Keeping the promise

By Jacqueline Ann Surin
[email protected]

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.

PM’s letter

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”.

Tell it to the PM Campaign 2004 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.

21 responses to “Keeping the promise”

  1. Well Jac, you know what. I also had a letter written out to the PM when he was newly elected. The letter which I drafted was to vent the countless frustrations that I had with society, government, and many other stuff, things that you and I had to breathe in daily. But that letter never got sent. I don’t and can’t recall why but I guess, on hindsight now, it’s useless to have it sent.
    Come 8 March, I will send him a different letter though.

  2. Badawi cannot be trusted. He has broken so many of his pledges and promises. He does it time and time again. This is backstabbing the rakyat, who have placed much trust and hope in the Prime Minister. Even with 91 percent of the seats in Parliament, he cannot implement and enforce the things he said he would.

    The time has come for the denial of a two-thirds majority in Parliament. If 91 percent did not work, then a massive reduction would send a clear message to the Barisan Nasional Government that it is time to put words into action. Do not be No Action, Talk Only (NATO).

    This coming 12th General Elections are crucial for the long term future of the country. The mandate given by the rakyat now will have long-term effect. Malaysia is a tale of two paths. We do not wish Malaysia to be torn into two. The two paths of socio-economic progress and national unity must go hand in hand. There is no room for contradictory paths. What kind of nation-building does Malaysia need, and Malaysians want? The kind of nation-building where everyone feels belonged. Where all are equally Malaysians under the sun, irrespective of background.

    If the trend of racialisation continues, under Barisan Nasional politics, then worse things than now will happen. Corruption, cronyism, wastage, cover-ups, etc. will continue, on a larger scale.

    The job of a government is to provide security for its citizens. The government has a duty to guarantee fundamental rights of its citizens. This government, the Barisan Nasional Government, has failed miserably to live up to the people’s expectations. Crime rate has shot-up, inflation is higher than before, thus affecting the cost of living, the bureaucrats continue to be inefficient but ever more arrogant, politicians are insensitive to the plight of the people, illegal immigration does appear to be under control at all, etc.

    The Barisan Nasional Government must be brought to their senses. They cannot be allowed to mislead, intimidate and even lied outright to, anymore, such what was done by none other than Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi who literally did a mental somersault within 24 hours. This in itself will affect investors’ confidence.

    The time has come for the Barisan Nasional Government to do things rightly and correctly. The Government claims to believe in the free market. Give consumers more choice by freeing up the Internet service provider (ISP) market. Break the monopoly of Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) in electricity supply. Practice open tender for independent power producers (IPP). In short, allow consumers to vote with their feet. And let competition rule the market, not cronies of the Barisan Nasional Government.

    And the New Economic Policy (NEP) is bad for the economy and investment. Tax-payers money must not be wasted on cronies and serving the political ends of Barisan Nasional such as injecting funds into the stock market to fuel a bullish trend. No, the market must continue to be liberalised, be removing the 30 percent quota for so-called bumiputeras. The NEP itself must be re-engineered to serve only needy people. Race alone must not be the criterion. But race and need. Both are inseparable. There is no justification whatsoever for 30 percent dish out to bumiputeras irrespective of need or status. None whatsoever. No law, no belief, can impose such a rule as justified. It is grossly immoral and contrary to moral sense as a universal law, without exception.

    So, lower taxes, more incentives, less red-tape, less government interference, etc. are what Malaysia needs, to compete in the context of globalisation.

    It is now or never.

  3. “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.”

    True!
    But if he has any scruples, he’ll know where he stands.
    He can either follow his principles or resign and call for a General Election to hand over the baton to someone who can do a better job.
    That’s what not only our PM must do, but also all other ministers or government officials.
    Have you seen any of them doing it?
    As for being taken in by his affability, I must say that I have never been taken in by either the current PM’s ploy or any of his predecessors’.
    In selecting good, I mean REALLY GOOD leaders, one must be hard hearted and never be swayed by any soothing words.
    In fact, to have good governments, one must be more hard hearted than any of the politicians who put themselves up as candidates!
    Many Malaysians failed miserably when it comes to that!
    That’s why we have such a deplorable government and we deserve it!!

  4. This reminds me of the Christmas card I got during the first year of being PM.

    Last year, I got a surprise Christmas card from the Minister of Finance which puzzled me.

    Then a few more cards for Christmas and Chinese New Year.

    I’m not too excited about the cards especially the recent ones. Because Public relations turns empty when it’s mere promises which ring hollow… we are all watching … and many of us will be voting after eye opening epiphanies! 🙂

  5. Former PM AAB has claimed that he has forgotten important persons. It shows that whether AAB and his govt walks the talks. Rakyat are not easily forgetfful with new nutritional products in the market. If kids can remember what had been promised, how about the matured adults who are more educated than AAB’s times. Rakyat are no longer in the “tempurong”.

  6. I totally agree. This election see the usage of US’s way of ‘spin doctors’ , carefully marketted and PRed actions to form the way public thinks. And the guys are doing a pretty good job judging by these reactions. Someone said that he did not get the letter ( from Penang too), so he decided to vote for opposition. That is funny. What is not funny is the availability of voter information at the government’s fingertips.

  7. Dear Jacqueline:

    First, let me congratulate you and your friends for starting this effort. I will certainly be visiting your site to get some honest and fair reporting on the elections goings-on.

