Human rights and Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng
Updated September 20, 2011 14:01:54
Lim Guan Eng is the Chief Minister of the Malaysian state of Penang and the Secretary General of Malaysia's Democratic Action Party, the DAP.
Mr Lim has brought resounding progress to Penang under his system of governance based on the principles of 'Competency, Accountability and Transparency'.
On Monday, the Chief Minister delivered a speech on human rights and transparency at a function sponsored by the Centre for Malaysian Studies at Monash University's Asia Institute here in Melbourne. Presenter: Cameron Wilson Speaker: Lim Guan Eng, Chief Minister of Penang and Secretary General of Malaysia's Democratic Action Party
LIM: We were quite pleased when he made the announcement but when he said subsequently that it'll be scrapped next year likely after the next elections, we were wondering whether he's just a cosmetic exercise and merely to present or portray his human rights credentials. So I think whether this is a genuine repeal of the act I think remains to be seen, there's a big question mark.
WILSON: Do you think you'll get more detail before the election?
LIM: We hope so but if he's sincere about repealing the act he should have done it at the coming parliamentary sitting this year. There's no reason to wait for it next year. How difficult is it to repeal an act? It's only a one-page statute, and I do not think there will be any opposition in parliament.
WILSON: How much of this decision or the announcement to repeal the act, how much do you think is related to some of the protests and the social push that we've seen in Malaysia this year?
LIM: Definitely it's linked because the Bersih rally, the quest for free, fair and clean elections was badly mishandled by the government resulting in two-thousand arrests of ordinary and law-abiding citizens, and Malaysia received widespread condemnation of the harsh crackdown. And I think they lost tremendous support, the Prime Minister's approval rating slipped from a high of 73 per cent to 59 per cent. So this is an attempt by him to shore-up support to try to regain the initiative that he's also a human rights advocate. But we are wondering whether he's merely pouring old wine in new bottles.
WILSON: Does that change in support for the Prime Minister or drop as you say in support for the Prime Minister, does it naturally translate to an increased support for Bersih?
LIM: Definitely, and also I think it also eats into his efforts to try to win back more states in the next elections. So this is as I said an attempt, a cosmetic exercise which will only be proven if he continues to repeal it next year, but if he does it this year. And also the other question of this Cameron is that he has said that whilst the ISA is going to be repealed, it'll be replaced by two other preventive laws, and we are wondering if the preventive laws that he's going to replace the ISA is the same. And it's not one, it's two preventive laws, and are we getting now two ISA's instead of one.
WILSON: And at this stage the detail of those two new laws is still relatively scant?
LIM: No details whatsoever. So it may end up to be just an empty, a meaningless announcement.
WILSON: Can we add, I'd like to hear your personal experience with the Internal Security Act. Now you were arrested under this act in the past, it was quite some time ago, but can you just outline for us the circumstances of that arrest?
LIM: Well I was detained for being a threat to national security, at the time I was only 26 years old, newly elected to parliament, and it is actually a preventive law which detains you without trial. So it is a subjective exercise or discretionary exercise by the minister in charge. They do not have to justify why they arrested you, and it is arbitrary and completely, well described as high-handed abuse of democratic norms, an act to stifle dissent. If I am considered a security threat when I was only 26 years old, I'd like to believe I'm a greater security threat now. Why am I not detained now?
WILSON: But did you know at the time that you were being antagonistic and you perhaps would be subject to this sort of treatment?
LIM: No I expected to be detained at some point of my career, not when I was just elected to parliament. How can you be a threat to national security when you are just 26 and I do not think I was that influential that if I'm not detained the whole country will go up in flames. That is far-fetched.
WILSON: And you were detained for over a year, just explain the circumstances?
LIM: 18 months, well for the first 60 days you are put under solitary confinement, the conditions of detention were what you saw in the movies; interrogation continuously for 48 hours, they put you in an enclosed room without any windows, only a ventilation shute or a vent and you're just cut off completely from society. So you only face four walls and you have no human contact whatsoever except with your interrogators. And I think that boredom and that solitary confinement can really drive you up the wall.
WILSON: So you had no idea of what sort of support you might have had outside of your confinement and how much people knew about your situation?
LIM: For the first 60 days, none. But after my detention was extended for two years, then I had contact with the outside world, but not for the first 60 days.
WILSON: How did that experience shape your political career?
LIM: Well when you're detained under ISA there are only two possible results; one is either you break down and you give in, what ... described to your family you are turned over, or you become more determined to try to reform. And I think that I ended up angry and more determined as I said to make sure that what happened to me if possible doesn't happen to other Malaysians.
WILSON: My guest on Connect Asia's Profile segment today is Lim Guan Eng -- the chief minister of the Malaysian island state of Penang, and Secretary General of Malaysia's Democratic Action Party. Did you feel at all that your family's role, the fact that you're from a politically active family and relatively well educated and the like, did that change the treatment you received?
