Monday, October 27, 2008

Ex-leader uses blog to needle Malaysian government



By Seth Mydans
Published: October 26, 2008

KUALA LUMPUR: In a vast office at the top of one of the world's tallest buildings, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sits at a broad, glass-topped desk, scribbling his thoughts on a pad of unlined paper.

For 22 years Mahathir was the most powerful person in this land, and his thoughts were commands as he reshaped the country in his own grand image.

But he has become an irritant and a spoiler five years after stepping down, turning against his handpicked successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and he has fallen victim to the press controls he perfected as prime minister.

It is mainly a system of self-censorship in an atmosphere of pressure and intimidation that produces an obedient press and has seen the closure or banning of many publications.

"Where is the press freedom?" he exclaimed two years ago, apparently surprised to be suddenly ignored. "Broadcast what I have to say! What I say is not even accurately published in the press!"

Earlier this year, like many other inconvenient critics, he joined what seems to be a political wave of the future, creating his own acerbic blog - www.chedet.com - an online journal where he vents in both English and Malay several times a week.

Around the region, bloggers like him are becoming a fifth estate, challenging the government's monopoly on information in Singapore, evading censors in Vietnam and influencing events in places like Thailand, Cambodia and China.

In March, political experts say, Malaysia's bloggers helped tip the balance, contributing to the biggest upset the governing party, the United Malays National Organization, had suffered since independence in 1957. For the first time in decades, it fell below two-thirds of the seats in Parliament, and it lost control of 5 of 13 states.

Two months after that, in May, Mahathir went digital, cutting and thrusting with elan.

"It is time the so-called intellectuals realize they were being duped by the Master of Spin," he wrote on Aug. 21, referring to his bitter enemy, Anwar Ibrahim, who was his deputy prime minister and now leads the opposition.

"The pious Muslim, who is also the bosom pal of Paul Wolfowitz, the neo-con Jew, the killer of Muslims," he said, referring to the former U.S. deputy secretary of defense.

Blogging on Sept. 3, he offered a sort of mission statement.

Many people are with him as he harasses the government, he asserted. "But they are not prepared to say it openly. That was why I started my blog. About six million had visited my blog site and tens of thousands have commented and supported me."

In case anyone doubts this, he posts the comments, by the dozens and hundreds, page after page, day after day. It turns out he has a lot of fans out there.

"Amazingly brilliant!" reads one comment. "I can't stop laughing... you made my day Sir!"

"HAHAHAHA :) ...This is your BEST posting so far, my dear Tun!!" reads another, referring to Mahathir by an honorific.

"Dearest Tun," reads another, "You are sooooo right.. spot on.. bulls eye.."

And just to clear up any possible misunderstanding, another writes: "You, sir, are the most brilliant politician Malaysia has ever been blessed with."

In the upheaval of the March election, several bloggers, following an opposite trajectory from that of Mahathir, used their online popularity to win seats in the national or state parliaments.

The most prominent was Jeff Ooi, 52, a former advertising copywriter who was one of Malaysia's first political bloggers, in 2003, at www.jeffooi.com.

"The government doesn't have a clue how to handle bloggers," he said in an interview. "If I were a dictator I would be despairing. What do you do against this?"

The government's assault on Ooi - "very hostile," he said - included threats of imprisonment without trial, attacks in the government-friendly press and defamation lawsuits, which are popular among leaders in Southeast Asia.

But that only seemed to make him a hero, and when he decided to run for Parliament with the opposition Democratic Action Party, he already had a big head start.

"As a person that has consistently faced threats as a blogger, I had a kind of iconism and imagery that this is someone you can trust, someone the government fears, someone you need to put into Parliament," he said.

But he said it is much harder to blog from the inside. "The trade-off is that I have to write with measured words," he said. "I am no longer my old self. I thought I had to take it to a higher level, and a lot of readers are getting disappointed. It isn't the same blogger that they used to know."

Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia, at his office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,
on Sept. 30. (Palani Mohan for the International Herald Tribune)


Earlier this year, Ooi said, he attended a public forum with Mahathir, and he claims that he is the one who persuaded the old war horse to get blogging.

"I threw him a challenge," Ooi said. "A blogger shares a few prerequisites. One, he is strongly opinionated. Two, he could be controversial. And, thirdly, he is an agent provocateur on issues.

"I thought Mahathir fulfilled all three."

The result, Ooi said, was "a miracle, he scored about 10 million visitors within months."

Now, a convert to free speech, Mahathir is using his blog to champion the most recent victim of government censorship, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, the country's highest-profile blogger, who posts his slash-and-burn commentary on his site, www.malaysia-today.net. The site has been blocked, but readers are redirected to another address, which continues to be updated.

The government has fallen back on the kind of tactics that Ooi said it threatened against him, charging Raja Petra with sedition and locking him up for two years without trial for comments he has posted.

Mahathir, the country's former strongman, sounded almost like Che Guevara when he said in his blog that the arrest showed "a degree of oppressive arrogance worthy of a totalitarian state."

Furthermore, locking people up is futile, he said in an interview in his sky-high office. There is no way the government can arrest all the bloggers, even if it wants to.

At least, he said, "I hope so. Otherwise I'll be in, too." - IHT

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Najib misses the point, Malaysia misses the boat


Liew Chin Tong is the DAP MP for Bukit Bendera.

OCT 23 — The much-awaited official response from the new Finance Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak on the global meltdown was nothing but a letdown. Najib’s response was grossly inadequate, and misses the point entirely.

