Malaysia’s ISIS conundrum

April 27, 2013

Malaysia’s ISIS conundrum

Joe ChinJoseph Chinyong Liow is the inaugural holder of the Lee Kuan Yew Chair in Southeast Asia Studies and senior fellow at the Brookings Center for East Asia Policy Studies. He is concurrently Professor of Comparative and International Politics and Dean at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Liow’s research interests lie in the fields of Muslim politics and civil society in Southeast Asia and the international politics of East Asia. He is the author and editor of 11 books and monographs including Muslim Resistance in Southern Thailand and Southern Philippines: Religion, Ideology, and Politics (Washington D.C.: East-West Centre, 2006), Islamic Education in Southern Thailand: Tradition and Transformation (Singapore: ISEAS, 2009) and Piety and Politics: Islamism in Contemporary Malaysia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). He is also co-editor of the four volume Routledge Series Islam in Southeast Asia.

Liow has also published in numerous peer-reviewed academic journals, including Pacific Review, Pacific Affairs, Asian Security, Asian Survey, Journal of Islamic Studies and Modern Asian Studies. In addition to his scholarly works, Liow has also published in major policy journals such as Foreign Affairs, The National Interest and NBR Analysis. He has also consulted for several MNCs including Shell, Statoil, BHP Billiton, Monitor 360 and Chevron International, and is a regular commentator in the international media.

Liow serves as co-editor of the Routledge Asian Security Studies book series and associate editor of the peer-reviewed journal Asian Security. He is also on the editorial board of South East Asia Research, Journal of Defense Studies and Resource Management, Journal of International and Global Studies and the ASAN Forum. He has just completed the 512-page fourth edition of the Dictionary of the Modern Politics of Southeast Asia, and is currently working on two book projects; one on religion and nationalism in Southeast Asia and the other on U.S.-Southeast Asia relations since the fall of Saigon.

Liow holds a doctorate in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.


The recent emergence of an ISIS recruitment video featuring young Malay (possibly also Indonesian) speaking boys attending religious classes and engaging in weapons training in ISIS-held territory has caused a furor in Malaysia. Estimates of the number of Malaysian fighters in ISIS vary from between 60 to almost 150, depending on who you ask. The high end of these figures approximates the number of Indonesian fighters that are also believed to be in Syria and Iraq. Yet the population of Malaysia is barely one-tenth that of Indonesia. In other words, Malaysians seem to be joining ISIS at a higher rate than Indonesians.

This state of affairs is all the more perplexing given how often Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Tun Razak, waxes lyrical on the international stage about moderation and how Malaysia is the epitome of multi-ethnic and inter-religious harmony, as he continues to press a nebulous “Global Movement of Moderates” agenda. What accounts for the appeal of ISIS in “moderate” Malaysia? To answer this question, let us start with the official Malaysian view on the causes of international terrorism, especially religiously-motivated terrorism.

Malaysia’s Muslim leaders have frequently pinpointed American foreign policies that affect the Muslim world – particularly the invasion of Iraq, Washington’s unstinting support for Israel, lack of sympathy for the Palestinian cause, and war in Afghanistan – as one of the main causes of terrorism today. To be sure, much can be said about how these factors have inflamed Muslim sentiment worldwide. But my interest here is to look specifically at the challenge that religiously-inspired terrorism in general, and ISIS in particular, poses for Malaysia. To that end, I argue that while “external factors” are important, the main causes for concern may well originate from within Malaysia’s own borders.

Four observations can be drawn from the Malaysian domestic context, which I believe speak to the conditions that exist for virulent ideologies like that of ISIS to potentially find sympathy and following:

First, in a 2013 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, it was noted that “in Malaysia . . . roughly a quarter of Muslims (27 percent) take the view that attacks on civilians are sometimes or often justified.” However, if we add to this number the 12 percent who take the view that violence is “rarely justified” in defense of Islam (as opposed to never justified), essentially 39 percent of the Malaysian Muslims surveyed believed that violence can be justified against enemies of Islam. Significantly, Indonesians polled only 18 percent on the same question (1 percent “often,” 5 percent “sometimes,” and 12 percent “rarely”). In an earlier poll on The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics, and Society, a mere 8 percent of Malaysians expressed concern about Muslim extremism while 31 percent were concerned about Christian extremism.

