24 April 2008

Face to face with Saifudin Nasution Ismail.....

Winning hearts, minds -SHARON KAM - (from the Sun)

Machang MP Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s Saifuddin Nasution Ismail, 45, is no stranger to politics. He is a former Lunas state assemblyman and was a strong advocate for the release of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in the late 90s. The former Umno Youth secretary tells SHARON KAM why Anwar remains a formidable force in Malaysian politics.

What are your personal expectations of this Parliament?

Parliament should be a place where debates which are responsible, which are of quality, where you do not simply throw accusations at others, debates which are fresh with ideas, which are articulate and sharp in their arguments, are carried out. Parliament is a platform for MPs to use the opportunity to propose ideas which benefit the nation. That is my expectation of Parliament in terms of how debates should be carried out.

As for Parliament as an institution, I want to see a parliament which is free and independent and not influenced by the executive arm. Today, in our country, we have a minister who is said to be in charge of parliamentary affairs. There is no such thing as a minister from the executive branch controlling or monitoring Parliament. The person in charge should be the Speaker with his administrative team. The running and affairs of Parliament should be independent.

What is happening today, it seems, is the Speaker is answerable to the minister. How do we explain the fact that we have a minister in charge of Parliament? What is the role of that minister? Making statements and announcements on Bills, deciding on the sitting arrangements in Parliament, hey it is not your job, man!

So I want to see an independent parliament which is in line with the principles of democracy. If this was not the situation previously, we have to start now because now is the beginning of a new era.

What do you think are the expectations of the people towards Parliament?

I think the people’s expectation is reflected in the extraordinary results of the general election. For the first time in the history of the country, we have denied the ruling coalition a two-thirds majority. The people no longer want to see Parliament acting like a rubber stamp where Bills are not debated in depth or in a mature way, where Bills are passed in a hurry by the executive arm. So the people want to see Parliament actually become an institution which can reflect their aspirations. What is their aspiration?

That Parliament acts as a place for creating laws which can address all the issues affecting them, such as the commitment of the government in combating corruption, in upholding good governance ... seeing ministers themselves being present to answer questions. They also want to see quality debates and arguments.

What are the issues you are personally passionate about and would like to bring up in Parliament?

Close to my heart are issues related to good governance, accountability and an effective delivery system, so I will focus on issues which are related to the country’s resources, for example, oil and oil revenue. I’ve just finished reading a book on oil revenue management laws which talks about something called the windfall tax, a tax on the profits of oil conglomerates as a result of the rise in oil prices. The government can impose a tax on a certain percentage of their profits. And the amount collected will be used for the benefit of the people.

I will also raise issues on food and agriculture. The policy of the government currently is to give priority to agriculture, yet we still face food shortage. So we need to find out the real problem. Another issue is on equitable distribution of wealth, regardless of race or religion. Of course I will also bring up local issues which affect my constituency.

It has been a long time since we have seen so many non-BN MPs. How is that beneficial?

The more the merrier-lah. We know that with 82 Opposition MPs this time around, we will have quality, considering their backgrounds. They are professionals – doctors, lawyers, engineers, NGO activists and grassroot leaders, so definitely, obviously, that will benefit Parliament. With their large presence, it gives the people the chance to start making a comparison on how they have lost out because the BN MPs have held court for so long. At the end of the day, I believe the people will say "if only we had voted in the Opposition MPs earlier".

Some of the non-BN MPs come from activist backgrounds and were involved in street protests and demonstrations, so how should they behave in Parliament? How should an MP behave in Parliament?

The Parliament that we know is the one where we see people hurling insults at each other, some using sexist and racist remarks, which were uncalled for. Parliamentarians should behave themselves because if they do not do so, they will not be fulfilling the basic criteria of a leader, what more a legislator.

It has to start with someone who practises a healthy lifestyle, a person with integrity, a person who has clarity of mind, who holds good intentions, without prejudices, because only a good and upright person can translate his character into good behaviour. Good behaviour has to come naturally; if you are a person who is aggressive, you cannot act as though you are not because sooner or later, your true colours will show.

How does an MP strike a balance between party interest and the interest of the people?

