In the immediate aftermath of Malaysia’s controversial elections, Prime Minister Najib Razak appeared conciliatory. He made all the right moves and said all the right words to an electorate divided by race, religion and wealth, and overwhelmed by a “Chinese tsunami”.
His “One Malaysia” campaign – designed to show off Malaysia’s unity in diversity – was effectively shelved as Najib spoke of the need to reform entrenched race-based policies while urging calm within a sharply polarized society.
A week ago he made headlines with a warning to his ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its Barison Nasional (BN) coalition, in which he said that the party had to adopt a strategy to cope with changing times, adding “nothing is constant. Whether it is quick or not, change will happen."
Yet Najib’s directives have proved as hollow as his victory in the May 5 poll was shallow. Amid the olive branches and well-rehearsed conviviality the government and police have embarked on a breathtaking crackdown on dissidence.
More than 20 people have been detained, mostly activists and opposition politicians, and their publications seized in a crackdown the Malaysian Bar described as “regressive”. The Bar also called on the government to “demonstrate its commitment to a continuing course of transformation and democratic reforms, not by rhetoric alone but by sincere and genuine action.”
President Christopher Leong said the Bar was appalled by charges against activists Adam Adli, Haris Ibrahim and Pakatan Rakyat (PR) politicians Tian Chua and Tamrin Ghafar, and the arrest of 18 people at a recent candlelight vigil in support of activists.
"The recent arrests, prosecutions and confiscations by the authorities are manifestations of regressive and undemocratic conduct. The current environment is not reflective of a Government aspiring to achieve world-class democracy,” he said.
"Rather than bringing about a society that is at ease with itself, it is instead creating an environment of grave concern. To promote greater democracy, the Government should welcome diversity of opinion, not close democratic space."
The coordinated crackdown came after the worst performance ever by a Malaysian leader at an election since UMNO rose to power in the wake of independence in 1957.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and his PR coalition won 53 percent of the vote but picked up just 89 seats in the 222-seat parliament. BN won 60 percent of the seats with just 47 percent of the vote. Results from 27-seats are still being contested against a backdrop of alleged cheating and fraud.
Thousands immediately protested, marching through the streets of Kuala Lumpur against a political system that constitutionally favors native Malays over Chinese, Indians and other ethnic groups, election irregularities — including use of indelible ink that washed off – and the perennial issue, corruption.
The Election Commission was telling. A body that is supposed to be independent and an example of the separation of powers – and that is charged with the task of investigating electoral irregularities – went on the attack, challenging Anwar to withdraw from parliament if he refused to accept the results. That lack of impartiality will only galvanize opposition forces.
However, it was gerrymandering in favor of rural Malays that saved Najib, UMNO and BN after Chinese voters deserted the BN coalition in droves.