Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is the latest figure to be caught in the government’s widening sedition crackdown, in what one human rights group called “blatantly politically motivated”.
Anwar will be questioned by police on Friday, and his lawyers expect him to be charged with sedition. He is the highest-profile figure to be investigated for “seditious acts”. Lawyers say it relates to a speech he gave at a political rally three years ago, to mark the launch of a campaign relating to the 2006 murder of a Mongolian model, who was alleged to have had close links to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Fellow opposition MP Lim Kit Siang described the investigation as “the worst form of political vendetta and gross abuse of power”.
At least 25 cases are now going through the courts, according to Lawyers for Liberty, a legal NGO. Among those charged is Anwar’s own lawyer and opposition MP N Surendran.
If found guilty, all could be jailed for three years and banned from public office for five years after that.
Some have already been convicted. On September 19, student activist Adam Adli was given a 12-month sentence for remarks he made calling for the ruling coalition and its largest party, the UMNO, to be toppled.
Wan Saiful Wan Jan of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) think-tank said he has begun to rein in what he says publicly. “It’s about making sure people remain compliant, don’t rebel too much, don’t talk too much, don’t criticise too much, and remain fearful to speak out,” he said.
‘Silencing the opposition’
N Surendran told Al Jazeera the crackdown reflects the government’s insecurity about its position in Malaysia, saying the arrests were designed to “silence the opposition and civil society”.
“In our entire history, the sedition act has never been used in this way before,” he said.
Many Malaysian news publications have portrayed the three elements considered most important in Malay society – race, religion and royalty – as being under threat.
This theme of a “threat” to Malay existence alleged by the government is an old one, but has come to the forefront since last year’s general election, in which the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition failed to win more than 50 percent of the popular vote, and returned to power with its smallest-ever majority of seats in parliament.
The result was even worse than in the 2008 election, when Barisan Nasional coalition government lost its crucial two-thirds majority, which had allowed it to make constitutional changes at will.
Lawyer Ambiga Sreenevasan said there is an atmosphere of insecurity – but among the dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party, not the Malaysian people.
“It’s all about power. It’s about people who think they’re losing power. It’s about shoring up their power base. There’s no threat. How is the majority under threat? If you look at the figures, the administration, police, the army are mostly Malay. It’s not Malays under threat, it’s UMNO,” Sreenevasan said.
London-based rights group Amnesty International called on the government to repeal the sedition law.
“There has been a disturbing increase in the use of the Sedition Act over the past few months against individuals who have done nothing but peacefully express their opinions,” said Amnesty’s Rupert Abbott. “This crackdown is creating a climate of fear in Malaysia and must end.”
A request for comment from the Malaysian government was not answered by the time of publication.
Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has defended the Sedition Act, arguing if it were abolished, “the extremists would be free to criticise the king and monarchy openly and even demand that the royal institution be dismantled. There is no law that can stop them”.
The crackdown is just as much about identity as about power, said Syahredzan Johan, the chairman of the Bar Council’s National Young Lawyers Committee.
One-third of Malaysians are under the age of 15, and this tech-savvy generation communicating through social media may be crossing cultural boundaries and coming together in ways the country’s much publicised “One Malaysia” policy has failed to achieve.
“Malaysians are grappling with how to move forward. For the longest time they have been boxed into these neat little categories of Malay, Chinese, Indian – and slowly, through social media, these categories are being broken down. Malaysians are seeing each other through more than just their ethnic identities; they’re seeing each other in the same light and seeing that they are not that different after all,” Syahredzan said.
The idea of social cohesion among younger Malaysians is unsettling the ruling party and a constitution formed on the basis of Malay supremacy, according to Syahredzan.
“This idea that maybe we’re not that different is a threat to the status quo. The sedition crackdown is because right-wing groups have put pressure on the government to take action against these groups which they see as threatening the status quo – the status quo being these [ethnic] categories, and also the status quo of not touching race, religion, or royalty,” he said.
Prime Minister Razak is trying to reform his party and appeal to younger voters with Facebook and Twitter accounts. But at the same time, he is under severe pressure from within the UMNO rank-and-file and right-wing Muslim groups such as Perkasa and ISMA.
‘The good old days’
Eric Paulsen from Lawyers for Liberty said with the growth of social media, Malaysians are becoming more outspoken online.
“It’s not like the good old days, when there was full control over the press. But among the right-wing and Malay rights groups, there’s distrust around non-Malay and non-Muslim groups. If they feel their honour, race, or religion have been slighted they must react,” said Paulsen.
But observers say with state-controlled media outlets pumping out messages about how ethnic Chinese will take over the country, and how groups are trying to convert it to Christianity, even urban, educated Malaysians are starting to believe the “danger”.
“It’s an imagined threat,” said Paulsen.
In 2012, Prime Minister Razak abandoned Malaysia’s controversial Internal Security Act in 2012. That meant authorities lost the power to detain without charge opponents whom they believed were a threat. As a result, the government appears to have resorted to the next best thing – the Sedition Act.
This could explain the government’s reluctance to repeal the act. But even multiple arrests for sedition and the ensuing court hearings have their limits. “How many prosecutions can they do?” asked Paulsen.
It’s not clear how the conflict between conservative and progressive elements in Malaysia will eventually play out.
Some see a bleak future for Malaysia if the current crackdown continues. Former law minister Zaid Ibrahim said he even suspects there could be a time in the future when Malaysia succumbs to military rule if UMNO’s dominance is overturned.
About the only thing that is not in doubt is that Malaysia is at a crossroads.