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Najib thinks twice on reform

Asia Times - December 3, 2011

Anil Netto, Penang The speedy passage of the ironically named Peaceful Assembly Bill which effectively legally bars street protests has put Prime Minister Najib Razak's avowed commitment to ushering in greater democracy and civil liberties under intense new scrutiny.

On September 15, Najib surprised many when he announced a repeal of the Internal Security Act, the lifting of various 1970s era "emergency" promulgations and related orders, and an easing of strict laws governing publication permits and public gatherings.

Since then, however, little has actually changed in practice. The ISA will be repealed in March, but detention without trial will continue under two new laws to deal with terrorism and maintain public order. Last month 13 people, including six Indonesians, were detained under the ISA in Tawau, Sabah, for alleged terrorist activities, sparking criticism that the arrests made a mockery of Najib's earlier avowal to repeal the law.

Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the arrests were in line with the new anti-terrorism law that would replace the ISA. The Indonesians would be deported upon completion of investigations, "but the Malaysians will be charged if there is sufficient evidence," he said. Critics have pointed out that the existing Penal Code was already amended a few years ago to deal specifically with terrorism.

Even more contentious was the manner in which the Peaceful Assembly Bill was stream-rolled into law on Tuesday, even as the Malaysian Bar Council rallied a thousand lawyers and activists for a peaceful "Walk for Freedom of Assembly" march to parliament. Despite the government making half a dozen amendments to the original Bill, opposition parliamentarians walked out of parliament after the speaker allowed only three from their ranks to debate the bill.

The bill forbids street protests and imposes a host of rulings for other assemblies, though it allows gatherings at designated areas away from public or government facilities. Initially, the bill also provided for a 30-day notice period for organizers to inform the police of assemblies at non-designated areas. Following a public outcry, the notice period was reduced to 10-days. Critics pointed out that even under traditionally military-run Myanmar's new public assembly law, organizers need give only five days notice.

The new law in Malaysia means large street protests such as the July 9 rally this year organized by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih 2.0) which saw tens of thousands of people taking to the streets would be effectively outlawed in future. The July 9 rally was declared illegal at the time, but that didn't stop thousands from marching in support of electoral reforms. The next time, potential protesters will have to contend with heavier penalties.

Even before the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa, large street rallies have rattled the Malaysian government. In March 2008, for instance, the political opposition made sharp inroads in the general election after two large rallies, one of them by Bersih, were held and repressed in November 2007.

Malaysia's ruling party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), in power since independence from colonial rule was achieved in 1957, has cast a wary eye over what is happening in the Middle East. An UMNO Youth leader, Khairy Jamaluddin, has accused opposition leaders of drawing comparisons with the Middle East to "to instigate people to take part in street revolutions and in the process manufacture a Malaysian version of the Arab Spring".

Meanwhile, activists and a host of civil society groups are pressing ahead with calls for reform to Malaysia's electoral process. Two of the key demands include making it possible for overseas Malaysians to vote and allowing the use of indelible ink to prevent double voting, in view of concerns over the integrity of the electoral rolls.

It remains to be seen if the government will implement the recommendations of a Parliamentary Select Committee, now touring the country, to listen to and accommodate views from the public. The next general election must not legally be held until 2013, but it is widely expected Najib will call snap polls in the first quarter of 2011.

Najib's mixed reform signals suggest that his UMNO party is in an electoral predicament. On the one hand, it recognizes that Malaysians are clamoring for change and reforms and that if it doesn't bolster its democratic credentials it could be shipped out at the next polls. On the other, UMNO is steeped in a system of patronage and rent-seeking that has come under much closer public scrutiny, particularly with the rise of more independent media reporting over the Internet.

Any bid to open more democratic space could increase the decibel level of the already gathering public outcry against perceived poor governance. Opposition politicians and online news portals have trumpeted a recent Auditor General report that has exposed revelations of wastage and mismanagement in public spending.

That's nothing new for Malaysia, but as the outlook for the economy grows increasingly uncertain and public expectations rise for better governance, the clamor for greater accountability and stronger action against corruption will only grow ahead of the next polls. Policymakers face a potential powder keg as they weigh the introduction of a new goods and services tax to tackle rising public debts.

Opposition politicians say a clean and fair election, greater freedom of assembly and other political and civil rights would even the odds between the UMNO-led ruling coalition and the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People's Alliance) at the upcoming elections. That, they say, explains why Najib, like his predecessor Abdullah Badawi, has failed to follow through on his reform promise and is instead moving to curtail rights specifically to maintain UMNO's electoral advantages.

[Anil Netto is a Penang-based writer.]

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