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Malaysia: A Country for Old Men

Anwar Ibrahim is once again in the international news. Once again he stands accused of sodomy. In 2004 similar allegations were rejected by Malaysia’s highest court. The Court ruled in favour of the defence who had held that the allegations were a political maneuver of the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO). The aim: to stifle legitimate democratic dissent as a means to shore up UMNO power.  

These new accusations against Anwar Ibrahim appear to be a repeat performance. They appear to be part of a wider pattern of state action against those seeking peaceful change.  

UMNO has been in power for a very long time and appears to have an overdeveloped sense of entitlement to power. In March 2008 the Malaysian electorate sent a very clear message of dissent. In a democracy power is gained through the ballot box: the continued abuse of existing national security and sedition laws to shut down democratic peaceful dissent and opposition is a serious abuse of those laws. A peaceful demonstration in no way constitutes a threat to the security of a democratic state. The government’s actions are challenge to the legitimacy of the government and to Malaysian democracy itself.  

I. Anwar Ibrahim arrested  

On 29 June 2008, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Opposition leader of Malaysia Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim took refuge at the Turkish Embassy in Kaula Lumpur fearing for his life. He was accused of sodomizing a male aide on 26 June 2008. The aide identified as Saiful Bahari lodged a complaint at the Travers police station in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur on 28 June 2008 alleging that Anwar had sodomized him in a condominium in an upscale Kuala Lumpur suburb. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi suggested the police investigate the charge.[1]  On 30 June 2008, Anwar Ibrahim left the Turkish embassy after having been assured safety and security.  

Anwar Ibrahim dismissed the charge.  He stated that the allegations “are nothing more than a replay of the events which transpired in 1998 when I was sacked from the office of the deputy prime minister, jailed and beaten, and then charged and convicted by a kangaroo court for crimes which I never committed.”[2]  

In 1998, he was sentenced on the charge of sodomizing his driver and abusing his power to cover up the deed. Subsequently, he was convicted on both charges. However, Malaysia’s highest court overturned the sodomy conviction and freed him in 2004.  

Anwar Ibrahim made a remarkable comeback in the March 2008 elections. The ruling National Front coalition received its worst-ever result. The opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim won 82 seats in the 222-member Parliament and gained control of five state assemblies.  

The latest allegations came as Anwar Ibrahim indicated his readiness to contest a by-election. Anwar Ibrahim could not contest the elections in March because of his conviction for abuse of power that barred him from holding political office for five years. The ban ended in April 2008.[3]  

II. Attacks on legitimate protest  

Malaysians of Indian origin leaders are also facing repression for demanding an end to discrimination. The frustration of Malaysians of Indian origin is seen as a major contributory factor to the poor performance of the ruling coalition.  

Ethnic Indians and Chinese complain that they get fewer opportunities in education, business and jobs than the majority Malays. Out of Malaysia’s 27 million people, Malays account for 60 per cent of the population, Indians make up nearly eight per cent while ethnic Chinese make up 25 per cent.[4]  

The government of Malaysia have failed to release five leaders of the ‘Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf)’ identified as P. Uthayakumar, V. Ganabatirau, M. Manoharan, T. Vasantha Kumar and R. Kengadharan. The five  were arrested by Special Branch police officers on 13 December 2007 after holding a mass rally of ethnic Indians to protest their marginalisation in the multi-racial country. They are held under the Internal Security Act (ISA) that allows for indefinite detention without trial.  

On 14 May 2008, Malaysia’s Federal court refused to free the leaders describing the detention as lawful. The three-man panel led by Chief Judge of the Federal Court, Malaya Alauddin Mohd Sheriff, upheld the High Court’s decision to quash the leader’s habeas corpus application seeking release from detention under ISA. They ruled that   Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in his capacity as the then Internal Security Minister had rightly issued the detention order and had complied with the procedural requirements under the Internal Security Act.[5]  

Those supporting the Indian origin leaders too have been targeted. On 14 June 2008, six opposition activists including three Members of Parliament (MPs) of Anwar Ibrahim’s Keadilan party were arrested outside Malaysia’s royal palace, where protesters held a rally to plead for their release.[6]  

Apart from the Hindu leaders, other political activists have been arrested in circumstances that raise concerns over the motives behind the detentions on fictitious ground.  

BERSIH (Clean), a coalition of opposition political parties and non-government organisations, has been demanding a Royal Commission on Electoral Reform (RCER) to examine reforms to the existing electoral system.  

