While there is a flicker of progress in Myanmar, the light of democracy has been crushed in Malaysia. And it happened in Parliament, as the UMNO-led ruling Barisan Nasional government muscled its way to bulldoze the Peaceful Assembly Bill.

The parliament saw the play of a lethal game as only three opposition lawmakers were allowed to debate the Bill while the the BN and government-friendly lawmakers whined down their razzle-dazzle debates supporting the new piece of legislation.

Earlier this morning, hundreds of lawyers staged the “Walk for Freedom” march to register their opposition to the Bill which is repressive, encroaches into the civil liberties of the people and violates the Federal Constitution.

It is a rare protest as lawyers do not take to the streets in a whim and fancy. But when they walk, it is a slap on the face of the government as it caricatures the lack of democracy and poor governance.

There has been a significant change in Myanmar after the military handed over power to a nominal civilian government last November. No one could deny that releasing the country’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was a big step forward.

Since then, the new government has reached out to her, allowed for street protests, called for peace with ethnic minorities, freed some 230 political prisoners and suspended a highly-suspect Chinese-funded dam project.

In Cambodia there has been concerted effort by the government to weed-out corruption, empower women politically and institute electoral reforms.

We, in direct contrast, are moving backward by curbing the civil liberties of the people. Prime minister Najib Tun Razak, addicted to his flip-flop policies, has gone back on his promise of reforms in the country.

In September, Najib scrapped Section 27 of the Police Act that requires a permit before holding rallies. It was, however, replaced with the more repressive Peaceful Assembly Bill with unacceptable restrictions on freedom of assembly, association and expression – the fundamental principles in a democracy.

The new Bill outlaws all street protests, forces the organizers to give a 10 day notice to the police, regulates, restricts and imposes conditions on an assembly and prohibits anyone under the age of 15 from taking part.

Furthermore, protesters could be slapped with a RM 20,000 fine while organizers who failed to give sufficient notice would be fined RM 10,000.

We will see the play out of this controversial policy in the next weeks and months. We will witness further clamping down of dissent, persecution of opposition politicians and an erosion of civil rights and liberties in the country.

In the lives of ordinary people, we will see tractors bulldozing down their sweat and blood as they are powerless to protest against corrupt contractors and an equally corrupt police force. We will see the voice of the poor being muffled even further.

Is this the future we envision for our country?

Yes, the Peaceful Assembly Bill is unconstitutional and unfair. But could the government win? To answer this question with a resounding NO, we need the rakyat to exercise their right at the ballot boxes to vote out a corrupt regime.
Charles Santiago
Member of Parliament, Klang

Terrence Netto


Catholic Bishop Dr Paul Tan Chee Ing today expressed puzzlement that Prime Minister Najib Razak could, after a trip to see the Pope Benedict in Rome earlier this week, still speak like as if “the sincerity of Malaysian Christians in their desire to dialogue with Muslims is subject to proof.”

“I don’t want to sound carping and querulous especially after the announcement of diplomatic ties between Malaysia and the Vatican but the prime minister’s latest remarks, to my mind, are nothing if not puzzling,” said the titular head of Roman Catholics in the Melaka-Johor diocese.

NONEBishop Paul, who is concurrently president of the Catholics’ Bishops Conference of Malaysia, was referring to the Najib’s remarks in Sepang yesterday that were directed at Christians.

“We wish to tell our friends, the Malaysian Christians … that if they respect us, we will also respect them,” the PM was reported by Malaysian Insider to have said.

“This is puzzling – painful even – coming from a leader who has just been to see the Pope and has announced the establishment of diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Malaysia,” said Bishop Paul Tan.

“It is as if the loyalty of Christians to the constitution of the country which states that Islam is the official region of the federation is in doubt and the sincerity of Christians in their desire to dialogue with Muslims is subject to proof,” he asserted.

“Begging the prime minister’s pardon, I feel matters are the other way round. It is his government’s fidelity to the freedom of religion guarantees in the constitution that is in doubt, not Christians’ respect for Islam,” argued Bishop Paul Tan.

“Our subscription to the constitution ipso facto is respect for Islam as the official religion of the country. The Roman Catholics Church is a founding member of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST).

“The initiative to form the council in 1984 was a reflection of the desire of Christians to dialogue with other religions,” he reminded.

Meeting with Pope a window dressing

Bishop Paul Tan said Muslims don’t want to be part of the MCCBCHST “for reasons better known to them and which I don’t want to comment.”

“Yet, after our oft-repeated loyalty to the constitution and our efforts at promoting inter-religious dialogue, it is our sincerity that is subject to proof, judging from the prime minister’s remarks,” said Bishop Paul Tan.

“I take no relish in saying this but say it I must: this invidious double standards in judgment of the sincerity of Christians has gone so long that if unchallenged it would become the conventional wisdom,” he asserted.

NONE“The prime minister’s trip to the Vatican, as I had feared, was so much window dressing – his latest remarks are the confirmation,” he said.