ISIS MalaysiaNow, I am not a big believer in surveys, which to my mind often raise more questions than answers. But reading this survey, I could not but come away with one thought – 39 percent of the Malaysian Muslims surveyed believed that violence can be justified against enemies of Islam. What is the relevance of the figures in the Malaysian context? I will return to this in a moment.

Second, Islam has unfortunately become heavily politicized in Malaysia. Malaysia’s dominant political party, UMNO, is a Malay-Muslim party that was created with the main objective, at least in theory, of promoting and defending Malay-Muslim supremacy. According to the party’s narrative, this supremacy is coming under siege from various cultural (read: non-Malay vernacular education) and religious (read: non-Muslim) quarters and hence has to be staunchly defended.

Given that Malaysia has a Malay-Muslim majority population, it should come as no surprise that UMNO’s chief political opponents are also Malay-Muslim parties who equally brandish religious credentials as a source of legitimacy. To the extent that there is political ideology at play in Malaysia today, it is Islam, and specifically Islamism, that dominates.

Let me be clear: Islam casts a pale shadow over Malaysia today not because it is Islam, or even Islamism, per se, but because its proponents (and “defenders”) are articulating a particularly exclusive brand of Islam that is divorced from the religion’s historically enlightened traditions, and which has no intention to encourage pluralism or compromise. The net effect of this is that non-Muslims Malaysian are marginalized by as Islamist parties try to “out-Islam” each other. As UMNO struggles to cling to power by focusing on its religious credentials above all else, religion has become heavily politicized and is viewed as a zero sum game.

Third, this politicization of Islam is taking place against a backdrop of an exceedingly strong state which has taken upon itself to police Islam and curtail any expression of faith that departs from the mainstream Shafi’i tradition. Yes, the ummah may be universal and Islamic confessional traditions may be diverse, but in Malaysia there is very little room for compromise beyond the “Islam” sanctioned by the state. The Shi’a tradition is legally proscribed, and several smaller Islamic sects are deemed deviant and hence, banned. All this happens despite the existence of constitutional provisions for freedom of worship. Needless to say, attempts by various fringe quarters in Muslim society to move discourse away from an overly exclusivist register have run up against the considerable weight of the state, which defines and polices “right” and “wrong” Islam.

Fourth, rather than extol the virtues and conciliatory features of Islam’s rich tradition, many Malay-Muslim political leaders have instead chosen to use religion to amplify difference, to reinforce extreme interpretations of Malay-Muslim denizen rights, and to condemn the “other” (non-Muslims) as a threat to these rights. For fear of further erosion of legitimacy and political support, the Malay-Muslim leadership of the country have in their public statements circled the wagons, allowing vocal right-wing ethnonationalist and religious groups to preach incendiary messages against Christians and Hindus with impunity. In extreme cases, they have even flippantly referred to fellow Malaysians who are adherents to other religious faiths as “enemies of Islam.” Even state-sanctioned Friday sermons have occasionally taken to referring to non-Muslim Malaysians as “enemies of Islam.” It is against this backdrop that the findings of the Pew surveys cited earlier take on greater, more disconcerting meaning.

Of course, we must acknowledge that not all in the Malay-Muslim leadership engage in this kind of narrow religio-political discourse. I know for a fact that a few of them privately sympathize with non-Muslim consternation about how their rights to freedom of religion are being blatantly undermined. The problem is, they dare not speak out publicly, thus creating the impression that they support the majoritarian narrative of exclusion of non-Muslims.

So how is all this related to ISIS and Malaysia’s concern for the group’s growing influence on its shores? My point is basically this – is it any surprise, given the four observations enumerated above, that the climate of religio-political discourse in Malaysia today would lend itself to the pull of extremist ideas of a group such as ISIS?

To be sure, Malaysia has a very competent internal security apparatus. But security measures alone are insufficient to deal with the threat the country currently faces. Indeed, without changing the way Malaysian society views and articulates Islam to allow for critical engagement of extremist ideas, the utility of security measures is limited at best. Worse still, they might have a contradictory effect of feeding an extremist mindset. While critical engagement will not eradicate the problem, I believe it will go some distance in reducing it. But in order to set a new tone for public discourse on Islam, pluralism, and critical engagement of extremist ideas, it will require political will and leadership at the very top.

