By Mariam Mokhtar
How did an outspoken social activist and lawyer suddenly forget all that he had fought for on behalf of the rakyat, and fail to address racist and sexist remarks in the Parliament?
The former chairman of the Election Commission (EC), Azhar Azizan Harun a.k.a. Art Harun, may have looked resplendent in his Speaker's robes, but the furrowed brow and the unsmiling eyes probably betrayed his innermost feelings.
Many people dread their first day at work. They are trying to impress everyone. They are anxious because they have to meet many people and they must absorb a lot of new information.
Azhar's lack of confidence in his new role was exemplified by his abysmal failure to command respect and restore order in the Malaysian parliament on his first day on the job as the new Dewan Rakyat Speaker.
He looked lost when the MPs started slanging matches. He struggled to find the dials to mute the microphones of the MPs who were trading insults. It was pandemonium. Azhar was like a class monitor unable to control his charges. To add insult to injury, the circus was televised.
Was this show of weakness part of Muhyiddin Yassin's grand plan to manipulate Azhar? He is aware that Azhar cannot easily be removed from the EC without the approval of the King. The rakyat wondered why he resigned from the EC midway through implementing the many reforms needed and accepted Muhyiddin's nomination to be Speaker.
After eight minutes in his new role, Azhar ejected Amanah MP Khalid Samad from the Parliament.
Will Muhyiddin sidle up to Azhar and pretend to be a friendly avuncular figure and offer words of advice to the newbie, and start a new bond perhaps?
Azhar may be a lawyer, but he lacks the blood-thirsty animal instincts and street-wise ruthlessness of the MPs who can smell the fear in a novice Speaker.
The rakyat are not blind. They know that there is no government institution that does not serve as an extension of Umno-Baru. In reality the judiciary, GLCs, civil service and PDRM are not as independent as they would make us believe. Azhar's acceptance of the appointment to Speaker is controversial, despite his denial.
Azhar failed to exercise his full powers as Speaker. Was he overwhelmed by the enormity of his position? Was he intimidated by the thuggish behavior in parliament? Was he smarting from comments on social media that he will soon dance to Muhyiddin's tune?
Umno-Baru Baling MP Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim made racist and sexist remarks to DAP's Batu Kawan MP Kasthuriraani Patto in parliament.
He described K Patto as gelap (dark) and recommended that she pakai bedak (use facial powder).
When other MPs demanded that Azhar firmly censure Abdul Azeez, Azhar said that there was no need to reprimand him.
This is the most disappointing reaction from a once active social activist who has defended the rakyat on several issues.
One does not need to be well versed in the workings of parliament to criticize the person who makes sexist and racist slurs. These offensive remarks are not acceptable anywhere, especially in the Parliament.
The Speaker failed the rakyat and Malaysians reacted with fury on the social media.
The next day, Azhar claimed he had reviewed Hansard and concluded that the incident was indeed offensive. He urged Abdul Azeez to apologize to K Patto.
Art said, "I have scrutinized the Hansard on the remarks and I found that the words offensive. (sic) I wish to instruct Baling (MP) to apologize and retract the words."
An unrepentant Abdul Azeez claimed he was referring to K Patto's seat location instead of her personally. He said, "I will comply, but allow me to explain the issue in my capacity as a lawmaker. I have no intention to call anyone dark.
"I sat at the same spot (opposition bench) for two years and we rarely caught the attention of the speaker. Yesterday, I said the place was 'gelap' (dark).
"It is important for the innocent people and netizens out there to know that I have no intention to call anyone dark.
"With this, I retract and apologize."
So, why did Abdul Azeez mention that K. Patto needed powder on her face to be seen? His so-called apology is insincere. Malaysians are fed-up with racist and sexist MPs.
The damage has been done to Azhar, to K Patto and to the Parliament. Abdul Azeez is aware that he looks the hero to misogynists and racist Umno-Baru supporters.
An apology is insufficient. Azhar should punish MPs like Abdul Azeez who make personal comments, by suspending him from parliament for several days.
We need a firm and courageous Speaker to deal with MPs who show no respect for others, or for law and order.
Abdul Azeez has a dark past. He is awaiting trial for corruption whilst he was the Tabung Haji chairman.
So, how good is Azhar as a Speaker if he missed the racist/sexist insults? The Speaker needs a sharp mind to be quick on the uptake.
Why did it take a public outrage for Azhar to realize that racist and sexist remarks had been made? If he had to review the Hansard to realize his mistake, then what does this say about him? Pay attention at work, Mr Speaker!
1. MalaysiaKini: Azhar resigns, Azmi assumes duty of EC chairperson
2. Malay Mail: 63 years of parliamentary democracy undone: Suaram
3. Malay Mail: Malaysia likely set precedent as first country to remove a sitting parliamentary Speaker, says Mohamad Ariff
4. Malay Mail: PM congratulates Azhar on appointment as new Dewan Rakyat Speaker
5. Malay Mail: Chaos marks end to first day of Parliament sitting, merely an hour after new Speaker Art Harun took charge
6. MalaysiaKini: After Hansard review, Azhar orders MP to apologize for 'gelap' remark
7. The Edge Markets: Ex-Tabung Haji chairman's money laundering, corruption trial to proceed in Sessions Court
(Mariam Mokhtar is a Freelance Writer.)