Bishop Paul Tan said: “At this point, superfluous as it may seem, I want to reaffirm the loyalty of Malaysian Christians, particularly of Roman Catholics, to the constitution which upholds Islam as the official religion of the federation.

“Also, I want to reiterate our unwavering desire to dialogue with Muslims whom I welcome as brothers in our common humanity. May we not be wise above measure and sobriety but we must cultivate truth in charity.”

By John R. Malott

A Malaysian recently wrote to me, “Most Americans don’t know or even care where Malaysia is.” Even among the so-called foreign policy elite, little attention is paid to Malaysia. There are few American academics who specialize in domestic Malaysian politics, and except for hosting visits by senior Malaysian leaders, think tanks and universities hold few Malaysia-themed programs. US newspaper and magazine reports are few, with most articles focusing on tourism and the delights of Malaysian cuisine. As a result, there is a tendency among Americans to hold an idealized image of Malaysia as a successful multi-racial and
multi-religious paradise, an Asian economic dynamo, and a stable and moderate Muslim democracy. As a result of this deficit of informed analysis of Malaysian politics, there has been a failure to notice the internal political changes unfolding within Malaysia over the past few years. The reality today, as one Australian expert puts it, is that the situation is the “most fluid and dangerous” in Malaysia’s history.

The Events of July 9 – A Date for the History Books

Because of this attention shortfall, the events of July 9, 2011 came as a surprise. On that day, tens of thousands of Malaysians–who have been ranked on Hofstede’s Power Distance Index as the most submissive to authority of any people in the world–chose to defy their government and join a “Walk for Democracy.” They heeded the call of Bersih 2.0, a coalition of 62 non-governmental organizations that calls for free and fair elections. In the days before the rally, the Malaysian government cracked down. It rounded up 200 leaders associated with the movement, claiming that they were “waging war against the King” and trying to overthrow the government. It declared both the Bersih coalition and the planned rally illegal, and in a truly bizarre action, it declared the color yellow–Bersih’s signature color–illegal. Malaysian citizens were arrested for possessing Bersih literature or wearing yellow T-shirts. The police established roadblocks around the city and banned 91 Bersih and opposition leaders from entering the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. By the morning of July 9, the city was in total lockdown.

Then something remarkable happened. As Ambiga Sreenevasan, the distinguished attorney who leads Bersih put it, the Malaysian people showed that they no longer would be intimidated by their government. They chose to march, knowing that they would be met by tear gas, chemical-laced water cannon, and police batons. Even after Bersih’s leadership was arrested, Malaysians of all ages, races and religions continued their “Walk for Democracy” through the streets of Kuala Lumpur. They locked arms, they sang their national anthem and “We Shall Overcome,” they blew bubbles and carried flowers. They were peaceful. The only muscle seen that day was the heavy hand of the police. Human Rights Watch later called the police force excessive, the 1,670 arrests unwarranted, and the police attacks on marchers unprovoked.

This repression by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and his government drew international condemnation, and it also put a lie to Najib’s two-year effort to portray himself as a modern, liberal-minded leader. More importantly, and of greater concern to Najib and his United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party–the main party that has ruled Malaysia continuously since independence in 1957–is that it awakened a new generation of politically active Malaysians. It is too soon to know whether the movement for electoral reform and the establishment of true democracy in Malaysia will be sustained. If it is, then July 9 will be remembered as a turning point in Malaysia’s history.

Just How Free and Democratic is Malaysia?

Why should a government be so afraid of a call for fair elections? Like his predecessors, Najib claims that demonstrations will lead to chaos, even though the right of assembly is guaranteed by the nation’s constitution and is commonplace in any true democracy. As for free and fair elections, Najib says that Malaysia already has them; if not, then opposition parties would not have achieved the gains they made in the 2008 elections, when they received 47 percent of the popular vote and took control of five states. Opposition parties counter that if elections truly were fair and free, they would form the government and not the UMNO-led coalition.

Political rhetoric aside, Malaysia’s electoral system has been analyzed by academics in Australia, Malaysia, the United States, and elsewhere. In addition, the state of Malaysia’s political freedom has been assessed by many international groups. The Economist Intelligence Unit, for example, labels Malaysia a “flawed democracy” in its Democracy Index. Freedom House says that Malaysia is only “partly free.” Reporters Without Borders places Malaysia 141st out of the 178 countries in its Press Freedom Index. On elections, the US Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices declares that Malaysian opposition parties are unable to compete on equal terms with the governing UMNO-dominated coalition because of restrictions on campaigning and freedom of assembly and association. “News of the opposition,” the report says, is “tightly restricted and reported in a biased fashion.” Academics point to the Election Commission’s gerrymandering, which creates highly imbalanced districts that favor the ruling party, where the number of voters per electoral district can range from 7,000 to over 100,000. Over the years there have been numerous credible reports of the use of phantom voters, stuffed ballot boxes, vote-buying, and abuse of government resources to attract votes. In Sarawak’s state elections this past April, Prime Minister Najib was caught on video, blatantly telling a village gathering that his government would give them US$1.5 million for a local project, but only if they elected his candidate.

