Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Mahathir redux expected with Najib

M. Taufiqurrahman dari DeKalb, Illinois

Nearly a decade after the start of a reform movement and at a time when one of its closest neighbors will soon have a free election for the third time, Malaysia remains where it was, if not worse, politically.

Barring some major catastrophe, very soon Malaysia’s hegemonic coalition the National Front (Barisan National) will have anointed Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak as the country’s new prime minister, replacing Abdullah Ahmad Badawi who has been in power for the past six years, following Mahathir Mohamad’s resignation in 2003.

Foreign media and those in the opposition have buzzed about the alleged involvement of the prime-minister-in-waiting in the grisly murder of a Mongolian model, who knew about shady dealings involving Najib’s aide in a multi-billion defense contract.

But the scandal aside, Malaysians should be more worried about the return of the old-style authoritarianism of Mahathir Mohamad in the country, after the relatively benign rule of the laid-back Badawi.

If Najib’s recent overtures were of any indication, pro-democracy activists and the Malaysian people have reason to worry that it could be d*j* vu all over for them.

In spite of significant electoral gains, life has become very difficult for members of the opposition. Police have been deployed to bar supporters of opposition groups from attending political rallies. In the state of Perak, the police were deployed to block opposition lawmakers from entering the parliament building.

In the Perak imbroglio, the opposition movement learned the hard way about the persistence of the ugly nature of authoritarianism. The police, in spite of the privileges and immunities that he should have enjoyed, harassed Perak Assembly speaker V. Sivakumar of the People’s Alliance Party (Pakatan Rakyat).

Najib’s intolerance to criticism is also apparent in the decision on the suspension of an opposition parliament member who accused him of having links to the murder of the Mongolian model.

This is a repeat scene that borrows its script from Mahathir’s playbook, when the autocrat crushed any opposition movement that stood in the way of his efforts to modernize Malaysia. Mahathir consolidated Malaysian authoritarianism in the early 1980s when he started to push for high economic growth driven by state-led industrialization.

The economic growth could only be achieved by relegating democracy and human rights to the backburner. Especially when the state-led industrialization was threatened by the slump of commodity prices in the mid-1980s, Mahathir resorted to repressive measures with relative ease. When Razaleigh Hamzah challenged his leadership of UMNO in 1987, which was tantamount to control over state resources, Mahathir resorted to subverting independent institutions such as the judiciary, the police, parliament and the media.

And after six years of Badawi’s disastrous term - as indicated by UMNO’s reduced votes in the polls and states falling into opposition hands - there is little option for Najib but to resort to a heavy-handed approach to maintain the National Front dominance in Malaysian politics.

And now the emasculation of independent institutions is taking its toll on the Malaysian political system. The system is now rife with irregularities as indicated by the rise of Najib, the use of police, the judiciary and the bureaucracy to repress the opposition movement and the paralysis among others in the state government of Perak.

One politician from the opposition camp said it best. “At the rate things are going, we’re going to be a failed state within a decade,” Salehudin Hashim, secretary-general of the People’s Justice Party was quoted by the New York Times as saying.

There is also a more worrying development that under Najib, Malaysia would be more Islamist than it has been under Badawi.

Recently, Najib felt the need to emulate what Mahathir did early in his term, playing the Islam card. Concurrent with his state-led industrialization, Mahathir also enacted a massive Islamization program. The culmination of the effort was when, against the backdrop of the Sept. 11 attack, Mahathir declared Malaysia in 2001 an Islamic state.

Najib needs to reiterate his commitment to the Islamist cause. In a gathering of UMNO women, he urged Malays to return to Islamic teachings to face the current challenges. He told members of UMNO the universal values of Islam would lead Malaysian people to success and glory.

It seems for Najib nothing is broken and no fixing is needed in Malaysian politics.

Courtesy: AnwarIbrahimBlog

No comments: