Malaysia’s Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has said that he might retire earlier than the previously announced deadline of 2010. His remarks come as a small party from Sabah province announced it was quitting the ruling coalition, and amid constant claims by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim that he has sufficient support to bring down the government. The opposition also accuses Abdullah’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party of discriminating against non-Malays including ethnic Chinese and Indians.
Celebrating Chinese New Year: a fourth of Malaysia's population are ethnic Chinese
Tan Hoon Cheng, a young reporter with Malaysia’s Chinese language newspaper "Sin Chew Daily", was released last Saturday after 18 hours in custody. She had been arrested on the basis of the country’s controversial "Internal Security Act" after covering racist remarks by a leading politician of the ruling United Malays National Organisation. In a speech, Ahmad Ismail had branded Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities as "immigrants" and "squatters", and subsequently refused to apologize for his words.
Human rights organisations condemned Tan Hoon Cheng’s arrest. "One of the things that the Malaysian government has done consistently is to bring up the ethnic issue in terms of the possibility of it creating unrest", Mickey Spiegel from the Asia department of Human Rights Watch explained. "And therefore people who bring up those issues would need to be detained. One of the members of the ruling coalition, of course, had made some pretty incendiary remarks about Chinese people. And Tan Hoon Cheng simply reported what had been said. This amounts to blaming the messenger, and not the person who made the incendiary remarks!"
The status of Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese has been controversial since independence. They constitute about a fourth of the population, but their economic power is disproportionately higher. The ruling coalition has a tradition of promoting a decade-old policy of positive discrimination that favours the Muslim Malay majority at the expense of Chinese and Indians.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has now promised to do away with this policy. But he is a Muslim Malay himself, and in a recent by-election won about two thirds of the votes in his constituency, proving that he has a lot of support among the majority community as well.
Mickey Spiegel of Human Rights Watch believes that the embattled Malaysian government is now trying to play the ethnic card to suppress the opposition: "Much of what has been happening has to do with party politics in Malaysia", she said. "I think ethnic issues will continue to be used politically in Malaysia as a reason to impinge on the freedom of expression and the freedom of speech. I think that’s part of what’s going on now, and it is more political than anti-Chinese!"
Crackdown on dissenters
Last Friday, Malaysian police also arrested opposition lawmaker Teresa Kok and the well-known blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin, who runs the Malaysia Today website. Both have not been released so far. The crackdown prompted the reform-minded cabinet minister Zaid Ibrahim, in charge of legal affairs, to resign on Monday.
The "Internal Security Act" (ISA) allows for indefinite detention without trial. Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi on Wednesday called opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim "a threat to the economy and probably security" of Malaysia, which has led to speculation that the government might even plan to arrest Anwar under the ISA.