The Sydney Morning Herald
While Indonesia marked another democratic advance on Monday, democracy in neighbouring Malaysia goes backwards.
Indonesia inaugurates the man that most voters chose to be leader, while Malaysia concludes a sham trial to destroy the man that most voters chose to be leader.
Indonesia is conducting the first transfer of power from one directly elected president to another.
And Malaysia? It remains under the control of the same party that has ruled continuously since independence in 1957.
“While Indonesia is making huge progress, we are rewinding and the democratic space is going back to the Mahathir era of the 1990s,” says Malaysia’s opposition treasury spokesman, Rafizi Ramli, during a visit to Australia on Monday. “We have not recovered from last year’s election.”
There is more than democracy at stake. A professor of political science at Monash University’s Malaysian campus, James Chin, says: “In Malaysia, politics is being hijacked by political Islam. It really worries me. They are putting Malay supremacy together with Islamic supremacy.”
The foundation stone of the perennially ruling party was always racial discrimination – special favour to native Malays over all other citizens, including the country’s sizeable Chinese and Indian minorities.
But now it’s pursuing policies of religious discrimination as well, says Mr Chin: “Previously, they tried to regulate the body and behaviour of Muslims; now, they are trying to regulate the body and behaviour of non-Muslims too.”
He contrasts this with Indonesia, where a secular state does not impose Islamic standards on other faiths. It’s one thing to fine Muslims for drinking alcohol, says Mr Chin, but now there are attempts to penalise non-Mulsims taking part in Oktoberfest in Malaysia.
The authoritarian nature of the Najib government will be on display to the world next week when it renews its courtroom persecution of the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim.
Anwar was the subject of one of the world’s most ridiculous political persecutions, an effort by the then prime minister, Mahathir Mohammed, to ruin him by accusing him of sodomy. And now, a ruling on the sequel: Sodomy 2.
He was the deputy prime minister to Mahathir when they had a falling out in 1998. The foolish and farcical pursuit of Anwar failed to ruin him, but it did turn him into a formidable leader of the opposition.
Anwar spent six years in jail before a court overturned his conviction. He emerged to lead an energised campaign at the 2013 election. So the Malaysian people delivered their own verdict on Anwar and his Pakatan Rakyat, or People’s Pact party.
The opposition under Anwar won 51 per cent of the vote at the 2013 election, but only 40 per cent of parliamentary seats.
It was a record result for an opposition and it shook the government. Even in a manipulated system, the ruling party, for the first time, had failed to win a majority of votes.
The result scared the government of Najib Razak into reviving its favoured tactic for repressing Anwar: the charge of sodomy. Sodomy 2 had been running for a while, but after the High Court knocked out the latest sodomy charge against the married father of five, the government took its trumped-up case to Malaysia’s Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal overturned the High Court. It gave Anwar a five-year jail sentence. He is free on bail pending appeal. On the weekend he flew home from London to Kuala Lumpur for final appeals. His supporters fear the outcome: “Quite a few of my friends have tried to persuade me to stay away,” Anwar told British media just before boarding the plane home.
The prosecution is asking for an even longer jail term.
In an extraordinary illustration of the government’s contortions in its manic determination to get Anwar, the prosecution will not be led by the a lawyer from the prosecution system but a private lawyer hired by the state. Experts say there is no precedent in Malaysian jurisprudence.
In fact, the prosecution is to be conducted by the personal lawyer for Mr Najib.
The political crackdown is much wider than Anwar. Human Rights Watch has detailed at least 14 cases this year where the government has brought spurious charges against political opponents and activists under the 1948 Sedition Act. One opposition politician faces the prospect of five years in jail for saying “damn UMNO”. UMNO is Najib’s political party.
The Najib government has two options, according to the opposition’s Rafizi Ramli: “It can reform and allow more democratic space. Or they can go for the crackdown, and risk an even worse backlash from the public.”
He has personal experience of the crackdown. Before entering politics he ran a corruption-busting NGO that exposed a Najib government minister misusing a $A90 million taxpayer loan. Instead of setting up a cattle farm, she was using the money to buy luxury apartments.
The expose forced the minister to resign. But now Mr Ramli is the one facing jail. He’s facing the risk of three years in jail for breaching banking secrecy laws in disclosing the corruption. Mr Ramli, the man who busted the scam, is the only person charged over it.
Mr Ramli, also the secretary-general of the opposition party, is in Canberra on Tuesday, leading a delegation. He’s hoping to convince Australian politicians to help coax Mr Najib from authoritarianism to democratic openness.
Professor Chin says Mr Ramli has no hope of support from the Australian government: “The Abbott government loves Najib.”
Australia favours the Najib government based on a long-standing view that Malaysia is a modern, Western, secular, like-minded power in a region fretting about a backward Indonesia, he says.
But Indonesia is modernising and it is Malaysia that is going backwards. “The romantic view of Malaysia,” says Chin, “is based on a country that hasn’t existed for the last ten years.”‘