Malaysia: as the economy weakens, authoritarianism creeps in

    First, it was the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Then, senior journalists and editors at the country’s top independent media website.

    2 June 2015 by Nithin Coca

    Bloggers followed, even a political cartoonist.

    Over several months, Malaysia’s leaders have, piece-by-piece, used colonial-era laws to turn the country, long considered one of the shining lights of south-east Asia, firmly towards authoritarianism.

    “Over the past year, the government has harassed, targeted and even imprisoned a wide range of individuals considered possible ‘threats’ – including opposition politicians, human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists,” said Josef Benedict, Asia-Pacific Campaigner for Amnesty International, based in Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur.

    Behind this unprecedented crackdown are signs of a ruling party losing grip on power, as its rule, built on an economy dependent on natural resource exports and a fragile racial and religious balance, threatens to unravel.

    Fragile growth

    Malaysia (then Malaya) gained independence from Britain in 1963.

    Two years later, the split with Chinese-majority Singapore made Muslim Malays the majority in the country at 55 per cent of the population, versus 30 per cent for Chinese-Malaysians, and eight per cent for Indian-Malaysians, with the rest including the indigenous Orang Asli and immigrants.

    This split allowed Perikatan (the Alliance Party), later renamed Barisan Nasional (BN, or National Front), led by the United Malays National Organisation (UNMO), to take power. It has ruled the country ever since.

    In fact, elections weren’t even close. Until 2008, BN had a two-thirds majority in parliament, allowing it to change the constitution at will.

    This period paralleled Malaysia’s rapid economic growth, which averaged 6.5 per cent from 1957 to 2005, led chiefly by exports of natural resources.

    This was all fine as long as resource prices were high enough to keep everyone happy.

    Petrol revenues provide upwards of 40 per cent of Malaysia’s yearly governmental budget, while Malaysian palm oil conglomerates account for 39 per cent of global palm oil production, forming the bulk of Malaysian exports from 1970 to 2000.

    Put together, these two resources made up nearly a third of exports, and a large majority of government revenues.

    Since 2012, however, there has been a dramatic drop in prices for both palm oil and crude oil. Though the economy remains strong due to consumer consumption, the ability of BN to spend as it has may no longer be feasible.

    That is why, in 2013, Malaysia saw the closest election in its history.

    The opposition – a fragmented group led by Anwar Ibrahim – actually won 53 per cent of votes, but gerrymandering allowed BN to, amazingly, hold 60 per cent of parliamentary seats.

        “The Barisan Nasional-led coalition government’s dominant position is under threat like never before,” Benedict said.

    “Since it narrowly won the 2013 general elections, authorities have led a disturbing crackdown on freedom of expression in an apparent bid to tighten its grip on power.”

    With prices falling even further last year, and signs that the opposition was gaining strength, the clampdown increased.

    “The flurry of sedition accusations levelled against journalists, activists and opposition politicians have had a chilling effect on free expression in Malaysia,” said Shawn Crispin, Bangkok-based senior south-east Asia representative to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

    Recent arrests are a clear signal “to all the country’s journalists that authorities are watching and willing to crackdown on what’s perceived as critical reporting,” Crispin added.

    Democracy or authoritarianism?

    The biggest news happened in February, when Anwar Ibrahim was sentenced to 10 years in jail on what many believe to be trumped-up charges of sodomy and corruption.

    “The fact that Anwar was convicted in a preposterous trial illustrates the ruling coalition’s fundamental insecurity and unwillingness to face serious questions about their performance, as well as their desperation to hold on to power, regardless of the ramifications to Malaysia’s integrity,” Serene Lim, Program Coordinator with SUARAM, a Malaysian human rights organisation, said in a statement.

    Many observers believe the moves are an attempt by BN leaders to remove barriers to its continued rule.

    “I believe that the motive largely lies with Prime Minister Najib Razak as a means for self-preservation,” said Joseph Sipalan, assistant news editor with Malay Mail Online and chairman of the Institute of Journalists Malaysia.

    “His priority now is to stamp out anything that could potentially threaten him.”

     Malaysia’s next elections are not due until 2018 – plenty of time for BN to strengthen its grip on power and further move the country further away from democracy.

    Moreover, Malaysia remains an important trading partner for many world powers, including China and the United States, ties that appear to have muted global reaction to its crackdown.

    “Silence by the international community will in effect just send the message that the Malaysian authorities have a blank cheque to keep violating human rights,” said Benedict.

    For now, the opposition isn’t standing down – 10,000 people rallied against the government crackdowns as well as plans to shore up revenues through a new goods and services tax.

    The media, despite the threats, is still reporting.

    Shannon Teoh, President of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Malaysia, believes the government can do little to stop journalists from doing their job in the long term.

    “Once the genie is out the bottle, is it not going to go back in,” he said, noting a large increase of media outlets in Malaysia over the past 10 to15 years.

    “It is going to get harder for the government to shut down sites. New ones will start. The government can try to limit it, but things will get out.”