On 15 February 2008, People’s Justice Party (PKR) Information Chief Tian Chua and BERSIH supporter Jalaluddin Abdul Manap were arrested after a submission of memorandum to the King calling for a Royal Commission on Electoral Reform (RCER). Another political activist Ginie Lim of the People’s Justice Party was arrested at the Brickfields police station during her visit to Tian Chua and Jalaluddin Abdul Manap. She was arrested after she took picture of the investigation officer, Inspector Hidayak who ordered to carry away Tian Chua who resisted to be sent into police lock-up.[7]  

Earlier on 17 November 2007, BERSIH organized a massive rally to press for its demand to ensure that national elections of March 2008 were fair. The government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi denounced the protest stating: “They are challenging me and I don’t like being challenged.” According to police estimates, 245 people were arrested under section 27 (5) of the Police Act, 1967 relating to illegal assembly. Although they were later released on bail, they face prosecution and jail terms of up to a year.[8]  

On 6 May 2008, Malaysia Today editor Raja Petra Kamaruddin and former banker Syed Akbar Ali were charged with sedition. Raja Petra Kamarudin, was charged in the Petaling Jaya Sessions court with sedition in connection with an article he wrote, titled “Let’s send the Altantuya murderers to hell” and posted up at www.malayia-today.net on 25 April 2008. Syed Akbar Ali was charged for allegedly posting seditious comments about Malays and Islam on Raja Petra’s article titled “Malaysia’s organized crime syndicate: All roads lead to Putrajaya”.[9]  

On 11 May 2008, two human rights defenders identified as Lau Shu Shi and Teh Chun Hong were arrested under Sections 27 and Section 90 of Police Act for protesting against Internal Security Act rally held at Gurney Drive Roundabout in Penang.[10]    

III. Malaysia and change  

Many hoped that the departure of Mahatir Mohammed would pave the way for a more democratic Malaysia. But Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has had other ideas.  

Popular demands for change were expressed. On 20 May 2008, Mahatir himself has resigned from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) calling for resignation of Prime Minister Badawi following the results of the elections in March 2008.  Prime Minister Badawi has resisted the calls for his resignation but his legitimacy and support base is weakening.  

The emergence of China and India as economic giants has impacted the influence of Malaysia. Despite its remarkable economic and social success, Malaysia’s three main races – Malays, Indians and Chinese live increasingly separate lives. The Prime Minister Badawi government has failed to move beyond tokenism which fails to disguise an increasingly Malay-dominated profile.  

The use of security and sedition laws to oppress legitimate peaceful protest is a symbol of government desperation and a signal of change. The international community’s interest is not in propping up the status quo. The international community must not fail democracy.


[1]. Malaysia 's Anwar demands govt guarantee his safety, 30 June 2008, available at: http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/storypage.aspx?StoryId=123519  

[2]. Anwar takes up refuge offer from Turkish embassy, The Star, 30 June 2008  

[3]. Malaysia 's Anwar accused of sodomy again, Associated Press, 30 June 2008, available at: http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5gvk18e1IzUJ9V-VNzo1_wg-4mkWgD91JM8T00

[4]. Malaysia 's top court refuses to free Indian leaders, Express India, 14 May 2008, available at: http://www.expressindia.com/latest-news/Malaysias-top-court-refuses-to-free-Indian-leaders/309520/

[5]. Malaysia 's top court refuses to free Indian leaders, Express India, 14 May 2008, available at: http://www.expressindia.com/latest-news/Malaysias-top-court-refuses-to-free-Indian-leaders/309520/

[6]. Malaysian-Indians rally for release of detained leaders, available at: http://in.news.yahoo.com/pti/20080614/r_t_pti_wl_intl/twl-malaysian-indians-rally-for-release-f86d152.html

[7]. Ginie Lim Arrested, All Three Detainees Remanded for 3 Days, Suaram.Net, 16 February 2008

[8]. Malaysia : Large protest in Kuala Lumpur demands electoral reforms, WSWS, 16 November 2007, available at: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2007/nov2007/mala-n16.shtml

[9]. Drop Charges against Raja Petra and Syed Akbar, Respect Freedom of Speech and Expression, Suaram.net, Urgent Appeal, 8 May 2008

[10]. Two Human Rights Defenders Released on Police Bail, Sauram.Net, 12 May 2008

 

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