Malaysia’s Outdated Thuggery

February 23, 2010

Outdated Political Thuggery embarrasses Malaysia

by Peter Hartcher, Sydney Morning Herald

Dumb autocrats use the army, goon squads and guns to repress the opposition. Smart autocrats use the law courts to do it. Indonesia’s Soeharto was a dumb autocrat. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad were smart autocrats.

The Lee-Mahathir model keeps the outward facade of a functioning democracy, with elections, a parliament and supposedly independent courts. Behind it, the systems are gutted to guarantee the ruling party remains ruling.

In Singapore, where Lee’s People’s Action Party has been in power for 50 continuous years, the government simply sues opposition politicians for defamation. A tame court hands down ruinous damages, opponents end up in bankruptcy, jail or exile.

When a meddlesome foreigner, the deputy director for Asia of Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, said last month that “Singapore is the textbook example of a politically repressive state”, the government just shrugged and said: “Singapore is a democratic state with a clean and transparent government.”

The army is in its barracks and there are no goon squads smashing through people’s front doors at 3am. It’s all legit(imate), see? The foreign investors and governments play along. So what if the ruling party holds 98 per cent of the seats in parliament? It has an elected parliament, and surely that’s good enough.

Lee quit the prime ministership in 1990 and now holds a personalised cabinet post of Minister Mentor. But his system lives on. His handpicked successors as prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, and now Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, have been every bit as smart as the old man himself in preserving the appearance of legitimacy.

In Malaysia, Mahathir was never as subtle or as smooth as Lee. But Mahathir was still a smart autocrat who kept control through his puppetry of the judicial system. The pivotal moment was in 1988 when Mahathir complained that the courts were “too independent”.

He purged the chief judicial officer, the Lord President Tun Salleh Abas, and suspended the five chief justices of the Supreme Court. The court system has never given any further trouble to the Barisan Nasional (BN), or National Front, since. Together with its predecessor, the BN has ruled Malaysia continuously for 54 years.

It’s infinitely smarter to use legal instruments to purge judges than to use guns against protesters. A judicial massacre makes lousy TV. You won’t see one live on CNN. So it remains hidden from international view. Yet it can be every bit as repressive. So when Mahathir faced a power struggle in 1998 with his deputy prime minister and heir apparent, the charismatic Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, he naturally turned to the courts to purge his younger rival.

In a blatantly political fix-up, he had Anwar arrested and charged with sodomy, a shocking crime in a predominantly conservative Muslim country. Even today it carries a maximum penalty of 20 years’ jail. The police Special Branch concocted evidence and coerced witnesses. Anwar emerged from his police cell to appear in court with a bruised face, inflicted, it was later learnt, when the chief of police beat him.

The verdict was never in question. The courts convicted Anwar of sodomising his aide and speechwriter, Munawar Anees. The former deputy PM spent six years in jail. Munawar, now living in the US, has since said he was coerced into giving evidence against Anwar. “My detention by the Malaysian Special Branch taught me how it feels to be forcibly separated from one’s wife and children,” Munawar wrote in the Wall Street Journal last month.

“How it feels to be searched and seized, disallowed to make phone calls, handcuffed, blindfolded, stripped naked, endlessly interrogated, humiliated, drugged, deprived of sleep, physically abused. What it’s like to be threatened, blackmailed, hectored by police lawyers, brutalised to make a totally false confession.”

With Malaysia under tremendous international pressure from Anwar’s admirers, including America’s Al Gore and Britain’s Gordon Brown, and with Mahathir retiring from the prime ministership in 2003, a review court overturned the sodomy sentence. Anwar was released in 2004.

He was allowed to return to politics in 2008 to lead the opposition to the BN. He committed the crime of doing so with some success. In March 2008, under challenge from Anwar, the BN won a national election, but was shocked to lose its prized majority of two-third of the seats in parliament.

The new BN Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, reacted exactly as Mahathir had to a challenge from Anwar. Four months after the ruling party’s election setback, Anwar was once again charged with sodomy. Once again, it’s a blatant political case. The newspaper The Star called the case “Sodomy II”.

Why is Anwar such a threat? “At the moment,” says Carl Thayer, an expert at the University of NSW, “there is no other leader who can hold together the opposition coalition of an Islamic party with a Chinese party, who is capable of being prime minister, and who has experience and international recognition that Anwar has.”

