Be Measured And Transparent In GLC Reforms

Published on July 10, 2018
by Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 9, 2018 – July 15, 2018 in its Special Report ‘Are CEOs Overpaid’.

It goes without saying that the heads or senior executives of any government-linked company (GLC) who abuse their position, or the resources of their organisations, for partisan political purposes under the previous federal government must go.

The same goes for anyone who is complicit in corruption or criminal acts, or who is so blatantly opposed to the new government that it affects their professionalism.

Still, this process must be done judiciously and in an above-board fashion. The removal of the leadership of a GLC must be done via the correct procedures of these entities, rather than seeking to nudge them out through leaks, innuendos or attacks via the press.

We don’t want to send the wrong message — whether to the public or investors — that every change of government in the future will result in wholesale “purges”.

Personnel in GLCs who wish to contribute to the New Malaysia should be given the opportunity to do so. Pakatan Harapan has a mandate from the rakyat to clean up our system of government, and that includes the GLCs. The opportunity to do so must not be squandered.

But we must realise that this is contingent upon us doing it in a prudent, transparent and sensitive fashion. A line must be drawn.

History has taught us that reforms, even those that are desperately needed, must be done sequentially and in a measured pace if they are to be sustainable and long-lasting.

The ends do not justify the means. This is not a cop-out: it is about working smart.

In the long run, we must also seek to change the culture of the GLCs and the role they play in our country. They should be the facilitators of equitable opportunities for the creation of wealth and development for all Malaysians — and not be seen as crowding out the private sector.

The fact that so many changes at the top of the various GLCs have had to occur also shows that there is an urgent need for these entities to be depoliticised.

The GLCs need to be divorced from political patronage. This can be done more easily if their leaders were eventually, in the future, sourced as far as possible internally, through merit- and diversity-based talent development.

GLC staff should be paid well to attract talent and ensure their integrity, but the highest standards must be demanded from them.

Allowing diversity in this way may ultimately help public institutions and GLCs become non-partisan. Malaysians must learn to work and live together despite our different political beliefs.

Ultimately, we need to stop seeing and treating public appointments from a political-party angle. This will likely need a sea change in the mindset of Malaysians, and in our political culture as a whole.

But we must make a start.

Nik Nazmi is MP for Setiawangsa, PKR Youth chief and occasional contributor to The Edge.

Listening to the hope of young Malaysians

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about the youth vote in Malaysia.

There has been a lot of attention on what young Malaysians care about politically, as well as what could get them out to the polling booths – or make them stay away.

To get answers to these questions, KEADILAN Youth has been trying to engage young Malaysians through a series of events called Teh Tarik Sessions.

The first of these began in mid-August, when Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail came to Setiawangsa, a marginal seat in Kuala Lumpur held by Barisan Nasional.

From there, we have gone to small towns in Kelantan, Perak and Johor, as well as Felda plantations in Negri Sembilan.

Soon, we plan to go all over Malaysia – from Perlis to Sabah – to talk about what KEADILAN and Pakatan Harapan can do for the youth.

The Teh Tarik Sessions are designed to be two-way dialogues. They are not in the typical ceramah format, but more attuned to a generation that is used to lively engagement on social media.

We serve attendees teh tarik (preferably “kurang manis”) and broadcast these sessions live on the internet.

A lot of the issues that they raise are well known.

Falling commodity prices and opaque practices in Felda plantations; the flooding of foreign workers and a lack of well-paying jobs, which force young Malaysians to bigger cities in the country or even abroad; being forced to take on crippling debts to sustain their livelihood; discrimination faced by the Orang Asli community – the list goes on.

Many also complain about the impact of massive budget cuts, particularly on the education and healthcare sectors.

In rural Negri Sembilan, low- and middle-income families spoke of being “asked” to pay RM10 for school stationery.

A family in a kampung in Perak complained about having to reject an offer for their child to further his studies overseas because the parents were expected to advance the money for the first four months of preparatory studies at a local private college.

Doctors told me how they spent their own money to minimise costs for poor patients.

