John R. Malott was the US Ambassador to Malaysia, 1995-1998, and continues to follow developments in that country closely.
The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is published by the East-West Center, which promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue. Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy option


US diplomats warned Umno leaders in 2008 that continued attacks against Pakatan Rakyat, especially Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim, would be detrimental to BN’s political survival.

According to a Wikileaks transcript released by Malaysia Today, US Ambassador to Malaysia James Keith told Washington that Umno leaders could not see past their actions.
“Umno leaders may fail to grasp the consequences of upping the ante; they hear what we are saying, but do not understand sufficiently well how difficult it will be for them to overcome the shadows they are casting on the country,” Keith wrote.
He said Umno might have thought that accusing Anwar with sodomy was a better decision than jailing him under the Internal Security Act.
However, he claimed, the decision would prove to be a folly, with few in and out of Malaysia buying into the Umno line.
“Contrary to their intent, many in the international community will take this as escalation,” he wrote in his confidential cable to the US State Department in Washington. “Barely one in ten Malaysians are buying into the party line, a survey tells us.”


Summary and Introduction
1.  (C) The next four weeks will be a telling period in the history of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) rule in Malaysia. For the first time in its fifty-year dominance, UMNO is faced with a multi-racial opposition alliance that has some credible prospect for forming the next government. To date, it appears the ruling party finds this situation intolerable. UMNO leaders, united behind but also in a sense using Prime Minister (PM) Abdullah, have made it clear that they are willing to blacken Malaysia’s reputation to ensure the end to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s political challenge.
The coming Parliamentary session in the latter half of August is the next likely setting for a showdown, and could precipitate another arrest of Anwar if he is deemed to be doing to well politically between now and then. Conversely, if the ruling party concludes it has him boxed in UMNO may be content to use short-term measures such as judicial restraining orders and the like to prevent him from addressing and attracting a national audience.
2.  (C) We should continue to speak out publicly in support of the rule of law, taking care not to undermine our principled position by being perceived to be too close to the opposition. If the authorities escalate their rhetoric in anticipation of another arrest of Anwar, we will need to adjust accordingly. If, on the other hand, the ruling party restrains itself from arresting Anwar again in August, we will want to consider our longer-term approach to a period of prolonged uncertainty.
For the time being, we should continue to press hard the bilateral initiatives currently underway as these are tied directly to profound U.S. interests and support the development of a more transparent and accountable set of systems in Malaysian government and society. As we begin to develop our public diplomacy programs for the coming fiscal year, we will seek to give pride of place to the rule of law.  End Summary and Introduction.
What does UMNO want?
3.  (C) The ruling party wants to stay in power indefinitely, and that means Anwar and the multi-racial opposition front he is leading must fail. At least so far, there is scant evidence of a more thoughtful and forward-looking analysis within UMNO. In fact, the ruling party could find some common ground with the opposition if it were willing to countenance gradual development of a two-party system of checks and balances.  Instead, the ruling party defines national security primarily as a matter of protecting UMNO’s superiority and ensuring that “people power,” or a level electoral playing field, cannot become the opposition’s means of toppling the ruling party.
How is UMNO getting what it wants?
4.  (C) The ruling party is relying primarily on its own party structure and the embedded system of carrots and sticks to keep party membership in line. As in other one-party states, the party is seen opportunistically as a mechanism for personal advancement and enrichment.
There is an ideological component, in terms of Malay supremacy, but that is in practice a matter of institutionalized opportunism. In good times UMNO can maintain control by distributing power and money to get what it wants. In bad times, it uses the stick, and for now that means intimidation.
The ruling elite maintains control over the security apparatus through party stalwarts who run the security institutions, mainly the police but also the military. We believe the military will remain loyal to legitimate leadership and is not a likely tool to overturn an elected, royally-approved and Malay-led government from either the ruling or opposition side. The police, on the other hand, follow orders from the ruling party.
