Mar 27, 2009

Malaysia's New Mahathirism

Report from today's Wall Street Journal Asia.
As Najib Razak takes power, the ruling party must not return to its old ways.

In 2001, as Mahathir Mohamed's long tenure as prime minister was in its final years, we wrote that Malaysia was "in danger of stepping back from the world of democracy and the Internet into a darker age of racial conflict and government repression." Eight years later, with the economy deteriorating and politics in turmoil, that threat looms again.

Dr. Mahathir's protege, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, is set to be elected today as leader of the United Malays National Organization, the leading party in the coalition that has governed the country since independence in 1957. Next week he is expected to take over as prime minister, replacing the moderate and mostly ineffective Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. During his six years in office, Mr. Abdullah made scant progress in efforts to end political corruption, liberalize the economy and reform the judiciary. The unpopular premier led UMNO to a dismal performance in elections a year ago.

Mr. Najib's ascension to power has been marked by a government crackdown on UMNO's political opponents and on free speech. On Monday, police fired tear gas on a rally in Kedah as opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was speaking to the crowd. Also this week, reporters from popular online media, including Malaysiakini and Malaysian Insider, were denied credentials by the party to cover the UMNO party congress taking place in Kuala Lumpur.

Most worryingly, the government this week shut down two opposition party newspapers. The ban is for three months -- long enough to get past the April 7 by-elections for three parliamentary seats that the opposition is keen to snag. It's also long enough to get past the expected verdict next month in a sensational murder trial to which the opposition links Mr. Najib; Mr. Najib vehemently denies any involvement and says he did not know the victim. As reported in a Journal news story this week, Mr. Anwar said he believes the papers were shuttered in part to keep them from repeating allegations of corruption in weapons purchases when Mr. Najib was defense minister. Mr. Najib has denied allegations of corruption.

The government's new restrictions on the press come on the heels of UMNO's moves against the opposition party in Perak, where it recently persuaded three state parliamentarians to switch alliances, thereby shifting the state government's balance of power in UMNO's favor. The sultan of Perak validated the move, the opposition contested it and a court case is under way. But a lawyer who said the sultan's decision was unconstitutional and suggested he might sue the sultan was charged with sedition last week. Six Internet users who made critical comments on the sultan's Web site were also charged with insulting the sultan under the country's new cyber law.

In Dr. Mahathir's era, the UMNO-led government could get away with such tactics. Under his watch, the country saw opposition media silenced and political dissidents jailed. But in today's Malaysia, where voters are beginning to realize the power of the ballot box, it's a risky political gambit. Mr. Anwar led his opposition coalition to victory in five of 13 states last year and since then has also won two parliamentary by-elections. So far Mr. Anwar has been unable to win enough defections from UMNO to dissolve the government and call new elections. If he succeeds -- and if he can get past his July trial for sodomy -- he could eventually win the premiership. Mr. Anwar denies the charges and says they are politically motivated, a charge the Malaysian government denies.

In the meantime, UMNO's moves against the opposition and the press suggest that rather than listening to voters, the ruling party may be growing less tolerant of dissent. Add in the ethnic tensions in Malaysia's multiracial society -- and UNMO's favored system of preferences for native Malays -- and it's a potentially combustible mix.

Malaysia can't afford political upheaval now. The country's economy is being hit hard by the global recession. GDP growth is forecast to contract this quarter after growth of just 0.1% in the fourth quarter of 2008, and unemployment is rising. Foreign investors perceive political risk in a country that still locks up its citizens under colonial-era laws like the Internal Security Act. Voters may decide to take it out on Mr. Najib, who was finance minister under Mr. Abdullah, if they don't see improvement in the economy.

Mr. Najib seems to understand that Malaysians want something new. In a speech Tuesday at the party conference, he promised to end corruption and the politics of patronage and pursue reform; he called for "renewal and regeneration" for UMNO. "Economic progress and better education have directly resulted in the birth of a class of voters who are better informed, very demanding and highly critical," he said. "If we do not heed this message, their seething anger will become hatred and in the end this may cause them to abandon us altogether."

Mr. Najib, the son of Malaysia's second prime minister, entered Parliament at the age of 22. Now 55, he has been groomed for this moment for all of his political life. If the soon-to-be PM truly wants to change his country for the better, he'll make good on his word, squelch his inner Mahathir, and lead Malaysia down the path of more transparent government and basic freedoms.
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