How did it come to this?

In 1991, when I was in primary school, Wawasan 2020 was the order of the day.

In drawing and essay-writing competitions, my friends dreamt of flying cars and shining cities.

Malaysians were also told that the country would finally come of age. Not just an economically developed nation, but also one united as a Bangsa Malaysia: liberal and tolerant, democratic and progressive.

We are just over two years away from that magic date, but we seem to be more far away than ever from the objectives mentioned in Wawasan 2020.

Ironically, Umno-BN is now shifting to a new goalpost – 2050 (“TN50”) – pushing the dream farther and farther away.

KEADILAN and PH Youth’s pitch in these Teh Tarik Sessions is this: let’s not wait until 2050. We have the opportunity in the next general election to change our country – to uplift our generation and our children’s.

For Sabah and Sarawak, we want to go beyond the Malaysia Agreement 1963.

We want more revenue to stay in these states, and to increase their responsibilities in key portfolios.

We also want to promote greater decentralisation for schools and district education offices, while ensuring greater investment in educational infrastructure in impoverished parts of the country.

We will offer free higher education at public universities, with a living stipend for students from low- and middle-income families.

At the same time, we will also provide more routes to vocational and technical education to improve the quality of our workers.

We also believe that wages in Malaysia need to increase. There must also be incentives to encourage profitable companies to provide living wages to their workers.

There has to be greater coordination between the government, private sector and unions to increase wages and productivity for workers.

And, our country needs a roadmap to reduce foreign workers, and offer incentives to encourage the hiring of skilled local workers.

We need more affordable housing, whether bought or rented, for Malaysian citizens in the Klang Valley, Penang and south Johor.

The government should be looking out for first-time homebuyers who want to live in their homes, not absentee speculators who flip their properties for profit.

The destruction of our public institutions also means that we need to focus on restoring their integrity.

Freedom of information legislation, introduced in Selangor and Penang, needs to be introduced at the federal level.

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission needs to be made truly independent, with its own prosecutorial powers.

Committees in Parliament and state assemblies – similar to SELCAT in Selangor – need to be formed to allow the overseeing of government authorities.

This is our offer to young Malaysians.

I know that many of them have found our country’s politics thus far disheartening, its parties – on both sides of the fence – wanting.

But, change has never come from people – especially the young – sitting on the sidelines, not voting and refusing to engage in the political process.

Here is an old cliché but one that rings true: the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

As for PH Youth, we hope to promote the politics of hope, not fear; unity, not division.

All we ask, is for one chance – five years – to set the country back in the right direction.

We believe that young Malaysians can, and will, make a big difference.

Free Education – the Solution to PTPTN Woes

The state of Malaysia’s higher education today is largely due to the privatisation of the sector. This started in 1996 when Najib Abdul Razak was the Education Minister and the Education Act and Private Higher Education Institution Act were the introduced.

In 1997, PTPTN was established. It was formed to provide students with funds to pursue higher education. This allowed the rapid growth of private institutions of higher learning. In 2007, the amount of PTPTN funds disbursed to private institutions surpassed public institutions for the first time and this has continued until today. In 2015, RM2.5 billion were disbursed to private institutions compared to RM1.7 billion for public institutions.

Expert Market, a website compared tuition fee data from Quacquarelli Symonds’ Top Universities ranking for the academic year 2014/2015 and the Gallup Median Self-Reported Income report data in 2013. The average tuition fee cost in Malaysia according to their report was US$18,000. The percentage of salary spent on tuition fees in Malaysia was 55 percent. By comparison the percentage was 73 percent for Chile, 53 percent for the US, 42 percent for the UK, 36 percent for Singapore and 18 percent for Japan. The government responded that this does not reflect fees for public universities but if one compares it to average private institutions’ fees it makes sense.

At the same time, the government severely cut spending for public universities. In the 2016 budget, the allocation was cut by RM1.4 billion, 27 percent compared to the previous year. The allocation for scholarships, bursaries and educational assistance was cut by RM812 million (23 percent). Thus poor students who depend on these grants suffered immeasurably.

