APRIL 14, 2016
Malaysia’s use of its colonial-era Sedition Act to frame possible charges against former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad following his interview with The Weekend Australian is a worrying sign of the extent to which democracy, civil rights and stability are under threat in one of the most important countries in our region. Dr Mahathir, 90, was Malaysian prime minister for 22 years from 1981 to 2003. But that has not saved him from the ire of the incumbent Prime Minister, Najib Razak. Mr Najib is fighting for political survival amid the $1 billion 1MDB sovereign wealth fund corruption scandal. Although he was widely regarded as Mr Najib’s mentor, Dr Mahathir is now fiercely critical of Mr Najib, demanding his removal from office.
In his recorded interview with our Southeast Asia correspondent Amanda Hodge, Dr Mahathir argued “foreign interference” was needed to oust Mr Najib, saying: “Normally I don’t like foreign interference in Malaysia’s affairs but our avenues for redress have been closed completely. So now we have to allow interference in our domestic affairs.” Under pressure, Dr Mahathir has since sought to qualify those remarks, saying he did not ask for foreign governments to interfere. But that has not pacified Mr Najib.
Malaysian police have confirmed they are investigating a range of charges against Dr Mahathir, including some under the Sedition Act, which Amnesty International says is being widely used to “silence, harass and lock up hundreds of (government) critics”. Last year in Malaysia — a country with which Australia has close economic as well as defence and security ties under the Five Powers Defence Arrangement — at least 91 individuals were arrested, charged or investigated under the Sedition Act. That is five times as many as during the law’s first 50 years from 1948. Journalists, lawyers and opposition politicians have been targeted. Amnesty has described it as “the authorities’ weapon of choice when lashing out at opponents”. Amnesty also has raised the alarm about “the rapidly shrinking space for freedom of expression”.
In office, Dr Mahathir was a rabid nationalist, invariably grumpy about the West and seldom warm towards Australia. But in the present crisis he laudably has committed himself to the honourable side. The fact he is being investigated for possible charges under the Sedition Act indicates how parlous the situation has become under Mr Najib’s autocratic attitudes.
The British-educated Mr Najib is the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein, and nephew of its third, Hussein Onn. He is steeped in the country’s post-colonial democratic traditions. But he is showing scant regard for them by lashing out at critics concerned about hundreds of millions of dollars deposited in his bank accounts. He insists Malaysia’s name is being “unfairly dragged through the mud”. In January he claimed “the matter has been comprehensively put to rest”. In fact, the repression he has embarked on is making matters worse.
Malaysia’s reputation as a stable and economically successful bulwark against Islamic extremism in our region is being imperilled by Mr Najib’s high-handed, self-serving actions. He is going down the wrong path. Malaysians deserve better than a slide into oppression.