The “commando-style” arrest of Anwar last week, the roadblocks and security checks throughout the city of Kuala Lumpur, the recent arrest of blogger Raja Petra, intimidation of Sabah politicians, and the authorities’ strident rhetoric are all part of a broad message to the Malaysian people that they had better not stand in UMNO’s path. In today’s Malaysia, one can get along by going along (and of course one can go farther as a Malay rather than a Chinese or Indian), but it is also true that one can be run over.
We only have anecdotal evidence for this, but the sad spiral into past patterns may have become the predicate for some middle and upper class Malaysians who have the option of emigrating. Rather than wait to be run over, it is far preferable to get out of the game.
What happened to post-election reforms?
5.  (C) It is deja vu all over again. Just as in Abdullah’s first term, characterized by lofty rhetoric in support of political reform but virtually no action, after the March elections Abdullah’s prominent reform initiatives seem to have evaporated into nothing (ref A).
Despite strong popular support for political reform, there is evidently even stronger opposition to reform within the ruling party. Those who have the most to lose through reform are the same ruling elites, including Abdullah’s own circle, who must be persuaded to allow reform to happen. It would take strong leadership to push that sort of initiative through the party structure, perhaps going over the heads of party elites and enlisting the support of the masses.
Abdullah doesn’t seem to have that kind of leadership in him, even if that were his goal.
6.  (C) Instead, the ruling party seems intent on sustaining the patina of reform without actually undertaking any step that might genuinely involve systemic change or weakening of executive power. For example, against the backdrop of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s arrest, last week the government arrested a number of immigration officials for corruption. These men are to be forgiven for wondering, “why me?” Of all who might be prosecuted, including the most senior leaders or their families, why these relative small fry? Through their sacrifice UMNO can claim action against corruption without actually doing much of anything.
What does Anwar want?
7.  (C) This question is not as easily answered as one might think. For the short term, he wants to be Prime Minister.
First and foremost Anwar is a pragmatist, as evidenced by his ability to yoke together in an opposition front the Islamist party (PAS) and the Chinese. What are his firm guiding principles? What are the limits of his ability to compromise or accommodate? We are not sure. It was clear, for example, that he tolerated PAS’s use of America as a political foil during the recent campaign season, and opposition foreign policy announcements on Mideast issues since the election have tended to follow PAS lines. But broadly speaking, he wants political liberalization and he can be expected to be an ardent supporter of the rule of law and a market economy, given his personal history.
Malaysian foreign policy might not change as much as we would like to think under and Anwar government, especially in areas relating to Islam and the Middle East in which PAS will have an important say.
8.  (C) For now, we may have to content ourselves with identifying what Anwar does not want. He does not want to be boxed in and made irrelevant by UMNO, or jailed.  Anwar currently speaks in terms of “becoming Prime Minister or going to jail,” as an either/or proposition. 
At age 61, he does not want to let slip what may be his last, best chance to lead the Malaysian government.  He also does not want arch-nemesis DPM Najib Tun Razak to become Prime Minister, as Anwar believes Najib is much more likely than Abdullah to use harsh authoritarian measures to stop him and the Opposition.
What will happen in the months ahead and what should we do?
9.  (C) UMNO will try to keep Anwar on the defensive and prevent him from winning defections to his opposition front from the ruling party’s coalition. The loose coalition of UMNO loyalists who seem to have banded together around Abdullah will likely try to limit the cost of each step they feel they must take to contain and eventually eradicate Anwar’s influence. If they can preserve the status quo without putting Anwar in jail on the sodomy charge perhaps they will do so, content to keep it as a ready tactic to deploy against him whenever necessary.
If Anwar is unwilling to remain boxed in by that tactic, and history suggests precisely this outcome, the authorities seem entirely prepared to put him in jail for a longer period of time. The government has taken a strong stand against popular street demonstrations, hoping to prevent Anwar from developing the kind of national popular response that will be necessary to create an environment in which he can win converts from the ruling party coalition.
