Malaysia moving backward on human rights
Malaysia is not merely a beautiful land, but has a culture rich in subtle sweetness. Due to the persistence of authoritarian governments and fundamentalism, the naturally generous Malaysian heart remains crippled. Only by channeling all that natural affection of the Malaysian heart to overflow and break the dams of shariah and government oppression can Malaysia become free. Shariah must no longer chain the Malaysian heart.
By Ioannis Gatsiounis
KUALA LUMPUR – The Malaysian government has long held that promoting human rights over national security would undermine the country’s economic development. As a multi-ethnic country with a history of racial and religious antagonisms, relaxing restrictions on individual freedoms would invite destabilization and undermine progress, officials have long claimed.
That philosophy was deeply entrenched during Mahathir Mohamad’s 22-year rule as prime minister, when the country leaped from being a backwater to an industrialized powerhouse despite an abysmal rights record. Hopes ran high that Mahathir’s successor, current Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, would reverse that trend and allow for more political and social openness. Nearly three years into his term, however, those once-high hopes have waned as Abdullah has chosen to leave in place many of the strictures that characterized Mahathir’s rule.
Compared with Asia’s more dynamic democracies, social progress has badly lagged economic development in Malaysia. Government officials are still grappling with how to cultivate a dynamic, progressive-minded citizenry without relinquishing control. At the same time, class disparity is widening, corruption runs rampant and many argue that the courts and police long ago lost their moral legitimacy as impartial arbiters. After years of affirmative-action programs, race relations between the majority Muslim Malays and minority Chinese and Indians are still on edge.
Abdullah has been credited with acknowledging these concerns and has paid lip service to the crucial connection between human rights and nation-building.
“Abdullah has allowed for greater public dialogue regarding promotion of human rights,” said lawyer Param Cumaraswamy, a founding member of Malaysia’s Human Rights Committee. “The climate has been more open and we’re seeing more discussions between the government and civil-society groups.”
At the same time, there are doubts Abdullah has the political will to put his more liberal rhetoric into action.
“Badawi is hiding behind the impression he gives that he’s a good man with a soft approach,” said human-rights lawyer P Uthayakumar. Of the hundreds of letters Uthayakumar says he has written to Abdullah about specific instances of human-rights abuses, he said: “Almost none have received a response.”
Malaysia’s mainstream media, though still tightly controlled and, in the main, servile to Abdullah’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, has been allowed to touch lightly on certain sensitive race and religion issues under Abdullah’s watch. Yet behind Abdullah’s nice-guy image there have been a string of developments that raise serious doubts about his commitment to protect and promote human rights and more democracy. Chief among those concerns are media freedoms, police conduct, religious persecution and his administration’s continued reliance on draconian legislation to curb dissent, say rights advocates.
The 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act, which through annual re-licensing requirements keeps media owners on guard against offending the government, is still firmly in place. Moreover, Abdullah has frequently reprimanded the local media when it falls out of step with the government’s news agenda. On June 26, a Mandarin-language call-in radio program, The Mic Is On, With Love, Without Obstacles, was ordered by the government to change its format after airing a segment critical of a controversial order affecting Chinese-language schools.
Nor has Abdullah’s government been above overt censorship. Mahathir’s recent criticism of Abdullah’s policies, in which he has referred to his successor’s reform agenda as a “big bluff”, has notably been blacked out of the mainstream media. Mahathir has instead vented his criticisms over the Internet-based media he once sought to silence, including an exclusive interview with Malaysiakini.com. (Through a legal loophole, Internet media in Malaysia are not constrained by the renewable-licensing requirements the print and broadcast media face.)
“We’ve seen some opening up and at the same time a strong willingness to black out issues to suit [Abdullah’s] political agenda,” said Sonia Randhawa, executive director at the Kuala Lumpur-based Center for Independent Journalism. “He may not have the dominant personality of Mahathir, but he has quietly cultivated close links with the media to informally pressure them to pursue the agenda of the government.”
One example: a bloody police crackdown on a peaceful demonstration against Abdullah’s decision to raise fuel prices sharply in May was not carried by any mainstream media.
Where Abdullah has pursued substantive reforms, he has often met firm resistance. For instance, his plans to set up an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) to address the police force’s long record of corruption, inefficiency and abuse was widely lauded by rights advocates. It would be “the single biggest advancement in human rights in this country”, contended Uthayakumar. However, the official police website promised retaliation and threatened to allow crime to escalate if the proposed new watchdog body was established.
Some Kuala Lumpur-based analysts suggest that the most worrying trend is creeping Islamization through the judiciary. A number of recent court decisions have set the sharia (Islamic law) courts against the civil courts and have challenged the supremacy of Malaysia’s secular constitution, which guarantees equality and freedom of worship.
One recent decision involved a woman who was born Muslim but had renounced Islam in 1998 to convert to Christianity. However, sharia courts refused to recognize or accept her apostasy and punished her under Islamic law. The other controversial decision involved a Hindu-born soldier who was buried as a Muslim after sharia courts decided that he had converted to Islam. The courts refused to hear testimony from his widow, who steadfastly insisted her spouse was not a Muslim.
Malaysia’s parliament last year passed a new Islamic Family Law that aims to provide legal protections for Muslim men to engage in polygamy and divorce. The bill led social activist Marina Mahathir to say, “Only in Malaysia are Muslim women regressing. In every other Muslim country in the world, women have been gaining rights, not losing them.” Abdullah has since agreed to review the bill.
Abdullah’s defenders say he should not be held accountable for the rising tide of conservative Islam and its associated abuses, which they contend were on the ascent before he assumed power. Moreover, Abdullah, a religious scholar, has championed what he calls Islam Hadhari, or “Civilizational Islam”, a moderate brand of the religion that stresses technological and economic competitiveness, moderation, tolerance and social justice.