LIM: No I think that probably they treated me a little bit more harshly than my other comrades, probably because I was a little bit, I was a young man then, I was angry at the fact that I was detained, and some of the questions that they asked and the reasons they tried to justify for my detention were just ridiculous. So they considered me to be uncooperative and that's why as I said perhaps they treated me a little bit more harshly.
WILSON: And how is that use of detention and the ISA, how has that changed in your view the use of that to influence political opposition over the years since you were detained, what is it, it's 25 years ago now?
LIM: 1987, that'll be nearly 25 years, right.
WILSON: So has it changed, have you seen a different treatment of political opponents in that time?
LIM: Yes, I think the treatment now is a little bit more, well I wonder whether the use of the word humane is appropriate, but I think they treat them a little bit gentler than during our time, because they're used to getting away with it, and when you highlighted your abusers they had to do some modifications. But again these are superficial modifications. The core of the issue is that the ISA is evil, detention without trial is wrong. Nothing, no explanation can turn what is black into white. And it must be scrapped unconditionally.
WILSON: So that's what you'd be looking for from the Prime Minister, Najib Razak, is it, a commitment to repeal it unconditionally?
LIM: That's right.
WILSON: How optimistic are you that you will actually see that?
LIM: Well the fact that he's forced to yield, previously his position is that there will be no repeal of the ISA and he's refused to compromise on questions of security. Now this sudden announcement I think is a result of concerted pressure from all segments of society, even from supporters within the ruling coalition. I think he has come to realise that he cannot withstand the demands of civil society, and even if Malaysia is to be a civilised nation such oppressive, repressive and suppressive laws have to go.
WILSON: Do you believe that the Australian High Court decision to reject Australia's planned deal to send asylum seekers to Malaysia for processing and the attention that that has brought on Malaysia as a country, its human rights practices here in Australia, do you feel that's had any influence?
LIM: Well I would say it may have prompted the Prime Minister to speed up the calls and the demands that the ISA be scrapped. Definitely it's embarrassing for Malaysia to be described by certain political leaders in Australia, and I think more importantly by the Australian High Court that we do not measure up to international human rights norms. And I do not think that this is something that we can hold our heads up high, and definitely I'm sure it would have prompted the Prime Minister to speed up the consideration to repeal the act.
WILSON: Is that not overstating the influence of Australia's court decision and the debate here in Australia that this decision could see a repeal enacted that's been on the cards for years with nothing happening?
LIM: I just say it could have prompted the decision be speeded up. As I said Malaysia doesn't want to be measured negatively compared to Nauru. I would think that wouldn't be complimentary by any standards. So definitely it would be embarrassing for any Malaysian leader, well not only just in Australia but also other countries that our human rights record doesn't measure up internationally, and I think by repealing or by making this announcement he has received tremendous credit, and I'm sure Malaysia has received favourable press internationally.
WILSON: So in hindsight was entering into negotiations with Australia for an asylum seeker deal, was that perhaps an error in judgement, did it just bring about greater scrutiny on Malaysia?
LIM: Maybe in retrospect yes, but I think initially they were looking at the economic benefits of this deal. And when Malaysia's human rights record was scrutinised, in the end it just doesn't measure up.
WILSON: Can we just finish up talking a little bit on a separate note, talking about economics in Malaysia at the moment, Penang where you're from, one of the most developed and economically important states of Malaysia. What's driving its boom at the moment?
LIM: I think a couple of factors; number one I think many companies are looking for alternatives and Penang is able to offer that because we have finally got our act together. Principally since we took over in 2008 we have implemented governance based on competency, accountability and transparency. We have taken a strong stance against corruption, promoting integrity and I would like to say that basically we have nearly zero corruption in Penang. We were praised by Transparency International for implementing open tenders and fighting corruption.
WILSON: So has that been a success the implementation of the open tenders?
LIM: Yes we have saved public money resulting in budget surpluses every year, and we've got record budget surpluses, so this has resulted in record levels of investment, record budget surpluses, a labour shortage and also nearly zero debt.
WILSON: Is it something that you could see being applied to the rest of Malaysia?
LIM: Definitely, actually when you talk about open tenders Cameron it is an international norm, but in Malaysia it is considered as what I would describe as even heresy, heresy because Malaysia has never practised open tenders, it is always done through negotiated tenders and basically something for the cronies, something on the gravy train. So we feel that we have proven that a clean government practising transparency, practising open tenders can out-perform a government that looks after cronies and is not transparent.
WILSON: So given all we've discussed in the last 15 minutes here, the change in politics, some of the change in the economics that you've just discussed there, how significant is this moment in Malaysia's history for real reform, to really see changes in the future of the way the country is run?
LIM: Well we're at a crossroads, whether we can see change and I think change is now the most powerful word in the world. You can't stop change, you either have to change or you will be changed, and it is up to Malaysians to seize the initiative to reclaim democracy and reclaim their government. Government should be for the people, not for the cronies, and if Malaysians are able to have the courage to change I'm sure we can be high-income economy and we can join the ranks of civilised democratic nations.