The world’s financial system is facing the worst breakdown since 1929, with the banking sector in total disarray and all the advance economies — representing 55 per cent of global gross domestic product — entering recession, it is incumbent upon any government to respond quickly and effectively in order to mitigate the effects of the crisis.

While the crisis and its impact are discussed daily in detailed fashion everywhere else, for our government leaders the only relevant index in Malaysia now is the nomination tally for Umno leadership positions. Who bothers about the economy?

As a response to the challenge by the Opposition to announce a revised Budget taking into consideration the new circumstances, especially the fall in oil prices which formed 46 per cent of the budgeted revenue for 2009, Najib promised a proper response on Oct 20.

However, apart from saying that the growth rate would be revised downwards, Najib could only manage to announce that the Government would inject RM5 billion into Valuecap Sdn Bhd so it can stabilise the stock exchange, as well as a promise that rules for foreign investment will be further relaxed.

The other strategies include the liberalisation of the service sector to attract investment and generate local employment, re-positioning of government projects to focus on those that generate higher multiplier effects, as well as strengthening of small and middle-scale enterprises.

He also announced that there will be no reduction in budgeted expenditure for 2009, which means a much bigger deficit as a result of a smaller revenue base due to the fall in oil prices.

Najib said details would be announced on Nov 4 when he concludes the Budget debate in Parliament, almost two months after the initial collapse of the financial markets.

In a global crisis of such calamitous magnitude, the Finance Minister is duty-bound to explain to the nation through at least a ministerial statement in Parliament as soon as he and the Treasury humanly can prepare it.

But instead the Government is acting as if there is no crisis, thus a revised Budget or even a tentative plan of action is not needed.

Malaysia is fortunate that its banks are not yet exposed to the international banking crisis but no one is immune from the global meltdown.

A decade after the 1997/8 crisis, problems contributing to the last crisis — cronyism, corruption and nepotism — are still very much alive. The net effect is that the cost of running the federal government tripled that of in 1998.

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's final Budget as Finance Minister was only RM68 billion in total, miniscule compared to the RM207 billion Budget presented by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi on Aug 29.

The quality and availability of public goods like education, public housing, public health, crime prevention have all declined, while child and aged care and public transport are near inexistent, resulting in a Hobson's choice for the poor and middle class in either facing the decline in living conditions or an ever higher cost of maintaining a decent lifestyle.

A total of 57.8 per cent of the country's 5.8 million families live on a combined monthly income below RM3,000, including 8.6 per cent who make less than RM1,000 per month. The already skyrocketing inflation, and the impending crisis, has hit them really hard.

The dependence on government-related employment and foreign workers over the last decade stops the economy as a whole from moving up the value chain and to respond to a crisis effectively. One in four of Malaysia's labour force is a legal foreign worker while approximately one in four in the workforce works for the public sector directly or indirectly, for instance, in government-linked corporations. The private sector lacks the capacity to innovate and compete internationally, thus hindering its ability to weather the storm.

The challenge of our time is to ensure that there is sufficient food on the table of the almost 60 per cent of our nation's families, and to ensure that their quality of life does not descend further.

It is in this context that Najib's RM5 billion injection of capital into the controversial Valuecap misses the point. It is too little to boost the stock exchange in the face of the exit of foreign institutional players.

There is also a danger of throwing good money after bad money. The RM10 billion Valuecap possesses will not last for too many days if there is a storm while it may take years to recoup losses.

More importantly, it is, in the language of the United States, Main Street that matters, not Wall Street.

With Najib missing the point, the country risks missing the boat, of curtailing the fallout from the crisis. - The Malaysian Insider

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Post-mortem necessary for Umno to understand March 8



OCT 22 - Immediately after the surprising results of Malaysia's March 8 general election became official, there was a rush by journalists, analysts, academicians, laymen and politicians – though apparently not from the ruling BN – to study the preceding months and to make a list of the things that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's people did or did not do that caused things to go so seriously wrong for them.

Since then, many books have appeared, and continue to appear, on this subject. The questions are simple, even if the answers cannot be.

How did the BN go from holding 90.4per cent of parliamentary seats to having only 63.1 per cent in four short years? How did the oh-so-dominant Umno manage to lose 28per cent of its federal seats?
Also, how could the other BN parties on the peninsula do so badly as to lose 51.6 per cent (MCA), 66.6 per cent (MIC), 80bper cent (Gerakan) and 100 per cent (PPP) of their strength?

Most interestingly, what do these figures say about the internal dynamics, and the public perception of, the ruling coalition?

The first sign that the establishment was not going to dig too deeply to identify the problem came when Abdullah, under pressure from the likes of former premier Mahathir Mohamad to resign, instead of generously taking blame for the results, declared on March 10 that "we are all collectively responsible for all that we have been doing because the government has been making decisions on the basis of consensus."

In line with this distancing stance, he stated that the BN – and not Umno as such – would set up a body to carry out a post-mortem. No further information about what such committee has been doing has been made available.

Former Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, strongly concerned about what he saw as a serious crisis for Umno, sent an open letter on 12 March to all 193 division leaders, pleading for an emergency general meeting to be convened to discuss the party's worst election results in history.

The Tengku was right in focusing on Umno as the body where reforms were most needed. As he pointed out, Umno once controlled two-thirds of Parliament all by itself. Today, it has 35.6per cent of the seats.

Supporting Umno has obviously gone out of fashion among young Malays. Is that Umno's fault, or is that everybody else's? His plea to the divisions fell on deaf ears.

