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Najib Goes Back to the Internal Security Act (ISA)

by Joshua Kurlantzick
October 8, 2013

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak celebrates with his other party leaders after winning the elections at his party headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on May 6, 2013. (Bazuki Muhammad/Courtesy Reuters) Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak celebrates with his other party leaders after winning the elections at his party headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on May 6, 2013. (Bazuki Muhammad/Courtesy Reuters)

In the four months that have elapsed since Malaysia’s national elections in May, Prime Minister Najib tun Razak frequently has offered two conflicting public messages. To the party faithful in United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which now utterly dominates the ruling coalition, Najib—a relative moderate by temperament—has offered hunks of red meat, proposing new legislation that would further entrench economic and political preferences for ethnic Malays. Some allies of the government now have proposed classifying all Muslim indigenous people in the country as ethnic Malays, according to a report in Asia Sentinel; doing so would make even more people in Malaysia eligible for Malays’ economic preferences, though it likely would also further undermine economic growth and drive Chinese and Indian businesspeople out of the country. In the short term, the red meat approach has been relatively successful for Najib, whose coalition won more parliamentary seats in the May elections than the opposition but actually lost the popular vote, and without gerrymandering and alleged fraud likely would have won less seats than the opposition too; the increasingly pro-Malay agenda has prevented hard-line politicians from challenging Najib and his allies at recent internal UMNO elections.

Yet at the same time, Najib has continued to present himself to educated, urban Malaysians and to the outside world as a moderate and an advocate for inter-faith dialogue and Islamic modernity. He has done so not only at home but also around the world, such as in a series of speeches during the recent United Nations General Assembly, including at a recent meeting at CFR.

But this past week, I think, Najib’s two messages became impossibly contradictory. The Malaysian government, clearly rattled by its showing in the May elections, has essentially reinstated the long-hated Internal Security Act, a colonial-era law that independent Malaysian governments had retained after the end of British rule over Malaya in order to crack down on dissent. The law allowed Malaysia’s government to detain people without trial indefinitely, often on vague charges. Scrapping the ISA was one of Najib’s major promises as prime minister, and indeed before this year’s elections the government had gotten rid of the ISA, or at least so it seemed. Yet this week the prime minister and his top deputy, along with their allies in parliament, passed new amendments to Malaysia’s Prevention of Crime Act; these new amendments will once again allow the government to detain Malaysians without trial. So, perhaps Malaysia’s leaders now can give up their double identity.

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