The unity minister at the centre of "disunity"

How did the death of a young fireman turn into a question of Cabinet accountability?

Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim, 24, succumbed to his injuries on Dec 18 after weeks of intensive care and being treated by some of the country’s finest medical hands.

Briefly, the events that led to his death went like this: on Nov 26, at 3am, a scuffle broke out at the Sri Maha Mariamman temple in Subang Jaya between devotees and gangsters allegedly hired by developer One City Sdn Bhd. The gangsters, in a move to enforce consent judgment on behalf of One City, decided to take control of the land on which the temple sits. One City has denied the allegations.

Key politicians i.e. a Selangor state exco as well as four ministers and a deputy minister issued statements that very day condemning the act as well as the sloppy response by the police to scuffle.

V. Ganabatirau, the Selangor state exco for the socio-economic empowerment, development and caring government committee, wrote a Facebook post labelling the gangsters a “Muslim group”.  He would later apologise and change the word “Muslim group” to “gangsters”.

 Ministers P. Waytha Moorthy, M. Kulasegaran, Xavier Jayakumar and Gobind Singh Deo, as well as deputy minister R. Sivarasa criticised the police through a joint statement read by Waytha Moorthy at a press conference in the Parliament lobby.

 Among the criticism levelled against the police were a slow response time as the incident happened at 2.30am while the police arrived some two hours later, and the mislabelling of the incident by the police as an internal squabble between rival Indian factions when it was not. The ministers, through the statement, also called for the Subang Jaya police force to be investigated and disciplinary action taken.

Naturally, a highly strung incident would have spill-over effects and the next day, Nov 27, in the small hours, thousands gathered around the temple premises to air their anger over what they deemed was an attack on the temple. It turned out to be a full-on riot. Vehicles were torched or damaged. The One City office in MCT tower was also vandalised.

In the melee, Adib together with his mates from the Fire and Rescue Department were sent to monitor the situation as per standard operating procedures. Adib, however, was dragged out of his vehicle and severely beaten. Despite onlookers rushing to his rescue and sending him to hospital, Adib, who initially showed signs of recovery, never made it. Investigations are still ongoing and 21 people have been charged.

Among the ministers, Waytha Moorthy has been singled out with calls demanding his resignation as minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of national unity and social inclusion.

Umno and PAS double-teamed to press for Waytha Moorthy’s resignation. Umno extended its call to all the Indian politicians mentioned above, including Ganabatirau, while PAS believes Waytha Moorthy should step down because Malaysians, particularly Muslims, have lost confidence in the man.

Members of the Cabinet as well as the larger Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition have also joined the chorus calling for Waytha Moorthy to quit, such as Seberang Jaya assemblyman Afif Bahardin who believed Waytha Moorthy’s statement unnecessarily wronged the police therefore encouraging actions that “would instigate the people rather than reduce the tension.” Afif forgot that the statement was a collective decision of four ministers and a deputy minister.

Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman also weighed in on the matter. In his capacity as chief of Armada, the youth wing of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), Syed Saddiq sent a memorandum to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad calling for Waytha Moorthy’s resignation.

Also, Waytha Moorthy’s deputy, Md Farik Md Rafiq, a Bersatu man himself and Tanjong Piai MP, has been very quiet. The cliched Cabinet-or-prime minister-is-looking-into-the-matter is missing from Farik’s agenda. Wonder why no one has taken him to task, too? The man barely said a word on his boss getting slammed left, right and centre.

But despite all these displays of displeasure, the question remains: what has Waytha Moorthy done that requires him to step down as minister in charge of national unity and social inclusion?

It seems the vitriol towards Waytha Moorthy is rooted more in something much larger than just one’s poor administration of his portfolio. One example is the oft-cited survey currently floating in the media as well as cited by Umno politicians such as Pontian MP Ahmad Maslan.

 The survey, launched by conservative group Gerakan Pengundi Sedar (GPS), is calling for Waytha Moorthy to step down for failing to control “rising racial tensions”. Hosted on the Change.org platform, the survey has garnered some 300,000 signatures. Are all 300,000 signatures are authentic? Your guess is as good as mine.

 But the survey was launched a month ago against the backdrop of Waytha Moorthy pushing for the ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). This is the root of that resignation push.

Certainly, the yardstick has to begin with the direction Waytha Moorthy and Mahathir has for the ministry. The unity ministry is an old one and dates back to Jul 1, 1969, after the May 13 race riots. Back then it was the Department of National Unity under the Prime Minister’s Department. Only in 1972 did it take on the image of a proper ministry. But the framing of the ministry and its interpretation of unity was under the Barisan Nasional framework of consociational politics.

