Malaysian Police Crackdown

After little more eight weeks in power, the Malaysian government headed by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has started to come down hard on protesters and the opposition, going so far as to order police to raid the opposition Democratic Action Party headquarters Friday without a warrant. It appears to be the first such raid, as far as can be determined, on an opposition party headquarters in the country's history.

Following his April 3 anointment as prime minister, Najib at first publicly pledged cooperation with the always-tense minority Chinese and Indian communities, freeing several protesters from detention under the country's stiff Internal Security Act, which allows for what in effect is indeterminate detention without writ of habeas corpus. He and his wife, Rosmah, made public appearances at minority community affairs.

However, tensions in the state of Perak, where Najib had engineered the ouster of the national opposition coalition from power by persuading three lawmakers to jump ship amid charges that their loyalty had been bought by the Barisan Nasional, or ruling national coalition, eventually put a stop to the nice guy act. Government sources make the point that it's hard for the opposition to summon indignation over the crossovers, pointing out that they had their genesis in the fact that Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim said he would seek to persuade 30 Barisan MPs to cross over to the opposition.

"There wasn't any talk then of crossovers being immoral and undemocratic," said a source in Kuala Lumpur. "Only when crossovers affected (the opposition coalition) did they start complaining about this being immoral and undemocratic. "

The series of tough police actions began on May 5 when Wong Chin Haut, a spokesman for the nonpartisan electoral reform group Bersih (Clean) was arrested at his home in Kuala Lumpur after calling a press conference earlier in the day to urge the public to wear black Wednesday to protest the Perak takeover.

Since that time, as many as 100 people have been arrested on various charges for anti-government protests, including 16 people last Thursday night for holding a candlelight vigil. Then they nabbed a handful of others a few hours later, apparently mistakenly, when they were holding a birthday party for Lim Swee Kuan, an assistant to DAP leader Lim Kit Siang.

That leads to the possibility that Malaysia is entering a particularly sensitive political period. The Barisan, which Najib heads as president of the United Malays National Organisation, has lost four of five by-elections and will lose a sixth on May 31 in the northern state of Kedah because they declined to field a candidate because of the certainty they would lose.

Najib himself, the subject of a series of scandals as defense minister that cost the public treasury hundreds of millions of dollars, and widely suspected of having a role in the murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu, for which two of his bodyguards were convicted, came to power even less popular than his predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

"The opposition are ratcheting up the pressure because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that Najib is a much easier target than Pak Lah (Badawi)ever was," said a long-time political observer with ties to the national coalition's Malaysian Chinese Association. "Part of the pressure is due to the Barisan's self-inflicted mess in Perak. But part of it is also the overwhelming confidence of the opposition who believe they are witnessing the dying days of the Barisan."

Since the country's inception, the scattering of political parties that make up Malaysia's opposition have been largely toothless, composed of extremely disparate organizations – the DAP, a Chinese chauvinist party and Parti Islam se-Malaysia, a fundamentalist and largely rural Islamic party.

Over the last couple of years, however, the two have been joined together into an unlikely three-party coalition by Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the People's Justice Party, a largely urban ethnic Malay party headed by onetime finance minister and deputy prime minister Anwar. The opposition coalition, called Pakatan Rakyat, broke the Barisan's historic two-thirds hold on power in the parliament in March 2008 elections and won five statehouses as well including Perak and Selangor, two of Malaysia's most prosperous and populous states.

That belief on the part of the newly empowered opposition that it could actually drive the government from power doesn't just mean a change in the political equation. It would mean the ethnically dominant Malays, who make up about 55 percent of the population, would probably lose the privileged political position that was given to them in the wake of disastrous race riots in 1969, which killed hundreds of people.

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The New Economic Policy which was passed to attempt to improve their economic position is in effect an affirmative action for the majority, and it remains a millstone around the country's neck, creating a class of political cronies who have fattened themselves at the public trough through government contracts and executive positions at government-linked companies at the same time it has increased ethnic Malay ownership of some businesses, guaranteed government jobs for them and assured them primacy in government schools. Anwar has publicly threatened to end the NEP, as it is known.

"The Malays have been complaining to the leadership that it's all getting out of hand," said a political operative with close ties to the so-called Mahathir wing of UMNO. "Surely, if Najib and UMNO are so weak, there must be renewed confidence to want to take these actions. Every other day, we get grassroots Malays asking to hit back. And that's what we see."

Among the UMNO rank and file, the mindset is that Abdullah Badawi's laxity in cracking down on dissent is what opened the floodgates for the kind of opposition that led to the Barisan's disastrous showing in the March 2008 national election, and that there must be a return to the kind of firmness that former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad showed during his 22 years in power, which ended in 2003.

"They are aware that it isn't possible to turn back the clock to the pre-Abdullah era, at least not cold turkey," said another longtime UMNO operative. "I believe that they're looking to find a middle ground - liberal, yet tough on unnecessary agitation. So you get mixed signals. They have released almost all detainees under the ISA. At the same time, they are cracking down on protests and such by using the "lesser" Sedition Act, illegal assembly laws and so on."

Najib, the source said, "is still trying to find his feet. It would seem to me the current administration is trying to seek a 'benevolent authoritarian' government, where a little dissent is allowed but too much agitation lands you in court, or worse jail. And mind you, there are many Malaysians who would prefer it this way as they think that Abdullah gave too much freedom and this has mired the country in too much politicking which has diverted the country from the real business of managing itself."

The question is whether the opposition will give the Barisan any chance to pull that off. While the crackdown is applauded inside UMNO, it is alienating the Chinese, who make up about 25 percent of the population, and Indians, who make up another 8 percent. The MCA, the Chinese ethnic party that makes up the second-biggest party in the ruling coalition, has all but imploded, as has the Malaysian Indian Congress, especially after power was handed back to S. Samy Vellu, the long-time head of the party, after he lost his parliamentary seat because of perceptions he was out of touch with his constituency and was conspicuously flaunting wealth he did not appear to have earned.

The perception of political corruption wasn't helped by the fact that after High Court Judge Aziz Rahim voided the ouster of the Petak chief minister by the Barisan on what appeared to be compelling legal grounds, the decision was reversed by an appellate court without addressing the high court's arguments.

While the political chaos continues, Malaysia continues to slip into economic difficulty. The region's third-largest economy, it is expected by Bank Negara, the central bank, to shrink by 1 percent or possibly grow by the same amount, with a US$19 billion stimulus program to attempt to prop it up.

"Najib is the first PM who is an economist," a political commentator said. "On the economic front, he is showing a much more deft hand and moving in the right direction - liberalizing the economy. I don't know whether his ineptness politically is due to the fact that he has always had his positions handed to him on a platter. He has never had to participate in the rough and tumble of Malaysian politics. He was appointed Chief Minister of Pahang, the youngest ever. He was made a cabinet minister and chosen as deputy prime minister by Adbullah Badawi, a choice foisted on him by Mahathir. Najib isn't a stupid man. He must know all these arrests are politically unhelpful. He is reputed to have some media advisers, although no one seems to know who they are. These media advisers, whoever they are, can't be happy with what is happening."