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    Southeast Asia
     Mar 6, 2009
Malaysian democracy under a tree
By Anil Netto

PENANG - An impromptu street-side legislative gathering under a tree has already been dubbed Pokok Demokrasi - or Democracy Tree - and is set to enter the annals of folklore in Ipoh, the capital city of Malaysia's Perak state.

In an open space beneath a 20-meter high raintree and another lush mango tree nearby, opposition lawmakers in Perak, peninsular Malaysia's second-largest state, held an emergency session on Tuesday as a crowd of several hundred looked on.

It was a morning of high drama, starting when riot police blocked the 28 legislators from entering parliament. After a brief tussle, they headed to the shade of the large tree, where Perak State Assembly speaker V Sivakumar, attired in his full ceremonial


regalia, solemnly put forward three motions to the 27 elected assembly members from the opposition People's Alliance.

The first motion was a vote of confidence in Nizar Jamaluddin as the legitimate menteri besar (equivalent to chief minister). The second was a motion to seek permission from the sultan of Perak for the dissolution of the State Assembly, paving the way for fresh elections - a prospect that remains unlikely given the impasse.

The final motion was to adopt the privileges committee's report which had earlier resulted in the speaker suspending rival Menteri Besar, Zambry Abdul Kadir and the six members of his governing team.

A moment of humor occurred when the speaker asked the elected representatives, "Setuju [Agreed]?"

Instead of only the elected representatives responding, the whole crowd cheered and acclaimed, "Setuju!"

Elected representatives then had to urge the onlookers to maintain the solemn decorum of the proceedings. The crowd was told that the "Setuju" response was only to be made by the elected representatives.

One onlooker was heard muttering, "We are also part of this assembly. We have a right to express our confidence in the chief minister."

Nizar's rival, Zambry, was appointed chief minister by the sultan after three assembly representatives defected from the Alliance to the Barisan Nasional (BN or National Front), the same coalition that rules at the federal level.

The defections sparked a constitutional crisis that has raised debate and discussion on various issues, including the precise role of a constitutional monarch, the scope of powers of the State Assembly speaker, and the doctrine of the separation of powers between the legislature, the judiciary and the executive.

The defections led to a hung State Assembly, 28-28, between the BN and the Alliance, apart from the three defectors whose status was disputed. The speaker, V Sivakumar, who is an Alliance assembly member though unable to vote, had also suspended the three defectors on the basis of undated resignation letters, which were also challenged by the defectors.

It was not just the defections but the circumstances surrounding the defections that resulted in public disquiet. Two of the defectors were already facing corruption charges in court.

None of the BN assembly members or the defectors was present during the extraordinary 15-minute open-air assembly session.

While the street-side assembly was in progress, BN lawyers were in the High Court, challenging the speaker's power to convene a State Assembly sitting without the consent of the sultan.

The judicial commissioner ruled that private lawyers, however, were disallowed from representing the speaker, who had to be represented by the official state legal adviser.

But BN politicians pointed out that the state legal advisor had already acted for Zambry in a case last week.

In any event, the High Court issued a ruling restraining the speaker from holding any "unlawful meetings" purporting to be State Assembly sessions.

The crisis in Perak is part of a larger struggle between a resurgent Alliance, led by Anwar Ibrahim, and the BN, which has ruled for 51 years. BN leader Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is due to hand over the premiership to his deputy Najib Razak at the end of this month under an agreed transition, though some remain skeptical that the handover will actually take place, despite Abdullah saying it is on course.

The dominant party in the BN, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), is slated to hold its assembly and party elections on March 24. But two UMNO members are now calling on the party to postpone the assembly so that the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission can complete its probe into the allegations of money politics in the party.

In the meantime, three key by-elections are scheduled to be held simultaneously on April 7: one for a parliamentary seat in Perak and two for State Assembly seats in Sarawak and Kedah respectively.

The first two are likely to be intensely watched as barometers for the states of Perak and Sarawak. While the BN is likely to continue resisting calls for fresh state-wide elections in Perak which it would probably lose, state elections must be held by 2011 in resource-rich Sarawak, a traditional BN stronghold.

In the meantime, the country stands on the brink of a recession, hit by a slump in commodity prices and a fall in global demand for its export-oriented manufacturing firms, especially those in the electronics sector.

But it is politics that continue to preoccupy most people, who are already feeling the effects of a recession.

"The institutions of democratic governance have suffered in this crisis,'' says Penang-based writer and lawyer Tan Ban Cheng. ''Serious questions about the independence and impartiality of certain elements of the judiciary, the civil service and the police are being raised.''

It is therefore not surprising that many saw the open-air sitting of the State Assembly as a refreshing return to the basics of public participation in a democracy - a return of democracy to the people.

Some are already saying that the area where the Pokok Demokrasi stands should be declared a heritage site by a future government and the raintree made a symbol of democracy in Malaysia.

Others are saying that the story of the Democracy Tree, beneath which the Perak State Assembly solemnly met one morning, will be the stuff of folklore that will be passed down from generation to generation. One visitor to a political blog commented: ''I'll teach my kids to sing this [rhyme] to commemorate this day: in full robes and pageantry, he held the State Assembly in a car park, under a tree.''

(Inter Press Service)

A battle of wills in Malaysia's Perak
(Feb 11,'09)

Another setback for Malaysia's UMNO
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