At long last, the world is slowly awakening to the deteriorating human rights situation in Malaysia. President Obama, who pointedly choose to ignore Malaysia’s distressing human rights record during his visit last year, and who once called Najib “a reformer,” is now seeing the Najib Administration’s true colours.
Earlier this week, the US Administration, in the person of Vice-President Joe Biden, publically criticized Malaysia’s much despised Sedition Act, saying the government’s use of the legal system and the Sedition Act to stifle the opposition raises rule of law concerns. He also criticized the government’s prosecution of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy and suggested the government take steps to restore confidence in the judiciary. While mild by normal standards, there is little doubt that Biden’s comments have stung a prime minister used to nothing but fawning comments from ill-informed or cynical leaders.
To make matters worse, the Sedition Act was also criticised in the British Parliament the same week. Prime Minister Cameron’s Conservative Government, like the Obama Administration, has been silent for far too long regarding Malaysia’s human rights situation, giving Najib a free pass in order not to jeopardize important business interests.
Unsurprisingly, Najib himself did not respond directly, leaving it instead to others to defend his government. Khairy Jamaluddin, the UMNO Youth chief, hit back by asking the US “to look in the mirror” while an MCA leader suggested that the US should be more concerned about how the police treat African-American in the US. Former Prime Minister Mahathir chipped to say that the US doesn’t want to see Anwar convicted because they wanted a man whom Malaysians had rejected to lead the country.
This is standard procedure for governments under pressure – obfuscate the issue by pointing to the failings of others and insinuating ulterior motives.
Undoubtedly, the US has a shameful record on human rights both at home and abroad but that does not make our sedition laws any less odious. US failure to uphold human rights the way it should cannot be justification for Malaysia to do likewise. Clearly, both the Najib Administration and the Obama Administration need to look into mirror.
As for Anwar, Mahathir should remember that the coalition that Anwar leads obtained more votes in the last general election than the ruling coalition who only managed to hang on to power through a flawed and heavily gerrymandered electoral system.
In any case, Khairy and his colleagues cannot have it both ways. We all remember how Najib revelled in the afterglow of Obama’s praises both during his visit to Malaysia and at the last UN General Assembly; it was as if God Himself had bestowed his seal of affection and approval on Najib. Well, now that the other foot has come down, it is incumbent on them to take the good with the bad.
And this brings me to Minister Paul Low, who among other thing is in charge of integrity. In response to Biden’s comments, Low was reported to have said, with a straight face I imagine, that the sedition act was retained to preserve harmony, not to stifle the opposition. I’m sure that many Malaysians, and the 14 or so members of the opposition and civil society groups who have been charged or are being investigated for sedition, will find this risible.
Low also went on to reiterate the by now discredited argument that “The act is to be used for people who incite hatred, violence and disharmony, even on religious issues.” Any observer of Malaysian politics would have no trouble pinpointing where much of the incitement is actually coming from but, of course, that is an inconvenient fact for Low.
To burnish his faltering credibility he was also quick to complain that the Sedition Act is “too wide” and needed to be “redefined” but what does that mean and what has he done about it? Has he ever spoken out against the growing number of people who have fallen victim to the Sedition Act? Has he ever spoken out forcefully against the downright racist and extremist comments coming from within UMNO and UMNO-aligned NGOs?
Given his performance thus far, it is no surprise that many Malaysians wonder about both his credibility and his integrity. He has been quick to defend the morally indefensible while remaining silent in the face of the most egregious assaults on human rights and racial and religious harmony.
As a former ambassador of Malaysia, it, of course, gives me no pleasure to see our country being criticised this way but given the declining human rights situation in Malaysia, I have to welcome it in the hope that international criticism might cause the government to reflect upon the course it has chosen to take. In any case, no country should be given a free pass for whatever reason when it comes to the inalienable rights of its citizen. All the more so when it concerns a country like Malaysia that not only sits on the UN Human Rights Council but which has just been elected a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and which has long been held up as model third world democracy.