Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

About

@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

More than 250 licensed non-government organizations in Malaysia are planning to mobilize 30,000 people on September 16 to protect and promote Maruah Melayu (Malay dignity). The event also aims to show support for the beleaguered leadership of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is being implicated in a corruption scandal.

The event was clearly organized to counter the Bersih (which means ‘clean’ in Malay) protest last August 29 and 30, which gathered more than 100,000 people in Kuala Lumpur. Some leaders of the Malay Pride Rally have ridiculed Bersih as a Chinese conspiracy. To prevent the Chinese protesters from undermining the government, they urged their fellow Malays to join the September 16 gathering and to wear red in order to oppose the yellow color of Bersih.

This framing of the issue is rejected by many who insist that it is a distortion of the real politics of Bersih. While it is true that Chinese protesters were present during the Bersih protest, they were joined by Malays and other citizens who believe that Najib must resign and that a clean election is needed to promote good governance in the country. Last month’s Bersih, and the three previous Bersih protests, didn’t pit the Chinese versus the Malays, although some allies of the government wanted the public to believe that racial sentiments are undermining the country’s stability.

From the beginning, the issue was about corruption and abuse of power by the ruling coalition, which has been in power since the 1950s, yet leaders of the Malay Pride Rally continue to speak about Chinese machinations.

Even a lawmaker from the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) has warned against using the race issue in local politics.

“It is their right (to hold a rally) but we must not get into the mindset that Malaysia is only for one race. This will eventually cause tensions among the races,” said PAS lawmaker Mahfuz Omar.

This point was echoed by several influential Muslim organizations, which issued a statement against the planned demonstration.

“We do not redeem our honor and dignity by blaming other races whilst helping an embattled political elite cling to power,” the statement read.

Marina Mahathir, a human rights activist and daughter of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, is not convinced that the rally is worth supporting: “I have a problem trying to figure out what the so-called Red Shirts stand for. They seem to want to protest for the sake of protesting against protesters, specifically Bersih protesters.”

Mahathir was one of those who joined Bersih, though he claimed he was only supporting the call for Najib’s removal.

Meanwhile, some members of the administration coalition Umno have signified their intention to join the activity. Permatang Pauh Umno chief Zaidi Mohd Said clarified that the event is simply a show of unity: “This is actually a gathering to support the government. It is not racist.”

Though Najib arguably stands to benefit from the so-called Malay Pride gathering, the government has distanced itself from the rally and the police has refused to give a permit to the organizers.

Whether or not the rally ends up drawing more crowds than Bersih, it highlights a dangerous turn for Malaysian politics where the race card is increasingly being exploited by some groups and politicians to further their divisive political agenda.

September 16 coincides with Malaysia Day, which commemorates the formation of Malaysia in 1963. And perhaps some may find it proper to celebrate Malay pride. But the issue is not if the occasion should be celebrated, but how it is done. For scholars like Dr. Mohamad Tajuddin Mohamad Rasdi, Malaysians have a choice: they can wear the neutral color white to represent Muslims “who believe in humility and love of the brotherhood of man (in) contrast against the zealotry, bigotry and madness of the Red Shirt.”

Malaysia Silences the Press Amid Corruption Scandal

Written for The Diplomat

Malaysia’s Home Ministry has suspended two newspapers for three months after the latter published a series of reports exposing corruption in a government-managed investment company that implicated Prime Minister Najib Razak. Meanwhile, a news website was blocked in the country last week after a government agency found it guilty of publishing unverified information in relation to the similar corruption issue.

The licensing permit of The Edge Financial Daily and The Edge Weekly was suspended because their 1MDB reports were deemed by the Home Ministry to be “prejudicial or likely to be prejudicial to public order, security or likely to alarm public opinion or is likely to be prejudicial to public and national interest”.

The 1MDB issue refers to the controversial financial transactions of the company that allegedly benefited some politicians, including the prime minister. Early this month, the Wall Street Journal published a report linking Najib to a bank money transfer totaling $700 million. The government is currently investigating 1MDB as Najib denies the allegations. Some opposition leaders including former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad have called for the resignation of Najib over the 1MDB scandal.

The Edge is challenging the suspension order by filing a judicial review. It emphasized that its reports were based on hard evidence and that it has already handed over bank documents to government investigators.

“Our report is based on evidence corroborated by documents that include bank transfers and statements. How can the work that we have done be deemed as a political conspiracy?”

Meanwhile, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has ordered the blocking of the Sarawak Report “based on complaints received from the public” that it is spreading misinformation about the 1MDB issue. Sarawak Report described the order as a “blatant attempt to censor our exposures of major corruption.” It dismissed the “strong arm, anti-democratic media clamp-down” as a futile attempt of the ruling party to hide the truth about the financial mess.

The blocking of Sarawak Report and the suspension of two papers of The Edge were viewed by many as an attack on Malaysia’s media sector. “Blocking a website and threatening critics with prosecution will not make the firestorm over alleged government corruption go away,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

The Center for Independent Journalism asserted that the blocking of Sarawak Report “without a clear, legitimate purpose and without reference to a proper law authorising such blocking of content is a breach of the guarantee to freedom of expression.”

Meanwhile, uman rights group Suaram urged the government to uphold truth and transparency.

“This latest action by MCMC is totally against its own mission statement which is “providing transparent regulatory processes to facilitate fair competition and efficiency in the industry”.

The Lawyers for Liberty group reminded authorities that “journalism is not a crime.” It added that “Press freedom is an indispensable component of any modern and democratic society as it functions as a form of check and balance against government excesses. Such authoritarian behaviour unfortunately sends a chilling message to the press to self-censor on issues such as 1MDB or else they may invite retaliation.”

But Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan, who is the urban wellbeing, housing and local government minister and director of strategic communications of the ruling party Barisan Nasional, defended the suspension order issued by the government against The Edge:

“The government suspended The Edge publications because there was a real possibility that the contents of their reporting were not authentic. If this possibility turns to be true then the impact on the government and the economic stability due to irresponsible reporting cannot be understated.”

Aside from condoning corruption, the government is now accused of silencing the press. Reacting to the perceived media persecution, five local media networks have banded together and are planning to hold a public rally on August 8 to assert the right the free speech.

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