When Anwar supports Muhyiddin against liberty

Wan Saiful

The author is the chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS).

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is surrounded by supporters, one of whom is injured, after a protest in Kuala Lumpur calling for electoral reforms

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is surrounded by supporters after BERSIH 2.0 Protest in Kuala Lumpur

In a conversation with the Asia Economics Editor of The Economist magazine earlier this week, he asked how Malaysians react to IDEAS’ endeavour to propose policies based on ‘first principles’. I said the biggest problem that we actually face is most people usually do not ask about first principles. Principles don’t seem to matter. Debating technicalities takes precedent.

It is this lack of first principles that results in a mishmash of policies, and ever more confused implementation of policies, which at the end puts us the citizens in dilemma. Let me use as example the recent debacle over the teaching of science and maths in English (PPSMI).

The Prime Minister said in 2009 that the era of government knows best has ended with him at the helm. I am delighted with this statement even though I think that that era has never existed. Najib also went on to say that he wants to put people first. Both these are, to put it simply, wonderful assertions.

The Parents Action Group on Education (PAGE) has been lobbying hard for the government to respect choices made by parents. They submitted dosiere after dosiere calling for the government to allow parents to choose whether they want their children to be taught science and maths in English or in Malay.

For PAGE, by giving parents choice, the government can show that they respect the wishes of the rakyat, and that they acknowledge they cannot possibly know better than parents what is best for an individual child.

I believe PAGE’s proposal is fair and balanced. All they want is choice, not the imposition of a policy assumed to be fitting for all. PAGE’s plea also fits in well with one of the core first principles that we in IDEAS are promoting, that in a free society, individuals must have both liberty and responsibility.

Giving choice to parents means we respect their liberty to decide what is best for them and their families. Similarly, by getting parents involved in making educational choices, we will eventually create a more responsible society, not a society wherein parents ‘dump’ their children in schools because they assume teachers will take over their responsibility as parents.

Let me make one clarification. When Tun Mahathir as Prime Minister introduced PPSMI and made it compulsory, I was against it. My reason at that time was that parents were coerced rather than given choice. To me, that too was wrong. The current proposal by PAGE is superior than what Tun Mahathir introduced.

Coming back to the current debate, if we look at how the Deputy Prime Minister reacts to PAGE’s plea, it seems as if he is bent on rubbishing Najib’s assertions. At the time this article was written, Muhyiddin still believes that simply because the Prime Minister has appointed him as Minister of Education, he automatically knows better than you and I about what is best for our children. Hence he refuses to let us choose how our children will be educated. Clearly he does not share the same first principles with the very person who appointed him.

The same can be said about some leaders in Pakatan Rakyat too. Many of us would be familiar with their call for kuasa rakyat (people power). This has been one of the slogans they shout for many years. Ironically when a group like PAGE asks for the power to be given to the rakyat to choose, many Pakatan leaders balk. This time, the same Pakatan leaders choose be in cahoots with the Deputy Prime Minister to deny choice from the rakyat.

Similarly, when Anwar Ibrahim was denied his liberty, they claim it is foul play for political reasons. But they hardly hesitate to deny individuals like you and me our liberty to choose what is best for our families, perhaps because it is politically expedient for them to do so. After all, they too are hungry for Malay votes.

In fact, in a statement dated 15 January 2009, Anwar himself labelled those who support PPSMI as traitors to the Malay struggle, making him sound more extreme than some nationalists in UMNO.

Once again, we see how the lack of commitment to first principles – that of individual liberty and responsibility – led to the same people who shout loudest for kuasa rakyat to unashamedly deny the rakyat from kuasa when it counts.

I cannot hide my disappointment with some of those who claim to want a Malaysia that is free and fair. What can be more free and more fair than giving choice to common people like you and me?

Most of the arguments against PPSMI as an option are technical issues. I posit that if only we could agree on the first principle first, then it should become the responsibility of government to solve the technical hurdles. They should not give us technical hurdles as an excuse right from the start.

It is certainly ironic – or perhaps telling? – that when politicians from both sides unite, we suddenly find ourselves losing our liberty.