The truth about Malaysia

The efforts of civil society and alternative media have strived to show Malaysia in its true, anti-democratic light

Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, winner of the Index on Censorship law and campaigning award, explains the effects of Malaysia's anti-democratic laws 

Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, Guardian UK

Architects of autocracies would benefit tremendously from studying the Malaysian model. It stands as a shining example of how, given the right combination of greed, ambition, maladministration and contempt for the rule of law, any democracy can be recast into an autocracy while preserving the veneer of democratic process.

At the time of its independence in 1957, Malaysia's written constitution embedded the separation of powers and the freedoms so crucial to its checks and balances. But the vested interests of a hegemonic political elite has, over time, caused the system to mutate into one of rule by law that threatens the continued sustainability of the nation.

This is easy enough for anyone to see. The statute books contain a plethora of anti-democratic laws that are designed for, and applied to, one end: the regulation of information and opinion. This has allowed the suborning of a voter base much weakened by a divisive system of race politics; voters already made to feel that they should be voting one way rather than the other are not given the means to make an informed choice. This has allowed a semblance of democracy, even though the democratic process has been subverted.

There is no other way of explaining the continued existence of laws that vest power in the government to detain without trial for extended periods of time, or to subjectively regulate the print media or to brings charges for sedition and criminal defamation. These laws not only impede free access to vital information, they allow the suppression of legitimate dissent, a process aided by a seeming willingness on the part of key institutions of the state, such as the judiciary and the police force, to serve the interests of the government in such ways as they can. The police routinely clamp down on opposition rallies and NGO demonstrations while the judiciary cannot be relied upon to defend civil liberties.

When confronted about any of this, the government points to the electoral process and its consistent return to power. It sidesteps the extent to which it attempts to keep the voter ignorant or scared. It meets complaints about the system with defensiveness, even hostility, due to its inability to meaningfully justify its position and its unwillingness to respond to popular sentiment.

Fighting back has centred on efforts to increase access to information.

In the general election of March 2008, the incumbent political coalition took a beating. It lost its two-thirds majority in parliament and lost control over four of the 13 states in which it had previously formed government. This was largely due to the unflagging and courageous efforts of civil society and the alternative media. A ragtag group of activists, bloggers and independent news sites strived to offer a different and more truthful view of Malaysia, while making Malaysians aware it was time for them to take ownership of the issues at hand.

Many of those involved were people I had come to know over the last decade or so in my work as an activist as well as a public interest lawyer. Of these, Raja Petra Kamarudin, a new media exponent of almost iconic status, was among the most influential. Unflinching and unrelenting, he galvanised reactions on a scale that many were unprepared for. He helped shape history last March.

That may be why he was charged for sedition and criminal defamation as well as detained was detained under the Internal Security Act soon after.

Amid concerns that a wider crackdown was underway and that I might also be on the detention list, I was instructed to seek an order of habeas corpus. Painfully aware of how exposed I was to executive scrutiny, I assembled a team of lawyers and made the applications. We were not hopeful, there had not been a successful challenge on merits since 1998 when the law had been amended to preclude judicial review. The high court however thought there were merits and ordered his release. He had been detained for some 55 days by then.

The situation is precarious. Malaysians want change and the elites that form the government are in no position to deliver it. Continued suppression and repression is the only way in which power can be preserved. That does not bode well for the nation.