Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Malaysia's Government is crumbling, but the Opposition is stumbling

Wednesday, 08 October 2008 08:25

THE AGE

Delmonico's, near Wall Street, is a bit like 'The Restaurant at the End of the Universe' in Douglas Adams' book of the same name. Get a window seat there right now and you can watch the universe end while you await your steak. But if you fancy tamer fare then try a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. Get a window seat there now and you'll be entertained by the end of the Malaysian Government.

The death throes of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's Government are fascinating. Like someone who cannot swim but who has just been thrown overboard, Abdullah is grabbing at anything to try to save himself. So far, he's gone for that developing-world tool of choice: jailing dissenters. That's a pity because these days Malaysians are more sophisticated than that.

In the past few weeks, an Opposition politician has been arrested under Malaysia's outdated Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial, legal counsel, the right to defend yourself in court, or the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
The politician, who is ethnically Chinese, was detained for inciting religious and racial tension. Apparently she complained about excessive noise from a mosque in her constituency. That is not a race or a religious issue; it is a planning issue.

Similarly, a journalist was arrested under the ISA for accurately reporting the racist remarks of a member of the ruling party. Essentially, she was arrested for being a good journalist, something in short supply in Malaysia. The party official was not arrested, although he was suspended.

A blogger was arrested for apparently exhibiting the Malaysian flag on his website upside down. I kid you not.

But perhaps Abdullah's saddest misstep has been the arrest of Raja Petra Kamarudin, who runs the hugely popular Malaysia Today website, which exposes wrongdoers in public life and provides a forum for robust political debate otherwise denied to Malaysians.

On September 23, Syed Hamid Albar, the Home Affairs Minister, signed the order for Raja Petra's detention without trial for two years. The order can be renewed indefinitely. Ostensibly, Raja Petra, a Muslim, was arrested for posting blogs that belittled Islam. The reality of course is that Raja Petra had belittled the Government. No longer can he post blogs that challenge the Government and blow the whistle on corruption and other wrongdoings on the part of Government officials.

Raja Petra appeared in court on Monday on a separate sedition charge. He was handcuffed, which is apt: you can't write if you're handcuffed.

Raja Petra knew that he could well be arrested and yet he continued. This sort of selflessness is all too rare in Malaysia.

Even Mahathir Mohamed, Malaysia's previous prime minister - who incidentally will be speaking at a seminar at Melbourne University on Saturday - has criticised the recent ISA arrests as unnecessary and excessive.

Perhaps such arrests are warranted in a country dangerously on the edge of racial and religious meltdown. But Malaysia is not.

The truth is, the Malaysian Government is the biggest source of ethnic and religious tension in Malaysia. It has an interest in constantly harping on about race, using imagined communal tensions as an excuse for its use of the ISA, to control the media and, above all, to head off threats to its own power. The race issue is manipulated not to protect Malaysians from each other but to protect the Government from opposition.

But the cracks are showing. Malaysia has never had a government this unpopular. Abdullah has said that he will leave office early but he refuses to resign. Najib Tun Razak, his deputy, is congenial enough but he is no leader. And then there's Anwar Ibrahim.

Anwar is offering himself as head of an alternative government, but he is proving to be politically incompetent. He announced that the Government would fall on September 16, because by then he thought he'd have the numbers - enough MPs prepared to leave the Government and join the Opposition. The day came and nothing happened. The golden rule of politics? Don't telegraph your punches, just punch.

Anwar has a lot of baggage too, so, at a time when Malaysia needs clever leadership more than ever, the sad choice is between who stinks less.

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