Seven harrowing months later, it is time for analysts to make another list, this time to explain, not what Abdullah's people did wrong before March 8, but why they stay mired in reactive mode.

The recent decision to ban Hindraf was shocking for what it revealed of the establishment's inability of understand the country's socio-economics, and its reliance on old solutions to solve problems it does not even care to understand.

Certainly, Anwar Ibrahim's incessant taunts at the government had something to do with it. But he was able to do that because Abdullah was not doing enough to inspire confidence among his people.

That is now the job of his heir apparent.

If it had been brought home to Umno and the BN that government arrogance, the lack of reforms and the breaking of promises on reforms were the cause of their troubles, then adequate measures could have been taken to encourage its supporters. That did not happen.

Even now, when Abdullah has been forced to leave by March 2009, he continues to promise reforms.

But sadly, a reform deferred is a reform denied. There is only so much disappointment a voter can take, before he starts looking elsewhere.

To be fair, there was an attempt – perhaps half-hearted, but still an attempt – by Abdullah to revamp his image. On March 18, he presented his new Cabinet in which was included the much-respected lawyer from Kelantan, Zaid Ibrahim, as minister in the Prime Minister's office in charge of the judiciary.

Abdullah also relinquished his Internal Security portfolio, giving it to Syed Hamid Albar, who was moved from Foreign Affairs to Home Affairs.

Since then, Syed Hamid has made himself a very unpopular person by invoking the hated Internal Security Act to arrest blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin, opposition politician Teresa Kok, and Tan Hoon Cheng, a young journalist. Raja Petra remains in custody, while the Teresa Kok case threatens to escalate into an inter-ethnic issue.

Syed Hamid's recent move to ban Hindraf is incomprehensible because it does not promise to solve any problem at all, aside from giving police more excuses for arresting Indians angry with the system.

It was his use of the ISA that led to Zaid Ibrahim leaving the government in protest, badly disheartening government supporters who had been hoping for substantial reforms to the judiciary.

Abdullah's government is therefore no longer championing – even rhetorically – any open agenda for reform. It should have listened to Tengku Razaleigh, and perhaps it could then have stopped undermining its own legitimacy. - The Malaysian Insider

About the Author:
The author, Mr Ooi Kee Beng is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His latest book is Lost in Transition: Malaysia under Abdullah (SIRD & ISEAS 2008).

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Muhyiddin Yassin



BY KARIM RASLAN
2008-10-19 00:00

What can Malaysians expect from Muhyiddin Yassin, the 61-year old Minister of International Trade and Industry who is now front-runner for the Deputy Presidency of Umno, possibly our next Deputy Prime Minister?

Although he is not the easiest of politicians to read, a lot of who he is has to do with his deep roots in Muar. He draws a great deal of his personal strength and popular appeal (not to mention his solid grounding in Islam) from Johor, where his father ran a private Islamic school.

Johor, as I have often noted before, is unique amongst the states in Peninsula Malaysia. The racial ill-will and suspicion elsewhere doesn't seem to be a big an issue there, but its politicians never shy from speaking their minds. All of this shows in Muhyiddin,

In the aftermath of Umno/BN's disaster in the March 8th polls, he quickly repositioned himself as an independent voice in the party. Muhyiddin, interestingly enough, kept himself above the orgy of race-baiting some Umno leaders chose to engage in.

"Umno cannot stand alone in situation that's changed like this. We need the support of the non-Malay communities." His frankness is reassuring when he says: "For example, people say the component parties in BN lost because they were overly dominated by Umno."

"He is not one to quibble over the minute details of protocol either."

As he goes onto explain: "This has never been something we've dealt with. We need a new arrangement within the BN family. We need to make meetings more regular. We need to strengthen the rapport. Otherwise the situation quickly gets truncated."

"I feel this is very important. We must reinvent the BN. We have to go beyond the surface and deepen relations. It's about form and content I the need for a common mission and vision."

"The polarization of the past few decades is undeniable. It is a clear failure of government policies. These are the serious issues of the day.

"At the same time, the younger generation doesn't have the baggage of the past. History is just too remote for them! Laws and the constitution are not enough in themselves. We need to ensure these codes are embedded in our conventions - the way we live day-in, day-out."

"We need to create a new consensus. However, it needs time to evolve. As were doing this we need to engage with the younger generation. But it's a two-way flow. You can't force them and they're very exposed and sophisticated."

Whilst some might be sceptical of Muhyiddin's emergence as a multiracial figure, his interest is undoubted. Back in 2007 he was already talking and publicly about the unwritten 'social contract' and the need for it to be renewed. Certainly, for those who've despaired of Umno - especially among the non-Malays, he's been a crucial figure, talking sense when others were locked in hollow, self-serving rhetoric.

Also to his credit is his command of English and his sharp mind- he's not the kind of politician that has to rely on a phalanx of special officers or advisers. He is a tactical player who holds his cards close to himself and often springs the odd surprise mood. He is not one to quibble over the minute details of protocol either.

Furthermore, Muhyiddin has a sizeable curiosity about global affairs both political and economic as well as the mental agility to contrast and compare emerging trends with our own situation here in Malaysia. This is the sort of leader that Umno ought to encourage: he's a welcome return to an almost endangered Umno paradigm - namely the cosmopolitan, multilingual and principled Malay technocrat with his feet planted firmly on the ground.