10.  (C) The skirmishing around these objectives will continue throughout July and August, and we can expect the opposition to seek to up the ante the closer we get to the Parliamentary session in the latter half of August. The initiative rests with Anwar. If he goes quiet, his political hopes fade and his personal freedom is more secure in the coming weeks; over a longer period Anwar sees himself as vulnerable to jailing or government action unless he removes himself from politics. The greater his political success, the greater a threat he is to UMNO, and the more his personal freedom becomes problematic.
11.  (C) We need to continue to speak with authority from Washington and this Embassy in support of the broad principles underlying the debate in Malaysia. We should avoid undermining our principled position, and the opposition parties themselves, by appearing too close to the personalities involved, especially Anwar. Publicly, our words should continue to revolve around universal values, the criticality of the rule of law to every dimension of our bilateral relationship and Malaysia’s political and economic success.
12.  (C) Privately, we will want to underline the futility of the Malaysian effort to deny the political nature of the crisis before them. Whatever they believe about the “facts” of the sodomy case, at this point the ruling party has no chance of success in conveying to the Malaysian or international audience that this is merely a case of one citizen’s charge against another. The authorities themselves betray that fiction on a daily basis in the pages of the domestic press, and barely one in ten Malaysians are buying into the party line a survey tells us.
UMNO leaders may fail to grasp the consequences of upping the ante; they hear what we are saying, but do not understand sufficiently well how difficult it will be for them to overcome the shadows they are casting on the country. They no doubt thought they were choosing the more palatable path in using the criminal law, and thus the sodomy charge, rather than detaining Anwar as a matter of national security under the Internal Security Act. But contrary to their intent, many in the international community will take this as escalation.
Now the criminal law is laid bare as a political tool, just as useful to the ruling party as the national security law.
What is the long-term horizon for bilateral ties?
13.  (C) Most of our relationship already hews tightly to the principle of mutual benefit. Our liaison, law enforcement, military, and commercial ties are well developed and tied directly to key national interests on both sides. Regardless of the heat of the rhetoric between us, I would expect Malaysia to seek to preserve the core relationships it has with us.
With regard to the political dimension of our policy, Malaysia already has a less than inspiring record at the UN and is keen to preserve its options with the likes of the Nonaligned Movement. It may not be possible for Malaysia to become less helpful in international political areas identified with the United States, and it is unlikely to retreat in areas that are primarily multilateral (peacekeeping, for example).
The biggest costs to us over the long term if Malaysia continues to undermine its own legal system are precisely in the domestic legal arena.
14.  (C) Much of the promise of our bilateral ties is rooted in the notion of a transition towards a thriving civil society and robust rule of law in Malaysia. We wish to expand our export control and non-proliferation cooperation with Malaysia, for example.
It is neither in our interest nor Malaysia’s for this country to become increasingly a place where smugglers can do good business. Thwarting such a development (or rolling it back) requires a sophisticated set of export control laws and robust enforcement by a strong and secure government, not one struggling to justify itself to its citizens.
Despite the local paranoia about U.S. intervention in internal affairs, our influence is actually being brought to bear to support and promote precisely those objectives that most Malaysians want for their own benefit.
15.  (C) If the authorities are able to get through the next several months without doing fatal damage to the rule of law in Malaysia, I hope the public diplomacy dimension of our bilateral ties will take on a decidedly more legal and judicial cast. We should push ahead with our FTA talks if possible because that serves both our own economic interests as well as the broader goal of establishing more transparent and accountable systems in this country.
In addition, to try to bring public focus to the centrality of the rule of law in our ties, we might want to organize visits in the short and medium term by a Supreme Court Justice, the Attorney General, and representatives of the American Bar Association. We will also review our international visitor program and other people-to-people exchanges in the coming fiscal year to ensure a central focus on the rule of law. My speeches and those of my staff will put the rule of law at the center.
16.  (C) We will continue to monitor closely the situation for signs that more robust policy responses are needed. In the meantime, we should continue to exploit every opportunity for authoritative bilateral exchange to ensure we have done all we can to open Malaysian leaders’ eyes to the international costs of efforts that diminish the rule of law.


