Malaysia Bans More Activists from Leaving Country

Fears of a widespread crackdown on dissent, including imprisonment, have increased in Malaysia with five more politicians and activists being told they would not be allowed to leave the country. In addition, Ho Kay Tat, the publisher of the country’s most influential financial daily, was called in on July 22 and told he could face charges for “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy,” with a maximum possible sentence of 20 years for publishing details of a massive government-linked scandal.

The quarantining of the five, following three earlier on July 22, is emblematic of the fast-moving and confusing events that have nearly paralyzed government and politics in Malaysia. The five are Tian Chua, a Parti Keadilan Rakyat MP, attorney Ambiga Sreenevasan and activists Maria Chin Abdullah, Hishamuddin Rais and Adam Adli Abdul Halim. They were told they would have to report to the nearest immigration office if they were to seek to leave the country.

The order blocking their departures has raised concerns that the government, faced with growing and widespread public cynicism and disapproval over corruption, is preparing a crackdown reminiscent of that delivered in 1987 when former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad ordered the roundup of more than 100 politicians, academics, journalists and others and jailed some of them for as long as two years.

However, some analysts say Najib and the United Malays National Organization have been so badly wounded by the scandal that they fear the consequences. According to one authoritative political figure, said Najib, backed by his wife Rosmah Mansor, has advocated such an extensive police exercise, but other members of the cabinet have deep concerns that the government isn’t strong enough, and it could ignite widespread unrest.

The government's suspected weakness was backed up by a report by A. Kadir Jasin, the former editor of The Straits Times, that two individuals embroiled in the 1Malaysia Development Bhd. scandal have been arrested in the past two days by a special four-agency investigation team and not allowed to leave the country. Kadir, the former editor of the UMNO-owned New Straits Times and Mahathir’s spear carrier in Mahathir’s attempt to bring down Najib, speculated that the team, previously thought by many to be toothless, is actually going after suspects in the case instead of attempting a whitewash.

The joker in the deck, however, is that the team must present its findings to the Attorney General, Abdul Gani Patail, a longtime UMNO loyalist whose exploits go back to 1999 when he was the lead prosecutor in what have long been dismissed by local and international rights organizations as spurious charges of sodomy and corruption that put opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in jail for six years. Abdul Gani has played a major role in blocking a long string of prosecutions of government figures as well as backing clearly trumped up charges against the opposition. If Abdul Gani were to aggressively pursue prosecution of 1MDB figures, that would be a definite signal that Najib is in serious trouble.

Opposition and independent figures quarantined today join Tony Pua, a Democratic Action Party MP and information director, Rafizi Ramli, the PKR secretary general, and the owner of the Edge Media Group, Tong Kooi Ong, who were barred on July 22 from leaving the country. Police say all are being investigated for activities “detrimental to parliamentary democracy.”

Several blogs in Kuala Lumpur reported that Ho Kay Tat, the Edge’s publisher, was called into police headquarters on July 22 and questioned for two hours over the paper’s reporting on the massive 1Malaysia Development Bhd financial scandal, which has been percolating behind the scenes and in public for months over the fact that the state-backed investment fund has RM42 billion [US$11.8 billion] in liabilities, an unknown amount of that unfunded.

A well-placed source said The Edge’s officers fully expect the government to close the paper after it printed a 2,800 word, deeply researched analysis of 1MDB in which it said US$1.8 billion invested in a controversial middle-eastern oil exploration firm called PetroSaudi International was a scheme to defraud the country. Najib is 1MDB’s chief financial adviser. The Bloomberg business reporting service produced the longest and most detailed report yet on 1MDB and the Najib family's finances, which fully supports The Edge's reporting.

Nonetheless, after a year of aggressive reporting by The Edge on the 1MDB story and other scandals, the government has issued a formal warning that it would use the Printing and Publication Act to pull the paper’s license. Premesh Chandran, publisher of the independent on-line news source Malaysiakini, also said the website is feeling considerable heat from the government.

Earlier this week, the government banned the Sarawak Report, an aggressive UK-based blog written by Clare Rewcastle Brown, generating criticism from the New York-based Human Rights Watch, whose Asia Director said that: “Blocking a website and threatening critics with prosecution will not make the firestorm over alleged government corruption go away. Instead of engaging in repression, the Malaysian government should lift the bans and properly address the allegations swirling around it.”

The blockage of the blog, the first ever, breaks with a longstanding precedent put in place by Mahathir, in his drive to build the Cyber Jaya multimedia corridor trawling for foreign investment, that the Internet would not be censored. That policy has not been broken, but it has been severely bent by police and other government officials via subpoenas and outright harassment of independent media. The action against Sarawak Report -- not a very effective one, since the report's Facebook page got 125,000 likes -- can be construed, as the Chinese say, of killing the chicken to scare the monkey. Other independent news sites are facing the future with concern.