Posts Tagged ‘malaysia’
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.
I’ve published a brief, basic piece for the Tufts Daily on Malaysia that is available here. I am also re-posting it below.
With the exception of a few blank stares, I get a pat on the back in the United States for being Malaysian.
Middle Eastern cab drivers silence their radios and begin re−enacting former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s thundering tirades against the West. American backpackers start a play−by−play account of the vibrant shopping scene and mouth−watering food. The melting pot over at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy boils over with praise for the impressive interracial harmony Malaysia has achieved between a Muslim majority and sizable Chinese and Indian minorities. Even the less−informed manage their own rendition of the famous “Malaysia: Truly Asia” advertisement.
The reality is much more sobering. The headlines recently dominating Malaysian newspapers have hardly painted delicious, harmonious or melodious pictures of the country. A Muslim woman nearly caned for drinking a beer. Muslims offending Hindus by carrying a severed cow’s head in demonstrations. Churches attacked by Malay−Muslims following a court ruling over how the word “god” should be used. Hindu temples demolished and hundreds of government detentions following protests. Sodomy charges against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. And, most recently, a crackdown to stop Muslim youth from celebrating Valentine’s Day.
These are images one expects in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, not “moderate Muslim” Malaysia. Yet the truth is that Malaysia has long been a racially and religiously exclusivist country, rather than the secular, harmonious society some make it out to be. Its constitution guarantees freedom of worship. In practice, though, all ethnic Malays are considered Muslim, Muslims are not allowed to convert and non−Muslims are forced to do so if they want to marry a Muslim. Some movies portraying God in other forms, like “The Prince of Egypt” (1998) and “Bruce Almighty” (2003) have been banned, and furor erupts sporadically over concerts by “immoral” groups like the Black Eyed Peas. And a decades−old rule grants exclusive privileges to Malay−Muslims in higher education, government and the economy at the expense of minorities.
Even if not all Malay−Muslims condone them, these policies and events raise serious doubts about whether a Muslim majority can coexist equally with non−Muslim minorities and if Islam can balance communal faith and individual rights. There are already growing signs of discontent. Many non−Malays have fled the country. After the 2008 elections, non−Malays and some moderate Malay−Muslims deserted the governing coalition led by Malaysia’s ruling United Malays National Organization, where it lost its two−thirds parliamentary majority for the first time. Investors have also been spooked by racial and religious tensions.
Yet with elections looming, few expect change. Prime Minister Najib Razak, sandwiched between disgruntled minorities calling for reform and conservative Malay−Muslims resisting it, has all but shelved his grandiose plans for changing the affirmative action system. With the opposition losing steam and oil prices rising, Mr. Najib may be tempted to make half−hearted changes to win just enough non−Malay votes to regain his party’s two−thirds majority or court more conservative Malays and campaign on economic growth. But neither of those options will address the structural problems that plague the country.
Outside observers will probably continue to marvel at Malaysia for its weather, food and shopping. But, as a Malaysian, I wish I could admire my country for more meaningful things like political leadership, equality and progress, rather than the corrupt, scandal−filled and stagnant politics that have kept it from becoming a truly modern, harmonious and prosperous republic. Truly Asia? I certainly hope not.