Prime Minister Najib Razak’s international standing has taken a nose-dive today with a damning article in one of Britain’s most influential publications.
The Economist Magazine is traditionally the key opinion former for movers and shakers in the UK.
In this week’s edition its second major commentary, entitled “Repression in Malaysia” has focused on what it describes as the “disconnect” between Najib’s liberal PR talk and the reality of his “thuggish government”.
It has to be one of the most direct and uncompromising put downs of an international leader recorded in a western journal.
The Economist takes an unflinching look at the present Malaysian Government and compares Najib’s expensive PR pitch as a ‘moderate modern multi-cultural democracy’ with his recent actions.
The magazine concludes that it is time the world ditched the moderate modernising picture presented by Najib’s spin doctors and took on board the fact that his government is cracking down on legitimate political opponents, playing racial politics for its own political advantage and that it is also highly corrupt.
The new anti-terrorism laws (ushered through parliament secretively in the middle of the night just before the closing session) are highlighted as a blatant move towards repressive and illiberal measures designed to target domestic critics.
And The Economist berates President Obama for “buying” Najib’s progressive PR image, while the Malaysian government has persistently harassed, bullied and imprisoned opposition leaders of a far more genuine liberal hue for political reasons.
The magazine points to election fraud, the financial scandal of 1MDB and the reintroduction of repressive detention laws that Najib Razak had boasted he would repeal as the basis for its requirement that President Obama not only take golf off the agenda in future with the present Malaysian Prime Minister, but cancel the planned up-coming visit to Washington:
“Malaysia’s friends should be blunter about this where they have been mealy-mouthed. They should condemn Malaysia’s corruption, its decaying freedoms and its racial politics. They should call for both the Sedition Act and unlimited detention to go. Until matters improve, not only should golf be off the agenda; so too should the prime minister’s hoped-for trip to Washington this year.” says the Economist Magazine, published 11th April 2015.
A thuggish government is playing racial politics. Najib Razak should be dressed down
MALAYSIA’S prime minister, Najib Razak, paints his country as a model of moderate Islam—a multicultural democracy and a beacon of tolerance. He has spoken of scrapping oppressive British-era laws and nurturing a creative economy. Meanwhile, his spin-doctors explain that their liberal master is the man to vanquish the reactionary forces in his political party, UMNO, which has never been out of power and which is prone to cronyism and political thuggery. Barack Obama, for one, buys this story. He is the first American president since 1966 to have visited Malaysia. And late last year in Hawaii he enjoyed a round on the golf links with Mr Najib. The two men are said to click. The White House gushes about a “growing and warming relationship” between America and Malaysia.
Race to the bottom
Yet it is time to call Mr Najib out on the widening gulf between spin and substance. On the economic front is a growing scandal over dubious connections and misused funds at a national investment fund, 1MDB, that Mr Najib launched and which is now burdened with $12 billion of debts. Malaysia’s human-rights record is of even greater concern. Three years ago Mr Najib scrapped a notorious colonial law, the Internal Security Act, which allowed indefinite detention without trial. This week he, in effect, reintroduced it. The new Prevention of Terrorism Act allows suspects to be detained indefinitely. Though it is aimed ostensibly at jihadists, lawyers and civic groups are appalled at the law’s sweep (see article).
This fits a pattern. The coalition that Mr Najib leads uses foul as well as fair means to keep the opposition down. In the most recent election, in 2013, it lost the popular vote for the first time. Yet it held on to power thanks to gerrymandered voting districts. Even after that dubious victory, it continued to persecute the charismatic opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who in February was sentenced to five years on trumped-up charges of sodomy. American criticism was perfunctory.
In the past year growing numbers of activists and opposition figures have been arrested under the Sedition Act, another colonial law aimed originally at advocates of independence. Mr Najib, who once promised to remove it from the statute book, now plans to strengthen it with harsher punishments and a clause forbidding speech that denigrates Islam.
Among those already arrested under the Sedition Act are opponents of hudud, corporal and capital punishments, including stoning to death for adultery, laid down in Islamic law. Hudud does not apply in Malaysia, but Islamists from an opposition party want it introduced in Kelantan state in the north-east. The government does not like the idea but is quietly supporting it in a cynical ploy to widen splits in Pakatan Rakyat, the opposition coalition struggling without Mr Anwar.
By encouraging the Islamists, the government is fanning racial and religious divisions in a majority-Malay (and Muslim) country with large ethnic-Chinese and ethnic-Indian minorities. In 1969 bloody race riots nearly tore Malaysia apart. Playing racial politics could be disastrous in this multiracial country. A better and more enlightened way for Mr Najib to boost UMNO’s prospects would be for him to repair its image with ethnic Chinese and Indians.
Malaysia’s friends should be blunter about this where they have been mealy-mouthed. They should condemn Malaysia’s corruption, its decaying freedoms and its racial politics. They should call for both the Sedition Act and unlimited detention to go. Until matters improve, not only should golf be off the agenda; so too should the prime minister’s hoped-for trip to Washington this year.