Friday July 6, 2012
Observation for the nation
ROAMING BEYOND THE FENCE
By TUNKU 'ABIDIN MUHRIZ
The EC is doing something unprecedented in inviting local NGO observers for the coming general election.
SOME weeks ago the chief executive of Ideas, Wan Saiful Wan Jan, informed me that the Election Commission had invited Ideas to be part of an observer team for the next general election.
I agreed with him that it was a great opportunity to witness the process first-hand and subsequently share our findings with the voting rakyat.
At the time of the invitation we were not sure how we came to be selected. Since then, the method of the appointment has come under some criticism — why were we chosen, and no one else?
The appointments could have been much more transparent, and I entirely agree.
Being part of something shady would only sully our name. We want to know we were chosen on merit — a common sentiment in a society where affirmative action and favouritism pervade.
From a neutrality standpoint, our board of directors contains a member of a party on the Barisan side and another on the Pakatan side — and I’ll happily use this opportunity to say that rumours stating that I have joined a political party are entirely untrue.
Ideas remains the only independent think tank with a cross-party advisory group, including members from six political parties across both coalitions.
Our board and staff have experience working in many of our national institutions or their progenitors — such as the Westminster parliament.
We have made plain our admiration for Tunku Abdul Rahman and his Merdeka-era colleagues who understood the principles of the rule of law and freedom.
We have consistently argued for the protection and strengthening of all our national institutions and checks and balances — and as a result we have been branded by some conservatives as undermining certain parties and by liberals of promoting absolutism.
But peruse our website and you will see that we have worked and partnered with a large number of organisations from diverse political and ideological persuasions.
In terms of transparency, our downloadable annual report gives details of our accounts, donors and activities to an extent that few organisations do.
Based on our record so far, we were ranked as the 13th best new think tank in the world in a survey of over 6,000 think tanks launched at the United Nations earlier this year.
Nonetheless, we accept that in a political environment laden with scepticism that no amount of openness or commitment to principles will convince everyone.
Because of the nature of our work, it is a given that we will be accused of being pawns of others.
What many of these equally conservative and liberal brickbats don’t appreciate is how much we disagree on things amongst ourselves. Being inspired by common principles does not always mean agreeing on the same policy prescriptions — a concept that our political parties should perhaps adopt instead of being so leader-centric all the time.
It is true that as an institution we have not observed elections before — Ideas was established after the last general election, and everyone must start somewhere — but staff members have done so, as have our potential partners.
We fully admitted problems of capacity right at the outset which is precisely why the observation team will involve experienced observers working with enthusiastic newbies.
We are continuing to discuss details with the EC in good faith in the hope of making a contribution to democratic practices in this country.
I must stress that none of the five NGOs have even accepted the invitation because the terms are still being negotiated.
Sadly none of the critics checked this basic fact with us before throwing accusations. Some have concluded that we are agents of the EC, which is a thoroughly ludicrous assertion given that Wan Saiful inhaled tear gas too during Bersih 3.0.
Still, I trust that the critics will continue to comment as details of the domestic election observer arrangement continue to surface.
This in itself is important for the democratic process and will help to improve the mission. In our continuing talks with the EC we have raised concerns with some of the restrictions like not being able to talk to the press on election matters during the election itself, which is at odds with our intention to share evidence of any malpractice with fellow citizens as soon as possible.
Whatever differences may exist amongst civil society, all of us want to see clean elections.
The EC is doing something unprecedented in inviting NGO observers. Now we must ensure that the real value to the rakyat will be achieved in this exercise.
> Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is president of Ideas.