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PSPD    People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy

  • Int. Solidarity
  • 2016.06.13
  • 1437

Of fears, travel ban and 1MDB

Maria Chin Abdullah (Chairperson, BERSIH 2.0 (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections))


Usually travel restrictions under the Malaysian laws are for certain categories of people. These limited restrictions come under Section 104 of the Income Tax Act 1967 and Section 38A(1) of the Bankruptcy Act 1967. However, there is no express provision to bar travel under the Immigration Act 1959/63. 


But in Malaysia, interpretation of the law is like a moving target. On 15 May 2016, the Immigration at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) told me that I was on the blacklist and banned from travelling overseas. The order came from “Putrajaya”, where the Ministry of Home Affairs is located. 


Not surprisingly, the Deputy Home Minister, Datuk Nur Jazlan summarily dismissed the need to give reasons but later changed his story to say that travel restrictions were “only for people who commit offence (sic) against the Constitution, for example sedition, religion, race and threat to national peace and harmony and national security”. But why the fear?


It’s only a human rights award although not many are aware of. BERSIH 2.0 was awarded as co-winner of the 2016 Gwangju Prize Award for Human Rights and I was to deliver an Acceptance Speech on 18 May 2016. Local Korean non-governmental organisations have organised forums for me to share BERSIH’s experiences.

The 2016 Gwangju Prize Award for Human Rights is a prestigious award. Receiving the award gives distinct recognition to Bersih 2.0 and the people of Malaysia in pushing for our reform work on elections, and our ability to unite people into a movement for change.

Coincidentally, the other co-winner, Nguyen Dan Que, a well-known Vietnamese pro-democracy activist was also banned from travelling. He is under arrest for alleged state security charges.


So, banning me from attending the Award is a blessing in disguise! Thanks to the Malaysian government ill-thought out action, now Malaysians and around the world are aware of the Gwangju Prize Award for Human Rights. The government’s action is viewed as an infringement on my personal liberty and freedom of movement. 

The travel ban was extensively criticized, including Channel 4’s video broadcast when Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was in London for a trade meeting. Incidentally, it was at the same time when I was banned from travelling. 


 ⓒBersih 2.0 

My “timely” travel ban came in the midst of the controversial grand corruption case, which revolved around the 1 Malaysia Development Board (commonly referred to as 1MDB), a state-funded enterprise. It had landed itself with a huge debt of more than USD11billion within the last five years. This had set off at least seven countries investigating the money flow in the 1MDB, and with numerous international bank transfers allegedly involved with the fund. Unfortunately, this huge debt was given a paltry explanation by the government and the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) as merely “gross mismanagement”. The former 1MDB chief executive officer Datuk Shahrol Azral Ibrahim Halmitook the fall. Yet, the Prime Minister who was the advisor, member of the Board of Directors and the Minister of Finance in charge of 1MDB, was let off with impunity.


Anyone questioning the 1MDB was effectively disposed of. The fear of criticism and further exposé of more corrupt practices spiraled off a series of desperate actions by the Prime Minister (PM) Najib. He broke up the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) investigations on the 1MDB, sacked his Deputy Prime Minister and the Attorney-General for questioning, temporarily paralysed the investigation of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) by transferring key Members of Parliament, including the Chairperson, and placing them under the Prime Minister’s Office, and introduced a number of draconian laws to curb dissent and right to information.
I was not the only one barred from travelling overseas in Malaysia. Others who were barred in the last one year include: Dato Khairuddin Abu Hassan, former UMNO member and his lawyer Matthias Chang (18 September 2015) for lodging police reports in various countries to investigate the 1MDB, Member of Parliament Tony Pua (22 July 2015) for his criticism against the 1MDB, Hishamuddin Rais, social activist and BERSIH resource person (4 December 2015). All of us have one thing in common – we have expressed critical views on 1 MDB and the grand corruption in Malaysia. BERSIH 2.0 in our fourth rally demanded for democratic reforms to control unfettered corruption, abuse of power and poor governance of public institutions. We have also asked for the Prime Minister to resign due to USD700million allegedly found in his personal account, which has since bloated to more than USD1billion. 


How did Malaysia arrive at this sad state of affairs?


