Truly Malaysia

Editorial, Jakarta Post
12 Dec 2007

Although the ongoing anti-government movements in Malaysia are still at a very preliminary stage, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has threatened to impose the much feared and draconian Internal Security Act against those who still defy his warnings to cease street demonstrations.

The threat to jail protesters for an indefinite period of time seems to have worked, at least for the time being, because the number of street demonstrations has sharply declined. But the prime minister needs to remember that demands for justice, more freedom and more political and economic equality cannot be silenced just by throwing more people into prisons.
PM Badawi and the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) need to remember that as long as the roots of discontent exist anti-government movements will not subside.
The experience of Soeharto before his fall in May 1998 showed there was a point where people lost their fear of the iron-fist man and did not care anymore about his brutal responses to their protests.
It is clear the current situation in Malaysia today is very different from what Indonesian faced nine years ago, especially in terms of economic conditions. In 1998, Indonesia’s economy was on the brink of disaster, while Malaysia’s economy today is relatively healthy. But as its economy shows declining growth amid soaring oil prices, many people have begun to feel the heat.
The attitude of many Malaysian officials in responding to the street demonstrations is similar to the attitude of Indonesian officials in 1998. They point their finger at “third parties”, “western countries” or “irresponsible press” creating the political unrest. They are reluctant to accept the street facts, because they have been too long in power, enjoying all privileges.
As its constitution is perceived by the minority as discriminatory against non-Malays and non-Muslims, more Malaysians now are demanding real equalities. Sixty percent of the 26 million population is Malay — synonymous with Muslim according to the constitution — while the rest are Chinese, Indian and other ethnicities.
Badawi should demonstrate his strong leadership as the country prepares for an early election, because he has not been able to fully control the ruling party. Many Muslims in his ruling party are increasingly impatient with Badawi because they think things were better in Malaysia before Mahathir Mohamad handed over power to Badawi in 2003.
Mahathir is widely regarded as much more protective of Malays than his successor is. Many Malaysians perhaps forget that Mahathir left many fundamentals problems — from an ailing economy to corruption — for Badawi. The fact the succession from Mahathir to Badawi was not conducted by fully democratic means also created friction among the elites and dissatisfaction among the people.
The Malaysian government needs to be more sensitive in listening to the aspirations of its people. Defensive attitudes — such as blaming others, probably including this newspaper — will not be helpful at all.
It is time now to honestly listen to criticism from citizens. Putting anti-government activists in jail is only a very short-term solution. PM Badawi needs to show he is the prime minister of all Malaysian citizens no matter their ethnic or religious background.