I haven’t blogged much the past couple of months. It’s partly because of a busy schedule and partly because of a severe case of writer’s block. A holiday to my old stomping grounds in Malaysia and Pulau Langkawi where I once attended sekolah menengah (Malaysian high school) has inspired new interest in writing about the country.
Malaysia has a parliament and elections, but it is nowehere near being a working democracy. This week they have once again proven this with the censorship of MP and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar now faces possible suspension from parliament over a comment made during one of its sessions. He claimed that the nationalist campaign 1Malaysia, intended to boost national unity, is somehow related to Ehud Barak’s 1999 political campaign One Israel. The relation is the PR firm APCO that allegedly has been working for the government coalition Barisan Nasional.
Making connections to Israel is not trivial in Malaysia, a country with a Muslim majority and where religion is frequently politicized. Using a European analogy, this claim is roughly as controversial in Malaysia as if a British MP had claimed that Gordon Brown’s policies reeked of nazist ideology. It is probably a breach of parliamentary decorum worthy of a reprimand from the Speaker, but definitely not grounds for exclusion from parliament. In a democracy, we have to accept even remarks that we disapprove of. The threat of such extreme sanctions for minor infractions does not make for a climate of open and free discussion necessary for true democracy.
The government coalition has worked hard and played dirty to keep Anwar Ibrahim down. The censure against Anwar fits the trend nicely. As preposterous as the censure is, the remarks themselves clearly show that both sides know how to play that game. I don’t believe for a second that Anwar actually believes that the 1Malaysia policy is the result of conspiring with Israel. But the mere suggestion is enough to sow doubts in the religious, less educated rural Malaysia. He scores a double point when the government responds with trampling on free speech, aggravating the more secular urban citizens hoping for a more democratic Malaysia.
That both sides play dirty should surprise very few. It is also understandable that the opposition is willing to stoop to that level given that their opponents have the draconian arsenal of the government at their disposal. Perhaps they even have to in order to survive. But is this a good starting point for building a more vital Malaysian democracy? We can only hope that the level of debate will rise if the level of democracy increases.