Malaysia’s Growing Climate of Repression Gets Ignored


October 24, 2014

Malaysia’s Growing Climate of Repression gets Ignored

by Joshua Kurlantzick

http://blogs.cfr.org/asia/author/jkurlantzick/

malaysia lawyer protest march

Malaysian lawyers march during a protest calling for the repeal of the Sedition Act in Kuala Lumpur on October 16, 2014. The Sedition Act has been used to arrest at least 30 people since last March, local media reported (Olivia Harris/Courtesy: Reuters).

Amidst the gushing over the inauguration of new Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the first outsider, non-elite President in Indonesia’s democratic era, there is a significant void of international interest in neighboring Malaysia, where the climate for freedom of expression and assembly has deteriorated badly in the past year. Over the past year, the government of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, which in Najib’s first term had promised to improve the climate for civil liberties and abolish long-hated laws that allowed detention without trial, has shifted course. The government has pursued a sodomy case against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim that, next week, almost surely will end with Anwar being sentenced to jail, though the case was a comedy of ridiculous “evidence” and coached witnesses. (To be clear—I don’t think sodomy should be a crime, but it is in Malaysia; even so, there was no verifiable evidence Anwar actually engaged in this “crime.”)

In addition, over the past year the Malaysian government has investigated and/or charged at least thirty people with sedition, under an archaic law it had promised to eliminate, according to the Malaysian Bar Council. Most of those investigated and charged have been journalists, opposition politicians, and prominent civil society activists. The situation has gotten so dangerous for Malaysian civil society that last week hundreds of Malaysian lawyers, who normally are relatively passive in the political arena, marched through the capital to protest the government’s use of sedition laws to stifle dissent.

Why has this crackdown occurred? Najib has had to satisfy hard-line voices within his ruling coalition, and to fend off increasingly public criticism from former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. To satisfy hard-liners and Mahathir supporters—often the same people within the ruling coalition—Najib apparently has acceded to this harder-line policy against civil society and opposition politicians, whether or not he actually supports the crackdown.

In many ways, Najib seems increasingly divorced from the business of governing at all, taking long overseas trips while the country stagnates economically, state carrier Malaysian Airlines faces severe trouble, and the political environment becomes increasingly partisan and dangerous.

Although the Obama administration made improving relations with Malaysia aanwar-ibrahim-recent policy priority, it has mostly ignored the deteriorating climate for human rights and democracy in the country. When President Obama visited Malaysia earlier this year, he declined to meet with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (right) and held a brief grip-and-grin with a few Malaysian civil society activists. Other than that, Obama spent most of his time praising the Najib government. The White House has released just a perfunctory statement about Anwar’s trial and likely sentencing next week.

Ignoring the crackdown in Malaysia will eventually have long-term repercussions for the United States. Young Malaysians overwhelmingly support Anwar’s opposition PKR coalition, which won the popular vote in national parliamentary elections in 2013 but did not take control of parliament due to fraud and massive gerrymandering. They also tend to voice support for the civil society activists and journalists who have recently been targeted by the government in Kuala Lumpur.

Many reform-minded young Malaysians have been mystified when the United States, which a decade ago had been so vocal about democracy in Southeast Asia, and which still has significant influence in the region, has said almost nothing about the regression from freedom in Malaysia. In previous eras, American rhetorical support for democracy, American pressure against authoritarian leaders, and American linkage of aid and investment to political change had played a critical role in fostering democratization in East Asia.

In the 1980s, concerted American pressure on the governments of the Philippines and South Korea—after years of American tolerance of Ferdinand Marcos and a series of South Korean dictators—was a major reason why democracy prevailed in Manila and Seoul. A decade after Marcos gave way to the original “People Power” movement, sustained foreign pressure on governments in Cambodia and Indonesia and Thailand, in addition to many other domestic factors within these countries, helped precipitate political reform in these nations. Unfortunately, that type of pressure is absent today.

Malaysia not a secular state : says who ?


Malaysia not secular state, gov’t says
By Ram Anand

posted from Taipei, Taiwan

Jun 17, 2014

PARLIAMENT The government has stressed that Malaysia is not a secular state due to the special position of Islam in the framework of the federal constitution.

Article 3(1) and 50.4 percent of the 30 million population in Malaysia being Muslim do not make the Federation an Islamic state.

Article 3(1) and 50.4 percent of the 30 million population in Malaysia being Muslim do not make the Federation an Islamic state.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Jamil Khir Baharom said so in a written answer to Oscar Ling Chai Yew (DAP-Sibu) in Parliament last week.

