Malaysia Gets Tough

Following through on a threat, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has decided to get tough. Authorities Monday filed three legal actions against organizers of recent protests and threw one lawyer in jail overnight for displaying protest signs on private property Saturday.

The charges were condemned by human rights organizations and the opposition. Some opposition figures and lawyers also were arrested and kept in jail overnight Sunday for attempting to organize another protest. Earlier, eight people, including two opposition party leaders, were arrested for taking part in a banned Nov. 10 rally in Kuala Lumpur. Later Monday, police issued a restraining order to stop the electoral reform group Bersih from gathering at Malaysia's Dewan Rakyat, or Parliament, to hand in a protest memorandum asking for a constitutional amendment on electoral reform.

Abdullah Badawi added another threat Monday in a speech to business leaders in which he said he would sacrifice public freedoms for the sake of national stability.

“If the choice is between public safety and public freedoms, I do not hesitate to say here that public safety will always win,” he said. “I will not sacrifice my sense of accountability to the greater public, especially in the face of police intelligence about planned fighting or other violent intent," Abdullah Badawi said. "We must never ever take our peace for granted."

The rising tension makes it difficult to predict when Abdullah Badawi will call national elections, which under Malaysia’s parliamentary system can come sometime next year, largely at his discretion. The government is believed to want to call elections shortly after the first of the year. However, Fazil Mohamad Som, an analyst with the World Islamic Economic Forum, told AFP: "Given the rallies, racial issues and the expected fuel price hikes, general elections appear unlikely until after the middle of next year."

This week’s flash point was an attempt by lawyers and others to march from downtown Kuala Lumpur to the Bar Council building. They were denied a police permit and ignored a police order to disperse. The crowd of about 50 people included lawyers and activists. Court hearings Monday were thronged by supporters of the jailed individuals and opposition leaders who condemned the actions.

A Kuala Lumpur-based analyst, who asked that his name not be used, said that “strong rumors” are circulating of a wider crackdown, with the use of the Internal Security Act, a tough colonial-era law put into effect by the British government in an effort to thwart a Communist rebellion in the 1960s.

“Those who think they will be arrested, I am made to understand, have prepared themselves and their families,” the analyst told Asia Sentinel. “While it is not a certainty that the government will invoke the ISA, the fact that we have even come to this point alters the positive dimensions of this administration."

As evidence of the toughening government stance, last Friday government officials told Malaysia’s newspapers not to “sensationalize” arrests of ethnic Indians following an unprecedented rally against racial discrimination.

However, several high-ranking Malaysian government officials at an official dinner in Hong Kong last Thursday said that while Abdullah Badawi might threaten use of the ISA, it was doubtful that he would actually condone its use.

Another analyst minimized the government’s action, saying that “There have been arrests, but only two from the (Nov. 10) rally last month and another few lawyers from yesterday’s march. Not a real crackdown. Until they do a sweep like Operation Lalang and detain everybody under the ISA, that’s not a crackdown.”

Operation Lalang, ordered by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in October 1987, resulted in the jailing of 116 people and the closure of two newspapers. Opposition leaders and social activists were jailed for as long as two years.

The prime minister came into office in 2003 publicly opposed to the use of the ISA, which allows for preventive detention and denial of a lawyer to any person deemed a threat to public security. The detention order can be renewed indefinitely.

But he has been beset by protest demonstrations, and he faces the possibility of more this month, with de facto opposition leader Anwar Ibraham and the clean government organization Bersih threatening marches in all 13 of Malaysia’s state capitals.

Two weeks ago, the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) organized demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur to protest the treatment of Malaysia’s 2 million ethnic Indians. The demonstration turned violent and one policeman was injured. Some 31 ethnic Indians now have been charged with sedition and attempted murder over the incident. Hindraf has subsequently been alleged by the Inspector General of Police to be receiving information and armed support and training from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which the group denies.

Abdullah Badawi’s increasing problem is a public perception that he is detached from his duties and in thrall to his son-in-law, Kairy Jamaluddin, who is resented for allegedly having gained inordinate power. Originally regarded as a reformer when he followed Mahathir to power, Abdullah Badawi said he would wipe out corruption “without fear or favor” and vowed to rid the country of its long-running racial and religious polarization between the ethnic Malay majority, and Chinese and Indian minorities. In recent months, however, members of the United Malays National Organisation, the dominant ethnic political party, have made increasingly inflammatory statements about the right of Malays to dominate the political process.

Abdullah Badawi himself is widely regarded as decent and honest. An October poll by the New Straits Times newspaper, which is owned by UMNO, put his popularity rating at 76 percent. The question, however, is not the perception among rank-and-file voters as much as it is inside UMNO itself. Despite the crowds that opposition parties are drawing, it appears almost impossible that any ruling coalition parties could be defeated. Part of his problem, analysts say, is that he has had to modify his anti-corruption rhetoric to keep the party’s old guard in line.

Indeed, an UMNO official, Mohd Ali Rustam, demanded Sunday that the authorities invoke the ISA or withdraw the citizenship of some of those arrested, calling them traitors to their country.