What Should Be Done?

Malaysia’s government may assert otherwise, but the evidence is overwhelmingly on Bersih’s side. Malaysia is not a full democracy, and its elections are neither free nor fair. Malaysian citizens have awakened to that fact. Now the world’s democracies need to stand on the right side of Malaysia’s future. The United States has a multitude of interests in Malaysia, one of which is to help strengthen democracy and the rule of law. Human rights groups have condemned what they call the US Government’s “lukewarm” response to the events of July 9. This is a moment when the United States, which named Bersih’s leader Ambiga Sreenevasan an International Woman of Courage in 2009, can show the same courage and make a difference in the life of a nation

By Aliran, 8 July 201

A group of 365 Catholics and other Christians in Malaysia, including a string of priests and religious, have signed a joint letter to Pope Benedict XVI expressing their concern over Prime Minister Najib Razak’s official visit to the Vatican on 18 July 2011 in view of recent developments in the country.

The letter highlighted concerns about the lack of democratic rights and religious freedom in Malaysia to enable the Pope to “understand more critically and comprehensively the political and social realities” lest the pontiff is “presented with a one-sided view of developments” in the country.

The group said while it welcomed the establishment of diplomatic relations between Malaysia and the Holy See, and believes that Malaysia’s experience in inter-religious living and cooperation has lessons to offer to other multireligious multiethnic societies, they are wary about the timing of Najib’s visit to the Vatican.

They expressed concern that foreign governments and leaders who host Najib in his travels might be influenced by his pronouncements which extol the spirit of moderation, whereas in fact his government has used unnecessarily excessive force time and time again. The latest examples of this have been the undemocratic treatment of civil society groups in Bersih’s Walk for Democracy episode and the ongoing detention without trial of six political activists, including an opposition MP, under harsh security laws.

The letter also highlighted how Najib and other BN leaders, in trying to stem the popular support for Bersih’s call for clean and fair elections, have manipulated ethnoreligious sentiments irresponsibly and attempted to demonise Bersih leaders as anti-Islam.

The signatories pointed out that there had been curbs to freedom of religion despite this fundamental human right being guaranteed in the Malaysian Constitution.

The group also expressed their suspicion that there could be a hidden political agenda to win electoral support among the Christians of Sabah and Sarawak especially through this visit to the Vatican.

They ended the letter with the hope that the Holy See would consider their concerns seriously and be guided by the Holy Spirit in its dealings with the Malaysian government.

July 15, 2011
The Honorable Hillary Clinton
Secretary of State
2201 C Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20520-0001
Re: Malaysian Government’s Crackdown on Rally and Detention of Opposition Leaders

Dear Secretary Clinton:

We are writing to express our grave concerns regarding the brutal crackdown by Malaysian authorities on the “Walk for Democracy” rally organized by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih 2.0) that was held on July 9, 2011 in Kuala Lumpur.

As a country with close economic and political ties to Malaysia, the United States government cannot remain conspicuously silent in the wake of this crackdown on basic civil liberties and human rights.

We urge you to send a strong public message to the Malaysian government that this type of behavior is not consistent with democratic principles and is contrary to Malaysia’s obligations as a member of the UN Human Rights Council.

We ask that you call upon the Malaysian government to protect the rights of all Malaysian citizens to freely exercise their fundamental rights to expression, association, and assembly, and to peacefully express dissent in the future without threat of arrest or reprisal. Specifically, the U.S. government should publicly
demand that Malaysia end the campaign of harassment and prosecution against Bersih supporters and other groups that advocate peacefully, lift the ban on Bersih and other groups, and launch an independent, impartial and transparent investigation into the crackdown and hold accountable those officers who are found to have used excessive force.

In the weeks leading up to the rally, over 200 people were arbitrarily arrested, detained, charged, or summoned for questioning for simply wearing Bersih’s trademark yellow T-shirts or distributing its literature.

Among those arrested were six staff members and one volunteer of the coalition, which is chaired by one of Malaysia’s leading human rights lawyers and the former
president of the Malaysian Bar Council, Ms. Ambiga Sreenevasan, whom you honored in 2009 with an International Courage of Women Award.

On July 1, the Home Affairs Minister declared Bersih an illegal organization under the Societies Act, an action which was condemned by Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, who said “Declaring Bersih illegal based on claims that it is trying to topple the government or is a risk to national security and public order – in the absence of any credible evidence to substantiate such
claims – is also an unnecessary restriction of civil and political rights.”
Ahead of the rally, police set up roadblocks shutting off all major arteries into Kuala Lumpur. Those who managed to get into the city were attacked with tear gas, batons, and chemically-infused water cannons. Numerous protestors were injured and opposition party member Mr. Allahyarham Baharuddin Ahmad allegedly died because of suffocation induced by excessive tear gas. On the day of the rally, 1,667 people were arrested including two coalition leaders and 18 minors. Additionally, online newspaper Malaysiakini, which provided extensive coverage of events leading up to the demonstration, was subjected to a sustained distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack. Malaysia’s actions, which fundamentally violate the basic rights to free assembly and expression, are particularly reprehensible given its membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council.

