In with the unknown

By The Economist

THE more enthusiastic are calling it a “hibiscus revolution”, in honour of both Malaysia’s national flower and the Arab awakening. Suddenly, it seems, one of Asia’s most politically conservative countries is being convulsed by change and reform. But unlike in the Middle East, it is the government itself that wants to appear to be leading the way.

After announcing a slew of economic reforms last year with the aim of modernising the economy, the prime minister, Najib Razak, has turned his attention to Malaysia’s archaic laws governing civil rights. In August he promised to reform the system of press censorship. He also set up a parliamentary committee to review the electoral system. By Malaysia’s standards, this is pretty wild stuff. But on September 15th Mr Najib trumped it all by promising to repeal many of the country’s security laws, including the notoriously draconian Internal Security Act, the ISA. He also promised to relax the media laws and liberalise laws on freedom of assembly. Taken together, the government describes these changes as “the biggest shake-up of the Malaysian system since independence from Britain in 1957”.

The repeal of the ISA has been widely welcomed. The law was introduced in 1960 to help combat an insurgency by communist rebels, a period known as the “emergency”. The ISA’s sweeping powers permitted the police to detain suspects indefinitely. But long after the threat from the communists had disappeared, the law was being used by control-minded governments for a very different purpose: to jail opposition politicians, union activists, students and journalists—anyone whom they wanted out of the way. Neighbouring Singapore, which was briefly part of Malaysia in the 1960s, still has its own ISA. So news of the Malaysian repeal has provoked a growing debate among Singaporeans about whether it is time to do the same in the island-state.

Other Malaysian laws on the way out include the Banishment Act of 1959, which allows non-citizens to be expelled, and the Emergency Ordinance, introduced in 1969 after race riots. Like the ISA, it allows people to be detained without charge. Elsewhere, the government says newspapers will now need to apply only once for a permit to publish, rather than every year. Supposedly, that reduces the scope for interference in the media.

Malaysia’s various opposition leaders have welcomed the reforms. Yet like many ordinary folk they remain sceptical about whether the repeals, reviews and reforms of the past weeks really amount to the “shake-up” that Mr Najib claims. The prime minister has earned something of a reputation for grand gestures and promises with little follow-through. The same may happen this time.

For at the same time as repealing the ISA and other laws, he has promised to replace them with two new laws. These will also allow the police to “detain suspects for preventive reasons”, only with more “judicial oversight” and “limits” on police power. What exactly those limits will be has yet to be explained. Opposition politicians say that the repeal of the ISA may yet turn out to be more symbolic than real if the new laws are almost as harsh as the old ones.

Mr Najib has an election to win within the next year. If nothing else the reforms are highly political, carefully calibrated to appeal to the vital middle ground of Malaysian politics. The repeal of old laws should endear him to younger and more liberal voters; the promise to introduce strict new laws should satisfy hardliners within his own ruling United Malays National Organisation, or UMNO.

Mr Najib’s supporters hope that solidly positioning their man as a progressive reformer, a sort of Malaysian Tony Blair, will also revitalise the prime minister’s flagging political fortunes. His poll ratings dropped alarmingly over the summer, following heavy criticism at home and abroad of the government’s heavy-handed response to a rally in Kuala Lumpur making calls for electoral reform. Dropping the ISA might well restore his reputation after that public-relations disaster. Yet the thousands of Malaysians who took to the capital’s streets on July 9th, only to be met with tear gas and water cannon, will be watching carefully to see the terms of the new legislation before they embrace Mr Najib as one of their own.