The Malaysian leader was alluding to a recent protest march organised by the country’s lawyers which saw more than two thousand lawyers march up to the prime minister’s office in the capital of Putrajaya demanding reform of the judicial process and serious enquiries into the conduct and election of judges in Malaysia. Perhaps the prime minister was also alluding to the planned march on November 10, organised by NGOs like BERSIH which have called for free and fair elections in the country, supported by opposition parties like the Peoples Justice Party (PKR), the Malaysian Islamic party (PAS) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) of Malaysia as well.
What began as a relatively small event has now grown into what may become a landmark moment in Malaysian history: The march’s organisers aim to gather 100,000 citizens at the Merdeka (Independence) Square of the city and then march on to the national palace to present their petition to the King (Agong) himself, calling for the Monarch to intervene and look into their complaints about the poor governance of the country on issues ranging from corruption to abuse of power by the leaders of the ruling UMNO party and the government. As Latheefa Koya of the People’s Justice Party notes: “BERSIH’s march marks a crucial point in Malaysian history where people from all walks of life, and not just political parties, demand free and fair elections in Malaysia. By doing so they are in fact calling for greater participation in the democratic process”. The King has already signalled that he is prepared to receive the petition, while other rulers such as Sultan Azlan Shah of the state of Perak have publicly bemoaned the state of the judiciary in Malaysia.
While it is true that Malaysia is not Burma, it is striking to note how intolerant the state is when it comes to popular expressions of the people’s will in the country. Predictably the Malaysian government has reacted to the proposed march on 10th November with the usual round of threats: Those who attend the demonstration will be regarded as trouble makers and due action will be taken, the government-controlled news agencies have already warned.
In response the President of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) has called on all members of the party to attend the rally and to swell the numbers of participants instead. According to Hatta Ramli, one of the senior leaders of PAS: “This is to show that the members of the Islamic party are supportive of this move by the Malaysian NGOs to call for free and fair elections. It is going to be a peaceful demonstration, so why the need for such warnings? The Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) has stated that the Constitution allows for free peaceful assembly, so we are merely exercising our right to demonstrate our concern about the conduct of elections in Malaysia. This is the expression of popular democracy, of the people’s will and our intention to see that we have clean elections in Malaysia.”
The Malaysian government is worried that such a public display of dismay over the government’s record will focus attention on Malaysia in a negative way. Instead it has tried its best to spin the story of Malaysia’s successes one by one, the latest being the achievements of the country’s first astronaut who was sent to space on board a Russian rocket to dock with the International Space Station in orbit. But special effects and cosmic stunts have not altered the realities on the ground where Malaysian politics remains dominated by news of scandals involving corrupt policemen, politicians being accused of manipulating the judiciary and alleged links between the government, police and underworld mafia triads and gang bosses. One of the latest revelations involved the corruption behind the Port Kelang Free Trade Zone project, where running costs and overheads have caused the project’s costs to skyrocket from 1.8 to 4.2 billion Ringgit (RM), leaving ordinary Malaysians shocked and stumped on how such projects can lead to such large kickbacks for so many well-connected individuals. What is more, all of this is happening under the eyes of the Badawi government, which came to power four years ago on the promise of ridding the country of corruption once and for all.
As the crucial date of November 10 gets closer, the machinery of the state along with its security apparatus will undoubtedly be cracked up to demonise the protesters and to prevent the march from happening. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi may lament the occasion as it sends out the clear message that the people are fed up with his lacklustre performance thus far, but it will hardly be the reason why foreign investors are leaving Malaysia: Indeed, if anything is to restore the faith of others in the country it would be the freedom to demonstrate openly and peacefully without threat of violence from the state.
No, if foreign investors are giving up on Malaysia is has more to do with the plethora of corruption cases involving members of the police, the routine abuse of power by the elite and the deplorable reputation of the Malaysian judiciary and civil service at present. And the responsibility for these failures lie not in the hands of the Malaysian people, but in the Malaysian government itself —headed by none other than Badawi himself.Dr Farish A Noor is a political scientist and historian at the Zentrum Moderner Orient and guest Professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Jogjakarta. He is also one of the founders of the research site www.othermalaysia.org
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