Malaysia turns screw on media as politics realign

Asia regional correspondent
Nikkei Asian Review
March 16, 2016

KUALA LUMPUR — It was a brief, sudden goodbye. With its website blocked by the government since late February, hard-hitting news service The Malaysian Insider announced on March 14 that it would cease to publish on the same day.

“The Edge Media Group has decided to shut down The Malaysian Insider from midnight today, for commercial reasons,” wrote the editor, Jahabar Sadiq, in a notice posted on the publication’s website, which had been blocked because of its reports on corruption allegations against Prime Minister Najib Razak. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission said The Malaysian Insider’s reporting broke the law as it amounted to “improper use of network facilities or network service.”

Najib has fended off calls for his resignation over hundreds of millions of dollars credited to his personal bank accounts in 2013, saying the money was donated by the Saudi royal family. He has also brushed off recent allegations that the total sum in his accounts amounted to $1 billion and came from troubled state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, at which Najib is the chair of the advisory board.

The allegations have prompted Najib loyalists to turn the screw on some of the country’s media. Two other publications owned by The Edge Media Group were suspended by the government’s home affairs ministry for two months in 2015, hitting the company’s finances. In turn, the group, ceased publishing The Edge Review, a weekly magazine covering the Southeast Asia region, while both the owner and publisher of the Edge Group were jailed temporarily.

TMI’s March 14 announcement came on the heels of the arrest of two Australian journalists who police said breached a security barrier while attempting to interview Najib on March 12. The reporters have since been deported without charge, according to a police statement issued on March 15.

Black days

The government has in the past two years overseen a surge in sedition charges against academics, activists, journalists, lawyers and opposition lawmakers. Najib had previously promised to abolish the colonial-era sedition law, but reneged on his pledge after nearly losing the last election in 2013.

More recently, the government has introduced a law that would allow it to detain a person for up to two years without trial — ostensibly aimed at addressing fears over the return of hundreds of Malaysians said to have joined the Islamic State group, but which critics said could be used against political dissidents.

Among those facing sedition charges is cartoonist Zunar, known for lampooning officials accused of corruption in his drawings. If found guilty, he could be jailed for decades. Zunar called the closing of TMI “a black day” for the country, where most print and TV outlets are affiliated with political parties, leaving online companies such as TMI and Malaysiakini as the main alternative sources of news.

“There is only a handful of independent media in Malaysia, and TMI was one place where people could get real news,” Zunar said.

Malaysia started tightening restrictions on free speech when Najib’s Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition led by the United Malays National Organization all but relinquished its near six-decade grip on power in elections in May 2013. BN lost the popular vote to an opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister who served under Mahathir Mohamad.

Najib campaigned on a reformist platform, promising not only to abolish the sedition law but also to ensure a freer press and to allow reforms of the electoral system that had secured BN’s victory, despite the opposition winning 52% of the popular vote.

Shifting allegiances

That near-loss prompted Najib to backtrack on his promised reforms, and the ensuing mix of scandal and repression has driven a realignment of Malaysian politics.

Anwar is in jail, accused of sodomy which is a crime in Malaysia, leaving the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, rudderless. Malaysia’s Islamic party, known by its Malay acronym PAS, has left the opposition coalition, which it says is dominated by the Chinese-Malaysian Democratic Action Party. PAS wants to implement Islamic law in Malaysia, where almost 40% of the population is Buddhist, Christian or Hindu.

PAS’s tacit endorsement of the status quo, despite Najib’s alleged transgressions, has sharpened ethnic divisions. After deadly anti-Chinese riots in 1969, Malaysia implemented policies aimed at boosting the economic status of the Malay majority, or bumiputera. Many of those reforms remain, with Malays receiving preferential access to universities and to government contracts — a perceived bias that the DAP and its ethnic Chinese supporters view as anachronistic.

There is a “genuine fear” that Malays “will lose all their privileges and benefits accorded to them” if the opposition manages to take power, said Andrew Aeria, a politics professor at the University of Malaysia Sarawak.

For now, there seems little chance of that happening as Najib has managed to face down critics in his own party, even replacing his deputy prime minister for criticizing him over the 1MDB scandal.

Mahathir, former UMNO leader and prime minister from 1981 to 2003, has for months accused Najib of controlling UMNO by buying the loyalty of party members with the vast sums in his accounts.

That view, although unproven, is echoed by some observers. “The UMNO divisional chiefs loyally respond, Pavlov-style, to the drumbeat and patronage of the PM,” said Aeria.

But Najib’s aura of invincibility may in time be dented by investigations into 1MDB’s missing billions, now taking place in countries such as Switzerland and the U.S — investigations on which Najib’s former patron Mahathir is undoubtedly hoping to capitalize.

Mahathir breaks taboos

Mahathir has called for Najib — once his protege — to be removed from office and has even made a surprise appearance at an August 2015 Kuala Lumpur protest attended by tens of thousands of mostly Chinese-Malaysians, antagonizing his fellow Malays at a time of growing ethnic tensions.

In turn, Najib forced Mahathir’s son to step down from his position as chief minister of Kedah, Mahathir’s home. Mahathir himself was recently sacked from his position as adviser to state energy company Petroliam Nasional, or Petronas.

The tit-for-tat attempts at mutual public humiliation have continued, with Mahathir appearing in public with Lim Kit Siang — a well-known Chinese politician who Mahathir had jailed in the 1980s — in backing a “Citizens’ Declaration” calling for Najib’s resignation.

The former prime minister is nearly 91 and his belated transformation into an anti-government activist has astonished many Malaysians. As prime minister, Mahathir was regularly accused of the type of heavy-handed tactics that Najib is now deploying.

Deepening the irony, the opposition parties want to win Malaysia’s next election in 2018, while Mahathir says he wants Najib’s ouster because of perceptions that the scandal-tainted prime minister is an electoral liability.

“If he goes for an election today, he will lose. Even in two years’ time, if he holds an election, unless he changed completely, I think he will lose,” Mahathir told the Nikkei Asian Review in a recent interview.

Challenging the prime minister is seen as a risk for Mahathir, who has been accused of treachery by Najib loyalists for siding with the opposition parties.

“The importance is not in how badly Mahathir may fare in the coming months, but in how this new configuration will challenge the deeply drawn boundaries of Malaysian politics,” said Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, a Singapore think-tank.

Nikkei staff writer CK Tan contributed to this article.

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  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Thursday, 17 March 2016 - 7:55 am

    PAS, admitedly PAS Selangor only, just said they are handing their key political agenda Hudud, to UMNO. ITS SHOCKING there is NO OUTRAGE especially from the Malay Muslim community over what is literally a confirmation of their betrayal of Pakatan Rakyat, doing what they accuse DAP and non-Muslim of vague supposedly unIslamic crime and hence immoral.

    I say the Malay Muslim who still vote for PAS is condemnation of their own race and religion..

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