In response to the Malaysian government’s intimidation ahead of the rally, on July 8, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. had communicated to Malaysia the importance of respecting human rights, including freedom of expression and assembly. During a state department press briefing she said, “We consider it incumbent on all sides to refrain from violence.”Additionally, at a press briefing held on July 13, deputy spokesperson Mark Toner said with regard to the situation in Malaysia, “Well, we do have some concerns. Obviously, we stand for – as we have elsewhere stood for and continue to stand for the right for people to freely express their democratic aspirations and express their views freely. I would stress that those must be peaceful demonstrations. So we did have some concerns; we continue to monitor the situation closely.” As the official response of the U.S. government to this crackdown, these comments are lukewarm at best and send a very weak signal regarding the United States’ commitment to human rights and democracy.
We are particularly concerned that six members of the Parti Socialist Malaysia (PSM) still remain in police custody awaiting a court hearing on July 22 for their habeas corpus application filed on July 6.These six individuals are being held under section 3(1) of the Emergency Ordinance (EO) that allows for detention without charge for 60 days and can be renewed at the discretion of the Home Ministry for a period up to 2 years. Additionally, under Section 48(1) of the Societies Act 1966 and Section 29 (1) of the Internal Security Act, twenty-four PSM activists were charged on July 4 for their involvement with Bersih activities. These activists, originally detained by authorities in late June, have since been released but now face jail terms of up to five years and/or hefty fines under these provisions.

We urge the U.S. government to:
 Press for the immediate release of the six PSM members from preventive detention under the EO and drop the charges against the twenty-four other PSM activists.
 Publicly call on the Malaysian government to immediately end all use of preventive detention to hold Bersih, PSM supporters, and other groups that advocate peacefully and stop using laws that provide for preventive detention for political reasons, including the Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) Ordinance, the Internal Security Act, the Dangerous Drugs (Special Preventive Measures) Act 1985, the Societies Act 1966, and the Restricted Residency Act 1933.
 Take into account the seriousness and timeliness of the government of Malaysia’s response to these concerns when considering a possible visit by President Obama to Malaysia during his trip to the East Asia Summit in Bali later this year.

The State Department should press the government of Malaysia to address these concerns in a serious and time-bound manner and consistently raise these matters in discussions with the Malaysian government in the coming days.

We thank you for your attention to this important matter.


T. Kumar
Director of International Advocacy
Amnesty International USA
David J. Kramer
Freedom House
Sophie Richardson
Advocacy Director, Asia Division
Human Rights Watch
Hans Hogrefe
Chief Policy Officer/Washington Director
Physicians for Human Rights
cc: Assistant Secretary Michael Posner, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, East Asian & Pacific Affairs

Published: July 14, 2011

LONDON — If the Malaysian government allowed street demonstrations of the kind seen in Kuala Lumpur last weekend, the country would face protracted instability, Prime Minister Najib Razak said Wednesday.

Mr. Najib spoke after thousands of advocates of electoral change defied a government ban and held a large street protest Saturday, during which the police fired tear gas and water cannons and arrested nearly 1,700 demonstrators.

“Public order is very important in Malaysia because if we allow for street demonstrations, there’s no end to it, there will be another group that wants to demonstrate,” Mr. Najib told a small group of international reporters Wednesday in London, where he was to meet the British prime minister and attend an investment conference.

If protests are not controlled, “you will get a situation in which more and more of these street demonstrations will take place in Malaysia,” he said.

On Thursday in Kuala Lumpur, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia announced that it planned to hold an inquiry into police conduct during the rally. The police response has been condemned by rights advocates in Malaysia and abroad, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Muhammad Sha’ani Abdullah, a member of the Malaysian commission, said Thursday that it decided to act after receiving complaints from the public, protest organizers and rights groups. “We are also acting on media reports and our own observations during the rally,” he said.

He said that details of the inquiry would be determined by Tuesday.

In London, Mr. Najib defended the police, saying they had used “minimum force, and there was no physical contact at all with the demonstrators.” The scale of the protest, he added, was exaggerated, and “a maximum of 15,000” people turned up. The police put the number at 5,000 to 6,000, while protest organizers contended it was 50,000.

The government had barred the protesters from gathering in Kuala Lumpur but said they could hold a rally outside the capital. The protest leaders insisted that it be held at Merdeka Stadium in the city, however.

“I was saddened by the fact that they didn’t accept the government’s offer,” Mr. Najib said. “They still insisted on marching through the streets, because I think they wanted to get maximum publicity and secondly challenge authority in the hope that they can make this an issue.”

The protest movement, led by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih, sees the situation differently. An amalgam of civic groups advocating changes in electoral laws, Bersih was declared illegal on July 1, after which hundreds of activists were arrested, though most have since been released. All those arrested on Saturday were released later that night.

