Unnoticed Crisis

by Juan L. Mercado

In our national  fixation over  Vice-President  Jejomar Binay’s  crumbling  stature, we overlook a vital concern: In next door Malaysia, the opposition is being subjected to bare knuckle  pressure  by the ruling but increasingly brittle United Malays National Organization.

“The  Malaysian opposition  is in the crosshairs of a sedition blitz, “ Agence France Presse Dan Martin reports. Malaysian attorney N. Surendran appeared in court  to defend a fellow opposition lawmaker accused of insulting the powerful ruling party. A few hours later, he faced a  sedition charge of  his own.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, pledged two years ago, that UMNO would scrap  the Sedition Act. It  formed part  of broad liberalization promises to shore up sagging voter support.

But reforms foundered amid conservative resistance within UMNO. And  a crackdown is under way to stifle dissent and thwart  the opposition’s  growing electoral success.  Najib’s office insists the Sedition Act will be replaced with a “National Harmony Bill” to curb hate speech, possibly tabled by late 2015.

Speculation is rife, however, that the replacement bill has stalled. Saifuddin Abdullah, a leading UMNO moderate involved in pushing the bill forward, said it was being opposed by forces who “still believe in a sledgehammer approach” on free speech.

Independent groups, like the independent Malaysian Bar Council, warned  of  “an intense period of regression in the rule of law.” Nationalist rhetoric sows fear in the large Chinese and Indian minorities. Not  former hardline premier Mahathir Mohamad. Last  month, he publicly withdrew support from Najib over his liberal vows,

Almost immediately after its adoption in 1960, the Malaysian government began using the Internal Security Act (ISA) as a tool against critics and political opponents. Close to 3,000 persons were administratively detained between passage of the Act in 1960 and 1981, when Dr. Mahathir Mohamed assumed the prime ministership.

The ethnic divide is widening, with continuing efforts by  Government to increase the Islamic portion of the Malaysian population and reduce the non-Malay elements of society, wrote historian Geoffrey Wade of University of Hong Kong.

Razak has done little to redress the growing divisions and social inequalities between communities within Malaysia except to promote his derided 1 Malaysia initiative. The speciousness of the program was revealed in late 2013 when Najib announced a new raft of advantageous policies fo rthe Malay constituency. Meanwhile, his deputy happily declares himself ‘Malay first and Malaysian second.’

The apparent powerlessness of Najib in the face of increasingly intense Malay politicking suggests that his tenure will not extend too far into the future.

The resignation of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) chairman P Waytha Moorthy from his position as deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department has further undermined Najib’s position.

In addition, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) has pursued the elimination of key opposition figures such as Karpal Singh and Anwar Ibrahim through the Umno-controlled courts. These actions suggest an administration in grave crisis.

Radical Malay nationalist groups such as Perkasa and Pekida continue to enjoy high level support from government. They spout  dangerous new pseudo theories of Malay origins and current circumstance propose that the people of Chinese descent in Malaysia are part of a long term southward invasion targeted at Malays.

The increasingly divisive dispute between Muslims and non-Muslims in Malaysia over the use of the term ‘Allah’ has further incited sentiments nationwide,. Recent events have, intensity, led some observers to suggest the imminent demise of democratic constitutionalism in Malaysia, and the growing potential for ethnic violence.

The parlous state of  Malaysian education  and  the gagged press is also attracting wide attention. These have major significance for regional stability and great power relations.

Exclusion of non-Malays from virtually every aspect of public life in Malaysia and the increasing dissatisfaction of Malaysians in the Bornean states with Kuala Lumpur are not simply domestic matters. Neighbouring states and global powers are closely watching the evolution of the Malaysian polity as it moves further towards crisis.

What do these diverse and increasingly intractable problems within Malaysia mean for regional stability and for major power relations in Southeast Asia?

With its long-standing policy of non-intervention in domestic affairs of members, Asean portrays Malaysia as a fulcrum, connecting maritime and mainland parts of Southeast Asia. However, within Asean states, there are all sorts of softly spoken concerns about Malaysia’s domestic contradictions.

The country is being watched closely by the major global powers because they see the country as a key fault line in the region, and recognize the possibilities of massive social and political dislocation and even disintegration resulting from the various contradictions and inequalities.

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