By Anil Netto and Simon Roughneen
PENANG and BANGKOK – Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has thrown down the gauntlet to the country’s political opposition with a bold-sounding reform package aimed at winning back lost popular support ahead of general elections due by 2013. Analysts believe the reform vows signal a move towards early polls, with some speculating they could be called as early as the fourth quarter of this year.
The amendments, announced last night in a speech on the eve of Malaysia Day and Merdeka (independence) Day celebrations, will entail the replacement of tough security laws, such as the Internal Security Act (ISA) and Emergency Ordinance, which have historically been used and abused by authorities to squash public dissent through provisions that allow for detention without trial.
Najib also promised to update a media code that requires publications to apply for permits every year, a regulation has created a culture of self-censorship among Malaysian journalists, and bring laws governing public assemblies in line with international norms. According to a press statement from Najib’s office, the proposed changes “represent the biggest shake-up of the Malaysian system since independence from Britain in 1957.”
While the announcement had been widely welcomed, there are questions about the premier’s motivations. After a July 9, 2011 electoral reform rally in which around 20,000 Malaysians demonstrated in a rare show of political dissent in the national capital, Najib appeared to be on the political back foot with elections on the horizon.
His predicament had been complicated by signs of a slowing economy, rising inflation and a Malaysian human rights group push to get prosecutors in France to include in their ongoing probe of weapons deals a commission paid on the sale of French Scorpene submarines to Malaysia.
The last general elections, held in 2008, saw the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition lose its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time since independence, marking the first real possibility that voters could elect an alternative government. The opposition People’s Alliance won electoral control of five of the country’s 13 federal states.
The opposition lost some steam – and control of one state – in the election’s aftermath, but in alliance with civil society campaigners dissatisfied with the political status quo seems to have regained the initiative in recent months. This, analysts suggest, has perhaps forced Najib’s hand. Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia specialist at Singapore Management University said “civil society and opposition set the agenda” and that “for political survival Najib has embraced political reform.”
Reacting to Najib’s speech, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said on Twitter that he welcomes the proposed abolition of the ISA, which allows for detention without trial and has frequently been employed against government opponents.
Najib said new counterterrorism laws will be adopted to replace the ISA, under which 37 people are still held. Critics say the BN coalition government, which has ruled Malaysia uninterrupted since independence, has used the ISA to curb dissent and hamstring opposition parties. Anwar cautioned that “we have to be wary whether freedom is now guaranteed and what will be the replacement Acts”.
The ISA was first introduced by the Malaysian government in 1960, a day after a decade-long ‘Emergency’ was lifted. The Emergency, proclaimed by the British in post-war Malaya, was launched ostensibly to deal with a communist insurgency, but had also taken aim at the challenge posed by left-wing groups that also included Malay nationalists pressuring for independence from colonial rule.
In the 1960s, the ISA was used against not only the outlawed communists but also leaders of the Labor Party, which was crippled by the detentions, political opponents and unionists. Mass arrests under the ISA took place in 1987 when more than a hundred dissidents were detained at a time when the then premier Mahathir Mohammad was facing an internal challenge within his political party.
Opposition to the ISA has mounted exponentially since the 1990s. In 2009, some 50,000 people poured into the streets to demand the repeal of the ISA. Arrests of political dissidents since then have been met with petitions, candle-light vigils and prayer services. Online polls showed overwhelming numbers are against the laws. Some note that when six activists attached to the Socialist Party were detained without trial in July, the government invoked the Emergency Ordinance rather than the unpopular ISA.
Moreover, a 2007 cable from the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur leaked by anti-secrecy group Wikileaks expressed serious reservations about the use of the ISA. “Malaysia’s intelligence approach does not focus on developing legally admissible evidence against suspects, and thus limits potential cooperation with US law enforcement agencies,” the cable said in reference to use of the ISA.
Information from terrorists detained under the ISA “does not translate into evidentiary material that would be admissible in US or Malaysian courts. This undercuts the usefulness of our Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with Malaysia.”
