September 17, 2011
Najib pushes ahead with reform agenda
By Kevin Brown in Singapore (09-15-11)
Najib Razak, leader of the multi-ethnic south-east Asian nation since 2009, told its 28m people in a live broadcast on Thursday that the “historic” reforms underlined his commitment to transforming Malaysia into a modern, progressive democracy.
However, Mr Najib acknowledged that “there may be short term pain for me, politically”, reflecting concern among aides about opposition to change from Malay supremacist elements of the ruling party, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO).
The repeal of the Internal Security Act, introduced three years after Independence in 1957 after an armed communist uprising, will reassure sceptics who had doubted that Mr Najib’s repeated promises to reform Malaysia were serious.
Critics had feared that the act, under which 37 people are currently detained, would be amended rather than abolished as Mr Najib tried to balance competing demands for more civil liberties and a continued tough line on security.
However, his decision to couple the repeal of the ISA with the abolition of Malaysia’s Emergency Ordinance, a separate law allowing detention without charge for up to two years, is likely to reassure liberals that he is serious about change.
The Prime Minister said both laws would be replaced by legislation incorporating greater restrictions on police powers and introducing judicial oversight of the detention process. He also announced the abolition of a requirement for newspapers to seek renewal of press and publication permits every year, a review of restrictions requiring police permission for marches and demonstrations and a review of laws restricting the freedom to choose where to live.
A review of censorship laws and a commission of inquiry into concerns about the electoral system had already been announced.
The reforms follow efforts by Mr Najib to distance himself from Malay supremacist opponents within UMNO in an attempt to recover waning support among urban Malays and the minority ethnic Chinese and Indian population.
UMNO and its ethnic Indian and Chinese based partners in the ruling National Front coalition, have struggled since a relatively poor general election result in 2008 to stem a drain of urban support to a secular opposition grouping led by Anwar Ibrahim, a former UMNO deputy prime minister.
A fresh general election is due by 2013, and is thought likely to be called next year. However, Mr Najib’s political freedom for manoeuvre remains constrained by a tough fightback from UMNO members who fear his attempts to modernise Malaysia will lead to a dismantling of laws that entrench a leading role in the country for the majority Malay population.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.