Malaysia’s government faced criticism on Thursday for failing to repeal repressive laws and backtracking on promises to improve human rights a year after sweeping to power with a reformist agenda.
A ramshackle coalition headed by veteran politician Mahathir Mohamad stormed to a shock election victory on May 9 last year, toppling a corruption-plagued regime that had led the country since independence from Britain in 1957.
The Pact of Hope alliance had pledged to do away with repressive laws, such as the colonial-era sedition act which critics say is used to target political dissent, and legislation that allowed for indefinite detention without trial.
But the laws are still in place, and authorities have also backed away from a post-election pledge to abolish the death penalty.
In addition, the government did a U-turn on a plan to join the International Criminal Court after protests from opposition politicians and a powerful Islamic ruler.
“The government should recognise that further delays in ending abusive systems and laws will only mean further harm for the Malaysian people,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
“Prime Minister Mahathir has put his finger up to check prevailing political winds rather than standing up for human rights principles,” he added.
Mahathir – who was criticised for being authoritarian during a first stint in office from 1981-2003 – defended the failure to move faster, suggesting rights reforms did not enjoy broad support in the country.
“This is a democratic country. When people have different ideas, we have to respect their ideas,” the 93-year-old told a press conference.
“It is also their human right to be opposed to things that they do not like.”
The government’s popularity has been steadily declining since the initial euphoria of the election victory, which toppled prime minister Najib Razak, who was accused of looting state fund 1MDB.
Critics say authorities have not acted quickly to improve living standards and they have lost a string of local elections, while a leading pollster showed Mahathir’s approval rating dropped to 46 per cent in March from 71 per cent in August.