Critics point out that Islam Hadhari’s moderate vision has been used to entrench Islam into Malaysia’s multi-ethnic fabric. For instance, Islam Hadhari played prominently in the recently promulgated Ninth Malaysia Plan, a five-year socio-economic policy template.
“This is the first time the nation’s economic and social plan has used religion to shape the national agenda,” said Lim Teck Ghee, director for the Center for Public Policy Studies at the Asian Strategy and Leadership and Institute in Kuala Lumpur.
Ethnic favoritism threatens Malaysia’s delicate social balance. Non-Muslim members of parliament recently withdrew a formal letter addressed to Abdullah requesting better protection of religious minorities’ rights after the request sparked a backlash in UMNO. They were reacting partially to a state-approved demolition campaign of a number of Hindu temples that officials have claimed lack proper registration documents.
“I said that they should withdraw the memorandum and they agreed,” Abdullah was quoted as saying without explanation. “So it is over.”
A close ally of Abdullah, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mohamed Nazri, called on non-Muslims not to interfere in discussions about Islam and threatened to use the Sedition Act against those who insulted Islam.
Cut of the same cloth
Ironically, some argue that recent abuses are rooted in Abdullah’s non-confrontational, self-effacing style – which marks a stark contrast to former prime minister Mahathir’s forceful leadership. That, political analysts argue, has opened the way for competing interest groups to more openly speak their mind and pursue policies that favor the majority Malays over minority Chinese and Indians.
“It’s partly due to the opening up of the system,” said Joseph Roy, director of Amnesty International’s Malaysian chapter. “But Badawi has to be stronger, clearer where he stands, otherwise people will take advantage and there will be more human-rights abuses on a systematic level and few fundamental changes on the ground.”
Ivy Josiah, executive director of Women’s Aid Organization, said, “Badawi needs to set the bar on human rights standards.”
To illustrate her point, Josiah mentioned a recent forum held in the northern state of Penang organized to discuss overlapping jurisdictions between civil and sharia courts. Five hundred Muslim protesters under an “Anti-Inter-Faith Commission Body” banner demanded that the event be canceled. Rather than taking a clear stand and providing protection to the seminar goers, according to Josiah, Abdullah said merely that it was a sensitive issue and he refused to intervene. According to witnesses, the event was canceled at the request of police, who feared that the demonstrators would barge into the premises.
Moreover, many of Abdullah’s more progressive policies have been slow in the implementation. For instance, his much-vaunted National Integrity Plan (NIP), which aimed at reducing inefficiency and corruption in government by imbuing Malaysians with a greater sense of right and wrong, has badly lagged in actual implementation. Most Malaysians remain unfamiliar with the plan’s key principles and only in April did UMNO’s powerful youth wing agree to draw up an action plan to implement it, a full two years after it was first promulgated.
“If Mahathir were Abdullah with Abdullah’s agenda, things would move,” said K S Nathan of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “A strategy would be in place, backed by strong convictions. Mahathir was the first to say the buck stops here; Badawi is passing the buck around.”
Though different in style, the two Malaysian leaders share similar political instincts – if not tactics. Like Abdullah, Mahathir promised liberal reforms during his first three years in office, including allowing more freedom of expression. Soon after assuming the premiership, Mahathir famously released a batch of prisoners who were then being held under the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for indefinite detention without trial.
Yet both Mahathir and Abdullah have relied heavily on the ISA and other draconian laws aimed at promoting national security over individual rights to crack down on political opposition. Both leaders have also displayed a tendency to justify their own abuses by harping on other, usually Western, countries’ policy discrepancies. Mahathir famously lashed out at the United States’ Jewish population, which he often claimed sought to undermine Muslim nations.
Last month Abdullah drew a sharp retort from US-based Human Rights Watch when he called for the closure of the United States’ prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. An HRW report last month noted that more than 60 of the estimated 100 detainees held under the ISA are allegedly associated with the Islamist group Jemaah Islamiah, adding, “The government has recently expanded its use of the Internal Security Act to include individuals accused of counterfeiting and forging documents.” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said: “Abdullah has urged the US to close Guantanamo, yet his own government is holding detainees indefinitely without trial.”
To be sure, human-rights considerations in a multi-ethnic country such as Malaysia are seldom black and white. Some contest that there are reasons for rights proponents to feel encouraged by developments under Abdullah, says Elina Noor with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) in Kuala Lumpur. Top ministers in Abdullah’s cabinet, she points out, rejected a plan by authorities in Melaka state to set up a moral police force to spy on people and deter behavior considered indecent under Islamic law.
An Islamic body tried to set up a similar force in Kuala Lumpur that was disallowed when Abdullah told his cabinet that no group has the right to spy on people. “The government is actually doing a lot to moderate these issues,” Noor said. However, she also conceded that many Malaysians are understandably worried about “how sporadic the efforts are”.
Three years into Abdullah’s term, many Malaysians are unsure where his government comes really down on promoting rights. Political historians believe that, similar to Mahathir, Abdullah will show his true colors some time during the three-year mark of his five-year term.
But with little passed in the way of legal reforms to deter human-rights abuses, he “is left with everything in his palm to be used should he feel insecure or threatened, when he feels the need to fight back”, said Elizabeth Wong, secretary general of the National Human Rights Society in Malaysia. “And politicians in possession of the trump card rarely fail to use it when they feel the need.”
Ioannis Gatsiounis, a New York native, has worked as a freelance foreign correspondent and previously co-hosted a weekly political/cultural radio call-in show in the US.