It was reported recently in the Malay Mail that Malaysia’s top counter-terrorism official opined that an ISIS attack on Malaysia “was just a matter of time.” If so, Malaysian authorities would be well advised to consider that the appeal of ISIS may not be attributed only to developments in Syria or Iraq, or American foreign policy in the Muslim world. It could well start at home, where the political and social climate that allows exclusivist right-wing groups and politicians to speak and act with impunity is the same one that will provide recruits and sympathizers for insidious organizations such as ISIS.

Political Violence: Retiring the Word Terrorism

April 27, 2015


No. 101/2015 dated 27 April 2015

Political Violence:
Retiring the Word Terrorism

by James M. Dorsey


Founders of many modern states, including stalwarts of anti-terrorism like Israel and allies in the war on terror like the Kurds, achieved goals with political violence that killed innocent people and would be classified today as terrorism. Political violence should be recognised as a reflection of deep-seated social, economic and political problems — rather than demonised through terms like terrorism or evil.


RECENT DOCUMENTS uncovered by German magazine Der Spiegel trace the rise of the Islamic State to a network of former Iraqi intelligence officers loyal to toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In 2003 they were deprived of their jobs with no future prospects when then US administrator of Iraq Paul Bremer disbanded the Baathist military and security forces. They were aided by Syrian military officers and officials who saw the group as a buffer against a feared US attempt to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

The history of the rise of the Islamic State as an extreme Sunni Muslim rejection of discrimination by a Shiite majority in Iraq and repressive dominance by an Alawite minority in Syria revives the notion of “one man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist”. That notion is similarly embedded in the policies of both Western nations and conservative Arab regimes concerned about their survival. They not only forged  cooperation with Turkey’s Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and Syria’s Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) but also Gulf support for the jihadist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al Nusra that is locked in battle with Islamic State and in Western distinctions between good and bad foreign fighters.

Good and bad fighters

‘Bad foreign fighters’, angry at the human and political cost of combatting political violence with a military rather than a predominantly political campaign, are the thousands who have joined the ranks of Islamic State; ‘good foreign fighters’ are those who have gone to Syria to fight with the Kurds against the jihadists, particularly during last year’s battle for the besieged Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani.

The notion is also evident in the US National Intelligence’s most recent report to Congress that for the first time in years no longer includes Iran or the Tehran-backed Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah as a terrorist threat to US interests.

The list of internationally – recognised political leaders who can trace their roots to political violence and terrorism is long. Yet, they and their predecessors disavowed what is termed political violence once they achieved their goals. The list includes Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, whose ideological roots like those of former Israeli leaders Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, lie in the use of political violence and terrorism in pre-state Palestine without which the State of Israel most likely would not have been established. Both Begin and Shamir were wanted commanders of Irgun, a group denounced as terrorist by the British Mandate authorities.

Similarly, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hails from a movement that was long condemned as a terrorist organisation. While nothing justifies the killing of innocent civilians, recognition of Palestinians as a people with national rights and the creation of the Palestine Authority would most probably not have occurred without Palestinian attacks in the 1960s and 1970s on civilian targets.

Finally, the PKK, an organisation deemed terrorist by Ankara and its Western allies as well as its Syrian counterpart, the YPG, are de facto allies in the fight against Islamic State, the jihadist organisation that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq that employs brutality as a means of governance. The list is far longer: think of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC), the aging leaders of Algeria or the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

The sole common denominator of all these examples is not an ideology but a political grievance and a belief, right or wrong, that the odds were stacked against them and that violence was a necessity rather than a goal in and of itself. Political violence is a tactic most often employed and frequently with success by those opposed to forces with overwhelming military might.

A moment of lucidity

All of these men and groups who today are either respected political leaders or on their way to returning to the international fold saw political violence as a means of the underdog to secure their perceived rights and right an injustice rather than as a criminal philosophy and practice implicit in the use of the word terrorism.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, in a moment of lucidity, implicitly recognised the underlying politics when he last year acknowledged that American Muslims had stressed to him that the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace was fuelling anger on the streets and recruitment by Islamic State. “People need to understand the connection of that … it has something to do with humiliation and denial and absence of dignity,” Kerry said.