But of course, Muhyiddin is not without his flaws. He comes across to people who don't know him as dour, unsmiling (which he ought to do more often) and distant- almost a Gordon Brown-type figure without the New Labour beliefs.

His record as a Menteri Besar and Minister are not without its critics. Furthermore, despite his reassurances many non-Malays are still fearful that yet another Malay ultra lurks beneath his cool exterior.

Nevertheless, Umno could do much worse as it faces a long period of internal instability leading up to the March General Assembly and the leadership transition. Many see a Najib-Muhyiddin as almost inevitable, and Malaysians shall have to wait and see if this equation can work in the long run.

We cannot get away from the fact that, however, that Umno needs more straight-talking realists like Muhyiddin in order to survive. In order to win back the support of moderates and liberals alienated by the recent times, he needs to clarify his position on civil liberties - legal and judicial reform, media freedoms and such like.

Applying his straight-talking to these vital issues will undoubtedly assist in his path to power. (By KARIM RASLAN/ MySinchew)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Getting there is the easy part for Najib



OCT 18 — Barring any major scandals, Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak is poised to become Malaysia’s Prime Minister by next March.

At 55, the youngish and debonair Pahang aristocrat is achieving his goal at an age not uncommon for first-time Prime Ministers in Malaysia.

Of the five previous ones, three got into top office when they were around 54 to 56. Najib’s father, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, was the youngest ever, becoming Prime Minister at 48. Abdullah was the oldest, at 64.

Few in the upper echelons of power in Malaysia can match Najib’s political breeding. Not only is his father remembered by Malays in general as the man who laid the groundwork for Malay progress, Najib is also nephew-in-law of his father’s successor, the much respected Tun Hussein Onn.

Education Minister Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein is therefore his first cousin on their mother’s side.

Not only do blood ties place Najib auspiciously in the Umno power structure, among the ruling class of both Johor and Pahang, few have the wide experience in government that he boasts of.

A graduate in Industrial Economics from the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, he was drawn into politics by his father’s sudden demise in 1976. He was soon made deputy minister in several ministries, including finance and education.

Later, he headed both those key ministries, and was also Pahang Menteri Besar. He held the powerful position of Umno Youth chief from 1987 to 1993.

Given such a background, being Prime Minister should not pose too big a challenge for Najib. He is known to be a decisive man when he needs to be.

However, holding positions of power for 32 years has left him tainted by controversies and scandals. Corruption allegations follow him endlessly, and might haunt him all the more once he becomes Prime Minister.

Non-Malays have not forgotten his part in fanning inter-ethnic tensions in 1987 with threats of soaking a keris in Chinese blood. Incessant claims that he was involved in the murder in 2006 of a Mongolian woman, Altantuya Shaariibuu, have harmed his reputation somewhat.

The latest controversy centres around tender irregularities in the ongoing purchase of 12 aircraft from the French-German firm, Eurocopters.

Despite these predicaments, Najib’s control over Umno once he becomes its president is expected to be strong. His career path and political network put him ahead of most potential contenders. However, circumstances surrounding his ascendance to the premiership are far from ideal.

The reason why Abdullah has to leave will also be the cause of much anxiety for a Najib administration. The opposition Pakatan Rakyat , led by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, is now a formidable presence in Parliament. With the opposition holding more than a third of the seats, Najib, as Premier, will be able to make constitutional amendments only with PR’s collaboration.

For the first time in Malaysian history, the ruling Barisan Nasional will be faced with an alternative coalition daring to dream of replacing it. To make matters worse for the BN, all its five members in mainland Malaysia, including Umno, fared badly in the March elections. The next BN leader will have to pay close attention to the strength and loyalty of its lesser allies, and reduce Malay-centrism within Umno.

By and large, Najib will need to demonstrate that he can withstand Anwar’s onslaughts and escape the stamp of passivity and tentativeness that Abdullah’s administration has been known for — and do all that without allowing former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to steer his hand.

The purported reason why he was passed over by Dr Mahathir — Najib’s former mentor — in 2003 when the latter was choosing a successor is not an issue for Umno at the moment. The Muslim vote that Dr Mahathir lost for BN in 1999 and that Abdullah managed to regain in 2004 is now firmly in the hands of the opposition. It is not there any longer for Najib to lose, as was Dr Mahathir’s fear in 2003.

With opposition leader Anwar now seeking to be the next Premier instead of Najib, the latter will have little time for rest. The war of words between these two men will be intense, and there will be no shortage of political intrigue for Malaysians to gasp over in the coming months.

At present, the person most likely to become Najib’s deputy is Minister of International Trade and Industry Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin. Born in 1947, Muhyiddin is six years older than Najib. He is known to have ambitions of becoming Umno president, and being No. 2 to the younger Najib does not say much of his chances of ever getting there. How loyal Muhyuddin will be to Najib has yet to be tested. — TODAY

The writer is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His latest book is “Lost in Transition: Malaysia under Abdullah”.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Muhyiddin moves to finish off PM


COMMENTARY

OCT 16 — Buoyed by the overwhelming lead he has secured for the deputy presidency after the first week of nominations from Umno divisions, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has moved to land a fatal blow on Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Under the latest, and what many thought was the final version of the transition plan, Abdullah announced that he would not stand for re-election in Umno and hand over power when the party’s annual congress officially elects its new leader in March.

Following Abdullah’s announcement, as planned, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, is cruising towards an uncontested win with no one else managing to secure a nomination for the top post thus far. For many in Umno, it is already a foregone conclusion that Najib and Muhyiddin will be the next leadership pair of the party and government.