For the following year, the total allocation for the 20 public universities were cut from RM7.57 billion to RM6.12 billion (19.23 percent). Unsurprisingly, places in public universities became scarcer. The KEADILAN Higher Education Advisory Panel – of which I was a member – received numerous complaints of excellent students not getting courses they applied for in university due to this trend.

Thus, students seeking higher education opportunities in Malaysia increasingly found that the opportunities were more likely available in private institutions – which are more expensive. Private institutions also treated PTPTN as an opportunity for them to get ‘easy money’ from the corporation while the corporation bears the risk of collecting the debt from the students when they graduate.

As many students grapple with unemployment (not having a job), underemployment (being employed in a job that pays below the expected wage of a graduate), low and stagnant wages in general, and a high cost of living, PTPTN repayment rates remain low. In 2015, the unemployment rate for those with tertiary education was 3.8 percent, compared to 1.8 percent for those with only primary education or no formal schooling. From 2011 to 2015, the accumulated losses for PTPTN reached RM6.5 billion. In 2015, the unpaid PTPTN debt for the year reached RM8.49 billion. The repayment rate was a measly 46.6 percent.

In order to overcome this, PTPTN has employed various methods. This includes listing borrowers under CCRIS, which affects the chances of errant borrowers from getting housing and hire purchase loans; blacklisting the passport of errant borrowers; no longer providing full PTPTN funding; and encouraging the withdrawal of EPF savings in order for graduates to make payments.

The listing borrowers under CCRIS and encouraging the withdrawal of precious retirement funds are counter-productive, and only pushes poorer borrowers into a vicious cycle. Instead, I would argue that repayment should only be made after earning a minimal salary – as it is done in the UK and Australia – say, RM4,000 a month.

In the long term however, it is clear that PTPTN is not sustainable. The solution is free higher education for public universities. After all, this is not a pipe dream but already a reality in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Germany and Scotland. Chile is introducing the policy for half of the poorest 50 percent of its students in 2016 due to historic high university fees (see above).

In addition, poor students should be given a monthly living and accommodation allowance. In 2013, it was estimated that to introduce such a policy in Malaysia would cost the country RM5 billion a year.

We should phase out PSD and MARA undergraduate scholarships overseas. This policy made sense when the country was lacking in universities in the 1970s and 1980s but does not make sense today. After all, many PSD scholars are allowed to migrate overseas after their university studies without paying a single sen to the government! Would not it be better to invest in our local public universities instead?

We should also build more public universities to reduce the demand on private institutions of higher learning. This will reduce the need for the fly-by-night private institutions and only allow the best to survive. At the same time, we can take a leaf from Germany’s experience in making free higher education possible by ensuring that technical and vocational education are attractive to avoid a glut of university graduates in the market.

Why Khalid Must Go

KEADILAN has sacked the MB of Selangor, Abdul Khalid Ibrahim from the party.

This has caused a great deal of shock to many.

Everybody—whether it was my relatives over Hari Raya, constituents at mamak stalls or my friends over Whatsapp—wanted to know why we wanted him out.

Quite a number were critical and this was not surprising.

Having known and worked with Khalid for some time, I personally found the deterioration of his relationship with the party and his removal very sad.

Nevertheless, KEADILAN has made the right decision.

Khalid had to be removed from the party.

He must also be made to leave the MB’s position.

The first time I met him was during my stint as Anwar Ibrahim’s Private Secretary in 2006. In the middle of that year, went to Khalid’s residence in Bukit Damansara to hand him the party’s membership form. He was then announced as the party’s Treasurer, in a move that shocked many. Despite the fact that he had previously sought office in UMNO as a division chief, supreme council member and branch chief (all unsuccessfully), he was largely known to most Malaysians as a corporate captain.

Two years later, on the day after the historic 12th General Elections, Khalid asked me to help him as he had been nominated to be the new Selangor MB. I had just won the Seri Setia constituency then. I remember drafting the letter to the Selangor Palace confirming the support of the three parties for Khalid in his bedroom.

