Activists: Anwar has broken promises to repeal Malaysia’s restrictive laws, end corruption

Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Kuala Lumpur
Activists: Anwar has broken promises to repeal Malaysia’s restrictive laws, end corruption Anwar Ibrahim (center) and his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, wave during a press conference in Kajang, Malaysia, after Anwar was appointed the country’s 10th prime minister, Nov. 24, 2022.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

Malaysian civil society groups and human rights activists are accusing Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim of breaking campaign promises to stamp out corruption as well as review and cancel laws that curb free speech and stifle dissent.

Anwar’s government is instead using some of the same laws to curtail criticism of his administration or appease conservative elements, they said. 

And the PM, who came to power 10 months ago, is cracking down on corruption selectively, his critics allege, noting how prosecutors this week dropped dozens of graft charges against the head of a party propping up Anwar’s federal government.

The laws that Anwar promised to review or revoke are the colonial-era Sedition Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act, and the Communications and Multimedia Act.

Last year, Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan alliance had campaigned for election on a progressive and reform agenda, so his government’s “regressive actions” were disappointing, said Josef Benedict, of Asia Pacific for CIVICUS, an alliance of civil society organizations.

“More worryingly, the government has instead used some of these laws to investigate activists and critics as well as block news websites and blogs,” he told BenarNews.

Last month, Ministry of Home Affairs personnel raided a Kuala Lumpur bookstore owned by Amir Hamzah Akal Ali, a writer whose pen name is Benz Ali.

Citing the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the people from the ministry confiscated two books titled “Marx Sang Pendidik Revolusioner” (“Karl Marx, The Revolutionary as Educator”) and “Koleksi Puisi Masturbasi” (“A Collection of Masturbation Poems”).

Neither book is banned in Malaysia.

According to descriptions on GoodReads, the book on Karl Marx talks about the German political philosopher being a radical and educational thinker. The poetry book authored by Benz Ali is a collection of spiritual, political and love poems, whose title was intended to ridicule intellectual discussions that didn’t effect change, he said.

Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail defended the seizure, saying it was based on “public complaints.” 

Benz Ali said such actions were completely the opposite of the reforms Anwar had promised. 

“It is now clear that politicians are unwilling to entirely discard or repeal these draconian acts. This also contradicts Anwar Ibrahim’s rhetoric,” he told BenarNews.

Personnel from the Ministry of Home Affairs seize copies of two books from a book shop belonging to Amir Hamzah Akal Ali in Kuala Lumpur, Aug. 18, 2023. [Photo courtesy Amir Hamzah Akal Ali]

The printing act gives the Home Minister “absolute discretion” to prohibit the printing, sale or distribution of any publication “which is in any manner prejudicial to or likely to be prejudicial to public order, morality, security, or which is likely to alarm public opinion.”

Saifuddin in April said the government had no plans to revoke that law because it remained “essential for preserving public peace.”

The act is being used to impinge on the right to free speech and information, said Article 19, a group that advocates for these issues, and other rights activists.

The government used the same printing act to seize watches made by Swiss firm Swatch, which had an LGBTQ+ theme, and then to make owning those watches punishable by up to three years in prison. 

Anwar’s administration also banned two children’s books because they allegedly promoted “LGBTQ lifestyles” and a novel for allegedly being “harmful to Malaysian morals.”

Meanwhile, an opposition politician was charged under provisions of the draconian Sedition Act in July. 

The act carries a prison sentence of up to three years, or a fine of up to U.S. $1,100, or both. It outlaws speech deemed as insulting the Malaysian royalty or inciting racial or religious tensions.

After the politician Muhammad Sanusi Md. Nor was charged with sedition in July, liberals and conservatives both lambasted the government for skirting the line on free speech.

Lawyers and rights activists have criticized the act for being too broad in scope and lacking clear definitions of words such as “hatred, ” “disaffection,” or “contempt.” Therefore, the law is ripe for abuse, they said.

Anwar, for his part, defended the use of the Sedition Act against Sanusi, who had allegedly insulted the sultan of Selangor state.

“We avoid the use of the Sedition Act, but when it comes to matters concerning the position and dignity of the rulers, this is something we should uphold and prevent from becoming an unhealthy political discourse,” Anwar said in July when reporters asked him about the issue. 

A newsstand worker puts up newspapers featuring Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s appointment at a stall in Semenyih, Selangor, Malaysia, Nov. 25, 2022. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Similarly, the Communications and Multimedia Act, which proscribes using a website for “offensive” or “menacing content” includes a section that is vague and ambiguous without proper definitions, critics said.

An offense under this act can lead to fines up to $10,760, up to two years in prison, or both, with the government having discretionary powers to issue or revoke licenses to publishers. Critics said this act is used to target the media.

The law was used recently to block two news publications’ websites temporarily, while a third one that was blocked remains inaccessible. 

Following these blockages, senior journalists and media observers accused Malaysia’s internet regulator of excessive control over the media by censoring content it considered sensitive or critical of the government.

The regulator defended itself by saying its job was to ensure that no one spread fake news or malicious content.

Anwar is clearly going against his word, said Phil Robertson, a deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch.

“PM Anwar seems to be cynically pursuing a path characterized as ‘watch what I say, not what I do’ as his government uses the same repressive, and rights-abusing laws,” he told BenarNews.

The laws, Robertson said, had been weaponized to give successive governments the ability to restrict political discourse and silence their political opponents.


Anwar and his Pakatan group have also railed against corruption, managing to use that platform in the historic 2018 general election to unseat an alliance that had ruled Malaysia for nearly 60 years. 

But since he became prime minister last November, critics said, Anwar’s anti-graft campaign has honed in on opposition politicians. 

And with prosecutors dropping corruption charges against Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi on Monday, many observers are raising the specter of political interference in the judiciary.

Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (second from right) is joined by supporters at the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex after the High Court dismissed 47 charges of corruption against him, Sept. 4, 2023. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

It does not matter whether there was political interference, because that narrative is now in the public domain and would have tainted Anwar, said Syaza Shukri of the International Islamic University of Malaysia.

“I think the optics are obviously not good. It allows the opposition to double down on the narrative that [the Anwar government] is not serious about fighting corruption,” she told BenarNews.

The move “deeply undercuts the government’s credibility, political accountability and stymies anti-corruption efforts as those who help secure power are seen to be let off,” said Bridget Welsh of the University of Nottingham Malaysia.

“It will impact Anwar public support, but his government depends on the support of MPs, who remain with him at the moment,” she told BenarNews.

For his part, Anwar denied that he had interfered in Zahid’s case and said the attorney general was handling the case. Responding to criticism, the Attorney General’s Chambers noted that the judge had qualified the prosecution’s reasons to drop the charges as “cogent.”


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