Beacon of freedom in Southeast Asia
“HOW DID you do it in the Philippines?” a Malaysian taxi driver asked me, referring to how we Filipinos managed to bring down two of our presidents.
I was in Kuala Lumpur two weeks ago as my next stop in a regional effort to strengthen the network of human rights organizations in Southeast Asia. I previously wrote in this space about my trips to Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) for the same mission.
When even taxi drivers openly talk about ousting their prime minister—which amounts to a crime of sedition in Malaysia—the country is just waiting for a tipping point that would lead to the removal of a widely unpopular leader.
Malaysia is composed of 13 states enjoying autonomy under a federal form of government. In fact, the two states of Sarawak and Sabah (the latter is claimed by the Philippines) have wider autonomy because even Malaysians residing in other states have to present their passports to immigration officers before they are allowed entrance, just like foreign visitors do. Both states joined the Malaysian federation after they were guaranteed that they will retain control of immigration within their borders even with respect to Malaysian citizens from other states.
The Malaysian government is a constitutional monarchy, with a king serving both as head of state with largely symbolic political functions and as head of the Islamic faith in the country. A prime minister acts as head of government and wields the real political power.
The sultans and rajas of the nine Malaysian states which still have monarchs elect among themselves the king, who serves a five-year term. Sabah is one of four states with no monarchs. The prime minister is selected by the parliament from among its members, and ceremonially appointed by the king.
Under its own provisions, the Malaysian constitution can be amended by a two-thirds vote of the parliament; there is no need of ratification by the people, unlike in the Philippines.
Since it gained independence from Britain in 1957, Malaysia has been ruled by the United Malays National Organization (Umno), which has elected all prime ministers including the incumbent, Najib Razak. The Umno is accused of holding on to power by suppressing freedom of expression and severely restricting public protests.
During the last parliamentary elections held in 2013, the Umno coalition won the majority of the seats even though it obtained lesser votes nationwide. It did so through gerrymandering, where more seats were allotted to the rural districts which are Umno strongholds while a lesser number was assigned to the more populated urban districts which are opposition strongholds.
Malaysia is currently rocked by a huge scandal involving state investment company 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), whose billions of dollars in funds disappeared due to unexplained withdrawals. Simultaneous with 1MDB’s unexplained fund disappearance, more than $1 billion was deposited in the personal bank account of the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister’s explanation that the huge deposit in his bank account was a donation from the Saudi Arabia royal family only fueled calls for his resignation. Malaysia is also riveted with news of the extravagant lifestyle and excessive shopping sprees of the Prime Minister’s wife, drawing comparisons with the Philippines’ Imelda Marcos.
Authorities in Switzerland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Luxembourg and the United States have frozen bank accounts and are conducting investigations on fraud and money laundering in connection with the 1MDB scandal.
Because it fears losing power as demonstrated by its loss of the popular vote during the last elections, and to suppress protests resulting from the current scandal, the Malaysian government has heightened restrictions on the press, and intensified the persecution of dissenters.
There has been a sharp increase in the number of people criminally charged or harassed with police investigation for violation of a sedition law that punishes acts of “causing disaffection” against the government. A Malaysian court has even ruled that wearing a yellow T-shirt bearing the word “Bersih” (“clean” in Malay)—the coalition name of civil society organizations campaigning for free and fair elections—is a crime.
A poster artist who depicted the Prime Minister as a clown was warned by police that he was under surveillance. Lawyers from the Malaysian Bar Council were threatened with sedition charges for merely calling on the Attorney General to resign after he cleared the Prime Minister of wrongdoing in the 1MDB scandal. A law professor who only called for transparency in state affairs was also criminally charged with sedition.
Malaysian authorities censor the print media through a licensing requirement, resort to blocking of Internet sites that contain “offensive materials,” and order bloggers to remove posts containing “false” information. Facebook users who “share” or “like” posts considered seditious or libelous by the government are warned of criminal prosecution.
Malaysian freedom advocates dream of the same kind of free expression, free press, and freedom to protest enjoyed and taken for granted by Filipinos. The same aspiration is true in Thailand, Burma, Vietnam and Singapore. The Philippines is a beacon of political freedom in Southeast Asia.
In the May 9 elections, Filipinos should vote for candidates who uphold these freedoms that our neighbors can only dream of, and not for candidates who represent the period in our history when these cherished freedoms were brutally repressed by the Marcos regime.
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