Malaysia: beyond the sound bites

Bilateral discussions during the Prime Minister’s recent flying visit to Malaysia apparently centred on the two Malaysian Airlines flights—MH370 and MH17—and the ‘deeper relationship’ the two tragedies have forged between Australia and Malaysia. Mr Abbott thanked his host, Prime Minister Najib Razak, by saying ‘I could not have asked for a wiser or a stronger friend and counsellor in these tough and difficult times’.

The flexibility which diplomatic cant allows—indeed requires—makes Mr Abbott’s comments understandable in the current global circumstances. However, this sound-bite endorsement of Malaysia’s leadership obscures much about the very volatile domestic environment, political exigencies and social dislocation that exist within Malaysia today.

The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)-led Malaysian Government continues to devote extraordinary efforts to degrading and eliminating its political opposition. Such efforts have continued since the Mahathir administration, but have grown in intensity and frequency of late. In March this year, following the MH370 tragedy, the state-controlled New Straits Times (NST) highlighted the family links between the senior pilot of the plane and Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim. The pilot’s membership of the Opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat was also underlined in the NST with little apparent reflection on what this may have meant in terms of the possible motivations for the tragedy. Foreign media provided their own scenarios.

Following the abolition of the Internal Security Act in 2011, the Government appears to be using the Sedition Act to continue its ongoing attacks on Opposition politicians. In 2013, Opposition parliamentarians Tian Chua and Teresa Kok were charged with sedition, while in March this year Opposition stalwart Karpal Singh was convicted of sedition for his comments on a domestic political imbroglio in 2009. This year, another Opposition MP, Khalid Samad, has been charged under the Sedition Act, as have Parti Keadilan Rakyat vice president N. Surendran, Penang state assemblyman RSN Rayer, and former state leader Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin. The dragnet has not been restricted to politicians, with law professor Azmi Sharom and journalist Susan Loone also being charged with sedition offences. Even the Selangor sultan has chosen to refer to Opposition parties as engaging in ‘treason’. The events mirror in various ways the 100-plus arrests by Dr Mahathir’s administration under Operation Lalang in 1987.

The 1980s events and arrests were—like Malaysian politics generally—marked by strong ethnic and religious aspects. The present sedition charges and detentions are likewise occurring in an environment of growing efforts by non-Malay citizens to query their subordination under the Malay ethnocracy which has marked Malaysia since independence. These and other endeavours to institute reform have been seen by many across the Malay community as threatening their dominance in Malaysia, in turn inducing increased advocacy of hudud laws and growing support for right-wing Malay supremacist groups such as Perkasa. The administration has admitted that it has provided funds to Perkasa, while former Prime Minister Mahathir openly supports and defends the group. Prime Minister Najib has also been appealing to this same constituency by urging the implementation of a ‘shariah index’ for the country. Meanwhile the Opposition’s promotion of social and political reform has been attacked by Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma), which has warned against creeping liberalism and pluralism, claiming that it will threaten Malaysia, and send the country back to the ‘Dark Ages’.

Other prominent establishment figures have been quick to join this tide, with the Home Minister Zahid Hamidi recently bemoaning that non-Muslims in Malaysia have become ‘increasingly arrogant’, and the former chief justice Abdul Hamid Mohamad asserting that ‘only Malays truly fought for Malaysia's independence from the British’. The ethnic cleavage is deepening.

Into this turbid mix are flowing the influences, emotions and media of the events in Iraq and Syria, and these trends are inducing both further Malay radicalisation across society and increasing concerns among non-Malays. When Prime Minister Najib urged his UMNO party members to be as brave as ISIS fighters in Iraq, the encouragement to emulate the Middle East militants was echoed by Ruslan Kassim, of Perkasa. Mr Najib has, however, since pronounced that ‘ISIS does not represent Islam’.

Malaysia has also declared ISIS a terrorist organisation and has arrested suspected local militants who purportedly ‘had visions of establishing a hardline Southeast Asian Islamic caliphate spanning Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore’. Meanwhile, the first confirmed Malaysian jihadist killed in Syria has been lauded on social media, and others who died in the same cause have been ‘congratulated’.

The advocacy by some in Malaysia of the beheading and slaughter of non-Muslim Dayaks in the Bornean states—while an outlier at present—should not be ignored.

The geographical proximity of Malaysia and Australia—and the huge range of interests and links the two countries share—form a remarkable contrast to the degree of attention the Australian media assigns to that country. Mr Abbott’s fleeting visit was intended to bolster some aspects of these links, but it is of critical importance that more Australian attention be paid both to the domestic politics of Malaysia and to the growing collocation between Malaysian politics and events in Iraq and Syria.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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