Malaysia’s retreat from modernity


Increasingly, since 2008, Umno “is becoming more authoritarian and also more volatile and defensive. Many of the most draconian laws have gone – sedition is a crucial exception – but the mindset has not changed.”

The Australian (Rakyat Times)

While Malaysia’s charismatic opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was being jailed for five years for sodomy on Tuesday last week, the country’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, was participating in the nearby launch of an index to assess levels of compliance to sharia law.

Najib said he hoped the government’s own sharia observance would become “a culture of collective practice”.

Two years ago he became the first non-Arab government head to visit Gaza. At a joint press conference with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, Najib said he came “to express my solidarity with the Palestinian people”.

A few weeks earlier, he had told a New York audience: “The problem in today’s world is not between Christians, Muslims or Jews but it’s really between the extremists and democracy.”

He said “moderation is, you know, based on certain principles and very sound values, like justice. It calls for us to be bold enough to occupy the centre stage and the moral high ground.”

He responded in part to the recent Charlie Hebdo slayings: “If you criticise other religions because of freedom, it will have severe repercussions.”

Anwar’s jailing – widely condemned by foreign governments including Australia and the US, and by legal and human rights org­anisations – raises questions about which is the real Najib, the real Malaysia, about how moderate, democratic and ultimately modern the country truly is.

Anwar vigilThe tragedies of Malaysia Airlines flights MH370 and MH17 served to distract international attention, for a time, from such issues and to attract sympathy instead for the government there. But Anwar’s case is refocusing interest in Malaysia’s governance and sparking a re-examination of where Southeast Asia is heading.

By some measures it is only Indonesia and The Philippines, out of the 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, that today are unequivocally democratic in their governance, countenancing changes in administration following elections.

They are outnumbered by the robust democracies of north Asia – Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – and by those of south Asia – India, Pakistan and, especially triumphantly this year, Sri Lanka.

The notorious trail of charges that are exposing those Southeast Asian fault lines began when Anwar was first accused of sodomy in September 1998. This happened within days of his sacking as deputy prime minister by then all-powerful prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. He was jailed for this offence and for corruption, and spent five years in solitary confinement before being released when the Federal Court overturned his sodomy conviction in 2004.

In 2008 he was charged again with sodomy under a private prosecution led by Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, a lawyer closely associated with Umno, the party that has dominated the ruling coalition since the country’s independence from Britain in 1957.

Anwar was acquitted in 2012 but the government won on appeal, which in turn was appealed, and the conviction eventually was affirmed last Tuesday by the Federal Court.

Despite this constant drumbeat of prosecutions, Anwar constructed around his own People’s Justice Party (PKR) an opposition coalition – the Pakatan Rakyat or People’s Alliance – that has provided the most effective challenge to the ruling Umno party in Mal­aysia’s history. This coalition won a majority of votes at the general election in mid-2013 but was denied victory by a pro-rural gerrymander that ensured the Umno-led coalition, the Barisan Nasional, retained ­office.

During the election campaign Najib, seeking to cement crucial middle-class votes, had pledged to repeal the notorious Sedition Act imposed in colonial days by Britain. After retaining power, he announced the act would stay, and has used it more than 20 times to charge people for expressing “sed­itious” anti-government views, including in cartoons.

The director of Malaysian group Lawyers for Liberty, Eric Paulsen, said after being charged under the Sedition Act earlier this month for tweeting that the Islamic authority (Jakim) within the Prime Minister’s department was “promoting extremism” through its widely distributed Friday sermons, “We must be holding the world record for sedition charges.”

But it is becoming a leviathan task for the government to seduce or to suppress irritatingly oppositionist thinking and views.

clive-kessler-University of NSW emeritus professor of sociology and anthropology Clive Kessler (right) says this is in part because the government “has always seen national society as consisting of a number of culturally distinct, socially separate segments, and which has sought to keep things that way, speaking in a different voice to each of these components of the mosaic”.

Now, though, in the age of the internet, it must communicate publicly, crossing those barriers and exposing its views – including those of Jakim – “for all to see and hear”.

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