Jamil Khir also stressed that the constitution does not provide for the civil court to have jurisdiction over matters under the purview of the Syariah Court.

“Regarding the question as to whether Malaysia is a secular state or an Islamic country, it is stressed here that Malaysia is not a secular country,” Jamil Khir said in his answer.

He said that this was based on “history” where Malaysia was established based an Islamic sultanate government and Malay sultans are heads of Islam for the respective states.

“This is further strenghtened by Article 3 of the federal constitution, which clearly states that Islam is the religion for the federation,” Jamil Khir further said.

Jamir Khir said that secular countries do not have a religion as the country’s religion.

Ling had asked Jamil Khir about the implementation of hudud and and whether Malaysia is a secular or Islamic state.

However, Jamil Khir stressed that the government is still studying the feasibility of implementing hudud in Malaysia.

 

Obama in Malaysia: A Strategic Partnership?


by Joshua Kurlantzick via Council on Foreign Relations
April 8, 2014

During his upcoming late April trip to Asia, President Obama will visit two nations in Southeast Asia, Malaysia and the Philippines, in addition to stops in Northeast Asia. The White House already has been briefing reporters on the overall messaging of the trip, and the specific themes the president plans to hit in Malaysia and the Philippines. In Malaysia, it appears from several news reports and from speaking with several administration officials, President Obama will add to the Malaysian government’s self-promotion that Kuala Lumpur is a successful and democratic nation, an example of other Muslim-majority countries, and a force for moderation in the world. The president apparently plans to hit these themes despite the regional anger at Malaysia’s handling of the Malaysia Airlines vanished plane, which exposed to the world many of the problems with Malaysia’s governance.

No matter, say some Southeast Asia experts. Some of Obama’s advisors, and many Southeast Asia experts, are urging the president to use the trip to cement a strategic partnership with Malaysia and establishing a roadmap for the kind of higher-level strategic cooperation that the United States already enjoys with Singapore and Thailand, among other countries in the region.

This approach to the Malaysia visit would mean downplaying – or simply not even discussing – serious regression in Malaysia’s domestic politics, including the recent sentencing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to five years in jail for sodomy, the highly flawed 2013 national elections that barely kept Prime Minister Najib tun Razak in office, and the increasingly shrill, anti-Chinese and anti-Indian rhetoric and legislation of the Najib government, hardly the kind of sentiments a supposed leader of political moderation should be espousing. According to this logic, if President Obama were to bring up such unpleasant issues as the Malaysian government’s crackdown on opponents over the past year or its unwillingness to reform pro-Malay policies that have entrenched a culture of graft and self-dealing at many Malaysian companies, that would sink the visit.

Under Najib, Malaysia and the United States have, on a strategic level, moved beyond some of the acrimony of the Mahathir and Abdullah years, and have made progress on a wide range of military-military and diplomatic cooperation. Najib definitely deserves some credit for this rapprochement, though growing Malaysian fear about China’s South China Sea policies are probably the main driver behind closer strategic ties with Washington.

But simply ignoring the disastrous Najib policies on human rights, political freedoms, and economic liberalization would not be a wise move by Obama. For one, it would play into the narrative that Obama cares little about rights and democracy promotion, a narrative that has gained significant force not only in Washington but also among many Southeast Asian activists and young people in general. And ignoring Malaysia’s opposition politicians, who won the popular vote in the 2013 national elections and enjoy their strongest support among young Malaysians, would be alienating the biggest growing pool of Malaysian voters. As in other countries in the region, like Cambodia and Indonesia, these young voters are increasingly favoring opposition parties or new figures like Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, breaking from long-ruling, autocratic parties. The United States should be cultivating these young voters who will prove critical to the region’s democratization. This new generation will eventually power the Malaysian opposition, in some form, to the prime minister’s office. It would be a shame if the United States president had ignored them, and their party leaders, before then.

Rosmah’s Gifts and Ethics


April 28, 2013

Rosmah’s Gifts and Ethics

FLOM

Recently Caretaker FLOM, Rosmah Mansor, said that she accepted all the gifts offered to her by foreign dignitaries because it would be rude not to accept them and what was a poor FLOM supposed to do?