Most people looked to Malaysia as a fast growing economy, model of democracy and promoter of moderation especially in Islam. But for us in Malaysia, since post-colonial period, the state of civil liberties, economic, social and cultural rights hangs over a cliff. The survival of those in power depends largely on the use and abuse of repressive laws like the Internal Security Act (ISA) which allows for detention without trial and torture, and Emergency Ordinance which comes with archaic corporal punishment. While both these Acts are abolished but their replacement are more draconian, such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), 2015 which enables the Malaysian authorities to detain terror suspects without trial for a period of two years, which mirrors the ISA. The Act also does not allow any judicial reviews of detentions, which many fear may be abused.


The Sedition Act, 1948 is used arbitrarily and abused to the hilt against those who question the1MDB case. More than 100 social activists and opposition politicians are being investigated, harassed and charged under the Act. This effectively criminalizes free speech and threatens the future candidacy of opposition politicians because if convicted and fined more than USD500, they will not be able to contest in the next election. Phrases like “change of government”, being critical of the Prime Minister, academic comments on the Constitution are all viewed as seditious and, if convicted, could be fined and/or jailed.

The failings of a functioning democracy only bring about a wafer-thin separation of powers between the executive, legislative and the judiciary. Interpretation of laws are arbitrary and rule of law is not respected. Activists are arrested when they volunteer to help in police investigation. The introduction of the National Security Council (NSC) in the name of preventing terrorism but in fact gives wide powers and discretion under the Prime Minister to declare security areas, carry out arrests, searches, and seizures without a warrant. The NSC also gives widespread immunity to the security forces. The spine-chilling effect is that there is no check and balance on abuse of powers by law enforcers and public institutions.


One must recognise that the breakdown of the institutions and suppression of a possible democratic system is not a recent phenomenon nor a Najib-only problem. 

Since 1950s we have been governed by a dominant party coalition which hangs on to power through divisive ethnic politics, economic patronage and dependency, unfair elections and poor governance. We inherited the First-past-the-post system which failed miserably to provide representativeness as witnessed in the 2013 election. The opposition won popular votes of 52% and yet was unable to form the government as they could not muster enough parliament seats, while the ruling coalition government only held 48% of the votes. Opposition contestants have to deal with fraud and manipulation from mal-apportionment, gerrymandering, tampering of electoral rolls, vote buying, creation of illegal voters, and even use of violence. 

The blunder and plunder of our country is an inheritance carried on from Prime Minister to Prime Minister who believes that the preservation of their powers and interests can only be through the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (National Front). The only difference is that Prime Minister Najib is more astute in consolidating his powers and in pillaging resources more lucratively.

The icing on the cake is that Malaysians not only pay for repression but also for the severe loss of national revenue because of corruption and poor mismanagement of national funds. We pay through the Goods and Services Tax (GST), increase in tolls and other cutbacks in subsidies. The education budget took a beating when scholarships reduced by 23% in 2016. Healthcare services had to trim its expenditure by USD74m in 2016, raising concerns on the quality of care for patients

Hope for change

Is there hope for change? Despite the sad state of affairs, I believe there is still hope for change. The increasing number of Malaysians expressing discontent and the phenomenal responses to street protests do give confidence that peoples’ power is still alive and can be potential for change. The BERSIH rallies broke many fears about street demonstrations, ethnic politics and apathy. Social protest in Malaysia was mainly about countering state policies but over the last ten years, it is about pushing and challenging for greater political participation and representation. The last BERSIH rally in 2015 saw 500,000 citizens demanding for the resignation of the Prime Minister to pave way for democratic reform was indeed a people’s triumph. The potential for change are writings on the wall.

The state may be powerful and resource-rich but we have come a long way. I totally support any efforts that aim to build bridges with new and expanded groups. Most importantly, we must reach out to the unconverted and have the maturity to cast aside differences so as to collectively challenge an autocratic and unjust system. That, I believe, will add impetus to the peoples’ struggle for a better nation.


Reaching out to people in Korea and in many parts of the world and publicizing our plight, only strengthens our fight for freedom and democracy. Though this time BERSIH 2.0 is not able to be in Korea but the solidarity that we felt so strongly in the face of state repression continues to give us hope. 

Thank you once again for the recognition, support and solidarity that came with this Award. BERSIH 2.0 will continue to contribute towards democracy building, both in Malaysia as well as regionally and internationally.

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