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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Malaysia's anti-democracy

Jakarta Post (13/11/2007): The Malaysian government's clampdown on Saturday's rally in Kuala Lumpur is predictable as far as the political constellation in place in the country is concerned.
Malaysia is still attempting to secure socio-political stability in the multi-ethnic society it badly requires to build a strong and prosperous country, as outlined in its Vision 2020. Despite his squabbling with Mahathir Mohamad, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and his predecessor share much in common, notably when it comes to stability.

Mahathir is an avid critic of democracy, as well as the West, but Malaysia, particularly the dominant Malay ethnic group, and Badawi owe him a lot for laying the foundation for the country's economic viability during his 20 years in power. Under Mahathir, Malaysia survived the financial crisis that swept across Asia in the late 1990s.

Malaysia is taking the popular model of development that puts democracy behind economic growth and all the conditions needed to turn the economic wheel, in particular political stability. The efficacy of development sans democracy has been visible in South Korea, Indonesia under Soeharto and China, to name just a few examples.

That Badawi defended the use of tear gas and water cannons to disperse the weekend protest for electoral reform clearly explains that post-Mahathir Malaysia, to a large extent, is not making a break with the past. Mahathir's legacy is too precious an asset for Badawi to afford to lose.

While no local media covered the rally, foreign news services reported that 300,000 people attended the event, making it the biggest rally in the country since 1998 and the arrest of fired deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.

Police said they detained 245 people who were among the crowd marching to the royal palace to hand over a letter calling for clean and fair elections.

The fact that local media exercised self-censorship in response to the rally only underlines the long-standing paradox of Malaysia, where publications are free to live without press freedom.

By any conventional standard, Malaysia remains a quasi-democracy despite the bicameral parliamentary system that has prevented an absolute monarchy from reigning.

The country maintains the draconian Internal Security Act and Official Secrets Act, which have continued to haunt the opposition or those who differ with the government, including the press.

Following the heavy handling of Saturday's protest, nobody can guarantee that the Badawi administration will not be tempted to enforce these acts to crack down on government critics and the opposition and further silence the media. The world is watching closely whether Badawi will seek another Ibrahim to be sacrificed to keep Malaysia free from noisy criticism.

While Badawi may have every reason to stifle the critics for the sake of stability, he must take into account the changing world, where sooner or later no government will be able to resist public aspirations.

Indeed, democracy has not fully taken root in the region, but it is growing fast thanks in part to the revolution in information technology. Malaysia can ban criticism against the government, but the question is for how long.

Democracy, human rights and press freedom are the keys to success in today's world. Unfortunately, Malaysia, as well as other developing nations, is afraid to give this recipe a try.


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