April 29, 2010

Locating the Demos in Democracy

Posted in Malaysia, Selangor, Tricia's Writings at 9:12 am by egalitaria

Hot off the press, the latest Penang Economic Monthly has my take on Local Council Elections. Go grab one off the stands today! 

Locating the Demos in Democracy

Local government elections were abolished by the Malaysian federal government in 1976 despite suggestions to the contrary by the body set up to study them. Thirty-five years later, the State governments of Penang and Selangor are asking for federal support in reintroducing them. If local councillors were elected instead of appointed, a mature electorate would be able to hold them accountable. 

Both the state governments and Penang and Selangor announced in March this year that they had written separate letters to the Election Commission asking for local government elections to be conducted in their respective states. Their reasons for doing so were to strengthen democracy by having local representatives elected and not appointed, as they are now. This would enhance accountability in public administration.

In an immediate reaction, Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Razak rejected this, stating that such a move would not necessarily improve services to the people. According to him, local council elections would focus upon campaigning and politicking instead. If indeed “campaigning and politicking” are impediments to good governance, then by his very own argument both federal and state elections should equally be abolished in order for the executive to concentrate on “better service delivery”.

Local Government Elections: Looking Back

In fact, it is ironic for any party to vehemently oppose local government elections since although they may seem alien today, they were in fact a common enough practice of Malaya in the past. The first partial election was held in the Municipal Commission of George Town in 1857, but this was short-lived as they were abolished in 1913. It was only much later when the Local Authorities Election Ordinance of 1950 was enacted that allowed for local government elections, as well as participation of political parties.

Thus, the Municipal Council of George Town held its elections in 1951, but the more significant event was in 1952, when elections were held for first time for the Kuala Lumpur Municipal Council. As the capital of the Federation, this would set the trend for elections at the state and federal government levels at a later stage. Following Kuala Lumpur, local elections were then held in Kuantan, Kota Bahru, Seremban, Ipoh and Malacca all the way up to 1960. Such elections were the practice for representatives at city councils, municipal councils, town councils, town boards, rural district councils and local councils.

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April 26, 2010

The Beautyful Ones Are (still) Not Yet Born

Posted in Literature, Malaysia, Reflections, The Cause at 9:40 pm by egalitaria

When I started this blog more than four years ago (as a young, fresh wide-eyed newcomer into the working world), one of my first posts was titled “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born“. In that particular post, I made reference to the Moorthy case and candlelight vigils, which, I believe, was one of the catalysts in many people’s participation in the vibrant civil society movement of today. But today, I am compelled to write again of this book by Ayi Kwei Armah, which so simply and profoundly describes the nature of a rotting nation – and the decisions that different people choose to make amidst this rottenness.

The book describes the protagonist, named “Man” in an African nation (he is given no other name, most likely to remind us he represents just any one of us citizens), whose country has just been taken over by a new regime, overthrowing an old corrupted government through democratic process. This new regime, however, begins to show signs of adopting the very same culture as did the old one. One of his old buddies, for example, succumbs to the sweetness of a luxurious life complete with huge cars, a posh home and furniture, and modern imports from the Western world. It is obvious the means by which this friend has obtained such wealth. 

On the opposite end, “Man” chugs away at his laborious day job at a railway station, having the opportunity to accept bribes in order to better his livelihood, but makes the most difficult choice of pushing it away. One of the most poignant scenes is when “Man” is scoffed at by his own wife, for he cannot afford to purchase the most basic of necessities of shoes for his children. This is in stark comparison with his friend’s possessions, and at one stage he is forced to weigh the moral costs and benefits of maintaining his “straight as an arrow” stance. Why bother sticking to the moral high ground, when his own children can’t wear shoes? Better to let them wear shoes than to continue resisting temptation, after all, is it not? 

The daily trudgery of “Man” goes on. Until… one day, there are rumours of yet another coup. “Man” hurries home to be with his wife and children. At some point, the rumours become reality, and his friend comes looking for him in desperate fear, as he is being witch-hunted himself. He has lost everything, his wealth, his material possessions, and is being hunted down as he was part of the well-oiled government machinery that was so very much despised, despite having gained its seat through idealist and democratic means. There is an ugly scene in which he is forced to escape through the toilet chute and emerges with faeces upon his body, replete with the most horrible odour. (One can draw parallels to the corrupt politician and all he represents). 