I accompanied Khalid to meet the State Secretary and State Financial Officer to take over the reins of power. After Khalid was confirmed as MB, I was then formally appointed as his Political Secretary. Things started reasonably well as we rolled up our sleeves to implement our pledges to the public.

We focused on creating a people’s-oriented economy while balancing it with the need to grow the economy and clean up the mess left by Khir Toyo’s administration. Khalid’s clean image stood as a stark contrast to the scandals of the previous BN governments and the inefficiency at the local councils.

After a while though, tensions emerged.

One Wednesday night, I received a call from the party leadership asking me where Khalid was. It was the night of the weekly KEADILAN Political Bureau meeting which key leaders – including Anwar, the President, Deputy President, Vice Presidents, Secretary General and senior leaders – attend. Khalid was part of the Bureau. I replied that as usual it was keyed in Khalid’s schedule. But Khalid did not show up.

The Political Bureau is not a talking shop. Nor is it a cabal where politicians demand or trade favours and kickbacks. Important issues—including the direction of the party and how we manage ties with our Pakatan Rakyat allies—are discussed here. It is not a very good idea for a KEADILAN representative—especially our only MB—to absent themselves from it unless they absolutely have to.

His staff would put the Political Bureau meetings in his schedule, making sure that it never clashed with his other duties. We would give him ample notice and reminders of them. He would agree to go but I invariably would find out that he did not. This episode repeated itself time and time again. It came to a point where I basically ended up having to go on his behalf, becoming a liaison of sorts between the MB and the party. Similarly, I attended to public complaints at Khalid’s Kuala Selangor division as well as with the various divisions in Selangor.

I would make sure to brief Khalid on what had transpired at all these meetings. What was shocking to me was that he would not only dismiss the issues raised as trifles but also make disparaging remarks about the party.

His attitude was basically that the party was always wrong about everything and he was always right.

I found his stance very perplexing. Perhaps he is naturally adverse to politicking, or thought that attending the Political Bureau would expose him to unwarranted pressures in his job as MB. But his attitude suggested a very cavalier, even hostile attitude towards the political process and democracy.

It was as if he viewed the party as merely a vehicle for him to use and dispose of as he pleased. But Malaysia practices the Westminster form of democracy where executives like Khalid must also command the support of his colleagues to gain and remain in office. He is primus inter pares, not the be-all, end-all.

And for that matter, politicians—even in Malaysia—are not exactly strangers to what the public’s wants and needs.

Indeed, such criticisms were often over policies his administration adopted which the public did not like. But Khalid was and is not much of a team player in this regard. This made things extra difficult when you consider the onslaught—including over racial and religious issues—that UMNO/BN visited upon KEADILAN and Pakatan post-2008.

After two years of this, I finally had enough and decided to leave. I felt I could not convince him to cooperate with the party and it was time for someone else to give it a go.

I was proud of what the Pakatan government had achieved at that time. Though I felt frustrated working under him, I was still fond of him and even considered him a father figure. I thought that with a different Political Secretary, things might change.

In the 13th General Election, Pakatan increased its seats in the Selangor State Assembly from 36 to 44. KEADILAN however lost one seat, meaning that our tally fell to 14. This was due to three-cornered fights in Kota Damansara with PAS and in Semenyih with PSM. The performance of the Selangor Pakatan government, together with the hope of taking over Putrajaya undoubtedly contributed to the overall increase.

However, it has to be stated that Khalid hardly campaigned outside his Bandar Tun Razak Parliamentary seat and Port Klang state seat. It was Anwar, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Azmin Ali, Nurul Izzah, Tian Chua and Rafizi Ramli who hit the streets not only in Selangor but nation-wide to campaign for KEADILAN and Pakatan. Many party leaders and grassroots were also upset that Khalid abandoned his original seat of Ijok and went to Port Klang. But the party made the decision as there was too much rumblings from the grassroots in Ijok. Indeed, KEADILAN ended up losing the Bukit Melawati state seat in the same parliamentary constituency as well.