The case is a joke. It exposes the Najib government as desperate and underhanded. It makes Malaysia a subject of international ridicule. While under Mahathir this form of legal manipulation might have been smart autocracy, in today’s world it just looks like Malaysia is playing around with its national future.

12 thoughts on “Malaysia’s Outdated Thuggery

  1. Whoa, how you guys enjoy seeing our Government and its people being belittled by foriegners.
    When it comes to al-jubuiri case, everything can do.
    Flout the law, flout decency, flout morality, flout humanity.
    Tujuan menghalalkan cara.
    Comparing Tun M with LKY is like comparing apple and orange.
    Rather Dr M. He’s not sinister.

  2. Ini dia bahasa Mahathir kata Tony Blair a liar.

    Malaysians must protest against this liar coming to Malaysia, much less to talk on his lying achievements. I pray to God that no Malaysian would harbour this idea of learning from the achievements of this unmitigated liar, Tony Blair, the lapdog of the arch-liar Bush and the self-appointed Deputy Sheriff Howard of Australia.

  3. Fairness

    No M’sian enjoys “being belittled by foreigners!!”

    It is our Govt’s conduct which invites these unpleasant remarks by all and sundry. Address that before you use words like aljuburi to refer to M’sians!!

    We are all of 1 race, the Human Race

  4. Presumably learned outsiders like this editor can see & compare us with the established norms of developing/developed countries and has ranked Malaysia a nearly pariah state, & Singapore a pseudo democracy thanks to black knight Mamakthir & Harry Lee – 2 highly driven old men who must still look sinisterly over the young men’s shoulders to protect their families’ secrets & interests. At least he can say it objectively and best of all have no malice nor vested interest other than material for his publications. This makes his opinion independent and believable, totally unlike our so called main stream parasites & liars ( utusan/nst/star/mm etc) which are highly paid stooges of the ruling gomen 😦

  5. Malaysia the subject of international ridicule? Naah …!

    Malaysia despite its towering buildings and all the trappings of a modern state, has never risen above the stature of that of a third world country.

    The Brits gave you guys their model of parliamentary democracy they call Westminster to start with. Instead nothing grew beyond the trimmings of parliamentary democracy. Beginning with form without the substance, it was reduced quickly to being the rubber stamp of an all powerful ruling elite whose claim to legitimacy became over the years tenuous at best.

    The Brits gave you guys the English language to master so its people could be living example of a people once backward but later globe trotting citizens, diplomats and businessmen. You threw that away and in its place nurtured a false pride in a language not spoken outside its own backyard. The Brits gave you a legal system based on the English common law and a judicial philosophy that meets the needs of a modern nation state; and left behind a quietly functioning civil service that religiously adheres to the doctrine of civil service neutrality. Today the justice system, law enforcement functions not to safeguard the rule of law but rule by autocrats impatient and determined to maintain their hold over power and with it their monopoly over the spoils of public office. You have not one justice system but two which are antagonistic rather than complimentary.

    And the civil service? Pipe smoking, neck-tie wearing and bespectacled anglophiles have been replaced by a group of self serving, religious bigots whose holier-than-thou attitude permeates the ranks of the civil service, preoccupied with after-life issues rather than issues that affect the development of a country once proud to show off her tradition – otherwise eager to please their political masters.

  6. People,
    I disagree with the writer on Singapore. Yup, Lee Kuan Yew has employed strong arm tactics but then again, it’s all by the book
    The writer did not mention Chiam See Tong won the defamation suit against Mah Bow Tan, raising PAP stalwart. Chiam See Tong was & is the revered opposition leader.
    Yup, LKY has withdrew PAP support on Potong Pasir constituency. The state government did not lesap all the Potong Pasir town council funds worth millions of dollars. Potong Pasir was situated next to where I stay now
    Yup, LKY has bankrupted JBJ. That’s also part of JBJ’s folly. The rough tumble of politics. Little you guys know that PAP didn’t know lay a hand on JBJ’s 2 sons. Kenneth & Philip Jeyaratnam. Kenneth is a private banker & Philips is the President of Singapore Law Society. One letter from GCK confirms that the 2 sons not laid hand upon. How on earth JBJ’s bankrupt evaporated overnight if not I speculate his 2 sons’ help. Do you know that Kenneth Jeyaratnam is now the Secretary General of Reform Party.
    Even Janadas Devan was the senior editor Straits Times even his father, Devan Nair was “sacked” & left for Canada. Heck, I am not going to say about him because it might tarnish Devan’s name & ultimately DAP name. Devan Nair, the great NTUC leader

    Yes Guys, authoritaritarian but stick to the book. As compared to Mahathir, heaven & earth.