“Man” is eventually vindicated. No richer for his choice made, he walks as a free man. Free from any guilt of having behaved in the same morally corrupt manner as all of his friends in the apparently new democracy. This individual decision, to walk the path most would have otherwise laughed at, is the defining difference. 

The darker side of the story is that (as far as this fictitious African nation was concerned, extendable of course to all countries in the world, including ours) coups are cyclical. The regime change (once, at the beginning of the book and twice, at the end) signified merely the innate nature of humanity to fall into the trap of selfishness and greed. Ayi Kwei Armah was describing his own nation’s downfall, Ghana, and its leader Nkrumah, during its struggle post-independence. 

Perhaps it will take numerous generations before the Beautyful Ones can be born in this country of ours. As it is, too few individual “Men” make that very difficult choice of saying no to any sort of temptation. The pull of money and power is too strong for most. In the January 2010 Economist issue, there was an article describing a Psychological experiment which proved the maxim we all know too well, that power corrupts, and the more you hanger after power the more likely it is you are to be corruptible, whilst the reverse is true. If you do not think you deserve the particular position you are placed in, the less corruptible you are. (The experiment also revealed other interesting things, such as the fact that politicians have a higher moral standard for society, but a lower one for themselves). 

“Man” in this book was one of the rare, beautyful ones who in his simplicity, plodded through life being true and just. Must we remind ourselves of the reasons revolutions are sought after and fought? Is this not what we are slaving away for? 

For, the Beautyful ones are still not yet born.

The Hulu Selangor Saga

Posted in Malaysia, Reflections, The Cause at 12:22 am by egalitaria

A congratulatory note is owed to Barisan Nasional and its candidate, now Hulu Selangor Member of Parliament, Kamalanathan for their victory at today’s momentous by-election. Pakatan Rakyat and its candidate, Zaid Ibrahim, lost by 1,725 votes in the final count. Political scientists are now doing the number crunching, to emerge with analyses on which areas each coalition lost or gained respectively in comparison with the 2008 12th General Election. Long pieces will emerge in tomorrow’s portals and sites, stating reasons – from both sides – for the outcome. Central theme was without a doubt: “buy-election”. Enough said. 

I write as a Pakatan Rakyat supporter, which is clear since I work for, and therefore support, a Pakatan Rakyat government. I also therefore make no apologies for the dejection and disappointment reverberating across all such similar supporters at the moment, those who have been inspired by the cause to better Malaysia directly or indirectly. I write on behalf of those who have spent a significant amount of time and energy, both mentally and emotionally, placing their belief in the possibility of an alternative system and one in place of a Federal coalition government we know to be corrupt and unscrupulous in its thought and practice. 

Where does this dejection stem from? Its source is deeper than just the loss of an important Parliamentary seat and a by-election. It emerges from the sense that not all is well with the solution we thought we had figured out. That, put simply, Pakatan Rakyat would have been the alternative coalition government that would prove no one government (namely, Barisan) could wield such omnipotence with such unapologetic means of outright bribery and childish antics – and worse, get away with it. This, we thought, was easy enough to achieve: Get people to support an alternative, and voila! We obtain a two-party political system. This way, neither coalition can claim to have ultimate say since it is the people who place them into positions of power. 

What we failed to recognise was the possibility of numerous challenges within and without, all of which have threatened this one golden opportunity we had to produce a two-party system. I am not saying this is no longer possible, nor probable, but that perhaps it is time to remind ourselves of why we – all of us – are in this in the first place. Before that, let me add a caveat that I believe some bi-partisanship needs to be activated if either side desires to move forward in the project that is Malaysia. This means people interested in policy and planning from both coalitions agreeing on some common denominator and pushing those forward. I am sure (and I hope) this does happen at the Parliamentary front, but more must flourish: Brainstorming on education policy; youth policy; utilities; local government. 

