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Tag Archives: Mahathir Mohamad

Najib’s East Malaysia challenge

Author: Arnold Puyok, UNIMAS

Malaysia’s federal government needs to rethink its strategy on regional autonomy in the states of Sabah and Sarawak if it wants to maintain their electoral support. Sabah and Sarawak helped seal the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) victory in the 12th and 13th general elections. But there are growing concerns in the two states about the intrusion of the federal government.

Discontent in Sabah and Sarawak stems from the perceived dominance of the federal government and erosion of state rights.

Unlike during former prime minister Mahathir’s regime, Najib has allowed open discussions on regional autonomy. The new chief minister of Sarawak, Adenan Satem, has, on occasion, taken a jab at the federal government and reminded federal leaders not to interfere in state matters. But his counterpart in Sabah, Musa Aman, has taken a non-confrontational approach. Sabah learnt the bitter lessons of going against the federal government under the Mahathir regime. Musa cannot afford for Sabah to take the same path again, even under the more open and democratic Najib.

But the issue of autonomy is not as straightforward as it seems. Most people in Sabah and Sarawak think that autonomy means total independence from the federal government. Despite enjoying greater autonomy than other states in the federation, Malaysia’s federal structure is still too centralised for Sabah and Sarawak.

Further, the people of Sabah and Sarawak, especially the indigenous communities, allege that UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) — the largest party in the BN coalition — plans to ‘Malay-ise’ and ‘Islamise’ them. Indigenous Dayak leaders have spoken out against peninsular-based right-wing Malay groups. But the problems in federal–state relations are not driven by ethno-religious issues alone: there are systemic and structural problems concerning how powers are divided between federal and state governments. Power is centralised in Malaysia’s federal system, leaving the states with little choice but to prioritise federal needs. This has deepened the animosity between federal and state governments.

Since 2008, Najib has tried to address this anomaly. He has increased the federal allocation of funds to the states and created a new national holiday to celebrate the unification of Sabah, Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia. The large Christian population in East Malaysia have also celebrated Najib’s concession to allow them to use ‘Allah’ to refer to their God — a right recently restricted to Muslims in Malaysia. This was part of a bigger 10-point-solution announced by Najib to provide greater religious freedoms in the two eastern states.

Najib also put his political career on the line by agreeing to set up the Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate the presence of illegal immigrants in Sabah. It was a risky move considering many of his party’s leaders had been implicated in the inquiry for issuing fake Malaysian identification cards to foreigners.

Yet even with this Inquiry, Sabah and Sarawak have gone further, requesting a ‘review’ of the Malaysia Agreement that was formulated before the creation of Malaysia, parts of which formed the basis of the Malaysian constitution. This review would be aimed at rectifying the centralist tendencies of Malaysian federalism.

But a formal review would be a regressive move. What the Najib administration should do is form a high-level bipartisan committee to review autonomy for Sabah and Sarawak within the context of the Federal Constitution. It is the constitutional safeguards for East Malaysia that should be reviewed, not the Malaysia Agreement. While giving greater autonomy for Sabah and Sarawak may be necessary to sustain the federation, it is also important to specify and justify the details of any concessions. It is important that Najib does not succumb to the pressure of local elites who pretend to champion state rights. It is ordinary East Malaysians who should benefit more from autonomy and not self-serving politicians.

Compared to his predecessor Mahathir, Najib is perceived more positively in East Malaysia. But the expectations of people in Sabah and Sarawak are high. They want practical solutions rather than empty rhetoric. Najib is fortunate to have the support of voters from East Malaysia who have gradually lost hope in the opposition. And he still has the time to prove that he has the best solution for Sabah and Sarawak.

Dr Arnold Puyok is Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.

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Surge of sedition charges in Malaysia arrests Najib’s reform agenda

Author: Nigel Cory, CSIS Washington DC

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was charged with sedition on 24 September for statements he made at a political rally three years earlier. Shortly before, on 19 September, a Malaysian court sentenced a student activist to a year in jail for comments he made after the 2013 general election. These cases are the latest in a surge of sedition charges that is terrorising opposition politicians, social activists, journalists and academics in Malaysia.

The spate of cases represents an attack on free speech and indicates an ongoing trend of political repression since the ruling National Front barely clung to power in the 2013 election. It could also prove to be a setback to the recent improvement in relations between the United States and Malaysia. As cases continue to stack up and domestic opposition starts to build, policymakers in Washington, and other capitals, will be watching to see if the situation warrants high-level attention and potentially public criticism.

A concerted effort appears to be underway within the Malaysian police and judiciary to enforce the country’s colonial-era sedition law. So far in 2014, 14 people have been charged, including 12 since August. Time is no barrier given that some charges have been retrospectively filed for alleged offenses made years ago. Most worrying is the fact that the law has mainly been used against the government’s opponents, including seven opposition politicians (including Anwar’s lawyer), an academic, a social activist and a journalist with , which is often critical of the government.

The Sedition Act of 1948 is a relic of British authorities’ efforts to quell opposition to colonial rule and root out communism. As recent cases demonstrate, its broad definition sets a low bar for its potential use. An offender is someone who ‘does or attempts to do … any act which would, if done, have a seditious tendency’, or ‘utters any seditious words’. A seditious tendency is one meant to ‘excite disaffection against any Ruler or against any government’ or ‘promote feelings of ill will and hostility between different races or classes’.

The timing, number of cases and selective application of the law raises serious concerns as it indicates high-level political coordination and interference. It also runs counter to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s 2012 commitment to repeal the Sedition Act as well as his broader reform agenda. The arrests are more suited to Malaysia’s authoritarian past under former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. Najib recently said he still intends to repeal the law, but refused to take up the legislative reforms recommended by the National Unity Consultative Council, a body set up to conduct public consultations on reforming the Sedition Act.

Najib seems content to fence-sit for the time being. On 13 September, he said that discussions should continue with those, especially in the majority Malay community, who are concerned about the repeal effort. Najib and his party, the United Malaysia National Organisation (UMNO), are especially sensitive to this sentiment because of its increasing reliance on the Malay vote after Chinese voters almost completely abandoned the ruling coalition in the 2013 election. Najib says that the freedom of all Malaysians ‘should also be in balance with laws that protected long-held principles’. Those principles presumably include the legally privileged status of ethnic Malays. Insecurity about that status appears to be driving the conservative wing of UMNO to stymie efforts to repeal or reform the Sedition Act. If Najib continues to acquiesce to their demands and tactics, it will seriously undermine his reformist credentials.

Malaysia watchers in the United States and elsewhere have reason to be concerned. The use of sedition charges against political opponents risks reversing Malaysia’s progress towards becoming a modern and mature democracy. If the arrests continue it will heighten criticism by human rights groups and policymakers abroad. In the United States, where anxieties are already growing ahead of the final appeal against Anwar’s sodomy conviction in late October, such severe backsliding could put a damper on what should be a burgeoning relationship.

Nigel Cory is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. He previously served as an Australian diplomat in Malaysia and the Philippines.

A version of this article first appeared here on cogitASIA.

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