This week, Rafizi Ramli, the PKR Member of Parliament for Pandan was criticised and then had to apologise for wrongfully alleging that a federal government private contractor was related to Minister Abdul Rahman Dahlan.
Rafizi was threatened with a lawsuit by the Minister himself and was even ridiculed, mostly by online political detractors.
Rafizi, of course, is no stranger to such troubles.
In October 2016, he was ordered by the High Court to pay RM 300,000 to the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) for defamation. This was due to his exposé of the infamous Cowgate scandal.
In August 2017, the Kuala Lumpur High Court dismissed Rafizi’s appeal against a conviction under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) for revealing a supposedly confidential 1MDB audit report at a press conference in Parliament a year before. He was sentenced to an 18-month imprisonment, now put on hold until his next appeal.
On hand, Rafizi is still battling a charge under the Banking and Financial institutions Act (Bafia) for the NFC case, a libel suit concerning his statement against Tabung Haji finances, and yet another defamation case brought by the Armed Forces Fund Board (LTAT) among others.
DAP MP for Petaling Jaya Utara, Tony Pua was sued by Prime Minister Najib Razak himself, not once but twice – and both cases are still pending in court – for defamation including involving Pua’s exposé of the 1MDB scandal.
Last week, the Menteri Besar of Johor, Khaled Nordin, threatened legal actions against Senai state assemblyman from DAP, Wong Shu Qi, because the latter asked the Menteri Besar to explain an allegation that he had received bribes amounting to RM12 million in relation to state housing projects. In late November, when Wong raised the issue in the state assembly, she was even ejected by the Speaker of the House.
On its own, merely being an opposition politician is already a risky business in Malaysia; even without the kind of troubles afflicting my colleagues listed above.
I myself took risk to highlight abuses relating to what I called the Malaysian Immigration Industrial Complex, a nexus of crony private contractors receiving lucrative immigration-related contracts from the government.
These companies not only have powerful people behind them but they also have huge resources to silence detractors through lawsuits.
Recently, I revealed how UMNO’s propaganda organ, Utusan Melayu (Malaysia) Sdn. Bhd. was given a RM340 million contract to supply tablet computers to teachers. Not only there was no open tender to award an IT contract to a failing newspaper company, the company was actually selling those computers to the government at more than twice the market price. Imagine even though reports after reports have been made over the years, including by the Auditor General, such incidences of overpricing still happen. When I highlighted this, however, one Barisan Nasional operative publicly accused me of making false allegation on this matter. To date, no Government nor Utusan official has come forward to explain.
It is a risky business, but why do we still do it – the exposé thing?
First of all, it is our duty as Opposition members to check on the government. Of course, we can just do the minimum, avoid taking major risks, avoid arrest, avoid irritating the powers that be too much. But the best of us, especially many of my esteemed colleagues, would not just sit back and fold our arms. No, we owe it to Malaysians and Malaysia to be vigilant, to be critical and to be brave even against a regime highly intolerant of dissents.
Secondly, in a country where the ruling regime has ruled for 60 years under a hegemonic condition, official check and balance institutions are often weak. One glaring and recent example: the 1MDB scandal. Authorities in at least six countries, including the US Department of Justice, have initiated investigations and other legal actions against 1MDB. Yet in Malaysia, there is a total silence: no investigation, no charges (except lawsuits against Opposition members), nothing, even after the Prime Minister’s own admission that he had received RM2.6 billion in his personal bank account.
In this kind of situation, Opposition MPs and assemblymen have no choice but to work doubly, triply, hard, overtime, to ensure government abuses are spotted, uncovered and highlighted. Think about it: If not for the likes of Tony Pua and Rafizi Ramli, Malaysians will still be in the dark about 1MDB because every law enforcement agencies, and all the official watchdogs are, obediently, silent on this matter.
Thirdly, because of the lack of accountability and transparency by the government, the Opposition often has to work with very little and sometimes very vague information. Whistleblowers risked their career and their life to deliver important information regarding government impropriety. Of course we also spend our own scarce resources to do the background research. But again, due to the setup of our system, the imbalance of power, the hegemony of the ruling party, Opposition’s capacity to research is greatly inhibited.
When these information come to our desk, we have to make a decision; either to avoid risk upon ourselves by ignoring it, or to naively trust the authorities to investigate, or to do our duty and expose the issue thus pressuring the government to react.
Yes, the Opposition has to be vigilant against making false allegations even if against our political opponents.
Yes, we need to be responsible for the things we say.
Yes, we need to speak the truth to remain credible.
But in the light of experience, with the strings of government abuses so far, one minor mistake which Rafizi made should not be used to taunt him or other Opposition members into silence when it comes to checking on the government.
Even in this particular case, yes, Rafizi was wrong in claiming that the private contractor was a brother to the Minister – and he quickly apologised for it – but that does not invalidate his questions as to why the federal government spent RM34 million on an expo to promote Prime Minister Najib Razak’s mega projects in this low economy and why there was no open tender to appoint the contractor for such large sum of money.
The purpose of this article is not to solicit any gratitude or praise, or even to justify mistakes by the Opposition, but really to point out the deficiency of our system. In a system where the government can choose not to be accountable and transparent because it holds total power, we need people brave enough to continue taking the risk to expose wrongdoings. No point playing Mr. Nice Guy because the plunderers of our country will not be playing Mr. Nice Guy when they enter into corrupt businesses.
Minister Rahman Dahlan when criticising Rafizi for the error called the latter a “compulsive serial liar unafraid of Allah” and asked Pakatan Harapan leadership to control his behaviour because “his lies were humiliating them”.
Well, Mr. Minister, first, answer Rafizi’s questions on the expo contract and its tender process, and second, know that when corrupted men in power demand good behaviour, the right thing to do is to disobey.
Steven Sim Chee Keong is the Member of Parliament for Bukit Mertajam