by John R. Malott
Asia Pacific Bulletin(July 21, 2011)
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 As a result, there is a tendency among Americans to hold an idealized (and outdated) image of Malaysia as a successful multi-racial and multi-religious paradise, an Asian economic dynamo, and a stable and moderate Muslim democracy.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.
|Many Egyptians worry that their “revolution” has stalled under the military council’s assumption of power [Reuters]
Dozens of people have reportedly been injured in clashes between groups of armed men and pro-reform protesters marching towards Egypt’s ministry of defence in the capital, Cairo.
Thousands calling for the “downfall” of the country’s ruling military council were trying to reach the military headquarters on Saturday when they were attacked by opponents armed with knives and sticks.
Witnesses said most of the injuries occurred when civilians, believed to be thugs, standing in front of military blockades hurled barrages of stones and at least six firebombs at demonstrators. The demonstrators fought back with stones torn up from the pavement.
Al Jazeera’s Ayman Mohyeldin, reporting from Cairo, confirmed that “people with knives, sticks and petrol bombs surrounded the peaceful protesters” and assaulted them with their weapons.
“The situation is extremely tense, the military has used tear gas and fired into the air to push back crowds.”
He also said that besides firing warning shots, the military did not intervene in the clashes.
“But they seem to have melted away from the scene. The military is nowhere to be seen compared to just moments ago they were widely present in the streets.”
Ambulances were seen tending to the injured, as an army helicopter flew overhead shining its spotlight into the crowd, the AFP news agency reported.
It is the second time protesters have tried to reach the defence ministry, after a similar attempt was quashed overnight.
The clashes came a day after military police fired shots in the air and beat demonstrators blocking a main road in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, witnesses said.
Friday’s events were a rare display of violence in two weeks of largely peaceful protests in Alexandria, Cairo and Suez following a court decision to free on bail 10 policemen accused of killing protesters during the uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in February.
Witnesses told the Reuters news agency that the clash in Alexandria erupted after hundreds of protesters blocking the coastal road near the army’s northern command headquarters refused to leave the area.
More than five months after mass street demonstrations drove Mubarak from power, many Egyptians worry that their “revolution” has stalled under the military council’s assumption of power.
Egypt’s interim rulers have reshuffled Prime Minister Essam Sharaf’s cabinet and promised to speed up trials and political reforms, but thousands kept up protests across Egypt on Friday to back demands for the policemen’s trials to be held soon.
Sharaf, in a speech after his new cabinet was sworn in on Thursday, promised to set up an anti-corruption body and work to scrap a 30-year-old emergency law. He also said the interior minister would appoint a human rights adviser, and human rights and civil society groups would have access to prisons.
But activists said this was not enough
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 options.
Good Morning! Chancellor, vice chancellor and graduating students.
It is so good to be back!
I am deeply moved by the conferment of this honour upon me. That it comes from my alma mater is especially significant for me. That it comes at this time is almost providential, for it allows me and all lawyers to reflect on our roles in the societies we live in.
For this honour and this moment of reflection, I extend my grateful thanks to the Council and Senate of the University of Exeter.
Tired of injustice and oppression, people the world over are crying out for truth, goodness, justice and universal love and understanding.
The events in Malaysia over the past six weeks culminating in the rally for free and fair elections on the 9th of July, has taught me so much more than I could have ever learned in the last 30 years as a practising lawyer.
My team and I faced first-hand the full force of the unleashed power of the state, and I realised then the importance of the independence of the Institutions of government, particularly the judiciary, to check such abuses of power.
I also realised how real and present the absence of the Rule of Law can be.
In countries where the Rule of Law reigns strong and true one probably does not even talk about it. But in countries that veer towards Rule by Law, talking about getting back to the basics is crucial.
In many countries, Rule by Law is reflected in the existence of repressive laws that violate the fundamental rights of its citizens. One example of this is preventive detention laws that lock people away without affording them the basic right to a trial. There are many examples of such oppressive laws worldwide and they are not confined to underdeveloped or developing countries.
As lawyers, we are in a unique position. Our years of legal study and practice teach us to see and appreciate the fundamental role that the Rule of Law plays in guaranteeing that the state governs its citizens in a just and democratic manner.
Who better to remind those in power of their responsibilities to their citizens than lawyers trained in understanding the difference between “Rule of Law” and “Rule by Law”?
Our role as lawyers must therefore extend far beyond traditional legal practice.
Here, I make no reference to rules, guidelines, documents, or declarations. My only reference point is our conscience. Can we as lawyers, ever sit back and watch the erosion of fundamental liberties of the people around us and do nothing? Clearly, silence in these circumstances, is not an option.
When I graduated from this university about 30 years ago, things were of course very different. Today the Internet and social media has empowered people with a continual flow of unfiltered and up-to-date information. No longer can the manipulation and control of information be effectively used by those in power to suppress either thought or action.
You are in a world where you know instantly of injustices taking place in any part of it. In this global village drawn together by so many factors, we are one. We can reach out to each other using these new means of communication and we owe it to each other to stand together for what is right.
You may say, “But I studied law to be a solicitor or barrister and to earn money for a decent standard of living”. There is nothing wrong with that, I assure you. I run a commercial litigation practice in a partnership of four where we also do public interest litigation. The two can co-exist quite comfortably.
The point I make is this.
You are graduating from one of the best universities in the country if not on the planet! You are special. And you are now a proud member of an army of people that is equipped with all that is necessary to both practise law and to fight injustice.
I urge you to use this arsenal of knowledge and your passion for justice to fight for those who are downtrodden.
You have already heard of the events of July 9th in Malaysia. Whilst it brought out the worst in some, it brought out the best in others and this is where our hope lies.
There were some in government who opposed the methods used to shut us down. Even doctors left their comfort zones to speak up against injustices. And of course there were the lawyers and the independent media who stood on the side of truth and justice.
However, the real heroes of that day are our friend and supporter Allahyarham Baharuddin Ahmad who paid the ultimate price in fighting a noble cause, the six members of the Socialist Party of Malaysia who, as we speak, sit in solitary confinement under preventive detention laws and finally the brave people of Malaysia who overcame their fear of intimidation and harassment to uphold their fundamental rights.
With all my heart I dedicate this honour you have bestowed upon me to them.
* This was the acceptance speech delivered by Datuk Dr Ambiga Sreenevasan upon her conferment with the Honorary Doctorate Of Laws, University of Exeter