Water cannons in Cambridge

Sabri Zain's Cambridge Diaries

Dangerous times for Malaysia
January 21st, 2000

Malaysia’s ruling coalition decisively won last year’s parliamentary elections. But the coalition's dominant party saw disturbing signs in the victory and took action, unleashing a wave of political arrests and assaults on the media. Five publications were threatened with bans, while five people were arrested on charges ranging from sedition to leaking secret government documents that alleged corrupt practices among senior government ministers.

Mixed victory

The Malaysian prime minister cracked down on political opponents just weeks after his coalition’s decisive electoral victory.

The crackdown came less than two months after the country’s tenth general elections last November, in which the ruling National Front coalition won a comfortable two-thirds majority.

Even opposition politicians conceded that Mahathir’s National Front coalition was never in any danger of losing.

But the election results showed trouble ahead for Mahathir. United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant partner in the coalition, suffered a massive erosion of its electoral support and the loss of 22 parliamentary seats. Many UMNO candidates won by lesser majorities than they did in the previous election. Ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, suspicious of the Malay-based UMNO, voted for other parties in the National Front coalition. (Malays are the major ethnic group in Malaysia.)

“A normal matter”

Just days after Mahathir’s television broadcast urging Malaysians to work towards national reconciliation after the bitter general elections, police swooped on senior opposition politicians Marina Yusof and Karpal Singh — charging them under the draconian Sedition Act for making anti-government statements. Singh is also a leading member of the legal team defending former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, whose sacking and arrest in September 1998 sparked the political crisis that is now rocking Malaysia.

Also arrested was National Justice Party Youth head Mohamad Ezam Noor, who is charged under the Official Secrets Act for disclosing official documents revealing that the country’s Anti-Corruption Agency had recommended that two senior government ministers be charged and prosecuted for corruption. Ironically, the two ministers themselves have yet to be charged by police.

The human rights group Amnesty International described the arrests “striking at the heart of free speech in a democratic society.” Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Abdullah Badawi retorted that the arrests were “a normal matter.”

Alternative voice

The media was also targeted in the crackdown, with the arrests of the editor and printer of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) newspaper Harakah. Harakah had seen its circulation skyrocket from 60,000 to over 360,000 in the wake of the Anwar crisis.

Government officials also threatened bans on Harakah and four other publications critical of the government — a move which raised protest from press organizations worldwide. The Paris-based press freedom organization Reporters sans Frontières called it “a grave violation of press freedom,” while the New York-based media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists warned that “in the absence of such alternative voices, Malaysia cannot be called a democratic state.”

Harakah grew from being purely a party organ to a vibrant alternative voice for political dissidents, human rights groups, academics and independent writers. It also made full use of the Internet, taking much of its material from the many Web sites now advocating reform in Malaysia. The bi-weekly is also trying to get around government restrictions on its sale to the public with not only an on-line version of the newspaper but also a Web site featuring stories updated daily.

No contest

The mainstream media in Malaysia remains staunchly pro-government, being tightly controlled by laws which require newspapers to renew their publishing permits with the authorities annually.

However, even they were not spared, with the reported ouster of Kadir Jasin, the editor-in-chief of Malaysia’s largest newspaper group, the New Straits Times Press. Though a strong Mahathir supporter, Kadir had published an editorial questioning a recent ruling from UMNO’s Supreme Council that there should be no contest for Mahathir’s Presidency in the party’s upcoming elections.

The no-contest rule had, in fact, raised dissenting voices in UMNO — something previously unheard of in the current political crisis. Now facing both internal and external criticism, it is likely that the party leadership will only intensify efforts to stifle dissent and freedom of speech.

Senior opposition politician Lim Kit Siang said last month that “the final term of Mahathir would be the most dangerous times for Malaysian nation-building.” The recent crackdown may just prove his prediction correct.