A Battle Nobody Won

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Talk about planned reform efforts going wrong! A bill touted as relaxing laws to allow public gatherings to be held without a police permit has triggered large public demonstrations in Malaysia as opposition parties and civil society groups stir up public sentiment.

In retrospect, it was all very predictable. Prime Minister Najib Razak's announcement in September that he intended to repeal two longstanding - and very controversial - security laws in order to improve civil liberties removed a major plank in opposition party platforms. It was almost inevitable that they would strike back.

What was surprising, however, was the extent to which the government has been prepared to dance to the opposition's tune. In tabling the Peaceful Assembly bill in parliament last week, the government said it was attempting to guarantee the right of Malaysians to gather peacefully. But in drafting the bill, officials surrounded this right with so many restrictions that opposition groups had a field day denouncing the move as yet another attempt at repression.

Among other things, the new legislation required protest organisers to give 30-days notice. It also banned street protests and did not allow gatherings to take place near schools, hospitals and places of worship. The idea was apparently to limit future protests to stadiums and halls where crowd control in Malaysia's racially polarised society would be a lot easier - something opposition groups have strongly opposed.

Responding to the criticism, the government cut the 30-day notice period to 10 days. It also shortened the period allowing for written objections to a proposed assembly from five days to two. Other amendments included requiring the Home Minister to answer any appeals within 48 hours of receipt instead of six days.

But having gained the moral high ground by appearing responsive to public concerns, the government then proceeded to shoot itself in the foot. It refused an opposition request that the bill be referred to a parliamentary select committee for further study. The Speaker of Parliament also allowed only three opposition members to debate the legislation. Both moves fueled opposition claims that the government was determined to ram the legislation through parliament regardless. Opposition MPs responded with a dramatic walkout.

Seeing its reform attempt being painted as yet another attempt at repression, the government's frustration was palpable. Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, in winding up the debate in parliament, lashed out at the opposition for misleading the public.

He also took the Bar Council to task for staging a street protest: “They are lawyers but they did not behave that way. I am a lawyer, too, and I am ashamed of how they behaved,” Nazri told the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives). Although it was the fundamental right of citizens to assemble, he continued, the freedom could not be absolute.

Parti Islam SeMalaysia president Hadi Awang told the media that the proposed legislation "does not protect national security, only the security of the BN (national front coalition) leaders". Despite the government's earlier efforts at compromise, there are many who are likely to believe him.

The only comfort for Mr Najib is that the opposition may also have misjudged the public mood. Netizens, including many critical of tbe bill, called opposition MPs "childish" and "stupid" for not remaining in the chamber and fighting to the bitter end.

At a time when national elections are widely regarded as imminent, politicians on both sides of Malaysia's political divide seem more intent on scoring political points than on reflecting the aspirations of the people. Prominent activist Marina Mahathir wrote on twitter: "Basically, today is a day when all MPs have proved disappointing".

Yes, indeed.

It was a battle nobody won.

Key Political Risks

Now that the general assembly of UMNO, the senior partner in the ruling National Front coalition government, is over, the long-awaited general election could be held at any time. Constitutionally, Prime Minister Najib Razak has to call elections before April 21st 2012, after which the Elections Commission must hold the election within 60 days.

Widely expected to be the most hotly contested in Malaysian history, the polls will pit Mr Najib's government against a rival political coalition led by charismatic opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. 

While the opposition Pakatan Rakyat alliance attacks what is says are the corrupt and authoritarian ways of the government, Mr Najib has been describing the opposition coalition as an unnatural alliance of Islamic fundamentalists and multi-ethnic and liberal parties.

The strong economy is likely to favour the government.


  • The size of the expected government victory, particularly the ability of the ruling party to retake control of key states such as Selangor. Mr Najib needs to win convincingly if he is to implement long-delayed economic reforms. These include reducing oil and food subsidies and introducing a goods and services tax to boost government revenue.
  • The ability of Mr Najib to placate conservative elements of his Muslim-based UMNO party who disapprove of his policy of boosting national unity through greater inter-faith and ethnic tolerance.
  • The extent to which the government is able to convince the public that the coming elections will be free and fair. If the election result is close, influential organisation such as Bersih could declare them illegitimate, and stage major protests.

About Me

My name is Dr Bruce Gale and I am a senior writer with the Singapore Straits Times. I studied at  LaTrobe University (BA Hons) in Melbourne and later at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Monash University (MA). My PhD thesis, which focussed on Malaysian political economy, was completed at the Malaysian National University (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) in 1987.

From 1988 to 2003 I was Singapore Regional Manager for the Hong Kong based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC). 

I have written several books and articles on Southeast Asian affairs, including Political Risk and International Business: Case Studies in Southeast Asia (Pelanduk Publications, 2007). Books on language include Mastering Indonesian: a guide to reading Indonesian language newspapers (Pelanduk Publications, 2008)

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