MALAYSIA: New Govt Stifling Public Opinion

By Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 6 (IPS) – A huge public protest on Aug. 1 calling for the repeal of the Internal Security Act, a law that the authorities have used to jail extremist and legitimate political opponents alike without trial, was broken up using brute force.

Nearly 500 people were arrested and many were charged for taking part in an illegal assembly.

The shocking action questions the credibility of newly installed Prime Minister Najib Razak and his commitment to human rights, tolerance for dissent, and respect for political opponents.

Riot police dispersed the estimated 20,000-strong crowd with baton charges, tear gas, and water cannon laced with chemicals. The calm city centre turned into mayhem on a Saturday.

About 60 people have been charged in court with taking party in an illegal assembly, an offence punishable by two-years in prison.

The opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition leaders led by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim – who led the protest – now face arrest and court charges.

"We denounce the government’s over-zealous and abusive show of power in its determination to crush the right of the people to assembly and free expression," said Bar Council President Ragunath Kesavan.

"The police used excessive and disproportionate physical force, including wantonly arresting hundreds of individuals and recklessly using tear gas and water cannons on participants who were gathered in a peaceful and disciplined manner," he told IPS.

"This new government appears determined to continue stifling public opinion, persecuting and punishing those who dare to speak out while blaming them for creating unrest and disorder," Kesavan continued.

The raw display of force was a far cry from the tolerant and liberal atmosphere under former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi – who retired in March after six years in power.

Critics also say the show of force ends the ‘honeymoon’ period for Najib, who came to power on Apr. 3. The manner Najib treated legitimate dissent, they said, heralds a new era of repression against opponents and civil society.

"The peoples honeymoon with Najib is over… he has shown with brute force that he is as much authoritarian as was his mentor Dr. Mahathir Mohamad [the former prime minister]," said Tian Chua, an opposition lawmaker and head of strategic planning in the Keadilan party, led by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

"We are expecting a new era of repression and intolerance for dissent in the years ahead," he told IPS. "Mr Najib has shown he is an iron fist in a velvet glove."

"The glove is off now," Tian said.

In contrast, since taking power Najib’s popularity has been on the rise. He won high ratings in public opinion polls in July for a slew of people-friendly policies he announced after becoming Prime Minister.

Foreign investors and corporate leaders have praised Najib for dismantling a system of racial preferences and quotas that favoured native Malays and alienated the country’s Chinese and Indian minorities.

Najib also released 13 political detainees held without trial under ISA legislation.

On most fronts, said political scientist Denison Jayasooria of the University Kebangsaan Malaysia, Najib was doing "quiet well."

"He liberalised the economy, eased pro-Malay policies and gave hope of a fair, just and united society under his One slogan deal," Denison told IPS.

"But he did not show the same level of commitment for human rights. He has not shown he tolerates dissent and he has not reigned in the police," Denison stressed.

Najib inherited a government reeling from election losses, with the ruling 13- party Barisan Nasional coalition in disarray and amidst an economic slowdown.

The opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim is now resurgent, winning six of the seven by-elections since the Mar. 8, 2008 general election – when the Barisan was trounced, losing five state governments and its two-third majority.

The show of force comes as opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has styled himself prime minister-in-waiting, faces trial for alleged sodomy – charges he says are political motivated.

The political tension pervading the country is in many ways a repeat of what happened a decade ago when Anwar, then a deputy prime minister, was sacked and charged with sodomy. He was convicted of corruption and sodomy in 1999 and jailed but was acquitted in 2004 and made a political comeback.

Anwar has again been charged with sodomising an aide and the trial is opening later this month. Anwar says the charges were fabricated to destroy his political career.

To counter mounting criticism, Najib has promised to review the ISA law, but critics who have seen drafts say the proposed changes are just cosmetic.

The fundamental problem with the ISA law is that it allows for detention with trial. "We are totally against such a concept. A person is either charged or released," said veteran opposition lawmaker Lim Kit Siang.

Najib also says he is not against dissent as long as it is not taken to the streets. "They can demonstrated in halls or stadiums," Najib told local media in the aftermath of the weekend protest.

He accused Anwar of instigating the protest. "The protest is politically motivated," he said.

While the majority of the people oppose the ISA law, a minority both in the government and outside are in favour of it. They say the ISA legislation is needed in this multi-ethnic society to combat terrorism and religious extremism.