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Pushing For Change Despite The Barriers

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST HERE

Introduction

In recent weeks, dozens of activists have faced charges, fines, and investigations for their advocacy – the latest being Form 5 student Ain Husniza who received a letter of demand from her teacher, demanding RM1 million in compensation for alleged defamation. BFM discuss why it’s so difficult to push for change, by first looking at the existing barriers. Then, we talk about what it takes to inch towards institutional reforms. Finally, we revisit why we need to protect whistleblowers.

Summary 

The situation surrounding Ain Husniza is a common experience for activists in this country. Time and time again, when they demand reforms for institutions, they inevitably received pushback not just from the institutions themselves, but also from wider society. As the recent RM 1 million fine against Ain for the alleged defamation against a male teacher reignited the discourse on barriers of institutional change, REFSA communications director Iskandar Fareez discussed with BFM on what is needed to be done to achieve institutional reform and protect our activists.

The issue of reform is a problem of stakeholder management. Advocates of change need to identify the gatekeepers and key decision-makers such as heads of departments within the institutions, tailoring response to different institutions as their structures may differ considerably. The institutions have interests to uphold, and will not reform themselves if it sees its interest is threatened – the key for advocates is thus to make them see reason and assure them that it is in their interest to reform. Institutions are ultimately made up of people – they have their own working culture, and like people, would like to safe face and deny responsibility. That is why public pressure is paramount, and more needs to be done to support our activists.

Indeed, people who call for change are putting themselves in a dangerous situation. In the case of Ain, she was harassed even by the very people she was trying to help, this is not to mention the 1 million fine she faced for slapping out. Other activists such as Sarah Irdina has been arrested. In the short term, these activists need as many allies as they can get to make it politically costly for the powers that be to go after them. In the long term, values such as questioning authority need to be engrained and spread in the remarkedly neo-feudalistic culture of Malaysia. By encouraging the people to speak up, instead of being divided, the people can be heard as a collective.

We should not succumb to defeatism in face of the current situation –  institutional change is possible. During the Pakatan Harapan (PH) era, open-tender for projects were put in place, and live telecasts of full parliamentary seating is now bad available through multiple channels. These are incremental changes, but they are still significant. Once the reforms are in place, the act of removing them may face pushback from the people, ensuring that progress could not be easily rolled back.

What we need is a framework for advocates of reform to lodge their complaints anonymously. As it stands, the apparatus of states are being used to stifle any dissent.

Politicians too, have a part to play. Admittedly some are responsive than others to the demands of advocates. After all, they have their own interest in mind, the key is to identify those with similar interests to you and build your coalitions within parliament– something is done to great effect by Undi18. The suspension of the parliament until December means that there’s a limited avenue to air our grievances, but this only means we need sincerely politicians to ally with us.

Iskandar notes one important reform to achieve is the separation of power between the different branches of democracy. Having the executive overpowering the other branches expose us to the risk of this power being used for authoritarian ends – as it’s the case today. Thus, the executive needs to be kept in check by other empowered branches such as the judiciary and legislation.

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST HERE

Produced by: Loo Juosie, Alia Zefri, Azlyna Mohd Noor

Presented by: Lee Chwi Lynn, Sharmilla Ganesan