Malaysia: Opposition leader imprisoned

Government conspires to quell growing opposition

On 10 February, the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, was jailed for 5 years by the federal court which rejected his appeal against conviction for sodomy which is illegal in Malaysia. At the end of the judgment, Anwar protested from the dock, telling the judges that they had become “partners in crime in the murder of judicial independence”. There were around 2,000 people gathered in front of the court to protest the injustice against Anwar.

This conviction is widely regarded as a political plot by the BN (National Front) government under Najib Razak to weaken the growing opposition from the People’s Coalition (PR). Socialist Alternative condemns this unscrupulous action of the ruling government that has utilised the court, the media and other government machineries to undermine the freedom and democratic rights of the opposition as well as the ordinary people.

Growing anger

An independent Merdeka Center poll last October revealed that 48% of people had little or no confidence in the judiciary. With another mockery in the court system plus uncertainty in the economy and deteriorating social needs, public distrust towards the BN government could grow further. With the current developments, the PR would have been in a better position to unseat the BN in the next general election which must be held by 2018. But the verdict of the ‘kept’ court could put the three coalition parties of PR in disarray without Anwar who has been acting as the uniting figure. There have been increasing conflicts between the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Islamic Party (PAS), who are in the PR coalition with Anwar’s Justice Party (PKR). But with growing anger towards the BN, there will be an attempt for PR to unite under a new leadership to strengthen its position.

The governments of the USA and Australia have issued statements criticising the court ruling as ‘politically motivated’, but when Obama and Tony Abbott recently visited Najib (Obama even played golf with Najib in Hawaii last December), they did not pressure him for a fair trial for Anwar. This once again shows the hypocrisy and inconsistencies of capitalist governments towards democratic rights and injustices. But some international leaders merely against the Anwar verdict because they are from the same school of thought of free market capitalism. Anwar has been a firm supporter of the agenda of the World Bank and the IMF.

Victim of power struggle

Anwar, who was once the deputy prime minister of the country, was jailed before for six years on charges of corruption and sodomy brought by the Mahathir regime. This was during the Asian Financial crisis in 1998 when political conflicts exploded within UMNO, the dominant party in the BN, based mainly on the Malay population. Anwar led the ‘Reformasi’ movement, participated in by young people and layers of the middle class to protest against the autocratic rule of Mahathir. But he managed to strengthen his grip on power by avoiding serious economic and social crises by using ‘capital controls’ and other measures.

Anwar was released from prison in 2004, and subsequently played the role of uniting the different opposition parties under Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Coalition). In the 2008 general election, the PR was able to deny the ruling government the two thirds majority that it had maintained since 1970. In the 2013 election, Pakatan further increased its votes and won 52 percent popular support. But with the unfair electoral system it could not gain enough parliamentary seats to form a government at the federal level.

Weakening government

The National Front (BN) which has been ruling the country since 1957, is currently going through a stage of political reversal, but to survive it has confined itself within the framework of conservative politics and continues to exploit religion, Malay supremacy and autocracy to maintain its remaining support especially from the rural population.

Conflicts within UMNO are also emerging. The Mahathir-linked faction is openly criticizing Najib especially for the ineffective economic and social policies, mismanagement of funds and corruption. Nonetheless this faction’s main intention is to uphold the hegemony of the Malay elites. At this juncture, the major political players in UMNO only want to maintain ’solidarity’ with Najib, and look forward to a more severe crisis as a chance to replace him. If the economic or social conditions continue to get worse, then this can further weaken and destabilise the BN government and the PR could be the option to form the government.

Conflicts in the opposition

The PR coalition comprising the PKR, DAP and PAS have not been without conflicts with their differing goals and orientations. Recently the PAS leadership has been abandoning the common agenda of the PR and wanted to prioritise its own agenda such as ‘Hudud’ (Sharia) law, and this has increased the conflicts inside PR.

PAS, as a part of the opposition coalition, has been supported by some non-Muslims for the last two general elections. But with some Ulama (elite scholars) in the party pushing for the implementation of Hudud law in Kelantan, where they have been in power since 1990, the true colors of the PAS leadership has been revealed:- that it is not a ‘Party for all’ as it claimed in the elections.

Recently PAS also launched attacks against attempts to re-instate local council elections, which had been banned by the BN government since 1965. This has created conflict with the DAP which is against Hudud law and supports having local elections. PAS is also facing a crisis within the party with liberal factions which are also closer to the PR leadership and challenge the position of the Ulama faction. This could lead to a split. It could also weaken the PR as a whole, especially where PAS has a stronghold in the northern states of the Malaysia peninsular.