Waytha Moorthy knows how BN works. His first taste of mainstream politics came when he was appointed deputy prime minister under the Prime Minister’s Department after BN’s slim victory in the 13th general election. His appointment came as he was the chief of Hindu rights group Hindraf and was seen as a key pointman for then prime minister Najib Razak to woo over Indian voters.

His role in Hindraf was also key to his reappointment this time round. Whether that will pay off is another matter. What we do know is during his first term as deputy minister under Najib he quit both his post and senatorship for failing to deliver his pledges.

Moving forward, what would be a more sensible gauge is whether he has engaged all stakeholders i.e. activists, the minorities including those in Sabah and Sarawak, the orang asli, Felda settlers, and the urban poor, among others. To show for it, he has to organise dialogues, meetings, press engagements, mooting parliamentary bills, to name a few.

Speaking of parliamentary bills, I’d like to know what he is going to make of the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) report. Is he going to make that public? Or what of the formulation of the National Harmony and Reconciliation Bill or the NUCC-recommended National Unity Commission?

But any test of his leadership, poor or otherwise, has to go back to Parliament because, at least according to Article 43, the Cabinet is collectively responsible to Parliament and, therefore, accountable to Malaysians.

According to Clause 5, there are two ways a minister could lose his or her position: have the person’s title revoked by the Agong on advice of the prime minister or voluntarily resign his office. There is also Clause 4 which states that the Cabinet should resign if the prime minister fails to command the confidence of the majority of the Dewan Rakyat (or House of Representatives).  

Here is where our elected representatives or Members of Parliament play an important role of check balance. Some of the mechanisms afforded to the MPs include Question Time and parliamentary replies, which are some ways the Cabinet can be held accountable.

After all, who could forget the quotidian press conferences at the Parliament lobby, usually organised by Damansara MP Tony Pua, at the height of the scandal involving state investment vehicle 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

An MP can also bring a motion of a censure on Waytha Moorthy’s handling of his ministry or even this whole Seafield temple fracas. The Australian parliament practices this, understanding that while moving a censure motion may not have any direct constitutional or legal consequences, it serves as an expression of the respective House’s (the Senate, in the Australian parliament example) disapproval of a government or minister’s action or policies.

Also because passing that motion requires voting, we’ll have quantifiable data on Waytha Moorthy’s performance as opposed to just random surveys. But the more important picture here is a censure motion has significant political impact and may provide a more justified means for Waytha Moorthy’s sacking by Mahathir, if he has been found to do a poor job in administering his duties.

Another approach, and this is taken from civil society, is to run a Peoples’ Tribunal. While this does not have any legal authority, it could also serve as political pressure point. Two examples here. Firstly, Bersih 2.0’s Peoples’ Tribunal to investigate electoral fraud during GE13. Secondly, Parti Sosialis Malaysia’s Peoples’ Tribunal to evaluate then menteri besar Zambry Abdul Kadir’s performance as state leader.

All these points, I believe, would help press Waytha Moorthy to perform, but more importantly go back to working out issues within a democratic framework via the country’s institutions. The framework may not be perfect but it allows for a proper evaluate of Waytha Moorthy. Also it gets our MPs to function as MPs.

The problem happens when matters like whether a minister should stay or not is discussed extra-institutionally. We can’t risk an arbitrary hand in determining whether a minister stays or leaves.

Ironically, Mahathir in his previous stint as prime minister (1981-2003) weakened our democratic institutions, from Parliament to the press, and Najib just ran roughshod over whatever that remained in our institutions. The scandals revolving around 1MDB and pilgrims’ fund Lembaga Tabung Haji are testament to Najib’s manipulation of weak institutions.

So should Waytha Moorthy go because of that statement?

Before you answer that, remember we’ve witnessed far more incendiary spectacles, such as the wielding of the keris which was introduced at the Umno Youth assembly in 2005 under then youth chief Hishammuddin Hussein.

Hishammuddin brandished and kissed the keris every year but this practice was frowned upon when in 2006 some speakers made racially skewed remarks about using the keris. The entire episode was broadcast live on TV.

But Hishammuddin would apologise for the practice, as it was believed that brandishing the keris, which had been deemed a chauvinist act, were among the factors that led to BN’s dismal performance in GE12 held that year. Makes sense why Hishammuddin called an end to keris waving and kissing in 2009 in his speech as outgoing youth chief.  

So you take what Hishammuddin did, and he is not the only actor who has pulled off such chauvinistic gestures, and you compare that to Waytha Moorthy and his cohorts’ statement on the Seafield temple, and you tell me, should Waytha Moorthy resign?

I believe a proper framing of these questions should be, why should he or any minister resign and how could we best evaluate a minister’s performance before advocating for his or her resignation.