But until now, there was also widespread acceptance for the postponement of the party congress from December to March in order to give Abdullah some time to finish his promised reforms. It seems that even that is now under question.

When met by reporters today, Muhyiddin said that the campaign period was too long and that this would affect the official work of ministers and deputy ministers aspiring for posts in the party.

Reading between the lines of Muhyiddin’s statement is a clear move to oust Abdullah earlier.

Muhyiddin has been at the forefront of the campaign to get Abdullah to resign after the March general election which initially resulted in the 2010 formula, and then when Muhyiddin felt that he could push it further, he succeeded in orchestrating calls for an earlier handover which finally led to the March 2009 agreement where Abdullah would step down as Prime Minister after the party congress.

Now, Muhyiddin is at it again. Perhaps confident that he has no real challenger for the deputy presidency considering his nearest rival, Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Ali Rustam, is trailing far behind in nomination numbers, Muhyiddin is now going for the kill by appealing to Umno members to exert pressure once again on the leadership to bring the date of the congress forward and hence get Abdullah out quicker.

The move is calculated to give an advantage to the current frontrunners who are all perceived to be aligned to the Najib-Muhyiddin ticket — vice-president aspirants Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein and Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal, and Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir who is leading the race for the Youth leadership.

The quicker the congress, where delegates will elect those who make it past the nomination stage, the better the chances are for these frontrunners. If the congress takes place in March 2009 as scheduled, sentiment can turn against those who have taken an early lead.

However, the main point behind Muhyiddin's latest move is that it is designed to cut short Abdullah's extra time in office. It is possible that the latest round of political attacks on Najib has created a sense that the transition must happen quicker before any more damage is done to the incoming premier.

Many Najib supporters feel that he will be better able to handle the accusations if he is already the Prime Minister and that March may be too far away. For Muhyiddin, an earlier Abdullah exit will also see him appointed as Deputy Prime Minister quicker.

Muhyiddin's latest statement comes a few days after a telling photograph was published in a leading Malay-language daily of him, Najib and former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad sitting together at a Hari Raya open house.

For political observers, the photograph spoke not just a thousand, but a million words. Dr Mahathir wants nothing more than Abdullah being booted out of office sooner than later.

It seems Muhyiddin is about to deliver that for the man who has come out in vocal support for him as Najib's deputy.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cocktail of sleaze allegations poses threat to political stability


Monday, October 13, 2008

MALAYSIA LETTER: Blogs and online media are fuelling controversy as mainstream media remain tightly controlled, writes Clifford Coonan

NO ONE can say Malaysian politics lacks lurid stories. The grisly killing of a Mongolian model, links between that murder and the man tipped as Malaysia's next prime minister, fresh accusations that former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim is a sodomite and sedition charges against a popular online editor are among the big issues in the press in Malaysia over recent days.

That is to say nothing of the decision by the prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, not to run in the next election as a way of averting an uprising against him within the ranks of his own United Malays National Organisation party, which forms the core of the National Front coalition that has ruled Malaysia since it became independent in 1957.

All the stories are technically separate, but connected in a thickening web of sleaze.

The government had a disastrous showing in elections in March, which combined with rising fuel costs and financial fears, is generating the kind of turbulence that threatens stability in the southeast Asian nation.

Abdullah's decision to step down opens the door for deputy premier Najib Razak to become premier. The former defence minister is also the subject of lots of speculation, although not in the mainstream media, which is effectively controlled by political parties in Malaysia. The country's hundreds of blogs are seen as independent platforms and offering anti-government commentaries on social and political issues.

The editor of the best-known anti-government news website, "Malaysia Today", is on trial on sedition charges for implying that Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, were involved in the 2006 killing of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a 28-year-old Mongolian interpreter and model.

Journalist Raja Petra Raja Kamaruddin, who also faces other accusations of trying to undermine the government, made the accusations in an article on April 25th titled "Let's Send the Altantuya Murderers to Hell". Raja Petra (58), who denies the accusation, is already in jail in a separate case under national security legislation that allows indefinite detention without trial.

The two cases against Raja Petra have provoked an outcry against the government, with detractors accusing it of misusing the judiciary to crack down on critics and suppress freedom of speech. If convicted, Raja Petra faces up to three years in jail.

Two policemen have been accused of shooting Altantuya Shaariibuu twice in the head and then blowing up her body with explosives in a jungle clearing near Kuala Lumpur.

Abdul Razak Baginda, a close associate of Najib, is charged with abetting the murder. All three are currently on trial. The two policemen were part of the Special Action Squad, an elite team of bodyguards directly under Najib's control when he was defence minister.

Najib's name has barely come up in official media reports about the murder, except to say that he swears before Allah that he didn't know the woman.

Some websites say that it was Najib who in fact introduced the translator/model to Abdul Razak, allegations they say are backed up evidence.

But there are a whole series of sub-plots to the mystery, involving tampering with statements, disappearing witnesses and interference with witnesses.

In a letter she left behind, Shaariibuu claimed she had been blackmailing Abdul Razak without giving any details.

The prosecution says Abdul Razak had her killed because she pestered him for money after he ended an affair to support a child that she claimed he had fathered.

Najib is also being linked to accepting a large commission through a private company "for co-ordination and support services" on the purchase of French submarines for the Malaysian military.

Watching these various strands draw together is opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who says he has won over enough defectors from the government to form a new administration and is confident the country's beleaguered government will be gone by the important Eid al-Adha Muslim festival, which falls on December 8th.