At this point, some readers might be thinking: “Okay, so he doesn’t like to go to party meetings and he was a bit selfish with his campaigning time. So what? Lots of politicians are like that. Why should they remove him? Shouldn’t he be praised for refusing to bow to political pressure? And anyway, why didn’t they give him the boot sooner if they didn’t like him?”

It is true that many leaders in KEADILAN and PKR were not willing to replace him after the 2013 General Elections. While there were grumblings, there was a sense was that we could get by if the status quo prevailed.

This year however, serious question marks appeared over what was before seen as his strongest suit – his personal integrity. One can read in detail the party’s dossier and supporting evidence of this at http://rafiziramli.com/2014/08/laporan-kes-kes-bersabit-integriti-melibatkan-tan-sri-khalid-ibrahim/.

I would encourage Malaysians—particularly residents of Selangor—to read it and decide on this matter themselves. I am confident that this document will bring them to the same conclusion that the party did.

I am only highlighting the most worrying issues raised in it.

Khalid and his supporters have been very adroit in crafting an image of him as a disinterested technocrat.

He is supposedly “above politics” and “puts the people first.” However, the document highlights some very disturbing lapses in this regard.

The chief amongst this was his controversial settlement of his RM59.5 million debt with Bank Islam. Despite repeated court judgements in the past that went against him, Khalid in February 2014 was able to obtain an out-of-court settlement for far less than the sum in question.

The fact that one Rashid Manaf apparently brokered the deal heightened the party’s suspicion. Rashid—as the record with show—is closely linked to UMNO. Indeed, Khalid had repeatedly refused to clarify the debt issue despite being given the opportunity by the party to do so. He cannot claim that this is purely a private matter.

As an elected official, his debts are a public issue as he could have been disqualified for office had he been declared a bankrupt as a result of them. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that after the settlement was agreed to, EcoWorld Berhad, a company Rashid is a director of—was then rewarded with land contracts by the Selangor State Government worth hundreds of millions of ringgit.

Indeed, Khalid has made the Selangor State Government party to two very controversial land deals involving Ecoworld.

On 19 March 2014, the Tropicana Corporation Berhad announced the sale of 308.72 hectares of land it had bought from Selangor to Ecoworld Berhad in April 2013. The initial sale to Tropicana was controversial because it was done after State Assembly had been dissolved at the time to pave the way for the 13th General Elections.

This means that the State Government at the time was only a caretaker and it was hence improper for it to have agreed to such a deal.

Tropicana furthermore was granted extremely unusual and generous terms, including only being required to pay a MYR50 million deposit and having to pay the remaining MYR537 million over 12 years. The Political Bureau raised the matter but it was very difficult to get clarity over what was going on when he rarely attended the bureau’s meetings.

The second deal, signed on 25 March 2014 awarded EcoWorld a contract to build 2,400 affordable apartments for the state government worth MYR591 million. This contract was awarded without open tender. This very much goes against the principle of transparency and accountability, which Khalid’s administration was supposedly championing.

Shortly after that incident as well, Khalid then signed a MoU over Selangor’s water resources with the Federal Government. As he himself admitted, this was done without KEADILAN and Pakatan’s input. Indeed, it was presented as a fait accompli of sorts to the Selangor State EXCO.

This MoU—as has been argued elsewhere—is manifestly unfavourable to the interests of the people of Selangor, principally because it forced the state government to accept the controversial Langat 2 dam project without any legal obligations on the part of the Federal Government.

In August 2014, Khalid again acted on his own by signing a Heads of Agreement deal with the Federal Government. Again, he did this without consulting KEADILAN or any of the other parties in Pakatan. It was not even brought up to his EXCO prior to the signing.

Despite his earlier resolve, Khalid gradually softened his stand on the water issue. Indeed, the MoU that was signed with the Federal Government was almost wholly favourable to the concessionaires. It basically left all the cards in the hands of the Federal Government and the concessionaires, without guaranteeing the State Government the ability to realistically restructure Selangor’s water assets.

