An increasingly repressive climate for free speech and a lack of transparency and accountability in government will mar the moment as Malaysia celebrates 60 years of nationhood on Thursday, according to rights advocates and local corruption watchdogs.
The multi-ethnic nation of more than 30 million people has grown into one of Southeast Asia’s most vibrant economies since Aug. 31, 1957.
But one party, the United Malays National Organization, has dominated local politics throughout the past six decades and tightened its grip as leader of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition by restricting free speech and arresting government critics, observers said.
“Freedom of expression in Malaysia is under extreme scrutiny, siding [with] the interests of the powerful whilst silencing the voices of human rights defenders,” K. Shamini Darshni, executive director of Amnesty International’s Malaysia branch, told BenarNews.
The atmosphere of repression has deepened since Prime Minister Najib Razak came under a cloud of corruption allegations tied to a financial scandal known as the 1MDB affair, according to rights activists. They say his government has used various laws to lock up people who have raised questions about the allegations connected to 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), or have called on Najib to resign over them.
“The Malaysian government has responded to corruption allegations by throwing respect for rights out the window,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), said when it reported earlier this year that the climate for rights in Malaysia had deteriorated “markedly” in 2016 through increased arrests of government critics, expanded restrictions on peaceful assembly and other measures.
“By bringing a slew of prosecutions against those expressing dissenting views or peacefully protesting, the government is seriously undermining democratic institutions and the rights of all Malaysian citizens,” he said.
HRW said Najib’s government was resorting to laws such as the Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act (OSA), and the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) to go after people who had criticized him over the 1MDB affair, where billions of dollars allegedly went missing from the state investment fund he founded in 2009 to spur development in Malaysia.
“As long as the political leadership is corrupt, laws are only selectively applied to a few,” Akhbar Satar, president of Malaysia’s chapter of Transparency International (TI), told BenarNews.
Law dating to colonial era
The Sedition Act, enacted by British colonial rulers in 1948 to combat communists, was amended by Malaysia following race riots in 1969. The law defines “sedition” broadly and places limits on free speech, particularly over sensitive political issues, according to a report by the Center for Independent Journalism, Malaysia.
In 2015, parliament amended the act again by authorizing the government to impose stricter punishments of up to 20 years in prison for people convicted of seditious speech.
The amendment also allowed state authorities to obtain a court order to censor publications and websites deemed to be inciting hatred among the majority-Muslim nation’s various ethnic groups and religious communities.
“The Sedition Act is not just for Muslims; it is for the protection of all Malaysians. It is aimed at preventing any person who promotes feelings of hostility between persons or groups on the grounds of religion – whether the religion attacked is Christianity, Hinduism, Islam or any of the other faiths Malaysia is proud to be home to,” Najib said in justifying amendments to the law in April 2015.
“We will not and cannot stand for the incitement of racial or inter-ethnic conflict. We have come too far to harm the progress that we have made. And that is why the government decided to keep the Sedition Act and amend it to make it a better and more suitable law,” he added.
At the time, his government was being criticized both at home and abroad for sweeping up scores of opposition politicians, journalists and activists under suspicion of seditious speech.
On the eve of his country’s 60th Independence (Merdeka) Day, the prime minister called on his countrymen to unite and support his government as it faced general elections, which are due by June 2018 at the latest.
“In the spirit of independence, now is not the time for us to break ranks,” Najib said, according to Channel NewsAsia.
“In the era of this government’s administration, there is no greater gift to the people, in the true meaning of independence, than a government that has the ability to deliver on its promises,” he added.
‘For many more Merdeka celebrations’
The prime minister has been criticized over reports that nearly U.S. $700 million linked to the state investment fund 1MDB were deposited into his private banks accounts during the run-up to the previous general election, in 2013.
He has denied any wrongdoing in the matter, saying that the large sum of cash was a donation from the Saudi government and not used for personal gain.
However, the PM sacked an attorney general who was probing allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement around 1MDB, as well as a deputy prime minister who had publicly criticized Najib about the matter.
Just last week, a high court dismissed an attempt by opposition leader Rafizi Ramli, vice president of the People’s Justice Party, to overturn his conviction and 18-month sentence under the Official Secrets Acts for leaking part of a classified auditor’s report on 1MDB.
“Over the 45 years the OSA has been in force, we have witnessed how the law has been used as an effective means of ensuring that information on the government is kept secret,” said Cynthia Gabriel, executive director of the Malaysian NGO Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4).
She called for greater transparency and accountability in Malaysian government in the coming years, as well as an end to impunity for officials suspected of corruption, saying this was crucial if Malaysia hoped to achieve the status of a developed nation.
As she looked ahead to Independence Day, Darshni, the head of Amnesty’s national chapter, said “Malaysia must demonstrate strong political will when it comes to making human rights [gains] and stand for justice and truth for many more generations, for many more Merdeka celebrations in the future.”