Malaysia's Politicoes Continue to Duke it Out

Malaysia's continuing state constitutional crisis seems to have simmered largely to a stop while everybody waits for the country's supreme court to decide whether a Kuala Lumpur high court judge was right in ruling to oust a United Malays National Organization chief minister from power in the state of Perak and give it back to the opposition, which won it more than a year ago in national elections.

Nobody is quite sure when the Supreme Court will take up the case. Some appeals have taken years to grind their way through the country's notoriously clogged courts. In the meantime, government in Perak, the country's second biggest state, is largely paralyzed.

There appears to be little upside in any of this for Najib Tun Razak, who has taken credit for engineering the defections last February that set the crisis in motion and now is reaping public frustration. Najib took over as premier in early April from the reviled – within his own party – and largely ineffective former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, only to discover that his poll ratings were even lower than Badawi's.

Probably the biggest casualty is Najib's nascent attempts to present himself as a liberal reformer able to appeal to all of Malaysia's quarreling ethnic groups. One measure of his shrinking popularity, and that of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, came Monday when he declined to name a candidate to contest a by-election in the northern state of Penang scheduled at the end of the month after a senior opposition member resigned in the middle of corruption charges.

The Barisan's focus, he told the Malaysiakini website, is on public service and the national economy. "Thus we decided not to contest."

But, said an UMNO operative, "Najib is scared. You ought to write about the way his balls are shrinking."

Almost immediately after High Court Judge Abdul Aziz Abdul Rahim won praise on May 11 for ruling that Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin was wrongly removed as the chief minister of the northern state of Perak, the decision was thrown into limbo hours later by the appellate court.

The Perak statehouse in Ipoh has been the focus of controversy since last February, when then Deputy Prime Minister Najib engineered the defection of the three lawmakers from the national opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat, bringing the government to a halt in a 28-28 tie. Sultan Raja Azlan Shah immediately ordered Nizar to vacate his position as chief minister and installed Zambry Abdul Kadir, a longtime United Malays National Organization stalwart, in his place, kicking off a standoff that lasted until last week in which the opposition refused to vacate the building. Judge Abdul Aziz said the sultan did not have the power to dismiss Nizar.

To widespread criticism of Najib's tactics in luring the three lawmakers to jump ship, UMNO stalwarts say they wouldn't have done it if Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim hadn't publicly asked Barisan Nasional lawmakers to quit and join him in ending 50 years in power for the ruling National Coalition. That is somewhat akin to Republicans' argument in the US Congress that if only Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi had stopped a 2002 CIA briefing about torture of Islamic militants and told them not to do it, the Republican administration in Washington would have been saved from spending the next six years waterboarding jihadis

In the meantime, despite the widespread campaign to put the blame on Anwar for encouraging party-hopping, Najib, UMNO and the Barisan increasingly find themselves in a trap. Even UMNO stalwarts agree privately that High Court Judge Abdul Aziz, in his ruling, interpreted the law correctly as saying the sultan erred in dismissing Nizar because a vote of no confidence is required for the minister's ouster. The judge noted as precedent the 1966 case of Sarawak Chief Minister Stephen Kalong Ningkan, who was ousted when the state governor showed him a letter issued by 21 of 42 lawmakers asking him to resign. However, the Borneo High Court ruled that Ningkan could not be dismissed without a formal vote of no confidence. Ningkan was reinstated.


Removal of Nizar from office was crude to say the least. Instead of waiting for Judge Abdul Aziz's ruling, elite federal Field Reserve Unit police invaded the Ipoh statehouse on May 7 to drag opposition Speaker V. Sivakumar out of the chambers amid flying furniture and protests that resulted in the arrest of 65 people. As far as can be determined, it is the first time in Malaysian history that federal police had ever entered a legislature.

Most believe the only way out of the impasse is to call another state election in Perak, Malaysia's second-biggest state, whose capital, Ipoh, is 170-odd km. north of Kuala Lumpur. The only problem is that the voters, already exasperated by Najib's meddling in their state politics, would almost certainly sweep the opposition into power by as many as 10 seats. Even Mahathir Mohamad, the irascible former prime minister, said in an interview with local media that "the outcome is a foregone conclusion" if fresh elections are held.

The Barisan has lost four of five by-elections across the country since national elections in March 2008 that resulted in the loss of five statehouses to the opposition and broke the Barisan's two-thirds majority in the parliament for the first time since Malaysia became a nation. Now it faces the possibility of yet another by-election after an opposition member of parliament was arrested for biting a policeman during a Decemger 11 protest rally. If he is found guilty, he faces the possibility of three years in jail and losing his parliamentary seat. The seat is in the Batu area of Kuala Lumpur and, given the current electoral temperature, the Barisan will probably lose again.

One way or another, Abdul Aziz's decision represents an interesting turning point. It is a demonstration that after years during which Malaysia' courts hewed assiduously to the government's wishes, a jurist was willing to put his decision on the line to deal a major blow to efforts by Najib, now the prime minister, to consolidate his power. Appellate Court Judge Ramli Ali may not be made of the same stuff. He stayed Abdul Aziz's ruling that the opposition's version of a chief minister, Nizar Jamaluddin, should be in charge of the state.

Nobody is quite sure when the full Supreme Court will take up Abdul Aziz's decision and decide who gets to run Perak. But the whole process deals a major blow to Najib. Almost immediately after he became prime minister, he reached out to the country's other races, removing a crucial provision on investment in the country's New Economic Policy, an affirmative action program for the majority Malay race. He freed 14 prisoners held under the country's draconian Internal Security Act, all of them for opposition to the government. He and his wife, Rosmah, cruised the ethnic neighborhoods, at one point being widely photographed flipping chapattis in an Indian neighborhood.

All of that has been largely negated by the police actions in Perak, in which some people were merely wearing black as opposition leaders had called for. One of the leaders of the respected Bersih (Clean), an electoral reform organization, was arrested for sedition, basically for making fun of Najib's hortatory slogan "1Malaysia: People First, performance now" through a direct parody slogan "1BlackMalaysia: Democracy first, elections now."

The Perak mess is also an embarrassment to Sultan Azlan Shah, who ordered Nazir out of the statehouse in favor of UMNO's wheelhorse, Zambry Abdul Kadir. One of the country's most respected royalty, Azlah Shan is a former lord president of Supreme Court and a trained lawyer

If the high court judge's decision is allowed to stand, it is a demonstration that the legality of a decision by a Malaysian sultan, the titular head of the state, can be reversed. After Najib engineered the defection of the three opposition members in February, resulting the impasse, lawyer Karpal Singh, the national chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party, said he would challenge the sultan's action in court. UMNO engineered a campaign to intimidate the opposition, particularly Karpal, for insulting Malaysia's royalty. UMNO members filed more than 100 police reports against Karpal, charging him with insulting Azlan Shah. The judge's decision validates not only the suit but the legal principle that the royalty are not above the law.