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Is Spring in the Air in Malaysia?

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I returned home to Malaysia in early July to find a mix of fear and excitement hanging in the air. A widespread protest for electoral reform was scheduled to take place on July 9, energizing those agitating for political change and worrying others expecting government repression.

A week later, thousands of peaceful demonstrators in the so−called Bersih 2.0 rally were doused with water cannons and fired with tear gas by the Malaysian police, and over 1,000 were arrested. Another brave attempt by Malaysian citizens to assert their freedom had been forcibly forestalled by their fearful government.

Little wonder that, in talking to some Malaysians at a social gathering over at Harvard University this weekend, I found that they remain skeptical even after Prime Minister Najib Razak, in a televised address earlier this month, vowed to repeal several of the country’s security laws. This includes the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), which gives the government sweeping powers to detain suspects indefinitely and has been used to put opposition party politicians and activists behind bars. Is some version of the Arab Spring in the air in Malaysia? If Mr. Najib follows through with the slew of civil rights reforms he has promised, they will be nothing short of historic.

That’s a big if. True, Mr. Najib, a British−educated economist and the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, has tried to introduce several bold reforms since coming to office after his governing coalition’s poor showing in the 2008 elections. He clearly understands what many have been arguing for years: that Malaysia needs to complete its transition to a full democracy and avoid being caught in the middle income trap. In March 2010, Mr. Najib told The Economist that his reforms were “nothing short of bold and courageous”, and that he did not “believe in incremental change.”

He may have spoken too soon. Many of his initiatives, including an effort to abolish pro−Malay affirmative−action privileges, slash fuel subsidies and introduce a good and services tax, have since been rolled back, scaled down, or pushed forward as he wrestles with staunch opposition from conservatives within his own party determined to preserve a network of patronage and rent. Many are beginning to question his ability to lead, with one recent poll showing his ratings slide to 59 percent this August from 79 percent over a year ago.

His latest grand gesture is being read as an attempt to shore up his sagging popularity and win Malaysia’s middle ground ahead of elections to be held within the next year or so. If so, Malaysians will need a lot of convincing. First, it is still not clear whether these reforms will be watered down or rubbished altogether by conservatives within Mr. Najib’s party, the United Malay National Organization (UMNO). His own Home Affairs Minister and a known hardliner, Hishamuddin Hussein, dismissed any talk of abolishing the ISA just two days before Mr. Najib made his announcement, suggesting either that the reforms were either not discussed between major Cabinet members or that strong disagreements remain.

Furthermore, perhaps expecting a backlash against “bold and courageous reform,” Mr. Najib also pledged to replace the repealed security laws with two fresh ones. It is not clear what the shape of these new laws will be, although they are expected to also allow preventative detention, albeit with more judicial oversight and limits on police power. Skeptics worry that these fresh laws will ultimately change nothing substantively and amount to little more than window dressing.

Given Mr. Najib’s past performance, it is not surprising that many Malaysians remain cautiously optimistic about his current reforms. It is clear that their sixth prime minister likes to dream big. What remains to be seen is whether he can bring his party, and ultimately his country, along with him.

This article was originally published in the Tufts Daily here.

Written by Prashanth Parameswaran

September 26, 2011 at 10:29 am

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