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Slamming the Barisan Nasional (BN) regime as authoritarian, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim (picture) called for civil society to take centrestage in the development of democracy in Malaysia. “Opposition parties and civil society must enjoy freedom of speech. Can it be democracy if they are barred from the airwaves? “We must not just guarantee civil liberties in a document, but basic institutions of civil society must be in place,” the Opposition leader said to nearly 200 people in a lecture hosted by the Cambridge University Southeast Asia Forum.

The former deputy prime minister criticised the likes of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed, who as prime minister had sacked Anwar from the deputy premiership, as well as the People’s Action Party in Singapore as holding to the dictum of “government knows best” and being condescending to its citizens. He said that there should be no need for licenses for media outlets as currently required and that withholding permits to hold public gatherings and protests ran contrary to fundamental principles of freedom even if unbridled freedom might not be acceptable to everyone as “it is up to the electorate to decide.”

Despite himself rising high in the BN hierarchy in the 1980s and 1990s, Anwar seemed to highlight exactly this period — “hardly three decades from the euphoria of independence” — as a time of blatant dictatorship which saw “despotism and greed for power.” “There was no tradition of discussion or reasoned debate in Umno or BN as we have between the parties in Pakatan Rakyat,” he said, comparing his experiences in the governing and opposition coalitions in Malaysia. “We fought colonisers because of the sanctity of freedom. It is totally unacceptable that after half a century, our people are not ready. What have you been doing if not to prepare citizens to accept democratic change and progress?” he said of BN’s unbroken rule since Malaysia’s independence in 1957.

He further chastised BN for limiting multiracial unity to terms like “tolerance” rather than extending it to “appreciation and understanding.” The de facto PKR leader also stressed on individual rights to self-determination and expression. Citing the personal attacks on Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, PKR’s candidate for the recent Hulu Selangor by-elections, for having consumed alcohol in the past, he said individuals have the right to decide and determine their own personal behaviour. “It is not our business to peep and pry into people’s doors and windows and judge them,” he said.

He added that it was hypocritical of Umno leaders to criticise Zaid as even Dr Mahathir’s son, Mirzan Mahathir, was a board member of San Miguel, a Filipino beermaker, although he has recently stepped down. “They (Umno) do not chase the rich and famous but only the weak and poor,” he said. He called on political leaders to “listen to the voice of conscience and be prepared to do the right thing” in allowing citizens to exercise basic civil liberties such as the right to a fair trial.

“We are not soft on crime or condone any excesses by terrorist. But it is untenable to continue this way,” he said of laws that allowed for detention without trial. Pakatan Rakyat (PR) leaders have also been accused in the past of taking the side of criminals rather than law enforcers and recent controversy over the shooting by the police of 14-year-old Aminulrasyid Amzah who was driving illegally has also become a political issue for opposition lawmakers.


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