Malaysian authorities have increased the pace of their harassment of critics, according to human rights organizations in Kuala Lumpur, which political analysts view as a prelude to early elections.
Ominously, five people have been kidnapped or disappeared and people are being arrested over Facebook postings and held for three or four days, critics say. Opposition websites and independent news publications have been warned to mute their criticism or face being shut down. The Chinese-language newspaper Nanyang Siang Pau was warned over a cartoon satirizing the Speaker of Parliament as a monkey and told to suspend the staff involved.
A general election must be held before August 23, 2018. However, parliament is expected to be dissolved sometime in August or September of this year in preparation for the polls, to allow time for slippage in case unexpected events take place, such as the possible prosecution in the United States of the scandal-scarred Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is under investigation by the US Justice Department’s kleptocracy unit on suspicion that as much as US$1 billion from the Malaysian state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd. investment fund found its way into his personal accounts.
“They have been warning people, there have been many arrests over Facebook postings, things deemed to be critical, not only of government but of government leaders,” said Ambiga Sreenevasan, one of Malaysia’s most prominent lawyers and civil rights advocates. “There is a general feeling that the government is not going to tolerate dissent.”
By all rights, the government should be confident of a landslide in the upcoming polls. The opposition’s most charismatic figure, Anwar Ibrahim, languishes in prison on what human rights organizations have criticized as trumped-up charges of sexual perversion. Other leaders have been threatened with sedition or criminal libel. The opposition, led by Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, is in disarray with one wing – the rural-based Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, having collapsed into two organizations, neither of which has much remaining clout. The conservative wing has largely aligned itself with the government over religious issues.
Najib Running Scared?
But, according to Ambiga and other sources, the reason Najib may be running scared is Mahathir Mohamad, the 91-year-old former prime minister, Najib’s most implacable critic, who with other dissidents established Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, and set to woo away ethnic Malays from the United Malays National Organization.
From the start, it seemed a lost cause. Mahathir has been attempting to dump Najib since before the 2013 general election, with little effect. His son Mukhriz has been fired by Najib as chief minister of the state of Kedah. Muhyiddin Yassin, the former deputy prime minister and deputy head of UMNO, was kicked out of the party. Others have been neutralized or driven out, while the remainder of UMNO chieftains have been bribed to support Najib.
But, according to a political analyst, the key is the Federal Land Development Authority, or Felda, which was founded to handle the resettlement of the rural poor, most of them ethnic Malays.
The government listed Felda on the Malaysian stock exchange in 2012 and allowed the thousands of settlers – whose territory covers 54 of UMNO's 86 seats in parliament – to invest in the shares. Because of a variety of missteps, the shares have fallen in value steeply, impoverishing the settlers who bought into them. Felda Global Ventures as the public vehicle is now known, may be forced to delist.
Mahathir and PPBM, which he calls Parti Bersatu against the wishes of the government, have capitalized on the discontent to the point where political analysts believe he will pull away a number of those UMNO seats, perhaps 10 or 11 – two of which are held by Najib’s lieutenants.
Felda in Revolt
“Bersatu isn’t really viable, but he’s making inroads into the Malay areas,” said one knowledgeable source. “Two ministers – Ismail Shabri Yaacob in Pahang and Ahmad Shabery Cheek in Terengganu – could lose their seats. If they lose two ministers, Najib’s position is dicey.”
If the other opposition parties, including the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and Anwar’s PKR, plus the shards of PAC – can do well, especially in the face of brutal gerrymandering by the government – perhaps they could pull 100 seats in the 222-member parliament.
That would mean the East Malaysia states of Sabah and Sarawak, whose representation in parliament is outsized compared to their population, and which have been demanding a bigger share of oil revenues now flowing to the central government from their own areas, plus increased development, would be in a position to blackmail the government for more spoils.
Accordingly, according to Ambiga and sources who prefer not to be named, the government has embarked on a scorched-earth program to suppress dissent. The most troubling is the kidnapping or disappearance of five social activists, including the well-organized kidnapping and disappearance of a Chinese Christian pastor, Raymond Koh Keng Joo on Feb. 13 in the middle of Petaling Jaya, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, whose car was rammed and who was driven away in broad daylight. As Asia Sentinel reported, “His disappearance and the lack of any news or ransom demand suggest he has likely been killed and his body disposed of.”
The others who have disappeared are social activists Peter Chong, Joshua and Ruth Hilmy and Amri Che Mat.
In addition, Nalini Elumalai, the Malaysia representative of Article 19, an international human rights organization with a Malaysia chapter, said that “recent arrests, investigations and charges under the Multimedia & Communications Act 1998 (MCA) are becoming more and more frequent. This is no longer just a crackdown on public figures (i.e. activists, human rights defenders, opposition politicians or journalists), but the targeting of ordinary social media users, in what appears to be an exercise in clamping down on criticism.”
Article 19 in particular identified one individual who was arrested last week for carrying a placard and wearing a yellow T-shirt identifying him as a member of the election reform organization Bersih. His phone and other articles were seized.
“The arrest and confiscations represent a violation of the individual’s right to privacy and freedom of expression, as it targets him for expressing his opinion on government corruption.
Article 19 also specified the cases of the graphic artist Fahmi Reza, Malaysian cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, known as Zunar, and Bersih Chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah under the Security Offences Special Measures Act (SOSMA), the organization said.
“There is grave concern about how SOSMA has been extended for another five years,” Ambiga said. “Maria [Chin’s] detention was a classic example of the abuse of security legislation. The detention under SOSMA of Maria was completely unacceptable. I anticipate a worsening situation for human rights in view of the elections. It's going to be even dirtier than the last.”