There are suspicions Anwar is crying wolf - his earlier self-imposed deadline of September 16th for his supporters to walk across the house and force a confidence vote passed. "We have built our base to go forward, if it does not happen this week or next week, it can possibly happen before Eid al-Adha," he told the Berita Harian newspaper, adding that it would happen peacefully. He needs 30 MPs to walk over in order to have a majority in the 222-seat parliament.

At present the opposition coalition, made up of Anwar's Keadilan party, the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia and the Democratic Action party, has 82 seats.

Anwar is one of Malaysia's best-known political figures. He was dismissed in the late 1990s by then premier Mahathir Mohamad after he started calling for Mahathir to quit.

He was charged with sodomy and corruption and the image of him in court in 1998 with black eye and bruises after he was beaten up by a police chief was flashed around the world.

He was convicted on both charges and spent six years in jail. Human rights groups called him a political prisoner.

Malaysia's Supreme Court overturned the sodomy conviction in 2004, after Abdullah became prime minister following Mahathir's retirement, and he was freed from prison.

Anwar was in court again last week on fresh charges of sodomising a young aide, charges that the father of six says are politically motivated.

But if he is convicted it will be a serious setback to his political ambitions. Whatever happens, Malaysia's political scene is hardly likely to get any less colourful in the coming months.

© 2008 The Irish Times

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Hindraf demonised: Polishing the devil’s horns

By Helen Ang
Centre for Policy Initiatives
Sunday, 12 October 2008 12:34

An alert should go out to embassies in Kuala Lumpur cautioning foreign nationals. The updated travel advisory:

(1) Open houses in Malaysia are possibly illegal,
(2) If a tourist should saunter into the premises, he may be guilty of trespassing,
(3) A tour group could be banned by Malaysian authorities for unbecoming behaviour, such as all its members wearing uniform attire,
(4) Cops on duty at open houses will confiscate a greeting card and such other contraband, as well as
(5) Summon to police headquarters for questioning if someone attended open house but rejected refreshments, did not shake hands with the VIP host and failed to extend festive wishes.

Meanwhile, locals are expected to behave in exchange for free lunch at the Putra World Trade Centre. The Star reported Tourism Minister Azalina Othman warning that some Malaysians at open houses give a poor reflection of the country’s image to tourists. “If you are here as a guest, then behave as one. Parliament will convene on Oct 13. They can do so (submit their memorandum) then,” she said.

Azalina was referring to Hindraf supporters but Hindraf legal advisor N. Surendran has countered there was no memorandum delivered. Memo or no, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, his deputy Najib Razak and Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar still complained the Indians were ‘kurang ajar’ (untutored), ‘biadab’ (unmannered) and ‘tak beradab’ (uncivilised).

The badmouthing is a clear example of one group, Umnoputeras, demonising another group of fellow citizens. Visitors should also be aware that they cannot believe all they read in Tourism Malaysia brochures about the country’s ‘racial harmony’, and in the mainstream media (MSM) about BN’s successful formula of ‘national unity’.

Yes sir, Umno sir

Deputy Home Minister Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh has intimated that there are many options on action against Hindraf for causing – I’m borrowing the following description from the Star’s headline – a ‘commotion at the government’s Raya open house’, and otherwise being ‘aggressive’, ‘unruly’, ‘provocative’ etc, etc, as alleged by some Malay associations. Home Ministry secretary-general Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof is looking into banning Hindraf. Information Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek called on all political parties to condemn the incident.

What did Hindraf do that was so bad to make Umno big shots so angry?

A six-year-old girl wished to give the PM a teddy bear and Raya card. She is the daughter of Hindraf chairman P. Waythamoorthy and brought the bear in a basket along with some flowers. She had wanted to give roses too last year to Abdullah, who refused to receive her on Valentine’s Day.

This is a little girl who has been separated from daddy for almost one year now as Moorthy is likely to be ISA-ed if he ventures to step foot on Malaysian soil. This is the small child who must be wondering whatever her Uncle Kumar did wrong that caused the authorities to lock him up, under ISA.

And this is the gist of Abdullah’s complaint: “The rest (of their words), which I heard very clearly, was, ‘Abolish the ISA! Free the Hindraf! Abolish the ISA! Free the Hindraf!’ That’s all they wanted to tell me. This is not the spirit of Hari Raya, where you wish (Selamat) Hari Raya, are happy and have fun and socialise.”

How does an unwelcome guest answer when quizzed by police on why he fails to socialise and display the requisite joyfulness at the PM’s party? Lawyer Haris Ibrahim who blogs ‘The People’s Parliament’ wrote that he and his Hartal ISA group (wearing solidarity-with-RPK T-shirts) were ushered by police to a holding room and segregated.

People’s Parliament last November launched a ‘Hartal MSM’ campaign in the wake of newspapers disinforming on Bersih and demonising Hindraf. MSM has not changed its slant against the Indians. The Star article on the alleged commotion during Raya carried the byline of four reporters. If a whole quartet covered the story, surely one of them could have obtained Hindraf’s clarification that the movement did not present any memo. But no.

Instead, the popular rag – which incongruously dubs itself ‘the People’s Paper – preferred to give airing to VIPs as per its usual practice of cue journalism. The Star report had quoted Azalina and also Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Mohd Shafie Apdal admonishing, “Hindraf members should have known their limits and not turn up at an open house ‘like this’.”

Star’s article had Shafie going: “There are platforms for you to make your submission. This is not the proper way of doing things. I mean, it’s a Raya do. Today is Hari Raya, it’s got nothing to do with memorandums.”