In 2008, Anwar was accused of having sodomised his former aide Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, at a Bukit Damansara condominium on June 26 that year.
Anwar has consistently denied the charge, claiming that it was concocted to destroy his political career.
Keith said the accusation was not going to convince anyone that it was anything but a high-profile political conspiracy.
“Whatever (Umno leaders) believe about the ‘facts’ of the sodomy case, at this point the ruling party has no chance of success in conveying to the Malaysian or the international audience that this is merely a case of one citizen’s charge against another,” he said.
The US Embassy also said the Malaysian government took a strong stand against street demonstrations in the hope of preventing a growth in Anwar’s popularity.
According to Keith, Umno was of the opinion that demonstrations would “create an environment in which he can win converts from the ruling party coalition.”
Observers believe that this attitude has been amply displayed in recent weeks with the crackdown against dissent that is associated with the July 9 Bersih rally, which BN has branded as an event planned by the political opposition.

A Malaysian recently wrote to me, “Most Americans don’t know or even care where Malaysia is.” Even among the so-called foreign policy elite, little attention is paid to Malaysia. There are few American academics who specialize in domestic Malaysian politics, and except for hosting visits by senior Malaysian leaders, think tanks and universities hold few Malaysia-themed programs.

US newspaper and magazine reports are few, with most articles focusing on tourism and the delights of Malaysian cuisine. As a result, there is a tendency among Americans to hold an idealized (and outdated) image of Malaysia as a successful multi-racial and multi-religious paradise, an Asian economic dynamo, and a stable and moderate Muslim democracy.
As a result of this deficit of informed analysis of Malaysia, there has been a failure to notice the internal political and economic changes unfolding within Malaysia over the past few years. The reality today, as one Australian expert puts it, is that the situation is the “most fluid and dangerous” in Malaysia’s history.
The Events of July 9 – A Date for the History Books
Because of this attention shortfall, the events of July 9, 2011 came as a surprise. On that day, tens of thousands of Malaysians—who have been ranked on Hofstede’s Power Distance Index as the most submissive to authority of any people in the world—chose to defy their government and join a “Walk for Democracy.” They heeded the call of Bersih 2.0, a coalition of 62 non-governmental organizations that calls for free and fair elections.
In the days before the rally, the Malaysian government cracked down. It rounded up 200 leaders associated with the movement, claiming that they were “waging war against the King” and planning to overthrow the government. It declared both the Bersih coalition and the planned rally illegal, and in a truly bizarre action, it declared the color yellow—Bersih’s signature color—illegal. Malaysian citizens were arrested for possessing Bersih literature or wearing yellow T-shirts. The Police established roadblocks around the city and banned 91 Bersih and opposition leaders from entering the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. By the morning of July 9, the city was in total lockdown.
Then something remarkable happened. As Ambiga Sreenevasanm (right), the distinguished attorney who leads Bersih put it, the Malaysian people showed that they no longer would be intimidated by their government. They chose to march, knowing that they would be met by tear gas, chemical-laced water cannon, and police batons. Even after Bersih’s leadership was arrested, Malaysians of all ages, races and religions continued their “Walk for Democracy” through the streets of Kuala Lumpur. They locked arms, they sang their national anthem and “We Shall Overcome,” they blew bubbles and carried flowers. They were peaceful. The only muscle seen that day was the heavy hand of the police. Human Rights Watch later called the use of force excessive, the 1,670 arrests unwarranted, and the police attacks on marchers unprovoked.
This repression by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and his government drew international condemnation, and it also put a lie to Najib’s two-year effort to portray himself as a modern, liberal-minded leader. More importantly, and of greater concern to Najib and his United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party—the main party that has ruled Malaysia continuously since independence in 1957—is that it awakened a new generation of Malaysians.
It is too soon to know whether the movement for electoral reform and the establishment of true democracy in Malaysia will be sustained. If it is, then July 9 will be remembered as a turning point in Malaysia’s history.

