Malaysians’ hit-or-miss love for online petitions

Announcement over Malaysia's commitment to ratify the ICERD this year had raised anxiety among several quarters which saw the possibility of the eroding of the special privileges of the Malays.

Zaidi Azmi
Written by Zaidi Azmi

KUALA LUMPUR — June 17, 2019: It is uncertain when exactly Malaysians fell in love with online petitions but the ease to start one seems to explain why it has become the most popular platform in voicing dissenting views or rallying  support for a myriad of causes.

The petitions so far range from strong objections against political appointments in crucial government agencies to disapproval of the casting of the main lead of TV dramas.

However, despite garnering thousands of pledges, political appointments remain the norm and the much objectionable actor still landed the lead role for that drama. So just how influential are online petitions in Malaysia?

From a legal perspective, the answer seems like a no, as Malaysia does not have any legislation or mechanism to compel the government to act on a petition, regardless of how many pledges or signatories it amasses.

Lawyer Lukman Sheriff, who has been promoting a petition demanding that Attorney-General Tommy Thomas step down however argues that putting up a petition can “at least raise awareness.”

He had called for the AG’s resignation over his purported bias over the inquest of firefighter Muhammad Adib Mohd. Kassim. 

“It worked the last time,” said Lukman, referring to the anti-ICERD petition, which many believe helped push the government to retract its  ratification of the controversial International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrmination.

However,  geopolitical analyst Dr. Azmi Hassan has a different opinion.

He thinks that while the anti-ICERD petition had gained considerable support, amassing 208,485 pledges, it cannot be considered as the main factor that led to the government’s about turn on the ICERD in April.

“I do not think the influence of petitions is embedded in our political culture even if they receive huge support,” said Azmi.

Another lawyer, Fatihah Jamhari, was less rigid in her view over the effectiveness of online petitions, arguing that “it’s sort of like a hit or miss thingy”.

“It is just a mean to garner public support but legally it means nothing,” she said, adding that she was against the idea of establishing a mechanism where there should be a mandatory response to a popular petition.

“It is dangerous to do so. It will turn democracy into a populist plutocracy. People with money will be able to gather the most support,” Fatihah reasoned.

Interestingly, despite having such a mechanism, not every petition that was put up at the United States government’s official petition hosting website called ‘We The People’, will get meaningfully acted on, even if it garnered the needed 100,000 signatures within the 30-day limit.

“If they get enough signatures, then it (the petition) goes to a standing committee and then they talk about the petition in the House of Representatives. But they don’t even have to do anything,” wrote Murdoch University senior political science lecturer Dr Ian Cook in an article in ABC News.

Fatihah went on to explain that while Malaysia does not have a petition responding mechanism like in the US, those aggrieved can still file a lawsuit against government decisions that they deem unfair.

The process is locally called a judicial review.



About the author

Zaidi Azmi

Zaidi Azmi

If Zaidi Azmi isn’t busy finding his way in the city, this 26-year-old northern kampung boy can be found struggling to make sense of the Malaysian political scene. Zaidi can be reached at zaidiazmi91@gmail.com.