The Malaysian Bar Council said in a report Tuesday that its monitors witnessed the police using tear gas and water cannons “arbitrarily, indiscriminately and excessively” and “beating, hitting and kicking the rally participants.” The protesters, it said, acted in “peaceful and calm manner,” except for an incident in which “one or more” people threw plastic bottles at a television reporter.

The Malaysian home minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said Monday that the police force would review recordings of the incidents and that appropriate action would be taken if the police were found to have acted improperly. He also said that action would be taken against any journalists who were found to have sensationalized their reports with inaccurate information, reported The Star, a newspaper.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said Thursday: “The Malaysian authorities’ crushing of Bersih’s march shows that when basic liberties compete with the entrenched power of the state, the government is quick to throw respect for human rights out the window.”

(In a letter to the prime minister at the start of this month, human rights groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights cited “serious concerns about the escalating harassment, intimidation, and crackdown by your government against the leaders and supporters of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections.”

The letter said a number of Bersih’s leaders and supporters had been arbitrarily detained under sedition laws in violation of their rights to freedom of association, expression, and peaceful assembly.)

The main opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, was hurt during the disturbances Saturday, as was one of his bodyguards and another opposition member of Parliament.

Mr. Anwar described the police response as “brutal” and said the police fired tear gas canisters directly at the leaders of Bersih and the opposition. Mr. Anwar’s daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar, said “many innocent people were injured,” Reuters reported, and condemned the “cruelty” of the U.M.N.O.

U.M.N.O., or the United Malays National Organization, has dominated national politics since independence from Britain in 1957. In 1969, sectarian violence exploded between ethnic Chinese and Malays, which brought a bloody crackdown, the declaration of a state of emergency and the suspension of Parliament.

Since then, the country has developed despite the fragile, underlying social balance among Malays, who are known as Bumiputra and have benefited from preferential economic treatment, ethnic Indians and Chinese. In recent years, street protests have been rare. Still, there are rising concerns both inside Malaysia and among foreign investors about the reform movement and the effect it could have on political and economic opening.

Mr. Najib warned, for example, that if U.M.N.O., which boasts more than three million members, were to respond to the protests with its own rally, chaos would ensue. “What happens if we organize a three million demonstration?” he said. “Malaysia will be plunged into a lot of uncertainty, and I don’t want that to happen.”

Mr. Najib, who came to power in 2009, is not obliged to hold an election until 2013, but there has been speculation that he may consider an earlier date to take advantage of accelerating growth.

The timing of the next election could help determine whether the protest movement fizzles out or becomes something akin to the deeper reform movement seen in the Middle East this year.

The election will occur “when the situation is right,” Mr. Najib said, refusing to be pinned down on timing.

“You’ll just have to look at the crystal ball.”

He did, however, promise to address some of the protesters’ concerns, for example to “clean up the electoral list” to avoid voting fraud by making sure there is a biometric record of all voters.

He also said that he would seek to “clarify” the system through which the armed forces and police cast ballots, another contentious issue.

He said it was “up to the Election Commission to decide” whether to establish rules on extending the period for political campaigning.

The government, he said, is committed to “clean and fair” elections.

After London, Mr. Najib plans to travel to Rome for a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI


An estimated 20,000 protesters gathered in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday to call for reforms to Malaysia’s electoral system. The surprisingly large turnout—and the government’s tough response, with water cannons and tear gas—appears to have galvanized the country’s opposition, which until recently had struggled to gain traction against a government led by Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The protesters believe Malaysia’s government must reform to reduce electoral fraud and create a level playing field for all parties, including the opposition. Government officials say rally organizers were trying to embarrass the government, garner sympathy for opposition politicians and threaten social order.

The question now is whether Malaysia’s opposition groups can capitalize on the momentum from Saturday’s rally and force further changes in one of Southeast Asia’s linchpin economies– or if voters will continue to stick with Mr. Najib and the ruling coalition that has dominated Malaysia since it gained independence from Britain several decades ago.

The Wall Street Journal’s Celine Fernandez recently spoke with Ambiga Sreenevasan, chairwoman of Bersih 2.0 (or the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections), a coalition of activists that organized Saturday’s rally. A former president of the Malaysian Bar Council, she was the first Malaysian to receive the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award for championing human rights, the status of women and religious tolerance in Malaysia.

Here are some edited excerpts from the interview:

Q: Your organization has built up some momentum with Saturday’s rally. What is the next move for Bersih?

A: Our agenda for electoral reform still stands firm, but we have two priority items which we think should be resolved. The first, of course, is that we express terrible regret at the death of Baharuddin Ahmad (a man who died of a heart attack during the rally), and we are very concerned at the manner in which it occurred. One of our top priority items is to refer the issue of the excessive use of the police force upon the rally to Suhakam (the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia). And we are asking them for a full investigation.

(Editor’s note: Malaysian authorities have said they believe the man’s death was from natural causes and not related to the rally. They have also defended the police’s use of tear gas and water cannons, saying they were provoked into action and had to act to protect public order, and relied on minimal force to disperse crowds).