Just How Free and Democratic is Malaysia?

Why should a government be so afraid of a call for fair elections? Like his predecessors, Najib claims that demonstrations will lead to chaos, even though the right of assembly is guaranteed by the nation’s constitution and is commonplace in any true democracy.
As for free and fair elections, Najib says that Malaysia already has them; if not, then opposition parties would not have achieved the gains they made in the 2008 elections, when they received 47% of the popular vote and took control of five states. Opposition parties counter that if elections truly were fair and free, they would form the government and not the UMNO-led coalition.
Political rhetoric aside, Malaysia’s electoral system has been analyzed by academics in Australia, Malaysia, the United States, and elsewhere. In addition, the state of Malaysia’s political freedom has been assessed by many international groups.
The Economist Intelligence Unit, for example, labels Malaysia a “flawed democracy” in its Democracy Index. Freedom House says that Malaysia is only “partly free.” Reporters Without Borders places Malaysia 141st out of the 178 countries in its Press Freedom Index.
On elections, the US Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices declares that Malaysian opposition parties are unable to compete on equal terms with the governing UMNO-dominated coalition because of restrictions on campaigning and freedom of assembly and association. “News of the opposition,” the report says, is “tightly restricted and reported in a biased fashion.”
Academics point to the Election Commission’s gerrymandering, which creates highly imbalanced districts that favor the ruling party, where the number of voters per electoral district can range from 7,000 to over 100,000. Over the years there have been numerous credible reports of the use of phantom voters, stuffed ballot boxes, vote-buying, and abuse of government resources to attract votes. In Sarawak’s state elections this past April, Prime Minister Najib was caught on video, blatantly telling a village gathering that his government would give them US$1.5 million for a local project, but only if they elected his candidate.

What Should Be Done?

Malaysia’s government may assert otherwise, but the evidence is overwhelmingly on Bersih’s side.Malaysia is not a full democracy, and its elections are neither free nor fair. Malaysian citizens have awakened to that fact. Now the world’s democracies need to stand on the right side of Malaysia’s future.
The United States has a multitude of interests in Malaysia, one of which is to help strengthen democracy and the rule of law. Human rights groups have condemned what they call the US Government’s “lukewarm” response to the events of July 9. This is a moment when the United States, which named Bersih’s leader Ambiga Sreenevasan an International Woman of Courage in 2009, can show the same courage and make a difference in the life of a nation.


FARAH FAHMY’s Open Letter to Malaysian Prime Minister (dated July 19, 2011)