“When people give you something, of course it’s not nice to reject it,” Rosmah wrote in a self-titled biography launched yesterday by former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

“And when I’m given the gifts, I wear them. Why would you want to just keep them in a safe when the items were given sincerely, are beautiful and can be used? It’s a waste if they’re just kept in a safety deposit box,” the wife of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak added. (from Malaysian Insider here)

Well clearly there is another way to handle these situations. The Daily Beast is reporting that the Sarkozy’s used to lavish their friends with expensive gifts. The Obama’s received from the Sarkozy’s over $41,000 worth of bags, towels, etc. Hillary Clinton received three Hermes scarves.

How does the United States handle this? It’s simple. Sitting elected officials are not permitted to accept gifts from anyone. There are Ethics Committees in all branches of the US government that regulate what employees of the US government are allowed to receive and not receive. For example here is a snippet form the Senate Ethics Committee website:

No Member, officer, or employee shall knowingly accept a gift except as provided by the Gifts Rule.

A Member, officer, or employee may accept a gift, other than cash or cash equivalent, having a value of less than $50, provided that the source of the gift is not a registered lobbyist, foreign agent, or private entity that retains or employs such individuals.  The cumulative value of gifts that may be accepted from any one source in a calendar year must be less than $100.  Generally, gifts having a value of less than $10 do not count toward the annual limit.  See Senate Rule 35.1(a)

The White House/Executive branch has similar rules outlined in detail here. It’s clear why such rules need to be in place. When you are in the seat of power, small (or large) gifts from foreign and domestic agents can be used as leverage in any sort of negotiation that comprise the integrity of the relationship. The onus should be on the public servant to want to defend his integrity to the fullest degree.

Which takes us back to Rosmah’s absurd statement. It speaks for itself when you’re talking about a party which is propped up by patronage and corruption. Accepting a few Hermes scarves, Rolex watches etc. is practically a non-issue when you think about the billion of dollars squandered away in no-bid contracts, flawed procurements and under the table deals.

The need for greater transparency in these dealings is essential. But fundamentally, people must elect leaders who they believe have a strong ethical compass that would make them think twice about these types of transgressions.

Malaysian Economy: Is the Party Over?


April 26, 2013

Malaysian Economy: Is the Party Over?

By Azeem Ibrahim from the Huffington Post

Dr Azeem IbrahimWith an election in the near future, scheduled for May 5th, Malaysia’s economy is under scrutiny. Is it really as good as the present government says it is in its campaign propaganda? The usual indicators look good — growth is 5 percent this year, inflation is low at around 2.5 percent and unemployment is low and stable at about 3 percent. Malaysia has enjoyed vigorous growth and change in the 50 years since it became independent and it is now the 37th largest economy in the world.

But after more than 50 years of one-party administration, the country is now at a crossroads with the ruling coalition facing formidable opposition. The economy is a major campaign issue as the country has been running considerable budget deficits since 1998, with the government offering subsidies and cash handouts to maintain itself in power. Since 2008 the government’s debt has escalated exponentially and is projected to be RM 779 billion by 2017 — creating a major problem of domestic debt for future governments to face.

Government borrowing, excessive spending on huge infrastructure projects, the flight of capital overseas, and a downturn in gas and palm oil prices are combining to create concern about a potential economic dislocation, prompting warnings from financial analysts in the region.

Malaysia’s rising ratio of household debt to its GDP reached 80.5 last year, as the country’s middle class has taken advantage of easy credit. Now there is the risk of being caught in a credit bubble, similar to the sub-prime crisis in the U.S. in 2008 which forced foreclosures and the collapse of several major financial institutions.

With 30 percent as the acceptable debt service ratio, it is a matter of increasing concern that people are using more than half of their disposable income to pay off household debts. The ratio of household debt to disposable income in Malaysia is 140 percent, one of the highest in the world and above that of the U.S. at 123 percent and Thailand at 52 percent. Unless there is a rise in productivity and household incomes for Malaysia’s five million working population, this trend is not sustainable.

Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s policies of short term gains andNajib latest generous corporate welfare to maintain popular support contrast with the long term vision of the Pakatan coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim. Noting that “Malaysia’s fiscal space has shrunk considerably since the 2008 global financial crisis”, policies need to be put in place to spare the people the austerity measures being adopted by several of the troubled Eurozone countries.

The need is to curb household debt, to broaden the tax base, repeal subsides gradually, trim certain expenditures and generally bring the fiscal house in order without creating the pain of a sudden adjustment. Instead of raising the debt ceiling again and again, Malaysia needs to grow government revenue and rein in sovereign debt, as Malaysia’s debt to revenue ratio is approaching that of Italy’s.