The second priority item for us is the release of those held under the Emergency Ordinance (including a number of activists arrested in connection with the rally). We are very, very, very concerned about the reports we are getting, about the manner in which they have been treated. We call for their unconditional release.

We are pushing for the setting up of a Royal Commission of Inquiry consisting of experts acceptable to the people to look into comprehensive electoral reform before the 13th General Elections (Malaysia’s next elections, which must be called by spring 2013), and we reiterate our call for this to the government.

Q: Will you hold more rallies?

A: I do not see it happening in the near future.

Q: What are the most important reforms needed in Malaysia, and why? Is it just about electoral reforms, or are other changes needed?

A: Immediately, we want a more level playing field for the 13th General Elections. But apart from that, in the last six weeks, I think Bersih has become more than just a movement for electoral reform. I think that there is a real yearning for a higher standard of democratic values. People are utterly, utterly shocked by the abuse of power displayed by the government. So it has also become about the integrity of our institutions and the manner of governance and the abuse of power. I think people were very moved by that, and that is why we got the numbers that we did.

Q: What benefits would come from those reforms, and why are they needed in Malaysia?

A: The benefits would be providing a more level playing field and we think it brings legitimacy to the government who wins. If you come in because of free and fair elections, it would be something that would be more acceptable to the people.

Q: If Malaysia had truly free and fair elections, what do you think would happen?

A: I really can’t predict. I wouldn’t want to even begin to predict, actually. All I can tell you is that we will get a government who truly reflects the will of the people. And that’s all we want.

Q: Why do you think the government cracked down so hard on Saturday?

A:  Really, I fail to completely understand that. But I think they acted because they have taken a position and they were not prepared to move from that position. And they wanted to teach us a lesson, not by reason, but by force. I had made this statement earlier: They thought might could win over right, but I am afraid might can never win over right. Right always ultimately wins.

Q: The government says Bersih is really just a front for opposition parties and is trying to promote their interests ahead of any national election. They note that Anwar Ibrahim (Malaysia’s most prominent opposition leader) played a conspicuous role at Saturday’s rally. Is the government’s criticism fair?

A: Not at all fair, because we invited all political parties including Barisan Nasional (Malaysia’s ruling coalition) to support us. How can you say the cause for free and fair elections is only for the opposition? It is for everybody. Pakatan Rakyat (Malaysia’s main coalition of opposition parties) did support Bersih. What’s wrong with that? Pakatan Rakyat members are also citizens of this country. Are they not entitled to support a movement for free and fair elections?

Q: The government also says you’re also trying to destabilize the country and undermine public order. Is that fair?

A: Totally unfair. So far, I have refused to respond to personal allegations. My issue is please judge me by my conduct and the government by their conduct. And let the public draw their own conclusions.

Q: Many people have said it took a lot of courage to organize Saturday’s rally. Why are you doing this? What drove you to get involved and take such a leadership role in Bersih? Do you feel like you are putting yourself at any risk?

A: A few NGOs approached me and asked me to lead a civil society movement for free and fair elections, which I was very willing to do because it was for a good cause. And I did not for one minute think there was anything controversial about this topic. We thought we won’t even get the numbers – we were worried about how to publicize the event. We never expected the government to react the way it did. I certainly did not want any of this attention that I am getting. I don’t know why the focus was on me. We have 14 steering committee members. I was not making decisions on my own. We had nongovernmental organization members who had their views as well.

A government that comes across as such a great bully repulsed a lot of people. And I think that is why we had the numbers and the momentum that we did. Honestly, if they had allowed us to proceed and played it down, we would not have gotten those numbers. That’s why you saw on that day, ordinary citizens, and these are not even members of political parties, from all walks of life, old, young, all races, all religions. Where have you ever seen that?  And how does the government read it? They come back on Monday and attack Bersih again. Those are the people you are attacking. Those are the voters you are attacking. They are not reading the situation properly at all. But I still say there is time to salvage, to reconcile, and I hope the government will seek to do that.

Q: Although there are obviously major differences between Malaysia and countries such as Egypt, Tunisia or Syria, any demonstration these days inevitably invite comparisons to the Arab Spring protests. Are there are any similarities here?

A: No similarities, in my view. They were in a completely different situation. Here, all we are doing is asking for a free and fair election. It is the government’s disproportionate response that created a momentum. But we are still a peace-loving nation. We still want the government to be fair. To me it was never our intention and it is still not our intention to bring down this government. We want to work with this government, to improve our electoral system.

Q: How deep is the support for Bersih?

A: When you look online, you will find it growing exponentially. I am amazed at how it has taken off. Bersih is not a word any more. It is an idea. It is a feeling. It is a passion, which is why you can never kill it.

Q: There is a Facebook page with 100,000 people requesting Najib Razak’s resignation. What do you think about that?

