How Malaysia’s Leader Is Damaging His Reformist Reputation

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has styled himself a reformer, but his government’s prosecution of protesters shows he still has a long way to go.
By Robert Horn

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak appears determined to give himself a political black eye. On June 13, government prosecutors will haul into court 10 leaders of Bersih, a coalition of civil society groups campaigning to clean up the country’s corrupt elections commission. The government is demanding damages for destruction to public property during a clash between Bersih demonstrators and police in Kuala Lumpur on April 28. At least 100,000 people marched for clean elections in the Malaysian capital that day, while tens of thousands more joined protests in 11 other cities across the country and 80 cities around the world. Whether or not the government wins compensation in court, however, no amount of money will undo the damage it is inflicting upon its own reputation by pursuing the case.

The April 28 demonstrations were a stunning show of discontent in a country where protests are rarely tolerated. In half a century, Malaysia has advanced from a poor British colony with a plantation economy to an ambitious, middle-income nation with science parks, cybercities and skyscrapers. But in a trade-off typical of Asia, the Barisan National coalition, which has ruled the country since independence in 1957, curtails civil liberties and keeps a tight rein on political opposition in exchange for delivering prosperity. That governing model, however, contains the seeds of its own decay. Malaysia’s successful development “translates into a better-educated electorate who have more sophisticated demands and expectations,” political scientist Prof. Farish Noor tells TIME.

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In recent years, the government has found it increasingly difficult to meet those expectations. According to World Bank data on the Gini coefficient, a measure of wealth inequality, the gap between rich and poor in Malaysia is larger than it is in neighboring Thailand, where inequality has been a factor driving civil unrest and political violence in recent years. Since the beginning of the global economic crisis in late 2008, Noor says there is also a “growing anxiety” among the middle classes in Malaysia “who feel their jobs and economic opportunities are threatened.”

Keenly aware of the escalating problems, Najib has tried to present himself as a reformer. The steps he has taken so far, however, haven’t done much to improve BN’s image as increasingly corrupt, ill-equipped to deal with global economic complexities and out of touch with the aspirations of significant segments of the population. In 2008, BN was shocked when opposition parties captured five of the country’s 13 states in national elections—the worst showing in the coalition’s history. If voters are more dissatisfied now, they are also more frustrated: few can see how real change can be achieved as long as the BN controls access to the media and elections continue to be riddled with irregularities. Najib’s attempts at reform “ring hollow when the electoral system remains flawed,” Datuk Ambiga Sreenavasan, Bersih chairperson one of the defendants in the case brought by the government, tells TIME. “The stark reality is that genuine reform will not benefit those in power.”

Najib has received credit for repealing the draconian Internal Security Act that was used to suppress dissent. But he then turned around and decided to prosecute Bersih leaders over the violence on April 28. Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch contends that video evidence shows security forces were actually responsible for the clashes. The forces initially allowed demonstrators into Merdeka (Independence) Square, which the government had previously declared off limits, and then began attacking the demonstrators with tear gas and batons for breaching the area. “If the prime minister was a true reformer, he would have condemned this violence and called for an independent inquiry by the Human Rights Commission,’’ Sreenavasan says.

The irony is that Sreenavsan believes Najib truly wants to be a reformer, but is constrained by the realities of his governing coalition–he relies heavily on the support of politicians who control rural provinces in a semi-feudal style. To appease rural voters, Najib and his coalition have showered them with populist policies, such as a new minimum wage that will raise incomes for an estimated 3.2 million people and a 13% pay rise for civil servants. By contrast, they have ignored Bersih’s eight demands for freer and fairer elections, such as cleaning the voter rolls of fake names.

Enacting electoral reforms would benefit the government. The coalition would probably still prevail at the ballot box because of its populism and emerge with a stronger mandate because it obtained its victory fair and square. Instead, the rulers are opting to suppress Bersih. That will only serve to stoke a political pressure cooker, deepen divisions and undercut the legitimacy of the government. “This is nothing less than a battle for the political soul of Malaysia,’’ Robertson says. No matter the outcome of the court case, it’s a battle that is far from over.

