Malaysia: About this tale of two Najibs…

One of the books I enjoyed reading during my schooldays was Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The story is set both in London and Paris, with the action moving from one city to the other.

Today, of course, I think that the story is too neat; but at that time it came across as one great story. I guess it still is.

And now, courtesy of Human Rights Watch, I am told there is a new story called “A Tale of Two Najibs”. But this one doesn’t seem very neat.

In its World Report 2014, on the state of human rights in various parts of the world, the global human rights group says Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had reneged on his election promises of reform and on his commitment to human rights.

Its deputy Asia director, Phill Robertson, said: “Malaysia in 2013 was marked by a ‘tale of two Najibs’ – promising legal reforms before the election and restoring repressive laws after it.”

I’m intrigued by his choice of phrase: a tale of two Najibs.

The government, of course, issued a statement which, in effect, says there is only one Najib; and there is only one tale – and that tale is about continuing the reform programme that he started.

Robertson says in a statement issued in conjunction with the release of the report on Jan 22 that since the May 5, 2013 general election, the government “has cracked down on basic rights, curtailed free speech, and charged activists for organising peaceful protests.”

Saying there has been a “significant deterioration in human rights”, the report observes that the government has reintroduced preventive detention, which had been removed with the repeal of the Internal Security Act, and that opposition politicians have been prosecuted under the Peaceful Assembly Act.

Among other things, the report as it pertains to Malaysia criticises the amendments to the Prevention of Crimes Act 1959 – where a five member panel is empowered to impose up to two years of detention without trial on certain criminal suspects.

It says the Registrar of Societies has shown by his actions that he is not politically neutral, as he is supposed to be. It gives the example of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat’s inability to contest as a single coalition in the 2013 general election and forcing the DAP to have a fresh party election on a technicality.

Najib, it says, had promised to revoke the Sedition Act but the government continues to use it to “silence and punish those who question government policies”, giving examples.

It also points out alleged police brutality, observing that a total of 12 people died while in police custody in 2013.

The hounding of the non-governmental organisation Suaram also finds a place in the report which says the government investigated Suaram under three different laws between July 2012 and Feb 2013, linking this to Suaram’s attempt to get to the truth of the Scorpene submarine corruption case.

On its part, the government issued a statement saying that “under Prime Minister Najib, civil liberties have been expanded and outdated laws repealed”.

“Colonial-era security legislation such as the Internal Security Act has been replaced with laws appropriate for the 21st century. These have been lauded across the world, including by the US Attorney General.”

The statement says that civil liberties have been expanded through the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 and that post-election rallies and other demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur have proceeded peacefully.

It says laws governing media licensing and political activity have been relaxed.

“The government remains committed to replacing the Sedition Act, and to continuing the prime minister’s reform programme,” it adds.

It is good that the government responded to the report. More importantly, it is good that the government says it is committed to the reform programme and that it will replace the Sedition Act.

Perhaps Malaysians will feel mollified if the government were to give a specific timetable for this. Malaysians will certainly feel happier if government agencies and instruments remain politically neutral, and if they can clearly see impartiality and justice at play.

In perspective, after looking at the HRW report, I must say that it is even worse in some other countries. But that is no excuse not to improve the situation and respect citizen’s rights here, especially since we want to hold ourselves up as a model to other nations.

Robertson has this advice: “In the coming year Malaysia’s leaders need to urgently reverse that trend, and recognise that promoting and protecting the rights of the people – including political opponents and outspoken activists – is their clear obligation.”

Will the government heed this advice? Or will we have more tales in the HRW’s World Report 2015?