A: We have nothing to do with that. It is never and has never been Bersih’s intention for the prime minister to step down.  As I said, we want to work with the prime minister and his government to have a better electoral system

William Pesek

That thought is surely on Prime Minister Najib Razak’s mind as the dust settles from Saturday’s botched demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur. By “botched” I mean the way Najib mishandled what should have been a ho-hum political-reform rally of little note by the international news media.

Public-relations experts would have told Najib to let the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections have their day in the capital. Let them wave signs and wear their yellow shirts. Instead, he tried to stop the rally, increasing its size. Then, he cracked down. Police fired tear gas and detained 1,697 people, turning the event into a top cable TV news story.

The over-the-top response did something worse: It enraged Malaysians who weren’t all that interested in rallying before Saturday. It also underlined the rise in political risk sweeping Asia, something that investors would be wise to track.

No serious observer expects an exact Asian rerun of the Arab Spring movement that saw uprisings topple leaders in Egypt and Tunisia and threaten regimes in Syria, Libya and Yemen. But then neither do serious people argue that Asia has done enough to enhance its democratic credentials during the past 10 years.

Political Change

Malaysia’s protest was the biggest since 2007 — roughly 20,000 people. It came amid rising calls for political change from Thailand to China. What these nations have in common is that the overhaul in domestic political systems lags behind economic and financial reforms.

Take Thailand, where voters this month ejected the incumbent Democratic Party, which had used soldiers to disperse opposition protests in 2010, leading to more than 90 deaths. The party had promised to attack the corruption and undemocratic ways of the government run by Thaksin Shinawatra that soldiers ousted in 2006. Last week, fed up voters went full circle, making Thaksin’s sister premier.

Officials in China are pulling out all the stops to clamp down on political activists amid the so-called Jasmine Revolution. Nothing unnerves the Communist Party in Beijing more than the specter of social discontent. The winds of change are even sweeping Singapore; its ruling party in May won its narrowest election victory since independence in 1963.

Common Threads

Although the causes of such tension differ from country to country, there are a few common threads. One is the frustration of the have-nots as they watch the haves get richer. Another is rising global commodity prices, which make it harder for many to make ends meet. Finally, political modernization has been slower than critics hoped.

Malaysia’s case is especially complicated thanks to the inescapable issue of race. The conventional wisdom is that Saturday’s protests will delay Najib’s pledge to dismantle a 40- year preferential program that favors the Malay majority. The policy makes it harder for Chinese and Indian Malaysians to find good jobs, and its quotas scare away foreign investors. It holds Malaysia back in an increasingly competitive world.

To me, Najib wasn’t moving fast enough before Saturday. Foreign executives considering whether to build a factory in Malaysia want a clear schedule: By Jan. 1, 2012, we will do this, and by Jan. 1, 2013, we will do that. Instead, Najib offered vague intentions without meaningful or specific goals.

Misplaced Priorities

It’s no mystery why. All that matters to the United Malays National Political Organisation is clinging to its five-decade hold on power. Such misplaced priorities explain why Malaysia has been slow to streamline the economy and encourage the kind of entrepreneurialism that creates well-paid jobs. It’s also why leaders are timid about scrapping productivity-killing policies that only benefit portions of the population.

The question now is which way Najib turns. At this point, he may avoid calling an early election this year — there’s just too much risk for him. Which direction he takes in changing policy is an even bigger unknown. On July 10, the Guardian newspaper carried comments by Najib in which he cautioned protesters not to test his party’s will. “We can conquer Kuala Lumpur,” he said.

What can we make of a leader who promised reform and moderation and now sounds like a Roman emperor? Can a nation that arrests almost 1,700 people, some just for wearing yellow shirts, still be called a democracy? Najib’s response even had Malaysians feeling sorry for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was injured by flying tear gas canisters.

Events in Kuala Lumpur remind us that geopolitical risks are on the rise in Asia. Yes, growth rates are healthy even as the U.S., Japan and Europe limp along. The establishment of democratic institutions has been far less robust, though, and entrenched leaders may pay a considerable price. Maybe not in the Hosni Mubarak-sense, but the potential for upheaval shouldn’t be underestimated. There really is a bull market in the desire for political change.

Investors looking for places to put their money tend to lock themselves in offices combing through statistics, bond spreads, stock valuations and central-bank policies. In Asia’s case, more success might be had by looking out the window at the street demonstrations below.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

GENEVA – UN human rights experts* on Monday expressed their dismay at the use of tear gas and water cannons by security authorities against peaceful protestors in Malaysia on Saturday, reportedly leading to injuries and one death, and the arrest of more than 1,600 people at the Bersih 2.0 rally.

“The right to freedom of opinion and expression, including in the form of peaceful protests, is essential for democracy. By declaring the demonstration illegal, sealing off parts of the capital in advance and responding in such a heavy-handed manner against peaceful demonstrators, the Government of Malaysia risks undermining democratic progress in the country,” said Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

Tens of thousands of people gathered near the Medeka Stadium on Saturday despite the announcement made by the police that no gathering would be permitted that day on the basis of the Malaysia Police Act, which requires organizers of public gatherings of three or more persons to seek permits beforehand.  The protests were called by Bersih, a coalition of more than 60 non-governmental organizations seeking to promote free and fair elections in Malaysia.

