It is not in the same league as Arab spring uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere, but Malaysia’s fancifully named “hibiscus revolution” has the potential, at least, to inflict a winter of discontent on the government of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. That’s something British Prime Minister David Cameron hopefully considered when Najib came touting for business yesterday. Bilateral trade and investment is important. Respect for basic human rights more so.
Najib reacted with characteristic heavy-handedness when tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur at the weekend demanding reformasi — democratic reform — and an end to a defective electoral system which guarantees that Najib’s party, UMNO, representing the Malay majority, stays in power indefinitely.
About 1,700 people were arrested and many injured as police used baton charges, water cannon and teargas to break up peaceful protests. One protester, identified as Baharuddin Ahmad, 59, collapsed and later died near the Petronas Towers in central Kuala Lumpur while fleeing teargas.
Amnesty International said police had beaten many demonstrators and demanded an investigation into claims they had failed to provide prompt assistance to Baharuddin.
“Prime minister Najib’s government rode roughshod over thousands of Malaysians exercising their right to peaceful protest,” Amnesty said. “This violent repression ... flies in the face of international human rights standards and cannot be allowed to continue. David Cameron should tell prime minister Najib that these human rights violations are unacceptable.”
The protests are the product of rising tensions linked to mooted early elections, spending cuts, political upheavals in neighboring Thailand and Singapore, establishment cronyism, curbs on public assembly and debate, and state-imposed censorship considered draconian even by regional standards.
Marimuthu Manogaran of the Democratic Action party, representing the ethnic Chinese minority, said many of the protesters were first timers. “Young people [are] coming out there to demand their rights ... and I think that is a good sign for Malaysia,” he told Luke Hunt of the Diplomat magazine.
Another report, denied by police, said a hospital where protesters had taken refuge was attacked by security forces. Bersih 2.0, the opposition “coalition for clean and fair elections,” called for a royal commission of inquiry and vowed to continue its reformasi campaign, come what may.
Far from admitting fault, Najib has threatened more strong-arm tactics.
“Don’t doubt our strength. If we want to create chaos, we can. UMNO has three million members. If we gather one million members, it is more than enough. We can conquer Kuala Lumpur,” he said.
Such threats seem ill-advised. When elected in 2009, Najib promised to bridge political, ethnic and religious divisions. Now he is in danger of exacerbating them, as his old boss, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammed, suggested in a recent interview.
Malaysia is not immune to the international zeitgeist, any more than its economy is immune to global trends. This latter consideration explains why Najib is in London and it gives Cameron and other European leaders leverage should they choose to use it.
Malaysians need only look north to see how Thai voters defied the political-military establishment and voted in a leader of their choice. If Malaysians look south to Singapore or east to Hong Kong, they see entrenched ruling elites under determined challenge by activists emboldened by the spirit of change.
Led intelligently and openly, Malaysia could be a paradigm for south-east Asia. Led repressively, it could fall apart. Najib must get on the right side of history. The Mubarak model doesn’t work.
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