Malaysia’s Najib Pledges to Examine Election Laws After Mass Protests


By James Hookway, Wall Street Journal

Five weeks after a protest that was the biggest Malaysia has seen in four years, Prime Minister Najib Razak Tuesday pledged to examine ways to revamp the country’s electoral laws.

More than 20,000 people gathered on the streets of Kuala Lumpur on July 9 in a demonstration that police sought to break up with tear gas and water cannons. The activists, organized by an independent group known as Bersih—the Malay word for “clean”—but also including opposition leaders such as Anwar Ibrahim, argue that the majority-Muslim country’s electoral system unfairly favors the National Front. That coalition has ruled this important gas and palm-oil exporter since independence from Britain in 1957.

Among other things, the protesters called for the government to update the electoral rolls and ensure equal access to state-controlled media for all political parties.

The confrontation with police, which human-rights group Amnesty International called “the worst campaign of repression we’ve seen in the country for years,” came as speculation grew that Mr. Najib, 58 years old and the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, would soon call elections. He isn’t obliged to do so until 2013, but analysts say calling for an early election might provide him with an edge over his opponents.

Malaysia, though many parts of its economy are growing strongly, is badly fractured politically, often along race-based lines. Mr. Najib’s United Malays National Organization party claims to represent the country’s majority Muslim Malay population, and in the 1970s implemented affirmative-action policies meant to help ethnic Malays catch up economically with other groups, especially the country’s ethnic Chinese.

Programs including quotas for access to universities and special loans for ethnic Malays have since become well-entrenched, though in recent years a growing number of Malaysians have called for change. Mr. Anwar, the 64-year-old opposition leader, is among those pushing to liberalize the economy and level the playing field for all Malaysians, and analysts say that under Mr. Najib some important aspects of affirmative action have been carefully rolled back.

Political change appears to be coming more slowly. Mr. Najib’s tentative offer to consider overhauling Malaysia’s electoral system is his biggest concession to the protesters so far. Declaring that the system had served Malaysia well over the past 50 years, he said that he would nonetheless name a parliamentary committee to examine possible changes.

“For whatever reason, some people have expressed doubts about that system, leading to calls for change,” Mr. Najib said in a statement. “I have always been deeply committed to Parliamentary democracy and to all it can achieve… That is why I am building on my reform agenda to establish an independent bipartisan Select Committee that will ensure that the views of each and every Malaysian are reflected at the ballot box.”

It wasn’t clear when, or if, the committee would recommend any changes.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, seen in a Friday photo, on Tuesday promised to examine ways to revamp electoral laws.

Opposition leaders and democracy activists cautiously welcomed Mr. Najib’s pledge. Mr. Anwar told The Wall Street Journal that the prime minister is “finally conceding the concerns of the vast number of citizens regarding fraud,” but said the committee must include representatives from the opposition, hear the opinions of civil-society groups and address “the fundamental issues on electoral reform.”

Mr. Anwar, who is now on trial on charges he violated Malaysia’s strict sodomy laws—a case he says is politically motivated—added that he’s concerned the formation of a new committee could actually be way to slow down a revamp and deflect momentum away from meaningful change.

“We already have an Election Commission that’s supposed to be independent,” he said. “What’s stopping them from revising the list of postal voters or updating the electoral rolls?”

The Bersih group that organized the July 9 protest in Kuala Lumpur also expressed wariness about Mr. Najib’s plans. While welcoming his proposal, the group stressed that changes to the electoral system must happen before the next election.

If Mr. Najib calls a vote before reforms can be made, “I don’t think the public will stomach anything like this,” said one Bersih activist, Wong Chin Huat.

—Celine Fernandez contributed to this article.