Why does it matter that Zaid Ibrahim lost? Because it means that Malaysians are still culprit to the mass bribery of cash handouts, announcements of goodies (Najib’s RM3 million for Chinese schools in Rasa “only if BN wins” sticks out like a sore thumb) and under-the-belt (and rather stupid, in my opinion) doctored images of beer-clutching. It tells me that as long as the Big Boss has the world of resources to draw from, and has no hesitation in using, whatever else wrong that is being perpetrated by the government will not count a drop. 

Where do we go from here? Apart from the usual droning on that one could do (have better campaign financing and political funding laws; fairer media exposure; allow independent election monitoring), I believe that Pakatan Rakyat will need to do two things. First, to remind itself of the original cause for which they strive, and second, to act upon this belief and demonstrating to its electorate the same. 

Pakatan is where it is today because of its ability to convince people of its being an alternative to a corrupt, inefficient, unfair system. We must remind ourselves that at no point in our administration can we tolerate behaviour that departs from adherence to a transparent, fair and just system. Demonstrating this equals proactively working towards these ends, even if it means a radical shift from the way in which any part of government and administration run. This requires boldness. Berani kerana benar. This we are indeed doing, and we must continue to do, despite the obstacles that come our way. 

The most common lament, even amongst those who were starry-eyed about the tsunami of the March 8th 2008 election is this: that there is over-politicking, and that neither side is giving them what they expected. This we have to recognise and acknowledge (despite our arguments of justification), for fear that even a greater number of already apathetic youth disengage themselves from political participation. This becomes a failure of both the Barisan and Pakatan, because, in order to propel the country forward (yes, into a high-income nation ala the New Economic Model), you need young people, and you need them physically present to contribute. Hence many plea for some semblance of sanity and temporary suspension of political expediency. 

I am painfully aware of the many issues involved, such as a non-level playing field, and neither am I doing justice not covering them all in this short post. However, for the sake of proving that it is indeed possible to break the backbone of a power-obsessed Federal government (any one such government, for that matter), we must learn to dance to a different tune, and not one which has been provided to us thus far. We are a different animal altogether, and this we must prove. Here’s to Hulu Selangor, all who were involved and those who followed it from afar. Till the next round, and it is back to work – and hope – we go.

April 23, 2010

Sustainable Cities: Environment Issues in Penang and Selangor

Posted in Malaysia, Selangor, Tricia's Writings at 9:36 pm by egalitaria

First Published in the Penang Economic Monthly, hmm.. either the February or March 2010 issue, I forget. One of those 😀 

Sustainable Cities in Penang and Selangor: Are We? 

(On Environmental and Sustainability Issues)

Much has been said about the little that emerged from the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last December 2009. Well, the Copenhagen Accord was finally signed by major economies including the US and China, committing to limit the rise in global temperatures to two degrees Celsius. However, there were no specified caps on emissions to achieve this objective, and neither were there legal conditions to keep this in check. Although much more could and should have been accomplished, the global uproar over its lack thereof reflected the significant shift worldwide towards environmental concerns.

Climate change and environmental issues have been the buzz phrases of the past two years, partly thanks to Hollywood’s documentaries “An Inconvenient Truth” and “The 11th Hour”, which address the growing fears of carbon emissions and climate change. According to the International Energy Agency, Malaysia emitted 6.68 tonnes of carbon dioxide per capita in 2007, more than twice the world’s average and ranking it the fourth highest in the region after Brunei, Taipei and Singapore. However, compared to these three countries, Malaysia’s emission per capita percentage change between 1990 and 2007 was the highest, growing by a massive 143%.

Malaysia’s Record

Malaysia’s expanding carbon footprint jolted the Federal Government into including “Green Technology” as part of the Ministry of Energy and Water’s portfolio and in July 2009 launched its National Green Technology Policy, although a plan has not yet been released. More recently, Prime Minister Najib made a bold pledge during the Copenhagen conference to reduce carbon emissions by 40 per cent within the next 10 years, which seems rather bold given increasing emphases on establishing Malaysia as a regional aviation hub and dismal attempts at improving public transportation services.

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Youth Empowerment and Participation

Posted in Malaysia, Reflections, The Cause at 9:31 pm by egalitaria

I was invited to speak at the National Christian Youth Assembly in December 2009, on the theme of “Youth Empowerment and Participation.” You will note that there is nothing religious or theological about my speech, which is in line with my belief that young people of all races and religions ought to be equally empowered and inspired to make a difference in this country – in whichever field they would like, and within whichever group whose cause they ultimately believe in. 