“Actions taken by the authorities prior to and during the rally unduly restricted the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association,” said La Rue. “Declaring Bersih illegal based on claims that it is trying to topple the Government or is a risk to national security and public order – in the absence of any credible evidence to substantiate such claims – is also an unnecessary restriction of civil and political rights.”

According to Malaysian police, all of those arrested on Saturday have been released. But the UN experts noted that six leaders from the Socialist Party of Malaysia reportedly remain in detention. These individuals include Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj, Sukumaran Munisamy, Letchumanan Aseer Patham, Choo Chon Kai, Sarasvathy Muthu, and Satat Babu Raman.

“We remain deeply concerned about the detention of six individuals since 25 June under the Emergency Ordinance, which allows for detention without trial for up to 60 days,” said El Hadji Malick Sow, Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention also reiterated its recommendation, made to the Government of Malaysia following a visit to the country in June 2010, to repeal the Emergency Ordinance and other preventive laws, on the grounds that they significantly hinder fundamental human rights, such as the right to fair trial.**

The independent experts reminded the Government of Malaysia of its obligation to fully respect the rights to peaceful assembly, association, and expression, as guaranteed under the Federal Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They also recalled that as a member of the Human Rights Council, Malaysia has pledged to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.

“Malaysia, as a dynamic, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and pluralistic nation, should remain open to legitimate political discourse on democracy, including the expression of dissent,” the experts said. “We urge the Government to allow all individuals to enjoy their human rights, and to address the problem of preventive detention. Likewise, we call upon the Government to ensure that there will not be any punitive measures taken against peaceful demonstrators.”


* Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Mr. Frank La Rue; and Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Mr. El Hadji Malick Sow.

Agence France-Presse, Updated: 7/10/2011

Malaysian police may have crushed a weekend protest, but analysts say the crackdown has tainted the country’s democratic credentials and could embolden the opposition ahead of elections.

A massive security lockdown on Saturday in the capital Kuala Lumpur crippled a plan by Bersih, a broad coalition of opposition parties and civil society groups, to muster 100,000 people for a rally demanding electoral reforms.

Police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse crowds in the biggest anti-government protests to hit the nation since 2007, when similar demands for reform also ended in chaos on the streets.

More than 1,600 people were arrested, including 16 children as well as prominent lawmakers, and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was hospitalised after being knocked down in the pandemonium.

Analysts and campaigners said the stern police action was likely to backfire on the country’s image as one of Southeast Asia’s more democratic countries.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has been cultivating an image of an emerging nation with a strong economy and an open political environment.

“I think it has tarnished Malaysia’s image and its membership in the UN Human Rights Council,” said political analyst Khoo Kay Peng.

Describing the police action as “completely overdone,” Khoo said, “It is a killer to our image as a progressive democratic country.”

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International condemned the crackdown and the arrests and chided Malaysia for flouting international standards.

“As a current member of the UN Human Rights Council, the Malaysian government should be setting an example to other nations and promoting human rights,” said Amnesty International’s Donna Guest.

“Instead they appear to be suppressing them in the worst campaign of repression we’ve seen in the country for years.”

Yeah Kim Leng, chief economist with independent consultancy RAM Holdings, said the protest cast a negative light on Malaysia, whose economy grew 7.2 percent last year — one of the strongest in Southeast Asia.

“The greater concern is the tangible costs of increased political risk premium and heightened wariness among investors,” said Yeah.

The political opposition led by Anwar scored major gains in general elections in 2008, denying the ruling Barisan Nasional an outright two-thirds majority for the first time since 1969.

Last April, the opposition followed through with upset victories in state polls in Sarawak on Borneo island, a traditional Barisan power bastion.

The opposition, which believes it would have done even better in 2008 — potentially threatening the Barisan Nasional’s half-century rule — if voting had been more fair.

The protesters said they want to see election reforms to prevent fraud, including the use of indelible ink to prevent multiple voting, equal access to the media for all parties and the cleaning-up of electoral rolls.

“It is clear the government is intimidated by the gathering. They did not want the opposition to gain momentum from this protest,” added Khoo.

James Chin, a professor of political science at Monash University’s campus in Kuala Lumpur, said the government had overreacted and warned that “this will lead to blow-back to Najib”.

“The consequences will be felt by Najib in the coming general election. People will vote against the ruling government,” he said.

Political observers noted that the protesters were disciplined on Saturday — refraining from pelting police with rocks, looting stores or smashing windows.

Many were young adults and professionals, who are adamant about their demands for electoral reforms.

“It is clear the government is running scared. People are not afraid of being arrested,” Anwar said.

Khoo said Najib lacked political savvy in allowing police to lock down the capital and launch door-to-door searches in hotels to detain protest leaders in the lead-up to the rally on Friday night.

“There is a clamour for better governance and greater democratic principles, but sadly the government did not get the signals,” he said.