Time to call out Najib on spin

| April 12, 2015

“Umno which has never been out of power was prone to cronyism and political thuggery.”

najib_600KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s friends, said the UK-based Economist in a weekend editorial, should be blunter about the country where they have been mealy-mouthed.

It highlighted various concerns viz. Malaysia’s corruption, its decaying freedoms and its racial politics; and they should call for both the Sedition Act and unlimited detention to go. “Until matters improve, not only should golf be off the agenda; so too should the Prime Minister’s hoped-for trip to Washington this year,” said the Economist. “Umno which has never been out of power was prone to cronyism and political thuggery.”

It noted that Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak paints the country as a model of moderate Islam, a multicultural democracy and a beacon of tolerance. “He has spoken of scrapping oppressive British-era laws and nurturing a creative economy,” said the Editorial. “Meanwhile, his spin-doctors explain that their liberal master was the man to vanquish the reactionary forces in his political party.”

The Economist lamented that US President Barack Obama, for one, buys this story. “He is the first American president since 1966 to have visited Malaysia,” said the Economist. “And late last year in Hawaii he enjoyed a round on the golf links with Najib.”

The two men are said to click, it added, “The White House gushes about a ‘growing and warming relationship’ between America and Malaysia.”

It’s time to call Najib out, pointed out the Economist, on the widening gulf between spin and substance. “A better and more enlightened way for Najib to boost Umno’s prospects would be for him to repair its image with ethnic Chinese and Indians.”

“The coalition that Najib leads uses foul means as well to keep the Opposition down.”

The Economist noted that in 2013, the most recent General Election, Umno and the Barisan Nasional (BN) lost the popular vote for the first time. “Yet it held on to power thanks to gerrymandered voting districts.”

Even after that dubious victory, it continued to persecute the charismatic opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who in February was sentenced to five years on “trumped-up charges of sodomy”, it added. “American criticism was perfunctory.”

By encouraging the Islamists, the Economist warns, the government was fanning racial and religious divisions in a country with large ethnic-Chinese and ethnic-Indian minorities and others. “In 1969, bloody race riots nearly tore Malaysia apart.”

“Playing racial politics could be disastrous in this multiracial country. “

On the economic front was a growing scandal over dubious connections and misused funds at 1Malaysia Development Fund (1MDB), owned by the Ministry of Finance and touted as a strategic investment arm. “It’s burdened with RM42 billion in debts.”

Review of the Malaysia Agreement 1963 seen as calling for secession.

Malaysia’s human rights record, said the Economist, provides even greater concern.

Najib, three years ago, scrapped the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), which provides for detention without trial. This week, said the Economist, he in effect re-introduced it through the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota) which removes judicial oversight and provides for indefinite detention. Ostensibly, the law is aimed at jihadists, but lawyers, the Opposition and NGOs fear that it will be used against them.

Pota, it states, fits a pattern.

In the past year, a growing number of people have been charged under the Sedition Act, a colonial ordinance designed to prevent the overthrow of colonialism amidst for independence. Najib, the Economist observed, promised to repeal the Act but has instead now strengthened it. The amended Act criminalizes “insults to Islam” and any call for secession of Sabah and Sarawak from their Federation with Malaysia.

“Any call for a review of the Malaysia Agreement 1963 would be seen as calling for secession.”

Ironically, those arrested under the Sedition Act include opponents of hudud, corporal and capital punishments, including stoning to death for adultery, laid down in Islamic law. Hudud does not apply in Malaysia.

Umno supports the idea of introducing hudud in Kelantan in a bid to engineer splits in the Pakatan Rakyat, an informal opposition alliance which along with the rest of the opposition took 53 per cent of the popular vote in 2013, and was struggling with the fact that Anwar since been incarcerated.