This was to a bunch of eager young people, wanting to do something for their country, Malaysia. The National Assembly was apolitical. 

Youth Empowerment and Participation

National Christian Youth Assembly, Kuala Lumpur

12th December 2009

We all love an inspiring story when we have one. While Malaysia’s story is still unfolding, I’d like to take a page out of another book the world has now come to learn and understand. This is the fairy-tale story of Obama’s ascent to Presidency. I won’t speak about the issues he campaigned on, or the ideological policies of the Democratic Party today, but I do want to focus on the incredible wave of youth participation that contributed significantly to his win.

The reason I cite examples from Obama’s campaign so often – in other public talks and this – is because I was physically present in the United States during the last two weeks leading up to, and including, the actual US Election itself in 2008. The experience was an excellent opportunity to observe and interview the new young generation of Americans so eager to contribute to change in society, country and the world. Let’s use them as a case study today.

Obamania

Were young Americans always this way? It would take days to debate the ebb and flow of youth political participation in the United States over the years, but the answer is: apathy had set in deep during the years of then President-Bush Junior, where any engagement was deemed as futile. For political analysts, this sudden shift and wind of change, the awakening of millions of young people across the country, was a phenomenon indeed.

Authors Winograd and Hais hit the pin on its head in their book “Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube and the Future of American Politics”[1] in their analysis of the generation that caught the political bug. In describing them, they say the following:

A new generation, Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003, is coming of age in unprecedented numbers. The Millennials bring with them a facility and comfort with cutting-edge communicaiton and computing technologies that is creating the same kind of bewilderment that parents of television-addicted Baby Boomers felt in the 1950s and 1960s… Recent survey research on the political attitudes of this generation shows a high tolerance for lifestyle and ethnic differences and support for an activist approach by government to societal and economic issues. Millennials are united across gender and race in their desire to find “win-win” solutions to America’s problems.”

Other parts of their analysis described their optimistic attitudes, inclusivist views, and how Millennials think politics can make things better. For example,

“Millennials disagree with their elders in their level of faith in the political process to resolve problems and improve things… and are much more likely than older generations to believe that the government is run for the benefit of all the people.”

The Millennial generation in America, with their unique combination of technological gadgetry and prowess, and their changing attitudes towards systems and institutions, proved a powerful force for the taking. Obama, who had his pulse on the nation, was able to identify with what tugged at their heart-strings, spoke an honest and clear message to them: “Change We Can”. And the rest is history, as they say. Thousands upon thousands of youth volunteers and part-time staff were mobilised, emerging in social phenomenon such as “Obamagirl”, a young 21-year old leading the entire Obama campaign in his home state of Chicago, American-born Chinese (ABCs) and Vietnamese flocking to his service centres. Citizens across the globe contributed to his fund, USD10 or so right from their pockets.

Malaysiaku

I am not saying that Malaysia is in any way comparable to the United States of America. Neither am I claiming that our youth behave in the exact same manner, nor should we be emulating the patterns that followed there. What I am saying, however, is this:

  1. It is important to know what is making our millennial generation tick in order to transmit a message (political or otherwise) to our Malaysian youth.
  2. It is then necessary to take this message in the manner that is most viral and one that captures the imagination of our young to motivate them towards social action.

Malaysians are a social bunch, which stems from our communal nature. This spurs us towards group meetings at the mamak stalls. In fact, we love conferences as a result! Think of the number of forums and events that exist practically daily (and nightly). As of March 2009, there were more than 1 million active users of Facebook[2], with the most active users being between the ages of 18 and 25, followed by that of 26-34. More astoundingly, Malaysia has the highest number of Facebook users in Southeast Asia. Conclusion: we love to talk and get people to listen to us. Youth with Internet access increased from 57% in 2007 to 70% in 2008[3].

What does all this have to do with anything? A lot!