All of this is not to justify the use of political violence, the killing of innocent civilians or the extremist ideology and brutality of groups like Islamic State. Nor does it justify the indiscriminate torture of large numbers or mass rapes of women as a means of control. It is, however, recognising a political reality however unpleasant that may be.

Debunking de-politicisation

That reality involves acknowledging political violence for what it is and debunking efforts to depoliticise the roots of political violence that only serve to evade often painful political choices involved in confronting underlying grievances. It also involves accepting that it is politics, rather than military force and law enforcement, that offers the tools to effectively resolve situations that produce political violence.

It also serves to spotlight the fact that terms like ‘terrorism’ and ‘fighting evil’ turn the struggle against political violence into a zero-sum game in which victory constitutes the elimination of barbarians who, with problems unresolved, bounce back from setbacks in new, far more brutal guises.

Bombastic statements by Western leaders designating political violence termed terrorism, particularly in the case of jihadists, as an existential threat and an epic struggle against a form of totalitarianism comparable to that of fascism and communism, has only served to raise the profile and appeal of brutal perpetrators like Islamic State. The numbers speak for themselves: University of Maryland research shows that jihadist attacks had tripled in 2013 compared to 2010.

Political violence may be a scourge, yet it is fundamentally an act of politics. Recognising this makes politics rather than predominantly military force the appropriate response. A first step towards that recognition would be removing the term terrorism from the debate in a bid to eliminate ideological prejudice that serves vested interests and at best complicates the search for real solutions to real problems.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

Click HERE to read this commentary online.

26th ASEAN Summit hosted by Malaysia is a logistical nightmare

April 22, 2015

Published: Wednesday April 22, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday April 22, 2015 MYT 7:20:00 AM

26th ASEAN Summit hosted by Malaysia is a logistical nightmare

by S Paul

ASEAN SUMMIT KE-26I READ with concern the report “Tale of two locations at this ASEAN Summit” (The Star, April 21). [Read ]

Malaysia is playing host to the 26th ASEAN Summit this weekend. All the previous 25 ASEAN AnifahAman2summits were held in one location but Malaysia has chosen to be different. The said meeting will be held both in Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi, which is giving everyone a massive headache.

In these trying times, the Government has time and again pleaded with the rakyat to be frugal and advised us to spend prudently. At the same time, the Government should “walk the talk”. Hence, I cannot understand why the Foreign Affairs Ministry has chosen to incur unnecessary expenditure not only for its officials but also the members of the other ASEAN delegations, media personnel and the ASEAN Secretariat personnel.

 Mind you, some 3,000 officials and secretariat staff will be involved in the summit so one can imagine the cost, as well as the inconvenience, in moving from one location to another. The Foreign Ministry owes the rakyat an explanation.


Looking Back at the Fall of Phnom Penh

April 21, 2015


Fall of Phnom Penh: The United States Abandoned Cambodia

By Chhang Song


Phnom Penh in 1975

On April 10, John Gunther Dean, the US Ambassador to Cambodia at the fall of Phnom Penh, gave a startling interview to Denis D. Gray of the Associated Press, in which Dean accused the US of abandoning the country and “handing it over to the butcher.” Dean left on one of the last helicopters out. Chhang Song was President Lon Nol’s last Minister of Information. Here, in a story published by the Khmer Times of Phnom Penh, he describes in grim detail what Dean and the other Americans  left behind. 

In early April, 1975, when I was with Prime Minister Long Boret and President Lon Nol in Bali, we discussed what should be done in the event of the fall of Phnom Penh. We agreed the best plan would be to move the government headquarters to the deep water seaport of Kampong Som (now Sihanoukville). From there, we would plan resistance against the communist Khmer Rouge. 

The direction would be southwest along National Road 4, to Kampong Som. Evacuation would take place by road, jungle and airlift. The port city offered the point of greatest accessibility for supplies and a continuation of the struggle. A sea evacuation from Kampong Som would represent a final line of safety. Airfields at Kampong Som and on one of the nearby islands had been specially built for the purpose. There were even plans to relocate foreign embassies to the port city.

Oddar Meanchey, Cambodia’s northernmost province, was added to the plan as another point of resistance and a rallying point for retreating government forces. Its location close to the Thai border offered advantages. 