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Monday, 11 June 2012 - 5:55 pm

    Some 967 tear gas canisters and grenades were fired at Bersih protestors – that is Najib’s reform!!

  2. #2 by Dipoh Bous on Monday, 11 June 2012 - 10:15 pm

    So, when is BERSIH 4.0?

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Monday, 11 June 2012 - 11:51 pm

    If one seeks power
    Not to gratify pride or
    pursue hereditary entitlement
    but to change things for the better
    If one is prepared to fight for what one believes
    And in that process
    Steel one’s heart and sinew
    Confront one’s rivals and detractors head long
    risking one’s position in one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    to gamble for a victory
    and if one loses, pay the price
    to start all over again at the bottom and one’s beginnings,
    If one can talk with crowds and honour one’s words as bond
    If men can count on one’ resolve
    That one would stand by them when the chips are down as they, him
    Then maybe one has a chance to be reformer.
    Think our friend got any of these?
    In Malaysian political firmament there was one such person nearest
    with the sheer force of will and stratagem
    He reached the pinnacle of power
    With that, reforms he did carry out
    Except that unfortunately his changes were for the worse
    Inflicting irreparable damage to the country.

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Monday, 11 June 2012 - 11:59 pm

    You help me, I help you, I do for you, and you do for me!
    That’s the language of a compromiser – not a reformer!

  5. #5 by Godfather on Tuesday, 12 June 2012 - 1:52 am

    When a person in a position of power and influence says “I help you, you help me”, he is not a compromiser. He’s a corrupter. That’s why this country is going to the dogs.

  6. #6 by Godfather on Tuesday, 12 June 2012 - 1:57 am

    Unelected leaders trained in the art of rent- seeking, self-enrichment, cronyism and nepotism can never be reformers. Once a thief, always a thief.

  7. #7 by boh-liao on Tuesday, 12 June 2012 - 8:40 am

    NR’s reformation = 909 tear gas canisters n 58 tear gas grenades (more than 4 times d 262 used on 709) used on defenseless, peaceful rakyat on 428
    Not counting d blardi violence carried out by no-name n no-number polis (all premeditated violence) on defenseless, peaceful rakyat on 428
    Rakyat – NEVER FORGET

  8. #8 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Tuesday, 12 June 2012 - 8:48 am

    ///Malaysia has advanced from a poor British colony with a plantation economy to an ambitious, middle-income nation with science parks, cybercities and skyscrapers.///

    Wrong! We were the third richest country in asia then. And now even countries like thailand and indonesia are catching up. Soon, that is if umno remained in control, we would fall behind burma.

    Anyway, jib is not and will never be a reformist. At best, he is a chameleon. He merges with the background so much that he is hardly noticeable or outstanding. Things he did, he did with the sole aim to deceive the people. Repealing the ISA is one good example. In its place, jib enacted a series of equivalent Acts.

  9. #9 by negarawan on Tuesday, 12 June 2012 - 8:42 pm

    PM’s future son-in-law accused of US$20mil swindle
    US court documents claim that Kazakh national Daniyar Nazarbayev, who is engaged to Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s daughter, is a veteran swindler.
    Had a good laugh reading this. Obviously it runs in the whole family, including in-laws (or out-laws, rather)

  10. #10 by Loh on Wednesday, 13 June 2012 - 4:43 pm

    ///To appease rural voters, Najib and his coalition have showered them with populist policies, such as a new minimum wage that will raise incomes for an estimated 3.2 million people and a 13% pay rise for civil servants.///

    In addition to buying votes from 1.4 million civil servants, 80% of which are Malays Najib also distributed
    cash to remind households to vote BN. Najib now allocates 1.5 million ringgit to each MPs, BN MPs of course, to distribute to people in their constituencies, at 5000 ringgit a piece. That is vote buying.

    After failing to get a majority, expect Najib to declare a state of emergency. Najib has not responded to a request to declare that he would abide by the results of general election; he does not want to make promises. It shows that he might plan a coup d’etat and he accused Bersih of doing that.

  11. #11 by on cheng on Monday, 18 June 2012 - 7:10 pm

    Why so scare of a call for fair n clean election!!!

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