Malaysia: The People Are Fed Up

Farish A. Noor

Posted Oct 30, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Malaysia: The People Are Fed Up

By Farish A. Noor

At a recent Law Conference held in Kuala Lumpur, the Prime Minister of
Malaysia, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, bluntly told the country’s lawyers that
demonstrations and protests about the apparent mismanagement of the country
will do little to change things but will only give the ‘wrong impression’
that ‘something is wrong in the country’, and that this will scare aware
foreign investors. The Malaysian leader was alluding to a recent protest
march organised by the country’s lawyers which saw more than two thousand
lawyers march up to the Prime Minister’s office in the capital of Putrajaya
demanding reform of the judicial process and serious enquiries into the
conduct and election of judges in Malaysia. Perhaps the Prime Minister was
also alluding to the planned march on 10th November organised by NGOs like
BERSIH which have called for free and fair elections in the country,
supported by opposition parties like the Peoples Justice Party (PKR), the
Malaysian Islamic party (PAS) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) of
Malaysia as well.

What began as a relatively small event has now grown into what may become a
landmark moment in Malaysian history: The march’s organisers aim to gather
100,000 citizens at the Merdeka (Independence) Square of the city and then
march on to the national palace to present their petition to the King
(Agong) himself, calling for the Monarch to intervene and look into their
complaints about the poor governance of the country on issues ranging from
corruption to abuse of power by the leaders of the ruling UMNO party and the
government. As Latheefa Koya of the People’s Justice Party notes: “BERSIH’s
march marks a crucial point in Malaysian history where people from all walks
of life, and not just political parties, demand free and fair elections in
Malaysia. By doing so they are in fact calling for greater participation in
the democratic process”. The King has already signalled that he is prepared
to receive the petition, while other rulers such as Sultan Azlan Shah of the
state of Perak have publicly bemoaned the state of the judiciary in

While it is true that Malaysia is not Burma, it is striking to note how
intolerant the state is when it comes to popular expressions of the people’s
will in the country. Predictably the Malaysian government has reacted to the
proposed march on 10th November with the usual round of threats: Those who
attend the demonstration will be regarded as trouble makers and due action
will be taken, the government-controlled news agencies have already warned.

In response the President of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) has
called on all members of the party to attend the rally and to swell the
numbers of participants instead. According to Hatta Ramli, one of the senior
leaders of PAS: “This is to show that the members of the Islamic party are
supportive of this move by the Malaysian NGOs to call for free and fair
elections. It is going to be a peaceful demonstration, so why the need for
such warnings? The Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) has stated
that the Constitution allows for free peaceful assembly, so we are merely
exercising our right to demonstrate our concern about the conduct of
elections in Malaysia. This is the expression of popular democracy, of the
people’s will and our intention to see that we have clean elections in

Nor are the march’s organisers fazed by the threats of reprisals. According
to Raja Petra Kamaruddin, who runs the country’s most widely-read online
news site, “they (the government) have been issuing such
threats for more than a decade now, so why should we worry? They insist that
we apply for a police permit but we know that such a permit will be refused
anyway. In some cases in the past permits were given but then withdrawn at
the last minute, so this time we merely informed the police that we will be
having the march and we will go ahead.”

The Malaysian government is worried that such a public display of dismay
over the government’s record will focus attention on Malaysia in a negative
way. Instead it has tried its best to spin the story of Malaysia’s successes
one by one, the latest being the achievements of the country’s first
astronaut who was sent to space on board a Russian rocket to dock with the
International Space Station in orbit. But special effects and cosmic stunts
have not altered the realities on the ground where Malaysian politics
remains dominated by news of scandals involving corrupt policemen,
politicians being accused of manipulating the judiciary and alleged links
between the government, police and underworld mafia triads and gang bosses.
One of the latest revelations involved the corruption behind the Port Kelang
Free Trade Zone project, where running costs and overheads have caused the
project’s costs to skyrocket from 1.8 to 4.2 Billion Ringgit (RM), leaving
ordinary Malaysians shocked and stumped on how such projects can lead to
such large kickbacks for so many well-connected individuals. What is more,
all of this is happening under the eyes of the Badawi government, which came
to power four years ago on the promise of ridding the country of corruption
once and for all.

As the crucial date of 10th November gets closer, the machinery of the state
along with its security apparatus will undoubtedly be cracked up to demonise
the protestors and to prevent the march from happening. Malaysia’s Prime
Minister Abdullah Badawi may lament the occasion as it sends out the clear
message that the people are fed up with his lacklustre performance thus far,
but it will hardly be the reason why foreign investors are leaving Malaysia:
Indeed, if anything is to restore the faith of others in the country it
would be the freedom to demonstrate openly and peacefully without threat of
violence from the state.

No, if foreign investors are giving up on Malaysia is has more to do with
the plethora of corruption cases involving members of the police, the
routine abuse of power by the elite and the deplorable reputation of the
Malaysian judiciary and civil service at present. And the responsibility for
these failures lie not in the hands of the Malaysian people, but in the
Malaysian government itself- headed by none other than Badawi himself.


Dr. Farish A Noor is a political scientist and historian at the Zentrum
Moderner Orient and guest Professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University,
Jogjakarta. He is also one of the founders of the research site