Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written last January 14

So far, it has been an awful beginning for the year 2013 in Southeast Asia: Myanmar’s military launched airstrikes against Kachin rebels which dimmed hopes of a peaceful settlement of the civil war; prominent Laos activist Sombath Somphone has remained missing and has probably become a victim of state-sanctioned enforced disappearance; Vietnam convicted 14 Catholic bloggers and activists for allegedly participating in anti-government activities; and more than half a million families are still recovering from the impact of typhoon Pablo (Bopha) which hit the southern Mindanao island of the Philippines last December and was named the world’s deadliest disaster of 2012.

But if there is one reason to be cheerful today, it is the massive and peaceful gathering of Malaysians in the streets last January 12 in support of the multisectoral campaign for more democratic reforms in governance.

The ‘Himpunan Kebangkitan Rakyat’ (Uprising of the Citizens) rally, which was organized by Opposition forces and civil society groups, gathered more than 100,000 people inside and outside the historic Stadium Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur. Unlike the Bersih (clean) street assembly last April 2012 which was violently dispersed by the police, the Saturday rally called #KL112 by netizens turned out to be peaceful. There may be a disagreement between police forces and activists on the total number of people who joined the event but at least there were no throwing of tear gas canisters this time.

The rally had 10 specific demands, many of which have been articulated already by the Bersih movement like the call for clean, fair and transparent elections with an independent press.

Students repeated their demand for free education and they were joined by educators who urged the government to support the national language and preserve the mother tongue in schools.

Interestingly, there were place-specific issues such as the fair allocation for Sabah and Sarawak, a proposal to give 20 percent oil royalties for petroleum-producing states, and the defense of local heritage and traditional villages.

Other demands included the call for a green environment, better conditions for women, release of all political detainees, and protection of welfare of civil servants.

The issues raised in the rally are expected to be discussed in the General Elections this year, although Prime Minister Najib Razak has yet to announce the date of the elections. Through the rally, the Opposition probably hoped to show its popularity in the nation’s capital and win more votes to finally dislodge the ruling coalition which has been in power for several decades already.

But the huge turnout in the rally is less an indication of voter preference for the Opposition than a reflection of the rising dissatisfaction of many citizens against the policies of the government. Many people, especially the young, are clearly disappointed with the corruption in society, the systematic cheating in the elections, and the lack of transparency and public participation in governance.

There were people who joined the rally to simply express support for democracy. The remarkable collective display of political sentiment of thousands of ordinary Malaysians made the event even more meaningful as it taught many people the real essence of democracy.

Since 2011, Malaysia’s Bersih has become the region’s shining example of a citizen movement and direct political action by the people. It was initiated to simply call for voting reforms but it has quickly evolved into a popular movement for democratic reforms in society. The recent hundred thousand march in Kuala Lumpur has once again confirmed that Malaysians are showing the way on how to best practice democracy and assert people power in the region.

It has been a gloomy January for many human rights advocates working in many parts of Southeast Asia but the successful assembly in Kuala Lumpur last January 12 gave hope and inspiration that it’s still possible to make 2013 a memorable and happy year for democracy

Singapore’s Palmergate Affair

Written for The Diplomat

The most talked about political issue in Singapore last month was the sudden resignation of Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer after he admitted to having an extramarital affair with the constituency director of the People’s Association (PA) of another district. Following his disclosure Palmer resigned as both the Speaker and Member of Parliament, as well as a member of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

Predictably, this affair sparked an intense, lively, and even humorous discussion among Singaporeans concerning the sex lives of their public officials. Indeed, 2012 offered them much to talk about on this subject.

Early last year, for instance, Parliamentarian Yaw Shin Leong was expelled by the opposition Worker’s Party after allegedly engaging in an extramarital affair.

Meanwhile, former Central Narcotics Bureau chief Ng Boon Gay is currently on trial for allegedly soliciting sexual favors from a 36-year-old executive in exchange for awarding her firm government contracts. Similarly, Civil Defense Force Commissioner Peter Benedict Lim Sin Pang is facing 10 counts of corruption related to a sex-for-contracts controversy involving three separate women.

But the “Palmergate” scandal is particularly noteworthy because the issue goes beyond the personal sex life of the former speaker to raise questions about several aspects of governance and politics in Singapore.

First, Palmer’s resignation has left the constituents of Punggol East without a representative in parliament. But the government has not announced when it will hold a by-election to find a replacement for Palmer. After Palmer resigned, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong issued a statement citing a constitutional provision that allows him to call a by-election but fails to specify a fixed timeframe in which he is obligated to do so. This suggests that it is time to improve the system of filling vacancies in parliament in order to ensure citizens are able to exercise their right to be represented in government.

Second, and more importantly, Palmer’s illicit relationship with a PA official may be a private matter, but it reveals the arguably inappropriate ties between PAP and the PA. In the modern age, the PA is largely a grassroots’ organization that aims to foster social cohesion among Singaporeans of different ethnic backgrounds, as well as serve as a neutral mediator linking the Singaporean government and the people. Thus, in theory the PA should not favor any party. In reality, however, many of the PA personnel are PAP appointees, supporters, and even politicians. “The uncomfortable truth that Singaporeans have to confront is that the People’s Association is literally in bed with the PAP,” writes political analyst Ng E-Jay. “A supposedly non-partisan statutory board whose professed aim is to build social cohesion and represent the interests of all Singaporeans is nothing but an extension of the ruling party, both in spirit and in substance.”

It’s unfortunate but understandable that “Palmergate” diverted public attention away from the labor strike conducted by Chinese bus drivers last month, the first such strike in Singapore in more than two decades. After all, labor unrest is just a less “sexy” topic than, well, sex scandals involving public officials. But the public attention being given to Palmergate also provides a good opportunity to initiate public conversations about important topics, such as choosing the right leaders, reforming the electoral system, and reviewing the mandate and operations of publicly-financed grassroots organizations.

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