July 19, 2011
Dear Datuk Seri Najib Razak,
After your mishandling of the BERSIH demonstration, I thought it only right that I offer you some advice. Of course, I am nothing more than just a citizen — one who lives abroad, to boot. Still, hopefully you’ll find my advice useful.
First of all, did any of your many advisers try to stop you from unleashing tear gas on those demonstrators? No? Well, my advice to you would be to sack the whole lot of them. You see Datuk Seri Najib, there’s one thing many people in Malaysia just don’t seem able to understand (especially those in government!): demonstrations, in themselves, won’t tarnish the reputation of a country.
No, it’s how the authorities respond to demonstrations that could hurt a country’s image.How would I know? Easy. I’ve seen many a demonstration in Britain. People protesting against meddling in the countryside; people protesting against the war in Iraq; people protesting against student fees.
Yes, there was public disorder during some of these demonstrations and allegations of Police brutality, but you know what, none of it tarnished Britain’s reputation. Why? Because the authorities here are accountable for their actions, and the Police would be, and have been, called to account if there was even a whiff of impropriety.
Contrast this with the reputation of countries like Bahrain and Syria. Meeting demonstrators with violence is a recipe for disaster, and both countries have rightfully been condemned for the way they treat their own citizens.
And so, back to our own country. You claim that demonstrations are not part of our culture. Actually, whether demonstrations are our culture or not doesn’t really matter, does it? What matters is the fact that there are Malaysians who are unhappy enough about the state of things to partake in a rally.
Whether it was 6,000 or 50,000 is also a moot point — forgive me for stating the obvious, but isn’t it your job to serve all Malaysians, whether you agree with their views or not?
In any caseif you really want those foreign companies to invest in our country, threatening your own citizens is not the way to entice them in. Far better to show that we are a country that’s mature enough to embrace a whole host of diverse views, and that you yourself lead a government that is open to dialogue and discussion.
In fact, that was what you should have done from the outset. Great statesmen don’t send in the FRU against demonstrators. Great statesmen listen to what people have to say, and are courageous enough to lead against popular opinion. A majority of Malaysians were against the demonstrators? So what?The acid test for a democracy is how it treats its minority: that minority isn’t just those who are of a different race or religion, but also those who hold a different view from the majority. On that basis, unfortunately, if anyone was grading our country, we’d have failed miserably.
After all, what was the harm in starting a dialogue with BERSIH? Their demands don’t seem that outlandish to me. In fact, those demands would form the cornerstone of any electoral rule for a mature democracy. If the government still disagrees with BERSIH’s stand after discussions, then fine, come out and explain why. We’re all adults, aren’t we?
Following the demonstration, there have been plenty of accusations that BERSIH is partisan. Again I ask: so what? What does it matter if an NGO is supported by the opposition? If what is being fought for is for the good of all Malaysians, then what does it matter whether that particular cause is supported by the opposition or not?
The Malays have a saying: buang yang keruh, ambil yang jernih. Not everyone who disagrees with the government is out to destabilise the country; some of us genuinely want to better ourselves and our country.
In Britain the political parties are not above copying each other’s ideas (and anyone else’s, for that matter) if they think the ideas are good; in Malaysia unfortunately we seem to have fallen into the trap of thinking that anything that doesn’t emanate from the government must be bad. In this, the path towards mediocrity and stagnation lies: how can we innovate and move forward if we don’t question ourselves and embrace change where it is needed?
Holding a proper, independent inquiry would also help. I note that the Health Ministry will be investigating allegations that tear gas and water cannons were fired into Tung Shin Hospital. Well, that’s a step in the right direction, but even better would be an inquiry led by an independent body, not a governmental one.
As you were only just recently in the UK, you can do no worse than to see how the UK handles such things (not perfectly, but still better than Malaysia). If you read the news, you might even have noticed that Rupert Murdoch will be facing a UK House of Commons Culture Committee to answer questions on the phone-hacking scandal. The Commons Committee, in case you weren’t aware, is made up of MPs from different political parties. Why not, as a first step to restore your credibility, establish a similar parliamentary body to investigate the Tung Shin allegations?
Alternatively, you could emulate David Cameron and establish a public inquiry into what went wrong. Did the Police act without provocation, as some allege? Or did protestors instigate the violence, as others allege? Were people prevented from reaching medical help? Were the tear gas and water cannons necessary, or were there other things that could havbeen done to disperse people peacefully? Was it lawful to declare the demonstration unlawful, given that our constitution gives us the right to “assemble peaceably”?
These are all important questions that need answering. In the UK the judge leading the phone-hacking inquiry has the power to summon media owners, editors and politicians to give evidence under oath. Believe me, the reputation of our country would be enhanced, not tarnished, if we had a similar inquiry.
Finally, I would end my advice by quoting another Malay saying: Berani kerana benar, takut kerana salah. My advice would probably be highly unpopular in many quarters, and there will be those who say to do these things would be to invite questions on “sensitive” matters.
I say, a true leader is one who convinces people to go along with him, even when many don’t agree. So, forget the past and think about the future. Malaysians of today are not the same as Malaysians of 1969. Transparency, Accountability and Openness are things to be embraced, not feared.
Well, as I said, I’m only a citizen. Doubtless you will have plenty of advice, Datuk Najib. I only hope some of mine is of use to you, for the sake of our country.



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