    Even during the turbulent 80s, Dhanabalan, destined to be PM of Singapore, resigned because of the disagreement over the Marxist Conspiracy. LKY was given a tight slapped by Rajaratnam over Graduate Mother’s Scheme. Toh Chin Chye hounded LKY like mad after he was non ceremoniously relieved to make way of younger leaders.

    LKY prefered Dhanabalan & next Tony Tan rather than Goh Chok Tong to be PM of Singapore. Imagine LKY during the National Rally, went upstage have a dress down on GCK, calling him Kayu. How could it be handpicked

    I respected the writer’s comment but I don’t buy wholesale of what that writer says. Of course, I don’t go around protesting against this fella unlike the Perkasa.

    I suggest that fella buy the book Men In White, read it before commenting. My opinion of course.

    I stick my claim that Anwar has chosen the wrong guru (Mahathir) to be mentor. LKY is far better. PKR is going through what PAP going through in the 60s.

    LKY is an exceptional and transformational leader. I am now reading The Men in White. It is a fascinating account of Singapore’s history, politics and economics. One cannot help but look at Singapore with a tinge of envy. It is a success story and thanks to LKY and the people who were with him and their successors. For Mahathir, read Barry Wain’s book, Malaysian Maverick.—Din Merican

  7. Hello pupils
    Today’s Lesson No !
    If not for Anwar, we will all be united.
    All of you agree?
    Yes teacher.
    Lesson no 2
    Outdated thuggery.
    Thugs, oudtaed or not, are still thugs.
    Students do you agree Anwar taught us to do street protests?
    Raise your hands, please.
    Yes. Clever boys and girls.
    Lesson No 3
    Sodomy.What on earth is that?
    Answer: I dont know teacher. But I hear the word on TV every night.
    I asked my parents. They say shhh, bad word. Don’t mention again.
    But teacher whenever the word is mentioned, Anwar is there. Ii see him and his family smiling and waving on TV.
    Itt cannot be bad, teacher..
    Time to cane you. Bend down.

  8. Looes 74. “PAP didn’t lay a hand on JBJ’s 2 sons” Yet….As his first born son I will add some clarification re the letter that was published in the ST and referred to above. The letter was a response to a letter I wrote complaining that I could not even get an interview for work in Singapore. As we were being told that the reason various Singaporeans held the positions they did, was not due to connections and blood lines, but because they had amongst other qualifications, double firsts from Cambridge. I pointed out in my letter that I too had a double first from Cambridge yet employers in Singapore would not hire me nor even interview me from teh time of teh second Anson victory onwards. I got that letter in response. It proves nothing. It provides an alibi.

  9. it’s part of the British system that a new leader of the party takes over if the prime minister steps down for some reason (Jim Callahan took over when Harold Wilson resigned, John Major took over when Margaret Thatcher got pushed out). Many people say that it was a mistake for the Labor Party not to have a leadership election when Blair stepped down, but Brown and Blair had a deal, which everyone in the party and the country knew about. And the truth is, although Brown is not an inspiring leader, there are no obvious alternatives inside the party. There are lots of people who’d like the job, but none of them have strong support–except perhaps as apostles of Brown or Blair.

  10. What Mr.Peter Hartcher and others like him choose not to realise is that no country in the world (including Australia) started off as a democracy. When Singapore left (or was asked to leave) Malaysia, not many gave it a chance. Lee Kuan Yew and his small group have, by being resolute and courageous, transformed this small island into a prosperous, stable and, I might add a respected country.

    It still does not have many aspects of a classic western type democracy. But Singapore’s evolution has not stopped and outsiders need not fear too much about the methods used by its government or the lack of “democratic values” – values that took centuries for others to develop.

    I thought that outsiders had finally realised that most of the developing world had long ago seen through the mostly western driven cacophony of “democracy”, “human rights” and “civilised values”. This is not so it appears.

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