An MP is said to be representing the interest of the party when he carries the idealism of the party and the party’s struggle. That is his or her commitment and responsibility as long as he is an MP from a certain party. But when it comes to people’s interest, it is much broader and varied. The interest of the party can be measured first of all from the aspect of welfare and needs. The people want an MP who is concerned and empathetic towards their problems.

How we balance the two would require discipline, self-commitment, proactiveness and if he sees that there is a conflict between the two, he must see the people’s interest is everything and must come first before party interest.

I think this was quite clear in the last parliament session where there was a conflict between these two interests, for example, over Cameron Highlands MP K. Devamany’s statement on the Hindraf rally and Teluk Kemang MP Datuk S. Sothinathan’s suspension over the issue of the status of medical qualifications from India.

We also saw it happen to Datuk Shahrir Samad and a few other MPs, we saw that the practice in BN is to impose a policy where party is everything, don’t cross the line ... don’t you ever try to challenge it. It is rigid.

For us, it is different. For us, interest of the people is more important. If we lose our popularity because of that, let it be. At the end of the day, it is the people (who count). That is the philosophy I would like to carry.

Is it important for MPs from both sides to show a united front or decide on something in a collective voice? How can they achieve that?

We have proposed a coalition called Pakatan Rakyat. It is a baby we have just delivered and the coalition is formed based on common issues. We are aware of the differences in ideology but that will not be a hindrance to us working together.

I am optimistic. When I am asked whether it is important for non-BN MPs to show a collective voice, I will say it is not only important but extremely important.

The message from the people to us is that they want us to sit together – PAS, DAP and PKR – "look, you have differences but the fact that we voted you to be the government in five states, the message to you is that please, put aside your differences in opinion and sentiments ...

"Our priority now is to see that you are united in checking the BN government. You may have differences on questions such as Islamic state or welfare state or others, but at this particular moment, we want to see a united front which is critical in capturing the imagination of the people." It is a prerequisite for the Pakatan Rakyat to move up to a higher and more convincing level.

The PR platform is becoming a consultative council which meets regularly two, three times a month, more often than the BN supreme council. The "supreme council" of the PR, or Council of Elders, meets twice a month, not twice a year so the more we meet, the more we understand each other. So we are now in the process of achieving that collective voice.

Many people say that Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is the head of the Opposition MPs and if PR were to take over the Federal Government, he would be the pime minister. How influential will he be in this Parliament?

Anwar, whether he is in front or at the back, Anwar himself is an institution. He is not just a person, or a personality. Today, it is not complete to comment on the political landscape or the political direction of the country if you do not include the Anwar factor. You will not receive full marks when you talk about Malaysian politics if you do not touch on Anwar, so that explains how influential he is.

Today, the BN leaders have to swallow their words. Datuk Seri Najib (Razak) had said before the election that PKR was a party which had lost its relevance while Datuk Seri Nazri said it would lose and lose heavily. Tun Dr Mahathir said Anwar was a non-factor.

After the election, the denial syndrome has evaporated, except for Mahathir who said "Anwar is not that popular, it is only that people dislike the BN". That is Mahathir, the unrepentant leader, so just ignore him. We have no time to entertain him. He is no more in power.

The Anwar factor and its influence is very obvious. During the post-mortem of the election by Umno and BN, I was made to understand that they frankly admitted that Anwar is a factor not only in the losses of the states but also at the federal level.

One thing unique in the PR is that as early as 1999, all the Opposition leaders had agreed that if we received the mandate at that time, Anwar would be the candidate for PM. That decision remains even now. When Anwar was in prison, the Opposition leaders had already decided that he is the potential PM. What more now when he has been released and freed entirely on April 14.

I think the mistake the PM made this time is to call for election before Anwar is free for politics because he could not tie up Anwar’s feet and he went everywhere and covered the whole country from Perlis to Sabah. If Anwar was allowed to contest, he would be tied up in one area where he is standing for election, so I think Pak Lah misread this.

We are optimistic about this, time is on our side, we are not in a hurry, as Anwar said, and we believe Anwar’s influence is a real and significant one and not just a perception.

- (courtesy of the Sun2Surf, 24 April 2008)


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