Can you believe 2016?


fmt-2017PETALING JAYA: Malaysians had a lot to digest in the past 12 months. Exhibit A: the unlikely birth of a major new national political party, marking the comeback of a politician now 91 years old — and no prizes for guessing who that is.

There were also religion and secularism pulling this way and that, towards hudud but also backing off the idea of one parent alone converting a child to Islam.

And then, another “Chinese tsunami” — but this time welcome with open arms.

The story of the year has to be two new political parties emerging so suddenly. The Malaysian United Indigenous Party, or Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) was formed in September, spearheaded by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, together with former Malaysian deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

And just a month after that, former Umno Supreme Council member and Malaysian Minister of Rural and Regional Development Shafie Apdal joined forces with former PKR lawmaker Darell Leiking and several other Sabahan politicians to form Parti Warisan Sabah, or Warisan, in a bid to replace the numerous political parties dotting Sabah’s political landscape.

There were also the Sarawak state elections this year, which were won soundly by state chief minister Adenan Satem and his party, Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu.

The outcome of the Sarawak elections was criticised by many Peninsular opposition supporters as a failure of Sarawak’s kampung folk to recognise the opposition efforts at betterment. They also said it marked an acceptance of Adenan’s supposedly rampant money politics. But it could also have had something to do with the especially fractured opposition who even faced four-cornered fights in some constituencies.

On the legal front, hudud — or the private member’s bill to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 (Act 355) — finally saw its introduction into Parliament.

The bill, introduced and championed by PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang, has been read twice in the federal Parliament, and is set for transfer to a select committee comprising Muslim and non-Muslim lawmakers for discussion and fine-tuning.

It aims to allow shariah courts to impose maximum penalties of 30 years’ jail, fines up to RM100,000 or 100 strokes of the cane for offences under Islamic law. Prime Minister Najib Razak has supported the bill vocally, saying that it is the responsibility of Muslims to support PAS’ plan to empower the shariah courts.

But on the other hand, civil rights activists enjoyed a small victory with the federal proposal of an amendment to the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act. The proposal, to be debated in Parliament in coming months, will require the consent of both parents to convert their child to Islam.

This proposal came after the long legal custody battles surrounding M Indira Gandhi, S Deepa and Shubashini Rajasingam, all of which challenged the unilateral conversion of their children to Islam by their ex-spouses.

While Dr Mahathir had pushed a “Look East” policy when he became PM in 1981, urging Malaysians to look at Japan and South Korea as role models, it’s China that’s looking South-east, finding fertile friends here.

Najib’s six-day visit to China last month resulted in a staggering RM150 billion worth of deals. They included Malaysia’s first significant defence deal with China, an agreement to buy four Chinese naval vessels.

But most of the deals focused on investments in Malaysia. With China’s already significant presence in Johor real estate — where China-owned companies have built enough apartments to drive prices down 10% there — and China’s purchase last year of 1MDB’s troubled assets, Najib’s own party base raised concerns about him “selling off” assets to China but he quickly rejected this as false.

Meanwhile, 2016 was also the year when opposition politicians and civil activists ran into serious trouble with the law.

Police raided the office of Bersih 2.0 a day before its planned Bersih 5 rally last month, arresting chairman Maria Chin Abdullah under the much-criticised Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, or Sosma.

Her solitary confinement for the next 11 days was the subject of international headlines, and drew attention to Sosma’s troubling similarity to the abolished Internal Security Act (ISA). The day that Maria was arrested also saw a slew of arrests of prominent Malaysian activists and civil rights figures in a sweeping operation reminiscent of then-PM Dr Mahathir’s Ops Lallang in 1987.

In Penang, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng was accused of purchasing a bungalow there below market price, allegedly in exchange for the state government’s sale of state land to a private company in 2012, also below market price.

The inspector-general of police launched a probe against the seller, Phang Li Koon, leading to investigative and media scrutiny into Guan Eng’s affairs. Guan Eng claimed that the investigations were politically motivated and questioned the lack of a similarly “speedy” action to police reports against Najib and 1MDB. He was later arrested by MACC on two charges of corruption. He was released on bail of RM1 million.

The 1MDB controversy also featured a startling development this year. The US Department of Justice (DoJ) waded into the mess, filing civil forfeiture lawsuits to seize assets allegedly derived from misappropriated 1MDB funds through American financial channels.

It most notably named a figure known only as “Malaysian Official 1“, or “MO1”, widely accepted to be a reference to Najib. It also permanently introduced a new word into the opposition’s vocabulary: kleptocracy. Opposition politicians such as DAP’s father-son team Lim Kit Siang and Lim Guan Eng, as well as PKR’s Nurul Izzah Anwar, now frequently use it to disparage Najib’s administration.

Press freedom took a hit when The Edge Media Group shut down its online news portal The Malaysian Insider, following constant opposition and harassment from federal authorities. Also, Australian pressmen Linton Besser and Louie Eroglu were arrested here after attempting to interview Prime Minister Najib Razak on 1MDB.

In November, police, aided by the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), raided the office of news portal Malaysiakini over reports connected to the controversy surrounding MACC.

But to end on a positive note for the media, Malaysian daily The Star championed legal reforms on the protection of children against sexual predators, as the Star’s R.AGE team went undercover to expose the grooming of children by child predators on the Internet.

Media coverage of the issue and lawmaker support has pushed the government to propose the Child Sexual Crime Act, to be presented in Parliament in March 2017. The Act will address crimes committed online, and recommend the formation of a special court to process cases faster.

And to end on a positive note nationally, the MRT finally opened, Sarawak got its longest bridge yet (the longest in Malaysia across a river) and brightest of all, Lee Chong Wei brought home his third Olympic silver medal.

A nation applauded for the most sporty datuk ever in a spirit of unity that lifted Malaysians that moment in 2016, reminding them of a time when such a feeling was commonplace and perhaps filling them with the hope that this spirit will abide and grow. Are you listening, 2017?