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Second Malaysia: Economic Reform for a New Malaysia

Posted in Economics, Malaysia, Tricia's Writings at 9:17 pm by egalitaria

Sometime last year (I think it was the first quarter of 2009), I was asked to write a piece on economic reform for a “Second Malaysia”. It was for (at the time) a new and upcoming Chinese alternative website called The Rock News. Today, the site is flourishing- congratulations is owed to its facilitators. They were doing a series of articles focusing on different areas such as culture, history, the arts, judiciary, and the topic requested of me was economics. The target audience was for a very pop-heavy reading group (if I remember correctly) hence kept as general reading. 

Of course, me being me (a “Cina murtad”), I cannot read Chinese and hence never knew if my article finally got translated and published. [Aside: As far as I know, my maternal great grandmother came from Java and blended into the Peranakan society upon reaching Peninsular Malaya, so no feelings of guilt here!]

Second Malaysia:

Economic Reform for Birthing a New Malaysia

Tricia Yeoh

Ordinary Malaysians like you and I know that Malaysia’s economic performance has only been lacklustre in recent years. We have gone past the stage of convincing ourselves that those announcements painting a glowing picture of financial health and vibrancy had anything substantial about them. The frustrating thing about it is that Malaysia had all the right factors to make the equation work: abundant natural resources, strategic location, perfect weather conditions with no natural disasters, good soil, and a generally stable political climate. Perhaps it is possible to state that Malaysia had good economic growth in the past two decades, yes. But to pat ourselves on the back claiming that we outdid ourselves is farcical; Malaysia has never lived up to its true economic potential, and this will not change unless some drastic economic reform is undertaken immediately.

March 8th 2008 marked the birth of a new political Malaysia, one in which individuals finally saw the potential of their decisions in changing a leadership landscape. With the Pakatan Rakyat controlling five state governments (now reduced to four with the recent onslaught on Perak) and denying the Barisan Nasional its traditional two-third majority at Parliament level, citizens finally felt the political impasse had broken through. Subject to debate, the ground conditions for democracy have been ripe and raw for the consuming, people more willing and eager to express themselves. Except for the rule of law that the present Federal Government seems too ignorant of, Malaysian society is experiencing a new chapter in its political history.

The same cannot be said of the economic system of the nation. Where freedom of expression has prospered, economic principle has faltered. For forty years Malaysia has tasted stale, irrelevant policy crafted in a manner intended to pacify instead of liberate, break down instead of build up for the most part. What is needed to carry the country forward is a breakdown of our current economic model and a revolutionary reconstruction of a new one.

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CAT in action – Pakatan Rakyat States

Posted in Malaysia, Selangor, The Cause, Tricia's Writings at 9:06 pm by egalitaria

First published in the Penang Economic Monthly, February 2010 Issue. 

CAT in Action: Competency, Accountability and Transparency in the Pakatan States

Tricia Yeoh

One of the electoral themes that took the now-governing Pakatan Rakyat states by storm was that of transparency and accountability. Indeed, harsh criticisms of corruption, financial mismanagement, wastage and abuse of power was levelled against their predecessor Barisan Nasional at both the state and national level. The stories worked: voters were angry and disgusted at their tax-paying money having gone down the drain to advantage a privileged few. Indeed, Malaysia dropped from 47th in 2008 to 56th place in 2009, in Transparency International’s Corruptions Perceptions Index, its worst ranking in 15 years.

Two years into their administration, what exactly has been done in order to fulfill their pledges of CAT – competency, accountability and transparency – that the Pakatan Rakyat states have waxed lyrical about? This article explores the attempts made by the state governments in improving administrative efficiency through transparency and accountability measures and the challenges encountered therein.

The reason for placing transparency as a priority is simple: the more information that is available to the public from the administration, the more likely it is for governments to behave responsibly in order to uphold standards and commitments. This also allows citizens to obtain, analyse, and evaluate for themselves details about projects carried out by the government. A mature democracy requires that people are in this manner empowered. However, transparency is often a principle that many leaders champion yet fail to translate into reality. It is easy to make motherhood statements and pronouncements of reform, as Malaysians recall former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi doing, but the devil lies in the detail, where laborious standards and stringent guidelines are required.

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Towards Better Urban Public Transport

Posted in Malaysia, Tricia's Writings at 1:41 pm by egalitaria

Again, first published in the Penang Economic Monthly.. I think the March 2010 issue.

