Power Grab in Perak

A return to authoritarian ways in Malaysia?

Mr. Najib has been in office for barely a month, and yesterday's arrests are not the only sign that his government may be cracking down on dissent.

The Wall Street Journal

Malaysia's latest political crisis is unfolding in the northern state of Perak, where more than 60 people, including five opposition members of the national Parliament and five state assembly representatives, were detained by police yesterday during peaceful protests. It's a test for the country's new Prime Minister, Najib Razak, who took office last month after campaigning on a pledge of more political openness.

The arrests in Perak are the most recent episode in the political struggle between the opposition coalition led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and the National Front coalition, led by Mr. Najib. Perak became a political battleground last year when Mr. Anwar's alliance won control of it and four other state legislatures. Since then several Perak legislators have switched allegiance, putting the legislature back in the control of Mr. Najib's coalition.

Yesterday's demonstration outside the state assembly in Ipoh was to protest the local Sultan's appointment of a new state chief minister — a move the opposition says was unconstitutional. Meanwhile, inside the assembly building, the legislature voted to replace the opposition-party speaker with a new speaker. After hours of shouting and tussling, the old speaker was forcibly removed.

The government says the arrests in Perak were necessary to maintain public order, and the International Trade Minister is quoted by the Associated Press as saying "If any country is seen to be unstable, that would not be so good." As we went to press, many of the protestors had already been released. On Monday, the High Court in Kuala Lumpur is expected to rule on whether the appointment of the chief minister is constitutional.

Mr. Najib has been in office for barely a month, and yesterday's arrests are not the only sign that his government may be cracking down on dissent. Also this week, Wong Chin Huat, the spokesman for a civil society group, was arrested and charged with sedition after he called for Malaysians to wear black yesterday to protest the change in government in Perak. His campaign, "1BlackMalaysia," was a riff on Mr. Najib's slogan "1Malaysia." In March, Mr. Wong described the situation in Perak to us as, "a host of unelected institutions attacking an elected government."

Mr. Najib took office promising to do better by the Malaysian public. He talked about reviewing the country's harsh Internal Security Act and released 13 prisoners who had been detained under the draconian law. He has taken steps to loosen Malaysia's pro-Malay affirmative action policies and attract more foreign investment.

But all of this will be for naught if he moves the country back to an era in which political dissenters can't speak freely and peaceful protests are squelched.