Then of course we have the controversy over the proposed KIDEX Highway. Residents in Petaling Jaya from all ethnic groups and walks of life have come out against the project, which is of doubtful utility and linked to pro-UMNO corporate interests. At the same time, the creation of a new toll road goes against Pakatan’s principle of gradually eliminating such concessions to reduce the burden on the people.

The chronology of these events also raises concerns.

Many of the abovementioned controversial actions occurred shortly after Khalid got wind of the “Kajang Move”, which was essentially to strengthen the state government by replacing him.

Doesn’t it seem suspicious that Khalid suddenly chose to become so accommodating with the Federal Government just after it was made clear to him that the party felt he needed to be replaced?

The interesting thing is that Khalid and his camp have never denied the substance of the allegations against him.

Indeed, the only thing they have done was to basically impinge the integrity of their critics—suggesting that these have political motives or designs on Selangor’s exchequer.

But these are serious shortcomings on Khalid’s part from an administrative standpoint—whatever one’s political standpoint is.

Khalid’s actions are not of a disinterested public servant. It is hard to see, indeed, how anyone could benefit from these actions except himself and the vested interests enabling him.

Party politics aside, his actions over Selangor’s land and water have damaged the same public interest he claims to be upholding.

We understand that many voters will be confused and angry by all that has transpired. Many efforts were made for a smooth transition to avoid the long-drawn episode Selangor is in today.

For someone who was there when he signed up for the party and served him loyally as his Political Secretary, this is a doubly sad ending.

But what we did was for the greater good of Selangor.

We had no other option.

Khalid Ibrahim must go.

Can a youthful rebranding of BN work?

Barisan Nasional, according to an 11 June 2014 report by The Malaysian Insider, is seeking to detoxify its brand.

It proposes to do this, the Insider alleges, by recruiting, for a start, 10 young professional Malaysians to join the BN directly. This group will act as spokespersons for the BN-led federal government on issues like the GST and others.

They will apparently give up their full-time jobs and receive salaries from BN. The overall goal is purportedly to create an alternative, more moderate face for BN. On the surface, this — assuming the Insider report is true — seems like quite a good idea for BN and Malaysian politics in general.

The right-wing lurch of Umno on racial and religious issues has done a lot to poison communal relations in Malaysia, to say nothing of BN’s own credibility as a multiracial force.
At the same time, it gives BN another stab at setting up a successor to the Alliance Direct Membership Organisation (Admo), i.e., to let Malaysians “join” BN without having to become a member of one of its race-based component parties.

Moreover, it’s never a bad thing in the long run when young people are encouraged to take part in politics. Heaven knows, BN could use more new, young faces.

Khairy Jamaluddin is certainly no spring chicken.

But as with so many other things involving BN, there’s likely to be a big dissonance between rhetoric and reality. Like it or not, BN, and more importantly, Umno, are extremely hierarchal parties.

Its long incumbency has made it essentially an oligarchy that is very hesitant, if not outright hostile to change, whether in the country or within their own parties.

Indeed, there have been allegations that younger and independent-minded figures have had their careers sabotaged in BN.

I’m not just referring to Anwar Ibrahim.

Khairy himself, in his 2010 general assembly speech, noted that many young people had to wait for years to join Umno due to red tape or even outright sabotage by existing leaders.

Alright, maybe I’m nit-picking here. Let’s say this group of young BN leaders do get in and are given a realistic role in the coalition.

Will the Malay right wing that Umno has enabled acquiesce to their agenda? The record doesn’t look good.

Conservative Umno members, as well as their NGO surrogates, have previously shot down very good ideas — which ironically originated from BN leaders themselves.

Other Umno/BN leaders have also been vilified and cowed into silence when they spoke out against the growing racism and intolerance in this country.

What guarantees can be given that this new young group of professionals will be spared a similar fate?

One must also question the notion that this group will be paid to act as spokespersons.

There’s nothing wrong with professional politicians, of course. But if this new group truly cared about BN and Malaysia, shouldn’t the chance to serve be a reward in and of itself?

