On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Dawn of a new era

Those who were privy to inner-circle discussions on how the speech would be crafted crossed their fingers and hoped there would be no last minute changes.

After all, as a politician, the Prime Minister has to balance the needs of the conservatives, right wingers and liberals within his party and also the Barisan Nasional coalition.

The PM understands fully how much the world has changed. The global political landscape has been altered drastically and the lessons to learn are that if leaders cannot change, the people will change them. There is plenty to learn from history, some very recent too.

The more conservative in Umno are still grappling with the changes, preferring to hold on to something which they are familiar and comfortable with. They are trying hard to understand where Najib is taking Malaysia to.

The younger ones, while looking apprehensively at the lack of changes in Umno, have tried hard to push, worried that the country’s ruling party could be losing its connection with the Twitter and Facebook generation. It’s not wrong to say that the PM has been watching, listening and feeling it all over the last three years.

On Aug 28, this scribe wrote that Najib’s call for greater democratic space, including doing away with censorship laws and setting up a Parliamentary Select Committee to review electoral laws, was just a prelude to his address on Sept 16.

I wrote that “it is almost certain that he will expand on democratic reforms with an outline of the changes he wants to implement in Malaysia. It won’t be promises but changes that would be set out in black and white.

“The fresh democratic reforms will surprise even his critics, particularly those who are pushing for a greater civil society.

“In short, the new democracy that he wants to see would recognise the calls by Malaysians. It is the Middle Malaysia that he wants to address. He will say that yes, he hears these voices.”

But even this writer was surprised at how far he was prepared to push. I dared not commit myself to put into words that he would repeal the Internal Security Act, but Najib has proven his doubters and critics wrong. He proved that he walked the talk.

As expected, everyone is trying to claim credit for the changes. The Opposition, still reeling from the shock, has said these would not have happened without their pressure and protests.

Then there are the usual cynics.

I think the point is this: It does not matter who is right, but what is right. It does not matter who did it, so long as the right thing gets done. Malaysians cannot be partisan on issues that affect us all.

Najib deserves credit for having the courage to take the bold steps. His New Democracy thrust is certain to continue.

The ISA will be repealed, no one should even doubt it anymore. An Anti-Terrorism Act – specifically for terrorists and not for political opponents, as in Britain and the United States – is likely to take over.

The Police Act would be redefined and possibly the right to assemble, which could be made clearer by designating places, time and how gatherings should be done.

An example to look at is Hong Kong, where night protests are directed to specific roads that would have little impact on businesses. Even then, gatherings are allowed on only one side of the road so that traffic can continue to flow on the other side.

In New York, there is a designated spot not far from the United Nations building for protest gatherings. A spot could be set up not far from the Parliament for similar purposes.

As in football matches in Britain, where police resources are used to safeguard public safety, organisers of protest gatherings in stadiums could be asked to put up deposits for police security and possible damages.

But the Printing Presses and Publications Act is still a thorn on the side for the media. Najib has taken the first step to abolishing this much hated law by allowing a one-off permit without the requirement for annual renewal. The Government must commit itself to a total abolishment, however.

An independent media council to be run by editors will finally be formed after 54 years of independence, and repealing the law would certainly be on the agenda of journalists. After all, no one needs a permit to start a blog or an online news portal, so why impose a permit for print?

The reforms have left a feel-good feeling but the Prime Minister has to follow up with an equally impactful Budget speech. All these reforms are good but they won’t put food on our tables.

Ordinary Malaysians are worried about the rising cost of living and middle income Malaysians are hit the most by monthly tax deductions.

In the rural areas of Sabah and Sarawak, where food and fuel need to be transported into the interior, the costs are even more enormous.

Malaysians want to hear how the Government intends to help them face the economic uncertainties, the spiralling cost of food and how to be confident about the future.

Malaysians are not expecting their Government to adopt a populist approach of promising the sun and the moon, which will bankrupt the nation. But they want the Government to be equally responsible in sharing the burden by cutting out excessive financial waste and leaks.

Najib’s challenge would be to balance the budget in the face of a slowing economy and at the same time appease the people ahead of a general election.

The Budget Speech is on Oct 7. Can Malaysians expect the Big Day to be soon after the PM has announced his economic plans for the country?