Towards Better Urban Public Transport

Tricia Yeoh

The image of a CEO with a full business suit opting to hop on an LRT or monorail instead of taking his chaffeur-driven car is not one we would imagine, although this is common practice in countries with an efficient public transport system. Singapore, for example, has more than 60 percent of its population taking public transport, a drastic difference from Malaysia with only 10 percent. Today, only 60 percent of the population resides within 400 metres of a public transport route. Anyone residing in Penang or the Klang Valley can testify to experiencing horrid traffic jams and wasting hours weaving through a daily gridlock on the road.

There are many factors leading to the massive traffic congestion in the urban centres of both Penang and the Klang Valley today, one of which was the government’s past policy of increasing cars on the road thereby supporting the local car industry. Instead of attempting to limit private vehicles on roads, this led to the commissioning of elevated highways and additional bridges. Mandatory payments for city access during peak hours would have instead reduced the number of cars on the road. There needs to therefore be a modal shift away from private to public transport use.

Too Many Cooks

The other major problem is the multiple players involved in managing public transport in Malaysia, unwieldy and terribly uncoordinated. The Ministry of Transport (MOT) regulates the overall transportation network but is generally not involved in its maintenance or network planning. The Ministry of Finance (MOF) owns – through MOF Incorporated – the government-linked companies, Prasarana Berhad which builds or buys public transportation assets, Prasarana subsidiaries RapidKL Sdn. Bhd., RapidPenang Sdn. Bhd., and KLStarrail Sdn. Bhd., which operates the assets owned by Prasarana, and Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB). If you think that’s complicated, there’s more.

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Federal-State Relations in Malaysia

Posted in Malaysia, Selangor, Tricia's Writings at 1:33 pm by egalitaria

First published in the Penang Economic Monthly.

Revisiting the Federalist System:

Federal-State Relations in Malaysia

Tricia Yeoh

Although Malaysia is officially a federalism, over the years the central government has responded to the opposition by tightening their terms of power sharing across tiers. This has even more interesting dimensions when one considers the political developments that have taken place in light of the March 2008 election results, where the “opposition” became the state governments of five states in the country. Now officially governing in Penang, Selangor, Kedah and Kelantan (the status of government in Perak is debateable), what effects has this predominantly centralised government had on the way Pakatan states operate? How have Pakatan states especially in Penang and Selangor responded to this situation? What are the alternatives available to these state governments, given current limitations?

There are several reasons for this highly centralised government, although by definition a federalism is one in which the federal and state governments have their separate and distinctive powers. In its proper form, it is a system of government that allows simultaneous recognition of diversity and common identity. In a country as diverse as Malaysia, federalism would be an ideal system of ensuring states preserve their individual and regional identities. However, despite the fact that Malaysia is a federalism, this exists perhaps only on paper especially in recent years.

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The “Allah” Debate – from 11th Jan 2010

Posted in Religion, Tricia's Writings at 1:30 pm by egalitaria

“Allah” Debate: Dealing with False Insecurities

11th Jan 2010 (Published in Malaysiakini here)

Tricia Yeoh

News of the recent series of attacks against churches across Malaysia has sent shockwaves to all. Although there have been tensions in the past few years between different religious groups, few imagined that these could ever descend into violence such as the kind experienced recently. Within three days, there were arson attacks on at least eight churches in various locations throughout the country (in Klang Valley, Perak, Melaka, Sarawak and Seremban), in which the Metro Tabernacle church had its ground floor (its administrative office) entirely destroyed.

Although police investigations are ongoing, many speculate that the attacks were linked to a controversial court ruling on the 31st December 2009, effectively allowing the Catholic newsletter The Herald to use “Allah” in reference to God in its Malay edition. “Allah” has been used for God amongst the Malay-speaking East Malaysian Christians for centuries, but problems only arose in 2007 when the Home Ministry threatened not to renew The Herald’s publishing licence. Some have insinuated that it was only after the newsletter began carrying critical pieces against the government that the clampdown began.

The court ruling has stirred uneasiness amongst certain sections of the Muslim community, and this has been aggravated by regular racist and inflammatory articles in a mainstream newspaper Utusan Malaysia. These groups say it loud and clear that “Allah is for Muslims only”. It is therefore important to identify the various fears and insecurities involved in this highly emotional issue.

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