Mirage or Reality?

HIR Issue: 
Politics of Disease

With a harsh legal system that is hostile to governmental opposition, Malaysia is known as one of Asia’s most politically conservative countries. However, it may soon retire from this position of dubious honor, given Prime Minister Najib Razak’s recently announced plans to revolutionize Malaysia’s political climate. With political reform following so swiftly after Najib’s  succession of economic reforms last year, political activists and leaders of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat alliance have been willing to offer praise, though their appreciation is tempered by wariness. Najib has built a reputation for grand gestures while in office, and one cannot assume the purity of his intentions. It is only logical to evaluate Najib’s pronouncements in light of the circumstances under which he became Prime Minister, and his need to appeal to the electorate before the 2013 deadline for the next election.

In the 2008 Malaysian general election, the Barisan Nasional coalition (BN) lost the two-thirds supermajority in parliament for the first time since the country’s independence in 1957. Under party pressure, the previous Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi stepped down in favor of Najib, who succeeded to the post without a mandate at the polls—one major political weakness that has dogged him during his tenure as prime minister. By law, Malaysia must hold elections no later than 2013. However, Najib has indicated that he might call for early elections and aim to win the electoral mandate by a large majority, one which will grant him more leverage against the discontented elements within the BN coalition. His new proposals all aim to cultivate support from moderate middle-class voters in Malaysia.

This is not the first time Prime Minister Najib has upturned the status quo in Malaysia. Last year, Najib introduced the ongoing Economic Transformation Program (ETP), including projects that ranged from the creation of a Talent Corporation to investment in wafer fabrication plants to the introduction of tax incentives on Malaysia’s oilfields. The initiative combines infrastructure upgrades and education advancements to address Malaysia’s underlying problems, improving its competitiveness in the region and its attractiveness to foreign investment. The Malaysian government optimistically forecasts that, by 2020, the ETP is projected to lead to the transformation of Malaysia into a high-income country and the creation of 3 million jobs in the middle- and high-income brackets.

On September 15, 2011, Najib went even further by promising to repeal a myriad of Malaysia’s security laws, many of which have been implemented for decades and integrated into the political and law enforcement infrastructure of the country. The Internal Security Act of 1960 was passed in order to deal with a communist insurgency at the time, allowing police to detain suspects indefinitely. However, this has since been turned into a weapon against activists and members of the opposition to keep them out of the way. The Banishment Act of 1959 permits the expulsion of non-citizens, and the Emergency Ordinance of 1969 allows two years of detention without trial. The repeal of all three laws would set drastic limits on the heretofore expansive powers of law enforcement. Najib has also promised to repeal the stricture that requires media companies to obtain a yearly permit, a law widely perceived as an effective gag on the media’s reporting.

At the surface, these reforms appear to be a great leap forward for Malaysian political freedom. Yet many laws remain in place, some equally as stringent as those repealed. The Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act, and the Criminal Defamation Act facilitate imprisonment of the opposition, while the effects of the repeal of yearly media permits are severely undermined by the fact that the Malaysian government owns many of the country’s largest media outlets. Furthermore,  the repealed laws are offset by the government’s announcement of two new laws next year, which still allow detainment of suspects under “revised limits”—the specifics of which are yet to be determined. That upcoming debate promises to be a political free-for-all.

Nor can the past be hidden. Najib’s commitment to reform does not appear to be wholly driven by idealistic zest in light of his reaction to political rallies earlier this year. Actions speak louder than words, and the punitive government crackdown on the Bersih 2.0 rally in Kuala Lumpur in July indicated that the government’s patience (or lack thereof) in dealing with public demonstrations was not to be tested. Protesters at the rally demanded electoral reform—the overhaul of postal voting, introduction of a minimum campaign period, free access by all parties to the media, and a clean-up of the electoral roll. By the end of the rally, some 1,700 protesters had been arrested and the rest dispersed by tear gas and other chemical sprays. Falling in line with the government view, the Malaysian media proceeded to denounce the protesters for disturbance of the peace and creation of distrust.

All things considered, Najib Razak’s initiative must be treated cautiously, although it is notable that he is willing to propose such reforms in the first place to appeal to middle-class voters for a electoral mandate, rather than to the old hardliners within his party. If Malaysians elect Najib in the next election—and thus grant implicit approval to his initiatives thus far—he will face the daunting task of persuading his own coalition to back his reforms as a united front. We must look not only at whether or not the nominal legal reforms go through, but whether Najib can transform that sentiment into a de facto peaceful revolution of Malaysian politics.