Interview with Rafizi Ramli, PKR Strategic Director: The debate of the year

Only the lucky few were able to attend the much touted debate between Rafizi Ramli, PKR's Strategic Director and Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin Abu Bakar in London. The excitement building up to the event was unparalleled and few people left disappointed.

The two men were engaged in a friendly face-off at the Projek Amanat Negara (PAN) event organised by the United Kingdom and Eire Council for Malaysian Students (UKEC) on 29 January. Their topic was "Public Policy: Vision 2020: Is Malaysia Moving Towards the Right Direction?"

Both Khairy and Rafizi looked confident and self-assured, throughout the debate and managed to bounce key-points off each other, good naturedly. They interacted well with the crowd and the quality and pace of the debate meant that the 90 minutes of discussion was neither stilted nor sluggish.

Unlike parliamentary exchanges in the Dewan Negara, where name-calling, insults and personal smears are common, the debate between Khairy and Rafizi showed Malaysians that we are capable of intellectual discourse, and that witty banter and civility, is more effective in directly engaging Malaysians than by making personal slurs, police reports or lawsuits.

Students judged the event to be a success and Rafizi, the PKR strategic director, was later interviewed and asked why he thought debates were uncommon in Malaysia.

"Umno politicians are not used to a culture where arguments and thoughts predominate. Umno thrives on a culture of absolute loyalty — absolute loyalty to its leaders, absolute loyalty of voters to them.

"Over the years, their ability to engage in thought provoking discourses eroded. In their general assembly, curses and threats are hurled at everyone but themselves.

"They are afraid of a return to a culture when mind and ideas take precedence. They know they can be humiliated against an intellectual and seasoned politician like Anwar Ibrahim."

When asked if he had reservations about the debate in London, Rafizi reminisced about his days as one of the pioneers who set up the UKEC in the mid-90s.

"When UKEC extended the invite to become one of the speakers in PAN, I gladly accepted. I only found out later that I would have a debate with Sdr Khairy.

"The crowd of vibrant and critical Malaysian students in the UK, would appreciate an open, honest debate.

"If the debate were to be held in Malaysia, the impact would have been larger. But BN does not seem to be ready for it.

"It's a pity that it takes a student union in the UK to have the courage to do this."

Rafizi was reminded of his original challenge, in November 2011, when he sent an invitation to Khairy to debate the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) scandal. He was asked whether the NFC debate with Khairy would materialise.

"Sdr Khairy made it very clear in his private conversation that he would honour the debate on the NFC. I am still waiting for the date and it is out of respect for his willingness to honour another debate on NFC that I didn't mention anything on NFC (in the London debate).

Those who were present at the London debate would have heard Rafizi playfully teasing Khairy to join Pakatan because "….you sound like us, you are around our age, you think like us…" and "you claim to be a reformist".

Aware of Khairy's popularity among the youth, Rafizi called Khairy a "national asset" and was asked if he was serious about enticing him to join Pakatan.

"I think the public can read between the lines. I criticised Khairy's claim that he represents a voice of reforms within Umno. Umno has shown to be incapable of reforms.

"Khairy tried to emulate the policies and struggles of Pakatan. In reality, he hardly makes an impact within Umno.

"I am sure he ruffled a lot of feathers within Umno when he claimed credit for most of the government's reform initiatives. I wondered how his answers were received within Umno".

Pakatan has suffered from Trojan horses and Umno sleepers within its ranks. Rafizi was asked if strict criteria would apply to someone like Khairy should he decide to join Pakatan.

"I think he was committing a political suicide within Umno with his attempts to put himself at par with Pakatan on reform initiatives.

"He probably imagined that portraying himself as a reformist would endear him to the crowd in London. He forgot that the conservative elements in Umno were watching him keenly.

"My question was meant to test him . If he was consistent and a reformist, he would have joined Pakatan without any invitation. He was just playing to the gallery".

In 2011, Pakatan Rakyat said that if it formed the next federal government, the first 100-days would see reforms in the police, Election Commission (EC), the Attorney-General's Chambers and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. Teachers would receive a RM500 monthly renumeration.

Fast forward to 2012 and in the run-up to GE-13, BN appears to have "listened": With Anwar's acquittal, the government said the judiciary was "free from political interference". After the Bersih 2.0 march, the EC was forced to undertake reforms. Najib's one-off disbursement of RM500 to families earning below RM3,000, is similar to Pakatan's offer to teachers.

Rafizi was asked if he thought Najib had poached ideas from Pakatan's reforms.

"Najib has received enough feedback on the desire for reforms and change. He knows the anger on the ground.

"He has been poaching our reform platforms and specific policy initiatives, like abolishing tolls, from the very first week Pakatan released the Buku Jingga (Book of reforms).

"It was alleged that he gave specific instructions to study each program contained within the 100-day reform and to implement anything that could be done immediately.

"There is no doubt that he has been poaching from us. He cannot do just one part of Buku Jingga".

The PKR strategic director reminded Najib that the Buku Jingga was a comprehensive list of reforms covering political, social and economic aspects. He stressed that the 100-day program was sustainable and successful only when done with other reforms in Buku Jingga.

He described both Najib's and Khairy's failure as "…..the so-called Umno reformists buy time with cosmetic changes. The public expects more and they are impatient."

He warned Najib and Khairy that their actions would alienate the traditional hard core Umno supporters.

Rafizi was asked why he thought it important to abolish the University and University College Act (UUCA) and not just Article 15 of the Act, with suitable comparisons between the relative freedoms of the Malaysian students in UK and Malaysia.

According to him, the UUCA shackled not just students but also curtailed academic freedom in local universities. Lecturers and university leaders were banned from voicing their opinions.

"In the end, a culture when people kow-tow to those in authority, is created. This permeates through every facet of university life. This culture is anti-intellect."

Blaming the UUCA for causing malaise in our society, Rafizi said that the UUCA was detrimental to the public because of its restrictions on university students.

"Our society has moved on and the economy requires a vibrant, critical and creative workforce. This will never happen so long as UUCA is in place. It is a matter of national survival. It is no longer an academic debate whether students should be allowed to take part in politics."

Those who were at the PAN debate, observed that the students were proficient in English unlike the home students, who are alleged not to be fluent in English.

The infamy of the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) blunder over its description of "poke-eye clothes" has prompted Rafizi to give his views on improving the teaching of English in our schools.

"We should study carefully how English is taught in schools. Our school system centres on examination and so learning languages (not just English) becomes dull and unexciting.

"The whole approach to school education should change. Students should explore using their inquisitive minds and go beyond the restrictions and boundaries set by schools. Once you make learning fun, our English standard would improve drammatically."

Rafizi managed to fit in four talks, two in London, one each in Leeds and Manchester when he was in the UK. He spoke about the EC's proposal to impose conditions on the voting rights of Malaysians working and living abroad.

"It reflects the kind of thinking in EC and the authorities. They find excuses to exclude overseas Malaysians from voting and in the end, they look ridiculous.

"They fear Malaysians abroad because they think they have tasted a liberal and freer society. They fear that with that experience, these Malaysians will surely vote against BN."

After the debate and despite the claims of conservative politicians that debating is "not part of Malaysian culture", the students present at Rafizi and Khairy's debate, disagreed.

Both men showed debating to be healthy. So when will the heavyweights, Prime minister Najib Abdul Razak and Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim have theirs?

Mariam Mokhtar