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YB Hassan Karim, MP of Pasir Gudang Johor

The ripple effect of institutional reform continues only with the determination of the people

On 18th August, Malaysian community organisation Engage organised a forum in Johor entitled ‘Can Singapore do a Malaysia?’ The forum centered around the historical shake-up in Malaysia’s recent 14th General Election which saw the 61-year ruling government ousted from office by the fresh new coalition of opposition parties called Pakatan Harapan. This peaceful change of government in Malaysia begs the question of whether or not Singapore, which is now ruled by the longest serving political party in the world, can pull off the same change.

The forum featured panelists who are both witnesses and actors to the history of both countries: YB Hassan Karim, MP of Pasir Gudang Johor, veteran activist and human rights lawyer; Hishamuddin Rais, veteran activist, film director and writer; Tan Wah Piow, lawyer and former Singapore student leader who was exiled in 1976; and PJ Thum, historian and research fellow at Oxford University.

In his address to the forum, Hassan Karim talked about the major political shake up happening both north and south of Singapore’s border. First in Indonesia with the downfall of Suharto in 1998 and the dismantling of the military regime which has led to plenty of institutional changes two decades later. The dismantling of a 61-year ruling government by the Malaysian people who peacefully elected the new Pakatan Harapan government on 9th May.

On the broader question of Singapore, Hassan Karim says that like both Indonesia and Malaysia, the possibility of change lies with the nation’s people. When they see the reform happening in Indonesia and Malaysia, there’s a hope that the same can happen in Singapore.

The challenge, according to Karim, is whether or not Singapore can provide a viable alternative to the People’s Action Party, similar to how Malaysia provided the Pakatan Harapan coalition of opposition parties as an alternative to the ruling coalition. And this new coalition is a combination of long-time opposition politicians and some Barisan National defectors who were able to secure some confidence from the people for the fresh, inexperienced coalition.

So Karim asks, is there a movement away from PAP in Singapore. He stated that after a ruling party has been in power for over half a century, there’s likely to be a lot of baggage like corruption and misuse of power. From those cracks is where new leadership can emerge.

This, Karim says, is the challenge for the Singapore opposition parties and civil societies who play a vital role in advocating for a democratic space and more human development. Which is why articles of advocacy are essential in educating the public and helping them decide to make a change.

Additionally, Karim said that the people also need to know that change comes slowly. It took the opposition in Malaysia three elections and 10 years to finally secure a win in the poll. And in Indonesia, Suharto’s fall didn’t immediately change much – it’s now two decades on and five Presidents later that we see the cumulative effects of change.

Before concluding his speech, Karim pointed out that change will come and in fact is already happening in this ASEAN region. The struggle for peace and justice has begun and it will continue even with a new government because they need to be held accountable. This, he says, is the permanent struggle for the people.

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