Shaky Malaysian Government’s Clampdown Grows

Muhyiddin, his head not far from the block, consolidates power

Journalists, reform organizations, political activists, opposition parliamentarians and others are paying a steep price for Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s attempt to stay in power with a razor-thin majority as he uses a wide range of laws and police repression against critics and political enemies.

Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Harapan government yesterday, July 13, ousted Ariff Yusoff, the respected speaker of Parliament, and his deputy without a vote, replacing him with an ally, Azhar Harun, in a successful attempt to stave off a no-confidence motion led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s forces.

The removal of a Parliamentary Speaker is unprecedented in the history of the 54 former British colonies in the Commonwealth. The only other time it ever happened was in Trinidad & Tobago when the Speaker was charged with corruption.  The reform organization Suaram called the process an “ignominious display” that has undone 63 years of democracy in Malaysia.

Ariff’s removal was the latest move in the six-month political crisis that began in February with Mahathir’s sudden resignation in the middle of a botched attempt to create a Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay superiority government. After Mahathir resigned, then attempted to take back command of his Parti Pribumi Bersatu party, Muhyiddin – until then his chief lieutenant – denied him the opportunity and put together a backdoor coalition that took power on the king’s approval. That left the Pakatan Harapan government that won power in May 2018 national elections behind.

Insecure and vulnerable, the Perikatan government holds a two-vote majority in the 222-member parliament. The disgraced United Malays National Organization allied with Parti Islam se-Malaysia is on one side seeking to bring it down, with Pakatan Harapan on the other. The 73-year-old Muhyiddin has used a string of maneuvers to keep his government in place, including delaying the opening of parliament for weeks to forestall a no-confidence motion.

Attacking critics

With continuing public disgust over the nonstop political infighting, the government has used its repressive powers against a long list of critics on a series of variegated charges. For instance, police investigated the former prime minister’s own daughter, the prominent newspaper columnist and activist Marina Mahathir, as well as Ambiga Sreenevasan, one of the country’s foremost lawyers, and 14 other activists for holding a March rally to express disapproval of Muhyiddin’s appointment as prime minister.

“Malaysia’s Perikatan Nasional government is increasingly responding to public criticism by carrying out abusive investigations on specious charges,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin should recognize that everyone has a right to criticize their government without fear of investigation or prosecution.”

Human Rights Watch was joined by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which issued a statement saying authorities should drop charges against prize-winning Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan and stop using legal threats to intimidate the independent news outlet after Muhyiddin’s government on July 13 hauled up Gan on contempt of court charges for comments by readers that the publication had previously deleted.

Last week, police questioned six reporters and staff members of the Al Jazeera news network over a July 3 documentary on mistreatment of undocumented migrants, and in May questioned Tashny Sukumaran, a reporter for the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post over a report on a crackdown on migrants during the country’s COVID-19 lockdown.

Patrick Teoh, a radio disk jockey, was charged on June 15 in Johor with allegedly insulting the Johor crown prince, Tunku Ismail Sultan, and a blogger, Lai Yuet Ming, was charged in March for two blog posts that satirically thanked the king for appointing Muhyiddin prime minister, calling Muhyiddin a “puki mak,” or ‘mother’s cunt.”

Nor are journalists and bloggers alone. Others include lawyer Siti Kasim, who was charged with sedition over criticism of religious schools; Center for Corruption (C4) founder and longtime good-government activist Cynthia Gabriel, who was also charged with sedition for calling for an investigation into allegations the new government was trading favors for political support; and C4 itself, for asking Health Minister Adham  Baba in a press release to explain government irregularities.

Malaysian Crime Watch Task Force Chairman R Sri Sanjeevan has been charged with tweeting offensive remarks about the police.

Fadia Nadwa Fikri, an activist lawyer, was also charged with sedition and violation of the communications and media act for inviting people to rally against the new government, saying ‘democracy is dead.’

Opposition MP Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman was also investigated for sedition over telling Al Jazeera that Muhyiddin was working with kleptocrats in the new government.

Opposition parliamentarians summoned by police include Hannah Yeoh, who was questioned over a tweet she had made about the fate of a plan to investigate the problems of marriage of underage girls. The police later said cleared her, saying the tweet emanated from a webmaster of an Umno-Pas blog;  R Sivarasa, who was ordered to present himself over a claim that the “deep state” was involved in arrests of individuals alleged to be members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, and Xavier Jayakumar, who was charged with sedition for saying a contentious one-day sitting of parliament called by Muhyiddin would be “worthless” and “rubbish.”

In mid-June, 39 civil society organizations of varying stripes issued an open letter strongly condemning the government’s use of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA), the sedition act and other repressive laws “to silence freedom of expression, speech and assembly. We find such attempts to be similar to strategic lawsuits against public participation tactics where legal action is brought against human rights defenders with the intention to censor, intimidate and silence critics until they abandon their criticism.”

The reform organizations, which included Amnesty International Malaysia, the Association of Women Lawyers, the Center for Corruption, the Islamic Renaissance Front, Pen Malaysia, Sisters in Islam, the Society for the Promotion of Human Rights and many others,called that an “especially dangerous form of retaliation from the government because of its potential to create a wider chilling effect on the media, civil society and activists, but disguised as a legitimate lawsuit.”

The group demanded an end to what it called the “continued use of these intimidating measures and repressive laws to threaten and silence those exercising their fundamental human rights and speaking on behalf of the public and those marginalized in these very trying times and halt all ongoing investigations” and pressed for withdrawal of charges against all human rights defenders, media and opposition members who are being investigated or charged under the above-mentioned repressive laws.

It also called for the repeal of repressive laws including the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Sedition Act and others. The Pakatan Harapan government, which took power as a reform government in May of 2018, had campaigned on repealing all of those laws.  But in the two years it remained in power, it was never able to get its act to do so, one of the failures that led to its continuing unpopularity and eventual demise.

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