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Last week, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri announced the appointment of Azalina Othman Said as law and human rights adviser. Those who see Azalina as a champion of human rights and reform have hailed her appointment; others have just rolled their eyes in disgust at yet another meaningless political appointment.

Azalina’s appointment comes on the heels of a string of controversial appointments – special envoys (with full ministerial status) to the Middle East, China and East Asia plus the more recently appointed special adviser on Afghanistan. On top of that we have a National Recovery Council chairperson, also with ministerial status.

And this in addition to one of the most bloated cabinets we’ve ever had – 31 full ministers and 38 deputy ministers. How many cabinet ministers, special envoys and special advisers does this government need to run a relatively small country like Malaysia with an already oversized bureaucracy? How much more of a burden in terms of salaries, gratuities and pensions will this government impose on hapless taxpayers for years to come? 

But that aside, the more germane question is why the prime minister saw fit to appoint an adviser for law and human rights. Is this an indication of some new found commitment to human rights, democratic renewal and the rule of law? Do we finally have a prime minister who is determined to end decades of human rights abuses and do away with legislation that has hobbled our democracy?  

Call me a cynic if you want but I just don’t see Ismail Sabri as a reformist. I’ve seen too many false starts, too many empty promises, too many commissions and enquiries that have gone nowhere. And too many politicians talking out of both sides of their mouth to take anything at face value any more. 

Ismail Sabri is the quintessential UMNO man, committed to maintaining a power structure replete with abusive laws and untrammelled executive authority that was specifically crafted to sustain and advance the Ketuanan Melayu agenda. UMNO politicians might talk a good talk about human rights and reform when it suits them, but they will never willingly tamper with a political system that serves their interests so well.

If the prime minister is really serious about law reform and human rights, here are a few things that his government can do immediately:

[1] extend the parliamentary session until all the reform proposals contained in the MOU with the Opposition are legislated into law. There is no need for further discussion, reviews or studies. With the support the government has plus that of the Opposition, there should be little difficulty in fulfilling the terms of the MOU sooner rather than later; 

[2] immediately implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysian Police;

[3] immediately release the report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Wang Kelian human trafficking massacre. A murderous crime took place; silence only invites speculation about a coverup;  

[4] make it mandatory for an independent investigation to be carried out whenever a prisoner dies in custody. No prime minister, least of all one who claims to be committed to law and human rights, ought to tolerate even one more death in custody;

[5] immediately make public the report on the task force that was set up to investigate the enforced disappearance of Raymond Koh. His abduction in broad daylight and subsequent disappearance was a shocking crime, a crime which Suhakam (the human rights commission) suggested had the government’s fingerprints all over it. It’s time both the Koh family and the nation be made privy to what actually occurred;

[6] immediately stop the harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and government critics like Famhi Reza.

These are all issues that have been in the air for a long time now.  Royal commissions have been appointed. Task forces have been set up. Promises have been made. The years have gone by and still we wait in vain for action, for answers. If there’s political will and genuine sincerity, these measures can be implemented fairly easily with or without a special adviser on law and human rights.

Azalina may be well-meaning but she’s up against power structures that are entirely resistant to change and the men behind it that feel threatened by reform. It’s hard not to conclude that Azalina’s appointment is ultimately just another PR exercise devoid of any real commitment to meaningful reform. I wait to be proven wrong.

Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 5th October 2021