With no longer any assurance of outside assistance, journeys to these resistance sites appeared extremely hazardous on the evening of April 16, one day before the end.   The only remaining option was to fly the entire cabinet and the top military commander to Oddar Meanchey province. An ultra-secret plan was prepared.

Secret Plan: Flight to Oddar Meanchey 

At 4 am on April 17, helicopters would pick up cabinet ministers and military commanders in front of Wat Botum, in an empty field south of the Royal Palace. Ministers and military commanders who had been in session all through the night, left military headquarters in the early hours of the morning for their final rendezvous at the pagoda, before leaving Phnom Penh.

At the pagoda, it was quiet. It was a quiet that was foreboding and threatening. For these men, accustomed to years of violent war, the quiet seemed abnormal. Thirty of the republic’s top civil and military leaders, their wives and children, were there. The men wore their khaki uniforms. The prime minister and Gen. Sutsakhan and their families were there.

The chimes at the pagoda struck four, then four and one-half, then five. The day began to break. No helicopters landed. Helicopters and airplanes flying high in the clouds, on support missions to the front line, were the only ones to be seen. The cabinet was left on the ground, to ponder its next step. Somebody had got his signals crossed.

Hope of evacuating the cabinet  to Oddar Meanchey to continue the resistance was fading. “They are not coming,” somebody in the group said in a tired, resigned voice. 

In the last days before the fall, some ministers spent their nights at military headquarters, the Etat-Major Général on Norodom Blvd, which now was used for cabinet meetings. They slept on sofas, desks, and even on the floor. Some kept a small amount of luggage with them, clothes and toiletries wrapped in linen sheets. There were, in effect, refugees.

After the aborted helicopter evacuation in front of Wat Botum, Prime Minister Boret and the cabinet returned to the military headquarters just before 6 am.  Deep anxiety, agony and intrigue were all present on that morning of April 17, 1975. After an evening of steady rocket fire, in the morning there was a death-like silence. Not a rocket, not a shot, nor an artillery shell could be heard.

At 6 am, Ung Bun Huor, president of the National Assembly, walked through the gate to the military headquarters. He looked cheerful enough considering the circumstances. 

“Peace is at hand,” he said mimicking Henry Kissinger. “I believe we have been successful,” he added. He referred to a peace proposal the government offered the communist side just three days earlier.  At Kissinger’s urging, a message was sent to Prince Norodom Sihanouk in Beijing, via the Red Cross, officially inviting him to return to Cambodia and head a government of national reconciliation. The message stated that the republican army would surrender to him and welcome him back as head of state.

In Phnom Penh, at dawn on April 17, it was widely assumed that the lull in fighting must be the consequence of Prince Sihanouk’s acceptance of the offer and his orders to his men to cease fighting. Pacing up and down, Bun Hour related what he had seen that morning. Beginning at 5 am, he had driven around the city’s defense perimeter, feeling out the front lines. Before, they had been closing in dramatically on the capital. Now, all was quiet.

Peninsula Invaded Overnight

While this news was being received with a mixture of feelings, the telephone rang. Admiral Vong Sarendy, chief of the Cambodian Navy, answered the call. It was from his headquarters located on the tip of the Chroy Changvar Peninsula. There were suspicious movements directed toward the naval base, the caller reported. Boats could be seen coming from the opposite shore. Sarendy immediately requested permission to return to his headquarters to meet the enemy threat.

Thirty minutes passed. The lull in fighting was suddenly broken by the deafening noise of chattering machinegun fire in the distance. Once again the phone rang at the military headquarters. This time it was Admiral Sarendy himself. He had reached his own headquarters now and was reporting a ferocious attack launched by enemy forces against the naval base. They had crossed the river during the night and now occupied much of Chroy Changvar Peninsula.

Adm. Sarendy’s voice betrayed little emotion as he talked to his chief. But he was aware that the end was in sight. In the background, the sounds of machine gun fire and the explosion of rockets could be heard.

“They are all around us now,” he said simply. “They talked to me through our radio, directly. They demanded that we surrender and raise the white flag at once.”

Gen. Sutsakhan said: “We are in deep trouble. We are besieged. I am no longer in a position to give you orders. Do whatever you judge best. You are on your own.”