The spirit of Raya

The Star, a publication under the control of MCA, is big on ‘the proper way of doing things’. It has been full of how the Chinese communal party always used ‘proper channels’ and engaged in ‘internal discussions’ with BN (though not quite admitting that the outcome of any discussion is MCA invariably kowtowing to Umno).

But not only did that particular Star article omit Hindraf’s clarification that there was no memo, it also failed to mention that Indians throughout the past year had made many attempts to convey the community’s grievances to the powers-that-be and were ignored. So the ‘the proper way of doing things’ gets nothing done.

The paper similarly neglected to publish that unlike MCA Cabinet ministers who engage in closed door sessions where they ultimately accede to ‘the BN consensus’ (read, again kowtowing to Umno) Hindraf pleaded they had no other opportunities to approach the PM except at the open house.

BN’s idea of propriety and legality is ‘do as I say, not do as I do’. Abdullah, who often preaches Hadhari, sermonised on religious tolerance around Merdeka last year when at the same time, Hindu temples were tumbling down around him. His big ears did not hear government bulldozers destroying the houses of worship.

To the PM, the spirit of Raya is that everyone must be happy, have fun and socialise, unlike the Hindraf crowd creating “a lot of unhappiness to a lot of people who were around” at his PWTC, possibly illegal, gathering.

Since I’m not Muslim, it’s hardly in my place to contradict the Grand Imam of Hadhari. I’ll just note that when I balik kampung to Penang, I saw many billboards put up by the Pakatan state government bearing its Ramadan message of ‘Amar makruf, nahi mungkar’ (Do good, abhor evil and sin).

Does amar makruf not accommodate compassion for a discriminated community, and courtesy to women and children who were in the Hindraf delegation?

Umno and its collaborators instigating Malays to view Hindraf as bogeyman threatening Malay rights is amar makruf? Malaysiakini reported Surendran as saying Hindraf has become the victim of a harsh campaign to incite hatred against the movement and Indians.

Moorthy and many others in Hindraf agree, and have filed police reports but may have to wait for investigations to be completed first on insulting (Case 1) egg and (Case 2) PWTC food which the bloggers and Hindraf refused to touch.

We’ve often lamented ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’ to signify BN, the devil we know, and the uncharted waters of the Opposition. A few months ago, Justice Ian Chin described Dr Mahathir Mohamed as “a devil incarnate” and Dr M hitting back at the judge, gestured with his hands at a pair on imaginary horns on his head.

Although the Malay word ‘ampu bodek’ has infinitely more oomph, the English translation ‘polishing apples’ largely characterises MSM coverage of domestic politics and BN politicians, First Families and their in-laws. But a metaphor of polishing the devil’s horns is a more apt on the nature of our mass media’s collusion with the establishment in demonising Hindraf.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A leader who started out boldly


Oct 9, 2008
NEWS ANALYSIS
By Leslie Lopez, South-east Asia Correspondent

JUST before Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi assumed the premiership, a senior Western diplomat remarked to a group of foreign reporters that he was having problems telling his government what to expect from Malaysia's new leader.

'He has never articulated any vision, and you can't put a finger on what he stands for,' the diplomat told his guests at a lunch in October 2003. 'At this point, the cable I want to send back to HQ is blank.'

After Mr Abdullah (seen here - left) succeeded Dr Mahathir, he tried to shore up his appeal with the catchy campaign theme of 'Don't work for me, but with me'. He charmed voters in the March 2004 elections and scored an impressive electoral victory for the ruling coalition. -- PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

When Mr Abdullah hands over power to his deputy Najib Razak in March next year, he will leave a report card that unfortunately remains pretty much blank. Much was promised but little was achieved during his tenure.

If there's one thing Mr Abdullah will be remembered for, it will be the release from jail of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy premier who was sacked by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad after the two politicians fell out in 1998.

Unlike his predecessor, Mr Abdullah did not interfere with the courts. That, many analysts believe, led to Mr Anwar's release from prison in September 2004. But it would be a gesture that would eventually eject Mr Abdullah from the premiership.

Mr Anwar cobbled together an alliance of opposition parties that scored major gains in the March general election, emerging as a threat to Umno's grip on power. Mr Abdullah was blamed for the electoral setbacks, triggering a rebellion within his party and culminating in his decision yesterday to step down.

Many Malaysians view Mr Abdullah as a well-intentioned but weak leader. He seemed helpless as an increasingly sophisticated electorate grew tired of Umno's style of governance.

Close aides of Mr Abdullah insist that the criticisms are unfair, and that their boss desperately wanted to carry out reforms. 'He tried to reform, but he was not given enough time and he faced too much opposition from Umno,' said one long-time aide.

Many analysts believe he was picked as Dr Mahathir's deputy after Mr Anwar's sacking because the former premier wanted a No.2 who wouldn't pose a threat to him. Mr Abdullah's animosity towards Mr Anwar also made him an ideal candidate.

After Mr Abdullah succeeded Dr Mahathir, he tried to shore up his appeal with the catchy campaign theme of 'Don't work for me, but with me'. He charmed voters in the March 2004 elections and scored an impressive electoral victory for the ruling coalition.

A carefully choreographed campaign presented him to the electorate and investors as the antithesis of the combative and often autocratic Dr Mahathir. The image worked in part because it did reflect reality: Mr Abdullah was indeed the opposite of his predecessor.