    I used to be a current affairs journalist in the 1980s and covered one election but it was enough to drive me from a wide-eyed young journalist into a skeptic, almost overnight Stories that I wrote about ceramah’s by opposition parties were spiked and never saw the light of day.

    Now, we have so many socio-political blogs which is a welcome relief from the mainstream media’s coverage (or should I say drivel) of the upcoming election. Having said that, as a 43-year-old female voter, I have much to be worried about.

    First, as a muslim woman, I am concerned abotu the state of fundamentalists in this country which seem to be wanting to take this country back into the middle ages.

    Next, the opportunities to make a decent living for the average non politically-connected Malaysian seems to be getting increasingly difficult. I can’t keep count of the number of times I’ve heard of major contracts going to politicians and their families, even when there are more qualified people
    We have so many people elected to positions of power that care nothing of taking public money and public resources for personal gain.

    Rumours are more believeable that what comes out in the media, and it seems wiser to keep track of rumours.

    The state of the judiciary is in shambles – without a fair and free judiciary, what hope does the man in the street have for real justice?

    And finally, we all know BN will win again – and we know much of the same will continue. More public funds will find its way into private pockets.

    We can only hope that every patriotric Malaysian (in the real sense of the word, not in the Malaysia-Boleh sense!) will make their voice heard in this election and that maybe someone will listen.

  8. Post GE 2004, the realization of promises not kept, will not keep us from voting BN again. Biting the bullet is not easy because we do not want to lose our comfort zone.

  9. Hi Jac,

    Malaysiavotes is a good initiative indeed. I wish you and the team the best of luck.

    I have a question: who is in charge of the PM’s public relations exercises?

    I think it would be quite interesting to find out who this person (or persons) is.

    Cheers, JK

  10. History has shown that once mighty political parties such as the Congress Party in India and LDP in Japan have been voted out due to their indignation to the people’s wishes. They have since regained some of their power but no longer do they take the people for granted.

    The same can happen in Malaysia. After all, politics is all about the possible.

    PM Badawi will have only himself to blame as he has demonstrated quite definitely that he has not kept his promises. If he was the CEO of a corporation, the shareholders would have replaced him already.

    Aren’t we, the rakyat, the stakeholders in our country ?

  11. This year I will vote for the first time.

    I have to admit that seeing the condition of the country (politically, economically and socially) at the moment makes me feel really sad.

    Makes me think if this is the place I want my kids to spend the rest of their lives. And this makes me feel sadder because I love this country, I just do not like the way it is being run.

    It would be interesting to see the outcome of the elections this time

  12. Hi Jac,

    Excellent & worthy of a true journo.
    Best of luck…and you have us with you all the way!

    As for the comment from joehancl, if everyone thinks that way, we may have to move to a ‘not so comfortable’ zone…..

  13. DEAR Jac,

    I don’t know you but I thank you to voice up the exactly thoughts of mine and most of us.

    It is true that without action, all promises are just a mere public relation exercise. I am a writer in Mandarin field, and always wrote to oversea newspaper because most of the topics I wrote the medias are fear to use with thousand reasons.

    However, I wish you good luck and hope to be one of your friend in the line.

    All the best.

  14. Speaking about the ISA, I still have friends with husbands still languishing and forgotten in ISA…has been 6 years or so…kids grown without knowing their dads, families forced to fend for themselves…courtesy of TDM and his licking the US boots on the war against “terror”. The real terrorists are running nations.

  15. Dear Ms. Surin,

    Your feelings about the new Prime Minister in the previous election likely reflected those of a significant section of the electorate. However, describing him as “sunshine and fresh breeze” and falling for his public relations campaign is naive, especially for a journalist. Likewise, thinking that change can be enacted through personal letters to government leaders ignores the hard work that is necessary to motivate the establishment to mediate this change. Consider the efforts of those who have sacrificed their lives, freedoms and livelihoods.

    The problems with building a democratic society in Malaysia are not solved with changing faces (or donning new ones) and press releases. The issues begin with unrestricted public access to ideas and freedom to think and discuss these ideas.

    Best, MR

  16. First, the title of your article should be NOT KEEPING THE PROMISES.

    The worst thing a leader do to discredit himself is to “cakap satu buat lain”. What you have pointed out are just part of the empty promises made by the PM. Anti corruption, open tender, fairness to ALL rakyat, etc etc all ended up as forgotten words. Worst of all, he allowed things to go backward with racial tension, religious intolerance, extension of NEP based on flawed argument, stupid racial & sexist remarks by MPs etc to divide the people.

    You can fool people with empty promises some of the time, but not all the time. In the private sector, if a CEO says he just warmed up after 3 long yrs of sitting in office, and asked for more time to deliver his promise, you know what the shareholders will do? I think he better find another job. Don’t waste our time.

    The words coming out from the PM sounded very very hollow nowadays, given his track record. I wonder if he can hear his own echo?

  17. a suggestion…. why dont you list all of the promises that was not fulfilled and the issues that general public disliked. you shld have and then we could circulate it, hopefully it will send a strong msg, vote wisely this time around:)

    cheers

  18. On behalf of an organisation which is part of the oldest NGO coalition in Malaysia, I have officially written a couple of times to the Prime Minister. Alas… the most we ever received was a generic letter saying that our letter has been received and being looked into.

    But no further letter in reply to what we have specifically raised. A PM for all Malaysians? A PM that cares? Hmmmm….