Political infighting hampers Malaysia’s fight against COVID-19

Author: Azmil Tayeb, Universiti Sains Malaysia The Perikatan Nasional (PN) government ordered Movement Control Order (MCO) 3.0 from 1–14 June 2021 to bring down the fast-rising number of positive COVID-19 cases. Two days before the MCO, Senior Minister Ismail Sabri announced that businesses could no longer use permission letters from the Ministry of International Trade […] The post Political infighting hampers Malaysia’s fight against COVID-19 first appeared on East Asia Forum.

Political infighting hampers Malaysia’s fight against COVID-19

Author: Azmil Tayeb, Universiti Sains Malaysia

The Perikatan Nasional (PN) government ordered Movement Control Order (MCO) 3.0 from 1–14 June 2021 to bring down the fast-rising number of positive COVID-19 cases. Two days before the MCO, Senior Minister Ismail Sabri announced that businesses could no longer use permission letters from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry that allowed them to operate as ‘essential services’.

To remain open, businesses would instead need to apply for fresh permission letters from ministries that oversee their operations. But on the first day of MCO 3.0, the PN government turned around and again designated the Ministry of International Trade and Industry as the sole authority responsible for approving business applications to operate as essential services. Ismail Sabri translated his frustration into a widely circulated meme that showed him closing the door to his office with a caption ‘I have closed the front door but …’. It was an apparent jab at Azmin Ali, the Minister of International Trade and Industry.

The policy backtrack stemmed from internal disagreement about how open the economy should be during the MCO 3.0 period. Problems of policy incoherency and incompetency have characterised the PN government since the sharp spike in COVID-19 cases in late 2020 following the snap election in the state of Sabah. The hashtag #kerajaangagal (failed government) has been trending on Twitter for months.

The PN government came into power without a mandate and was formed through a politically tenuous coalition that shares no common agenda. Internal tension was on full display from the outset. But the rivalry between the two main Malay nationalist parties in the PN coalition, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), takes centre stage as they compete for support in Malay-majority constituencies.

UMNO has threatened to leave the PN government several times, most recently at its recent Annual General Meeting in late March this year. Former prime minister and current UMNO minister Najib Razak and other UMNO leaders have been using social media to hit out at the PN government for its incompetent handling of the pandemic.

UMNO has held back from withdrawing its support of the PN government due to the inclusion of its 17 members in the cabinet and numerous appointments to government-linked companies that serve as a conduit to government coffers. These are used as a source of patronage to maintain the status quo. If the parliament is dissolved and a fresh election is called, UMNO feels that it has more than a fair chance of sweeping most of the Malay-majority seats and may even be able to stake a claim to the prime ministership.

The current suspension of the Parliament has bought the PN government a lifeline to stave off opposition attempts to pass a vote of no confidence. On 12 January 2021, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced a state of emergency that effectively halted all political activities. This included parliamentary sitting — purportedly to bring down the number of daily COVID-19 cases that hovered at 2670. Almost five months later, on the first day of MCO 3.0, the daily number had spiked sharply to 7653. This confirmed the public’s suspicion that the emergency was purely political.

The record number of COVID-19 cases and slow progress of vaccination forced Muhyiddin to impose MCO 3.0. The already unpopular PN government realised it would be politically unpopular to implement a tough lockdown akin to MCO 1.0, which lasted for almost three months and saw the economy shrink by 17 per cent. Since the start of the pandemic, the PN government has spent RM340 billion (US$82 billion) in various forms of temporary economic assistance.

For MCO 3.0, the PN government announced a RM40 billion (US$9.7 billion) economic aid package dubbed ‘Pemerkasa+’ that included most types of assistance and stimuli found in previous MCOs. Even with spending incurred through the economic package, Malaysia’s debt-to-GDP ratio still sits below the 60 per cent ceiling set by the Parliament in August last year. There is still room to increase the debt ceiling if MCO 3.0 is prolonged and more economic assistance is needed. But the only way to do that is by re-opening Parliament, which the PN government appears releuctant to do.

As MCO 3.0 two-week expiration date lapsed, the daily COVID-19 case numbers only show the slightest signs of ebbing. The PN government extended MCO 3.0 for another two-weeks, or until the number of cases reaches a satisfactory level. On 16 June, the Council of Rulers urged the PN government to resume parliamentary sitting as soon as possible.

The PN government finds itself in a messy pandemic situation brought on by sheer incompetency, internal squabbling and a naked pursuit of power. Its only hope is to expedite the mass vaccination drive to achieve herd immunity. By the time this happens, it may face a political reckoning in the form of the general election, a much-dreaded prospect for PN leaders.

Azmil Tayeb is Senior Lecturer of Political Science in the School of Social Sciences at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

The post Political infighting hampers Malaysia’s fight against COVID-19 first appeared on East Asia Forum.
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Australian Government Goes After Whistle-blowers

Scapegoats for misdeeds, mismanagement and vested interests

Australian Government Goes After Whistle-blowers

By: Murray Hunter

The latest chapter in Australian government deceit is playing itself out in a Magistrates Court in Canberra, where two people, one known only as Witness K, a former Australia Secret Intelligence Service operative, and his lawyer, former Capital Territory attorney general Bernard Collaery, have been caught up in an extraordinary 17-year act of state vengeance.

The defendants disclosed an allegedly illegal act sanctioned by former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer (above) and carried out by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) to aid Australian business interests. National security, however, became a cover for illegal activities by bureaucracies and politicians, a former Australian intelligence operative told Asia Sentinel. All the legal ploys and raids were aimed at punishing those who aspired to tell the public the truth about what they thought was a morally repugnant act against a friendly government.