Gen. Sutsakhan spoke in a resigned tone. He wished his Chief of Naval Forces good luck and signed off. Prime Minister Boret listened to the grim report without saying a word. He left and jumped into a Land Rover and drove to the river’s edge.

Phnom PenhPhnom Penh Today

Sedition in 140 Characters

April 17, 2015

Sedition in 140 Characters

by Azrul Mohd Khalib

EricThe next time I see Eric Paulsen of Lawyers for Liberty, I have to remind myself to congratulate him for being, if I am not mistaken, the first person in Malaysia to be charged for sedition based on a Twitter post back in January.

Worthy of an entry into the vaunted Malaysian Book of Records, don’t you think? He was also the first person to be charged for sedition this year. Pembuka tirai 2015. During the heat of the hudud debate last month, two other tweets from him attracted the IGP’s TLC resulting in his arrest, detention and investigation for, guess what? Sedition!

I once wondered, when Twitter was first launched, what on earth can a person say in 140 characters? Being someone who has been criticised as being overly verbose, who loves to beat the bushes and is totally incapable of saying something in five words when it can be said in 20, I found myself alien to the idea of such succinctness and brevity. You can say plenty, apparently, and piss people off.

Eric can not only express himself eloquently within those limits, his tweets can also cause noses to go out of joint, sphincters to spasm and contract violently, and hands to clutch hair (or empty air for some) under berets, kopiahs and songkoks.

Earlier this month, cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque better known as Zunar, was slapped with nine sedition charges for tweets critical of the conviction of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy. Nine! I think he makes it to the Book of Records for most sedition charges faced by an individual under this draconian law first enacted by the British during the colonial era.

Opponents of the right to freedom of expression (unless it is their own), supporters of the idea that “there is too much freedom and not enough limits and restrictions”, and advocates of cracking down on “troublemakers” are currently having a field day with the successful passage of Bills related to the diminishing and restrictions of constitutional freedoms sold as necessary for national security and fighting extremism.

I don’t know about you but have you looked and heard this lot lately? Some seem to consist of people belonging to obscure NGOs which no one seems to have heard of, some wearing pseudo military uniforms, and who use threats and abusive language peppered with words of hate, violence, prejudice and racism. Others smile sinisterly in Parliament and celebrate while our rights are trampled under their jackboots.

Meanwhile the powers that be are apparently terrified of the written word, speech, thoughts and even cartoons which espouse and celebrate the freedom of expression and diversity of opinion, promote and defend moderation, demand accountability and transparency, and speak out against injustice and tyranny.

Cartoonists, writers, lecturers and lawyers are being arrested, detained, dressed up in stylish police lock-up purple and made to face charges of sedition. The loud defenders of Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), the Sedition Act and other measures to curtail fundamental civil liberties seem to be made of Teflon, impervious and able to act with impunity as they misuse and abuse the issues of race, religion and royalty for their own purposes.

Irony? More like tragedy.

Outside observers could be forgiven for asking what and whose side is the government on and what are they defending against from their own people? Make no mistake. We are at a point where we are starting to bear more resemblance to the society of George Orwell’s 1984 than the vibrant parliamentary democracy envisioned by our nation’s founders.

When the government begins to turn against its people, expecting to hear only compliance, obedience and assent, therein lies the danger of tyranny.

Draconian laws which act as “catch-alls” cannot and must not replace the need for diligent andKhalid Abu Bakar2 thorough professional police work. Above all, the maxim of “innocent until proven guilty” must continue to be part of the bedrock of justice in this country and not be sacrificed on the altar of expediency.

When laws are passed which prevent the possibility for any judicial review, presumes guilt over innocence, does not require to demonstrate intent, allows for the arrest and detention of a citizen without charge or trial and is deliberately vague in the description of the alleged crime, the question that needs to be asked is not if the laws are going to be used, but when they will be abused.

Is this the legacy that our politicians today aim to leave for the children of tomorrow’s Malaysia: the creation of a tyranny to maintain political relevance and dominancy and to defend us from the threat of extremism?

That to maintain power and be protected from terror and extremism, we must ourselves become a tyranny? Have we, by these actions, been defeated by doing precisely what those who live and thrive on terror and extremism expects us to do? Changing our way of life, viewing each other with suspicion and to live in fear?

