician’s promise, we can be assured that such promises are like that postcard with the smiling Abdullah on it – a mere public relations exercise.