Collaery pleaded not guilty and intends to continue the case out of a belief that there has been a gross injustice. On June 17, Witness K pleaded guilty in the Australian Capital Territory Magistrates Court and received a 12-month good behavior bond, being spared jail. Although both defendants are treated as traitors in Australia, they are considered heroes in Timor Leste, with groups holding banners and wearing T-shirts in support of their cause.

The two have been caught up in the case because Witness K in 2004 exposed a covert operation against the Timor Leste government when Downer personally authorized intelligence agents to plant listening devices in the cabinet complex in the capital, Dili. The operation was undertaken by operatives posing as members of an aid project to refurbish the Timor Leste government offices.

The agents were eavesdropping on the Timor Leste team on negotiations over the maritime boundary between the two countries, and the division of oil and gas rights in the Timor Sea. The operation, however, had more to do with the business interests of Woodside Energy, Australia’s biggest natural gas producer, and its subsidiaries, than with Australia’s national security. Woodside is a major political donor and the company’s former chairman Charles Goode, sat on the board of the Liberal Party fundraising vehicle that generated electoral funds for the party.

The objective was to find out what the Timor Leste negotiating team’s bottom line would be, the negotiation tactics, and which member of the government thought what about the negotiations. Downer, leading negotiations for Australia, used the information to negotiate terms favorable to Australia, where the oil and gas reserves at the Greater Sunrise Fields would be shared on an equal basis.

Witness K, who was reported to be the head of ASIS technical operations, was said to have felt that the snooping operation breached the agency’s statutory charter, as the operation was to extract information to advantage one side in business negotiations, rather than any matters of national security, or critical to ASIS’s watching brief.

East Timor, as the country was known then, was already the subject of Downer’s tactics. Three months before it became independent in 2002, Downer had withdrawn Australia from the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, preventing Timor Leste from turning to the court with their claim, forcing them to negotiate bilaterally with the Australian government.

Witness K was said to have felt the intelligence service had been used to benefit specific business interests, at the detriment of Australia’s real national interests, and security requirements. Woodside would be the company that directly benefited. Woodside owns a consortium of ventures with rights to explore the Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields, which have massive reserves. Unknown to the Timor Leste government at the time, the Greater Sunrise Field also had substantial deposits of helium, which ConocoPhilips was exploiting, and processing helium from the LNG coming into Darwin through a pipeline.

Woodside management traditionally had close relationships with members of the Australian government. The former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Dr Ashton Calvert, joined the board of Woodside immediately upon retiring from the Australian Public Service, in 2005. Former Labor MP, Gary Gray, a former minister for Resources under the Gillard government, worked for Woodside as director of corporate affairs before he entered parliament in 2007. Liberal Ian Macfarlane, a minister for Industry, Tourism, and Resources under the Howard government and later under the Abbot government, joined Woodside as a director in 2015, after leaving parliament.

On learning Downer was made a consultant to Woodside, Witness K made a report to the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS), an independent statutory office holder who reviews the six Australian intelligence bodies. He was granted permission to consult with Bernard Collaery.

Soon after Witness K made his statement, the ASIS fired him. He years fighting the decision through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), allegedly being harassed, intimidated, and regularly questioned, over those years leading to self-isolation, withdrawal, and deep depression.

Bernard Collaery, also an adviser to the Timor Leste government, investigated the ASIS bugging operation and concluded that it was a crime under Section 334 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code and conspiracy to defraud the government of Timor Leste of oil and gas reserve rights.

The Timor Leste negotiator, Peter Galbraith (a former US ambassador to Croatia) was quoted as saying the bugging was not what you would expect to do to a friendly state, and not something one would do for commercial advantage.

The aggrieved Timor Leste government took the issue to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to overturn the agreement that had previously been negotiated with the Australian government. The court invited Witness K to give testimony in The Hague. However, Australian attorney general George Brandis canceled Witness K’s passport to prevent him from appearing before the court. The Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), then raided the homes of Witness K and Collaery, taking away all documents and files relating to the Timor Leste case.

In Collaery’s case, ASIO waited until he had just left for The Hague to present the case, giving the Australian government a copy of the Timor Leste evidence and case.

In March 2018, a new treaty was signed between Australia and Timor Leste. This time around, Timor Leste had rights to 70 percent of the oil and gas reserves. However, with only one pipeline from the Greater Sunrise Fields to Darwin, Timor Leste has not been able to take advantage of the reserves.

Three months after the new agreement with Timor Leste, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecution brought charges against Witness K and Collaery, under Section 39 of the Intelligence Services Act 2001, which criminalizes the communication of information acquired or prepared by any Australian security service in connection with analysis or field operations.

The court was conducted in secret under the National Security and Information Act, 2004, which was intended to prosecute alleged terrorists, and not whistle-blowers. Many legal opinions question the need for a secret trial, because most facts are already known to the public, and few aspects actually relate to national security. The public only found out the two had been charged and would be put on trial because an independent MP, using privilege, brought the issue up in parliament.

Although disclosing information in the public interest is not a legal defense in Australia, the charges led to outrage and protest by Australian academics, lawyers, retired judges, and human rights NGOs. Some within the industry questioned the wisdom of bringing up charges and prolonging the issue in the public domain. However, the government has been consistently intent on punishing whistle-blowers and making an example for those who might be tempted to follow suit.

Source : Asia Sentinel More   

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