All who voted for POTA and the amendments to the Sedition Act, remember this moment if the day comes that these laws are ever used on you. Those who use might to make right often fall victim to their own devices. For allegiances, alliances and loyalty are but fleeting concepts in Malaysian politics.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Malaysia: Authoritarian Politics returns with the passage of POTA

April 7, 2015

Authoritarian Democracy returns with the passage of POTA


Khalid Abu Bakar

The Malaysian government has passed an anti-terrorism bill reminiscent of the notorious Internal Security Act it discarded in 2012, earning the government widespread condemnation from international civil rights groups and journalism associations.  The passage comes at a time when the country is also increasingly using its 1948 Sedition Act – which Najib also promised to do away with against its political critics.

The new Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), pushed through in the early hours today, April 7, allows suspected terrorists to be detained for a maximum of 38 days without trial, with a Prevention of Terrorism Board that would then be empowered to extend detention to two years and renewed every two years after that, with no maximum period of detention. The measure allows for detention solely on the word of a police inspector, extendable for an additional 38 days during which the suspect is not permitted access to counsel. Critics of the government fear the act could be used against them.

Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, when he was in a considerably stronger position than he is now, ordered the cessation of detention without trial in 2011, earning praise as a moderate leader from the United States and other governments.

Najib as 1MDB advisor

However, the country is plainly worried – and rightly so –about suspected fundamentalist returnees from the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq with estimates of those who have slipped out of Malaysia for the Middle East. Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar, the police chief, in a Twitter message, told Agence France Presse on Monday that 17 people had been arrested on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks in Kuala Lumpur, including two recently returned from Syria.

Malaysian voters are plainly jittery. As Asia Sentinel reported on March 20, unofficial guesses are that as many as 400 young Malaysians have left for the Middle East although some alarmists put the figure as high as 1,000. Authorities say the numbers are far lower, at “scores.” Zahid Hamidi, the Home Minister, told reporters in January that 67 were known to have gone to join the fighting and that at least five had been killed.

Malaysian Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, pictured in 2010

Civil rights and journalist groups, however, questioned the need for the return of a draconian security act that was abhorred by much of the country.  Amnesty International, in a prepared release, said that: “Such laws do not comply with international human rights law and contradict commitments made by the Malaysian authorities to the international community.”

The Kuala Lumpur-based Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ) in a prepared release said it was “appalled at the government’s proposal to reintroduce indefinite detention without trial.” The organization said it is “farcical that Prime Minister Najib Razak made a big show of announcing the repeal of the ISA in 2011 and for Parliament to have passed a law repealing it in 2012, only to have a very similar act reintroduced in 2015 under the exact same leadership.”

Human Rights Watch issued a similar statement, saying “Permitting a government-appointed body to order indefinite detention without judicial review or trial is an open invitation to serious abuse,” according to Phil Robertson, the Bangkok-based deputy Asia director of the organization. “The draft law creates conditions conducive to torture, and denies suspects the right to challenge their detention or treatment.”

The measure appears at a time when the government has dramatically stepped up the use of the sedition act, which Najib had also promised to do away with.  However, under pressure from United Malays National Organization party chieftains alarmed by growing public frustration and annoyance over a continuing string of scandals including that of 1Malaysia Development Bhd., or 1MDB, a shaky state investment fund, Najib has been forced to return to the law with a vengeance.  The debt problems of 1MDB have impelled the Fitch rating service to downgrade the country’s entire financial system over the fear of a default. In particular, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who engineered Najib’s replacement of former Premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, has been savaging Najib at every turn.

So far, nearly 160 arrests have been made under the sedition act, almost all of them members of the opposition, members of the press, human rights organizations and others including Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, or Zunar, perhaps the country’s most popular cartoonist, who makes a specialty of mocking the spending habits of Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor.

That has led Amnesty International to describe the country as an expanding black hole for human rights, calling on authorities to end the use of the act “to criminalize criticism of the government.”

Amnesty International, according to the statement, “has long expressed concerns about Malaysia’s oppressive laws which allow for arbitrary and/or preventive detention, in the same way that it has expressed its increasing concern over the use of existing laws to repress peaceful dissent.”