Moreover, the lack of trials for over 100 suspected terrorists and the secretive nature of their ISA detention “have limited the public’s awareness and understanding of the terrorist threat,” the cable said. It noted that “some Malaysian political oppositionists and rights activists assert incorrectly that alleged U.S. pressure is responsible for Malaysia’s use of the ISA against suspected terrorists.” The cable suggested bolstering the skills of Malaysian intelligence agents to improve law enforcement capacities. It’s unclear if the US lobbied Najib to real the ISA in favor of new counterterrorism legislation.
It is thus a common reaction among activists that Najib’s “reforms” will likely be more cosmetic than substantive and that the repressive substance of the old laws would now be buried in new laws bearing more politically correct names. They have noted that there was little in Najib or his ruling United Malays Nasional Organization’s (UMNO) record to indicate any appreciation of human rights norms.
Indeed the police reaction to the July 9 Bersih rally – which Asia Times Online reported from – was heavy-handed and uncompromising after Najib’s government did its utmost to prevent the protest from taking place. Before the rally, Najib and other officials had declared the planned demonstration was “illegal” and rounded up over 250 Bersih supporters before the rally, some just for wearing the color yellow.
Among the proposed amendments announced by Najib is a review of laws on freedom of assembly, which, though still to be drawn up, will “bring Malaysia in line with international standards while ensuring that the police retain the power to prevent violent scenes on the nation’s streets,” he said on Thursday night.
The proposed reforms await drafting and approval by lawmakers. Ruling coalition politicians have already deflated hopes of real legal change. Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein has said the Patriot Act in the United States and the Anti-Terrorism Act in the United Kingdom may be used as a model for new laws to replace the ISA.
Despite talk of respecting the right to freedom of assembly, judging by its ongoing punitive legal actions against Bersih demonstrators, the government clearly remains opposed to future street demonstrations. Some 30 opposition political activists are due to face trial between October 10-14 on charges of promoting an “illegal organization” and possession of “subversive” material.
Greg Lopez, a researcher on Malaysian politics at Australian National University, told Asia Times Online that “while welcome, these announcements are just announcements.” Lopez reminded that Najib has not followed through on other promised changes, adding that he “has actually reversed most of his policies after announcing them in the face of public pressure.”
Indeed Najib’s speech left a number of sensitive policies untouched by focusing solely on political and rights-based reforms while giving a wide berth to Malaysia’s fractious ethnic and religious relations.
Since deadly race riots in 1969 highlighted ethnic Malay anger at perceived ethnic Chinese domination of national commerce and threatened to undermine political stability, Malaysia has maintained a ‘New Economic Policy’ (NEP) that aims to boost living standards, education and business openings for ethnic Malays, who make up a majority 60% of the population.
Critics, however, say that the scheme is outdated as Malays have since moved up the socio-economic ladder. Moreover, the NEP has been widely pilloried for facilitating corruption and patronage and undermining Malaysia’s attractiveness to foreign investment and international economic competitiveness.
Since taking office in 2009 Najib has tinkered with the NEP, including the launch of a New Economic Model (NEM) in March, 2010 that promises to double per capita income by 2020. Still many feel his incremental reform of the NEP has not gone far enough.
According to a leaked US diplomatic cable sent from the embassy in Kuala Lumpur on February 19, 2010, “Executing a robust NEM, however, will be even more difficult as the PM will undoubtedly face steady opposition from within his own political party (UMNO), particularly from members who fear their parliamentary seats may be lost if the current patronage system is dismantled.”
Dismantling the NEP, some analysts speculate, could cause splits in Najib’s camp. The prime minister is said to be battling against hardline elements within his party who want him removed, and the legal reform gambit could be part of an effort to take the initiative from his internal opponents.
Ibrahim Suffian, programs director at Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, which carries out political surveys in Malaysia, told ATol that “the crucial test to this new move by the [prime minister] is how he manages the reaction from the hardline elements in his party and the police.”
Anil Netto is a Penang-based writer. Simon Roughneen is a foreign correspondent. His website is www.simonroughneen.com.Show