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Najib takes a gamble with some radical reform plans in Malaysia

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak recently revealed radical reform plans that, if implemented, will make his country among the most liberal in the region. There are four prongs to Najib’s reformation agenda, the most important is the “total repeal” of the Internal Security Act, which permits indefinite detention without trial.

He also vowed to abolish the State of Emergency, which has remained in force since the Communist insurgency in colonial Malaya after World War II.

Other measures include scrapping the annual renewal of media licences and a promise to overhaul the freedom of assembly laws.

The PM’s proposals have been lauded across the region, even by normally critical civil society groups.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch organisation praised Najib’s plans and urged him to revoke Malaysia’s restrictive laws “promptly and without passing new legislation in their place”.

That, unfortunately, is asking too much.

Najib has already stated that the ISA will be replaced by two “more liberal” laws, but he will have a hard time trying just to do that.

For half a century, the ISA’s detention without trial provisions have evoked widespread condemnation, especially when used to silence political dissent.

At one time or another, Malaysia’s current opposition leaders, Anwar Ibrahim, Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh, have all been detained under the act and jailed at Kamunting without charge for long periods.

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, however, Western criticism of such practices has been muted.

It was a public relations catastrophe and Najib’s ratings dropped precipitously.

That, of course, is because the West has been doing precisely the same thing, if not worse, at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and at rendition centres in Thailand, Jordan, Morocco and Poland.
So it is not to appease hypocritical Western governments that Najib has tendered these welcome reform proposals.

No, he has done it for domestic political reasons, namely because he must call a general election soon and he needs to shore up his falling support levels fast.

In the last 2008 election, opposition parties won five states and Najib’s ruling National Front lost its power to amend the constitution at will.

The government’s reaction was brutal: it put Anwar on trial again for sodomy, it snatched back Perak state by foul means and it replaced the docile PM Abdullah Badawi with the more dynamic Najib.

He then sought to regain the trust of middle-class Malays and to recapture the support of disillusioned Chinese and Indian minorities.

All went well for a while and Najib’s approval rating shot up to 72 per cent by the middle of last year.

Emboldened, he then floated long-overdue, but highly contentious economic reforms to reduce entrenched Malay preferences.

That provoked a fierce backlash and the rise of a rightwing Malay chauvinist movement called Perkasa, which in turn roiled the Chinese and Indian communities.

The situation was exploited by oppositionists in April’s Sarawak state election, when the Front lost many seats – and Najib lost his momentum.

Seeking to recover, Najib saw an opportunity when a meddlesome grassroots movement called Bersih, which means “clean” in Malay, revealed plans to hold a march for electoral reform.

In fact, Bersih’s agenda is not radically different from Najib’s own reform ideas, but the sheer size of the resulting demonstration and its embrace by the opposition obliged him to take action.

So, casting aside any pretence of liberal tolerance, he unleashed the full might of Kuala Lumpur’s security forces, who used water cannons and tear gas on thousands of peaceful protesters.

It was a public relations catastrophe and Najib’s ratings dropped precipitously.

To regain ground, he is now going for broke with his scheme to scrap the ISA and other draconian laws that remain on the books.

If he succeeds against strong internal opposition in his own party, Najib may yet salvage his reputation and win re-election.

It is a bold and meritorious gamble, but for the sake of Malaysia and the region, let us hope he prevails.



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