And he did start out boldly: He overturned costly infrastructure projects promoted by his ex-boss; initiated a crackdown on corruption, including charging a minister and a close business associate of Dr Mahathir; and promised more transparency in government, including using open tenders for contracts.

But his reform agenda ran counter to the culture in Umno, a patronage-driven party where warlords have long relied on easy access to government contracts to secure political support. Before long, support among Malaysians also started to slip. His reluctance to upset vested political and business interests disillusioned voters.

Mr Abdullah became a premier under siege from within his own party and an emboldened opposition. His inability to deal with these forces led to his party's poor showing in the March elections and the rebellion within Umno that has now forced him into early retirement.

Ultimately, he failed to break with the past and reform key institutions such as the judiciary and security agencies. That a decent and well-intentioned man like him failed indicates the extent to which the ruling elite may well be beyond reform.

ljlopez@sph.com.sg

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Anwar's Troubles Grow

asia Sentinel
Written by Jed Yoong
Friday, 26 September 2008


Despite public promises of a political takeover, Anwar Ibrahim is still but a voice in the opposition wilderness

After months of eager anticipation, September 16 came and went like any other ordinary day in Malaysia.

That was the day opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim had repeatedly promised he would overthrow the Barisan Nasional, or National Front, federal government, ending over 50 years of rule following independence in 1957.

On the eve of the what-should-have-been a momentous day, the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, or People's Alliance, held a Malaysia Day celebration in Kuala Lumpur. Reportedly about 20,000 people turned up, eagerly awaiting the dramatic unveiling of the identities of at least 31 defecting Barisan lawmakers. But when the event came Anwar revealed only that he had the "numbers" to topple Barisan, and nothing more. The proof that he had the means to take power, remained firmly under wraps.

The next day, Anwar held a press conference to postpone the deadline further, pending Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's approval of an emergency parliamentary session to allow a no confidence vote against him by September 23. Expectedly, Badawi ignored the request and this week the Tuesday deadline also came and went.

By Wednesday, Anwar was clearly singing a different tune. He urged Malaysians to be "patient" because Pakatan "do(es) not want to transgress the constitutional rules and procedures".

On accusations calling him a "liar" for failing to meet his self-imposed deadlines, he blamed Badawi for refusing to meet him, jeopardising his plans. "They have called me a lot of things before (but) the point is, if they really believe I am a liar then put me to (the) test and have a (no-confidence) vote taken (in parliament)," Anwar told reporters.

Moreover, Anwar has more to worry about than luring lawmakers to his side to form a government. He also faces fresh allegations of sodomy, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in jail. Saiful Bukhari Azlan, a 23-year-old one-time aide has accused Anwar of sodomising him in an apartment in the posh neighbourhood of Mont Kiara. A medical report and a statutory declaration by the doctor who examined Saiful says no medical evidence of sodomy was found. Yet, the government is rushing through a DNA bill that will allow it to compel Anwar to give a DNA sample. Anwar refuses, saying there is no case against him and that the sample will be used to fabricate evidence against him.

The government is also trying to move the case from the Magistrate Court to the High Court, although such cases are normally heard in the former. Anwar's lawyer has protested, observing that the transfer sheet was signed by Attorney-General Ghani Patail, whom Anwar is suing for fabricating evidence in the 1999 case which saw him imprisoned for six years for corruption. In 2000 he was jailed a further nine years for sodomy, but this conviction was reversed in 2004 and he was released from jail after serving his abuse of power sentence.

Anwar and his supporters have always maintained that the charges were "trumped up", part of a "political conspiracy" to end his political career by then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who famously sacked Anwar, his former political protégé, as Deputy Prime Minister.

But while Anwar's latest case is being put on the fast track, other more serious allegations against those in government are being swept under the carpet.

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, have been linked to the gruesome death of a 28-year-old Mongolian translator, Altantuya Shariibuu, in 2006. Witness testimonies in court have identified Najib in a photograph with the deceased and her lover, Abdul Razak Baginda, Najib's close friend and advisor who is on trial for her murder. In a statutory declaration, P Balasubramaniam, a private investigator and retired policeman hired by Razak Baginda, alleged Najib not only knew the murdered woman but had an affair with her, was involved in her disappearance and introduced her to Razak Baginda. Another statutory declaration by Raja Petra Kamarudin, editor of the political news portal, Malaysia Today, claimed that Rosmah was present at the crime scene where Altantuya was blown-up with military explosives after being shot twice. Despite this, Najib and Rosmah have not been charged.

Raja Petra's constant exposure of Barisan's dirty deeds, have landed him in jail again. The government on Tuesday locked him up under the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for indefinite detention without trial, for two years. The Home Minister Syed Hamid Syed Albar reportedly said that Raja Petra was jailed because some articles had "ridiculed Islam, which could arouse anger among Muslims."

International organisations have condemned the detention and called for his immediate release.

"A two-year jail term imposed at the government’s sole discretion against one of its known critics is cause for real concern," Bob Dietz, the Committee to Protect Journalists' Asia Program Coordinator, said. "We call on the home minister to overturn this sentence immediately. No online commentator should be jailed because of the articles they have published."

"As well as being issued arbitrarily, behind closed doors and without informing Raja Petra’s lawyers, this detention order is devoid of any legal basis as it violates the constitutionally-guaranteed right of religious freedom," Reporters Without Borders said. "The interior minister clearly wants to silence RPK for good and to keep up pressure on bloggers who dare to criticise the increasingly fragile government. We call for his release."