Indeed, I think these payments would spoil the BN young professional’s credibility in the eyes of Malaysian voters.

Many party workers in Keadilan, DAP and PAS are volunteers, who get little or nothing in return for their time and labour. They work because they want a better Malaysia.

Come to think of it, if the young professionals are supposed to defend the government’s policies, why can’t the ministers and civil service do so?

Or is it simply another desperate manoeuvre from an enervated administration that is failing about to boost its popularity.

But then again, maybe I am being uncharitable. As I said earlier, it’s never hurts when young people get passionate about politics, regardless of which side of the fence they wind up on.

But this young professionals group, if it ever gets off the ground, should know what they are getting themselves into.

They should only devote their talents to causes that are worthwhile, that are worthy of them. And they should be willing to speak the truth to power all the time and every time.

Otherwise, this will just be yet another exercise in futility and a let-down for Malaysia’s youth.

Reformasi: The Struggle Continues

The past few days the country has gone through a roller coaster ride. On March 7, the Court of Appeal overturned Anwar Ibrahim’s acquittal in the Sodomy II case. On March 8, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 carrying 239 people lost contact. At the point of writing, the flight is still missing, making it one of the most puzzling flight disasters in history.

I was 16 when Anwar was sacked in 1998, and subsequently imprisoned for the first case. I still remember how shocked everyone was at the incident. Although young, I was an avid reader of politics and knew of the institutional destructions that Dr Mahathir Mohamad had wrought on the royalty, legislature, judiciary, civil service and press.

But the disgusting and outrageous slander and assault on Anwar were something else. After the chaotic 80s when Mahathir was challenged and he responded by shaping the state to his image, he then projected a vision of a developed, liberal and democratic Bangsa Malaysia in the year 2020. Vision 2020 took a severe beating when Anwar emerged with his infamous black eye, and has never recovered since.

The revulsion stirred a nation as massive street protests emerged, and the government responded in the only way they knew – with violence, arrests and even torture.

Now, a drama based on the same script is emerging again, simply to persecute Anwar. Similarly, the prosecution seemed like a comedy of errors, if only the charge and consequences were not so devastating. The timing was clear, to upset the Kajang move to put Anwar in Selangor that had confounded Umno-BN so dearly.

Those of us, like me, who could recall the surreal years of Reformasi, now find ourselves in déjà vu. Mahathir may be retired, but Mahathirism is alive and kicking. The days when political opponents are slandered and imprisoned under false circumstances have not ended. Beneath the veneer of transformation and moderation of the Najib Razak administration, we are facing more of the same.

It is crucial that we do not let this moment pass. Cynics might argue that this is the case of Anwar the individual. But it was the dawning of political consciousness for many young and previously apathetic Malaysians. Lest one forget, many thought Reformasi to have died when the opposition, particularly Keadilan, did disastrously in the 11th general election. Some predicted the end to be Anwar’s release in the same year, as they perceived Reformasi to be simply a free Anwar movement.

But Reformasi has a much bigger meaning. When one notes the massive political changes in the 12th general election and the following five years that culminated in the subsequent election, it is a mistake not to look at how Reformasi played a major role in allowing this to happen.

One of the most powerful consequences of Reformasi was to put the issue of civil liberties, democracy and social justice at the centre of Malaysian politics after decades where race and religion dominate the discourse. Until today, the powers-that-be continue to try to dictate the agenda to be the same divisive issues. The sacking of Anwar brought a new low in Malaysian politics as the establishment sought to respond to their political rivals through gutter and violent politics, instead of reasoned argument.

We must not let them triumph. Reformasi, the 8th of March 2008, Bersih and the 5th of May 2013, brought to the fore many young Malaysians who voice and acted for change in many different and courageous ways. If anything, we should seize the tragedy to remind ourselves that the struggle must go on. We must show that the imprisonment of Anwar will not deter us, but instead inspire us to stand up for our rights and make the country right again.

Let us also not forget the other major event that shook the country this week that I mentioned, the MH370 disaster. Let us all pray for the safety of the passengers, the crew and their loved ones.