In all the government’s campaign promises there is nothing to address the growing problem of blatant corruption in high places and the widening income disparities since taxes were lowered for the wealthy. Malaysian taxes are the second lowest in South East Asia, with Singapore lowest with personal income tax capped at 20 percent. Singapore has since instituted a tax on services and consumption, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) at 7 percent, a move currently under discussion in Malaysia.

To ensure that growth is sustained, Malaysia needs to implement numerous reforms which have already been outlined in the Government’s New Economic Model. Unfortunately, many of these proposals remain simply paper promises and Malaysia can no longer afford business as usual. Criticisms are common about the lack of transparency of government statistics which are skewed in favor of the incumbent regime. A retired Malaysian international banker recently described official government reports as “Alice in Wonderland statistics.”

Anwar with Hadi and Kit SiangThis would change with a victory for Pakatan Rakyat. Anwar Ibrahim’s vision of good governance, based on fairness and justice and free of race considerations is reinforced by World Bank studies that compare Malaysia with more successful countries such as China, Indonesia and Vietnam. The latest IMF report card on Malaysia indicates the need for fiscal and structural reforms and an ambitious consolidation plan, with tax reform and expenditure rationalization.

Malaysians want an end to stagnant wages and earning levels and an end to the Malaysia being caught in the Middle Income Trap with little hope of higher productivity and wages. Malaysia’s dream of joining the league of high income developed nations as envisaged in its Vision 2020 will not happen on its current course.

Anwar Ibrahim will bring about the necessary changes based on the needs of the people of Malaysia, not be deferring to the bankers, corporations or profiteering capitalists. He understands that is time for more egalitarian policies to put an end to the stifling of initiative and competition through the old affirmative action policies favoring Malays. Preferential treatment for ethnic Malays and some indigenous groups, collectively known as Bumiputra, have led to inequalities in awarding government jobs and contracts and also the provision of education and cheaper housing.

It is also time to end the practice of using low-cost foreign labor for assembly work and to invest instead in a research and development base for new industries. This would help reverse the much-discussed phenomenon of the migration of talent out of Malaysia, and would turn the brain drain into an economic gain. Productivity and inclusiveness lie at the heart of Malaysia’s transformation programs and according to the latest Malaysia Economic Monitor Report, this is an historical opportunity for change.

It remains to be seen whether Anwar Ibrahim’s message will reverberate sufficiently among the voters next month, to bring about a change in direction and a change in leadership for Malaysia, bringing with it the opportunity for the country and its people to realize their full democratic potential.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of the Scotland Institute and a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding

NPC Newsmaker Program: Turning Point in Malaysia: Will the Ruling Coalition Finally Lose Power?


From National Press Club

WASHINGTON, April 23, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — On May 5, Malaysians will vote in their 13(th) general election since gaining independence in 1957 — and for the first time, the outcome of the election is in doubt. Disenchantment with the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, the growing influence of online media and an explosion in the number of young voters (20 percent of the electorate is under 30 and eligible to vote for the first time) could propel the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition to victory.

At a National Press Club Newsmaker news conference on Wednesday, April 24, John Mallott, the former U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia and one of the foremost experts on Malaysian politics, will analyze the forces at play that could make this election an historic turning point for a significant U.S. trading partner and military ally.

While the opposition currently enjoys a slight lead in national polls and a dominant position in online media, the ruling coalition controls the mainstream media and has prevailed in all 12 previous elections. Concerns about electoral fraud are high — international observer delegations have routinely criticized Malaysia’s Election Commission for its handling of previous elections.

The ruling coalition has been plagued by a series of high-profile corruption cases and widespread criticism for poor handling of race relations, including requiring non-Muslims to abide by strict statutes of Muslim law. The opposition coalition controls five of Malaysia’s 14 states and territories and has established a record of building surplus budgets, attracting foreign investment, improving social services and promoting equal citizenship rights for all ethnic groups. But it has also been hampered by internal conflicts over application of Islamic law.

Some observers maintain that a change in government would be destabilizing for Malaysia, while others contend it’s crucial for bringing about the reforms necessary for Malaysia to function effectively as a pluralistic society in a globalized world.

This National Press Club Newsmaker news conference will take place on Wednesday, April 24 at 2 p.m. in the club’s Zenger Room on the 13(th) Floor of the National Press Building, 529 14(th) St., NW, Washington, D.C. 20045.

SOURCE National Press Club