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Fears grow for a Malaysian Spring

Asia Times - May 29, 2013

Chin Huat Wong, Kuala Lumpur Adam Adli, a student activist, was charged on May 23 under Malaysia's Sedition Act for saying merely "you cheated in elections, we go for demonstrations". Eighteen other people have been also detained by police, with three claiming injuries, for attending a vigil held in response to the activist's detention.

The next day, two opposition parliamentarians and a leading activist campaigning against the dominant ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) were arrested under the same law. A bold magistrate crushed police efforts to extend their detentions after the initial 24-hour limit. But if charges are pressed, all still face possible prison terms for questioning the May 5 general election result.

The repression underscores the struggle of Najib Razak, a minority prime minister in terms of popular votes, to stay afloat. His Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition won a mere 47% of the vote, its worst ever electoral showing. Thanks to the malapportionment and gerrymandering of constituencies, BN still won a comfortable 60% share of parliament's total seats and control of nine of the 12 federal states that concurrently held their legislative elections.

The UMNO-dominated ruling coalition, which has held power consecutively since 1955, had not lost the popular vote since 1969. That result was followed by race riots between ethnic Chinese and Malays, paving the way for two years of emergency rule and an intra-party coup which installed Najib's father, Abdul Razak Hussein, as the country's second prime minister since independence from colonial rule.

Najib faces a different type of crisis as allegations of fraud and irregularities in campaigning, polling and vote counting have raised widespread questions about the legitimacy of the May 5 polls. Led by former deputy prime minister and finance minister Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition has rejected outright the election result and organized massive rallies with protestors clad in black to mourn the "death of democracy".

So far, 10 rallies have been held across various states, attracting crowds ranging from 20,000 to 120,000. Black T-shirts emblazoned with "505" (the date of the polls) and "blackout", a reference to the mysterious power outages that occurred in the vote-tallying centers of a number of constituencies, have featured prominently at the multi-ethnic rallies.

Instead of permanently occupying strategic sites, protestors have returned home after the rallies. Nonetheless, the spreading protests are taking the initial shape of a so-called "color revolution", similar to the ones seen in places like Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine. Images of mass protests also hark to the early phases of the Arab Spring demonstrations that overthrew authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa.

Opposition and civil society leaders have so far denied any intention of overthrowing Najib's government in a similar type of "Malaysian Spring." But some analysts believe UMNO's own anxieties about the protests may eventually turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, particularly if current levels of repression are intensified.

Bersih 2.0, a civil society coalition that has consistently lobbied for a wide raft of electoral reforms, has so far refused to recognize the legitimacy of Najib's minority government. Bersih 2.0 held two mass rallies in 2011 and 2012 to press their reform demands. Both rallies elicited strong government responses and were brutally repressed by police through the use of tear gas and water cannons.

When Bersih 2.0 requested official permission to hold these two rallies respectively at the capital's Merdeka Stadium and Merdeka Square, authorities claimed that the locations were selected not for their centrality but rather their symbolism. Merdeka in the Malay-Indonesia language means "independence." (In Egypt, the famous Tahrir Square where mass demonstrations ended 30 years of authoritarian rule under president Hosni Mubarak, translates to "Liberation Square" in Arabic.)

Heightened surveillance

Najib's government is ratcheting up its surveillance to ensure that the recent rallies do not morph into a similar type of movement. On May 22, veteran opposition leader Chen Man Hin, who retired in 1999, was interrogated by police for an email he sent last year which contained the words "Malaysian Spring".

As challenges arise not only from the PR opposition but also from inside his own party, Najib has appointed known hardliners Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Khalid Abu Bakar to lead the Home Ministry and police force respectively.

Zahid has said that he would crack down on dissidents without further warning. He has also called upon Malaysians who disagree with the first-past-the-post electoral system to emigrate elsewhere. Currently one of UMNO's three vice presidents, he may be trying to impress party hardliners should Najib be replaced as party leader by his ambitious deputy Muhyiddin Yassin at or after the next party convention scheduled for later this year.

The new inspector-general of police, meanwhile, has declared his intolerance for what he considers "illegal rallies" and has used the Orwellian "Peaceful Assembly Act", which requires the organizers of any gathering to inform the police ten days in advance, to charge or threaten to charge five opposition leaders. Even in military-dominated Myanmar, local critics note, a similar free assembly act requires only five days prior notice.

But Malaysia is neither Egypt nor Myanmar. Because of the scars left by the 1969 riots, Malaysia's population is generally conservative.

Until the first Bersih 2.0 rally in 2011, most Malaysians stayed away from anti-government demonstrations. Najib's father skillfully used the traumatic 1969 riots to systematically depoliticize the population, convincing them to leave politics to politicians or risk reopening ethnic wounds.

Yet race-baiting was Najib's first reaction to the May 5 election result. While giving voice to the need for "national reconciliation" after a heated election campaign, Najib also blamed BN's electoral upset on a "Chinese tsunami" of ethnic Chinese voters who rejected his coalition in favor of the opposition PR.

Najib has tried to capitalize on the fact that PR enjoyed support from 80-90% of ethnic Chinese, who represent around 29% of the national population, but only some 40% of ethnic Malay-Muslims who make up 60% of the electorate. While BN has won multiethnic support in the past via its constituent Chinese and Indian parties, the May 5 result showed it is now a mono-ethnic coalition.

Rather than a "Chinese tsunami", independent analysts have characterized the election result as an "urban tsunami". Urban voters who had access to alternative on-line news sources voted mainly for PR, while those in rural areas exposed only to UMNO's mouthpiece media favored BN. While most Chinese are urban dwellers, Malay Muslims based in urban areas also voted substantially for PR.

Since the polls, UMNO-controlled Malay language dailies and frontline organizations have taken their cues from Najib to fan Malay-Muslims' sense of insecurity. Utusan Malaysia, UMNO's top mouthpiece organ, published a provocative front-page headline "What else do the Chinese want?" the day after the election.

A campaign to boycott Chinese-owned businesses has since been launched by a Muslim consumer group to punish the Chinese for supporting the PR opposition. Meanwhile, a retired senior judge affiliated with UMNO has called for a new 67% quota for Malay-Muslims in education and employment, a proposed bolstering of the New Economic Policy that already favors majority Malays over minority groups.

Intolerance has been strongest, however, towards Malay Muslims who have challenged UMNO's racism. Utusan Malaysia has launched broadsides against Air Asia X chief executive officer and Malay Muslim Azlan Osman-Rani after he posted "I am Malaysian. I am anti-racism. I am disgusted by Utusan's editorial stance" on his personal Facebook page. The paper has since announced it will refuse any advertising from the popular budget airline.

To the apparent frustration of Najib and the UMNO, race-baiting efforts have so far failed to galvanize much of a grass roots response. If anything, inter-communal solidarity has only grown stronger after the disputed election result. When student activist Adam, an ethnic Malay, was held in a police station in a Chinese-majority neighborhood, many locals joined in the four days of vigils before his release. When 18 of his supporters were arrested, tellingly 15 of them were ethnic Chinese.

[Chin Huat Wong is a fellow at the Penang Institute, a think tank linked to the Penang State Government. He earned his PhD from the University of Essex on a thesis focused on Malaysia's electoral and party systems. He is also a steering committee member of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections 2.0, also known as Bersih 2.0.]

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