Malaysia approaching economic crisis?

The slowing economy in China has resulted in declining demand for commodities such as petrol, palm oil, tin and rubber. Likewise, the declining value of the Malaysian ringgit against the US dollar and the lack of an improvement in manufacturing exports and in FDI could lead to trade deficits in the Malaysian economy. The fall in oil prices is expected to increase the budget deficit as more than 37 per cent of national income comes from economic activities associated with oil and gas. If this continues, the government will be pressured to make more cuts in public spending, such as subsidies for public utilities, and to launch more privatisation or liberalisation of the government-linked companies (GLCs) as is presently being carried out with Malaysian Airline Systems (MAS).

Economic growth of around 5 to 6 percent has been maintained in recent years with domestic consumption contributing 51 percent of GDP. This has been possible only through increasing household debt, with ‘consumerism’ being encouraged, and through government infrastructure projects such as Mass Rail Transit or MRT. Household debt has risen to 86.8 percent of GDP, from 60.4 percent in 2008. This is the highest ratio in Asia. The domestic economy is expected to decline due to rising inflation, which will restrict people from making purchases. If people spend less or are unable to pay off debts or take out loans because of rising costs, this could generate a severe impact on the economy.

Demand for property has also been dropping due to rising inflation and difficulties in obtaining loans. This is expected to continue to have an impact with the 6% Goods and Services Tax (GST) that is going to be implemented from April. The property bubble may burst if the economy is worsening which some economists are expecting to happen this year or in 2016.

The Malaysian economy is highly vulnerable to global impact, and almost all the ’ingredients’ for crisis currently exist in the national economy. Thus, the effects of the crisis in the global economy could cause a recession worse than at the time of the financial crisis of 1998. If this happens, then the option of measures such as ’capital controls’, used by Mahathir then, will be difficult to implement due to the more contagious economic uncertainty faced by the global economy compared with 1998.

Increasing inequality

According to the Wealth Insight Intelligence Centre (WIC) in London, by the year 2018 Malaysia is expected to have more billionaires (20) compared with the United Arab Emirates (19). Merely 0.001 percent of the richest people enjoy almost 50 percent of national wealth and their wealth was growing at an extreme rate of nearly 60 percent between 2009 and 2013, despite the uncertain global economy. 74 per cent of households still earn less than RM 6,000 (USD 1,700) per month. Salaries were just 33.6 percent of GDP in 2013 and are almost unchanged since 1971. But the proportion of GDP taken home by the corporate bosses has increased from 51.7 percent in 1971 to 64.2 percent in 2013. These data clearly show a widening class polarisation in Malaysia.

With increased interest on loans, higher living costs, limited savings and lower wages, many households will be thrown into a higher level of debt. Medical costs have risen by 10 to 15 percent and are expected to continue to rise with the implementation of GST. Some studies have also shown that ordinary people have had to reduce their intake of foods such as meat and fish, which are a source of protein, due to the rising cost of food. House prices in Malaysia are 5.5 times more than the median annual household income, making homes more expensive in Malaysia than in Singapore and the United States.

With rising inflation and the implementation of GST, as well as increased prices of basic goods and services, other costs such as education, transport, utilities and other expenditure are also expected to increase. This means the impact on the economic and social situation is this time being felt not only by the working class, in both the private and public sectors, and the poor in the cities, but also by the middle class, students and young people as well as the rural population – both poor and middle class.

Mass party of working class and Socialist Alternative

The day after the court verdict, Anwar’s children announced that they are going to lead a ‘March to Freedom’ to continue the struggle to get justice for their father but it is not clear how this initiative would be built. Such an initiative could gain support but should unite the masses, including young people and the working class, with a programme for democratic rights as well as equal economic and social rights in order for the fight against racism and capitalism to be successful.

The religious and race cards are being used by ultra-right groups such as ‘Perkasa’ and ‘Isma’ to create uneasiness and insecurity among the non-Malays but they are left untouched by the government’s Sedition Act while the same act is used to silence the voice of opposition. This reveals the hypocrisy of the ruling government that does not hesitate to use religion and racial sentiments to continue to divide and conquer and maintain its power – one of the longest running holders of power in today’s world!

There is a need for young people, trade unions and the working class to unite to fight against racism and any attempts to create disharmony in society by ultra-right groups or right-wing political parties as well as fighting economic and social inequality which is the lifeblood of racism.

The continuous attempts by Mahathir and now Najib to undermine Anwar Ibrahim have shown the fear of the ruling elite and crony capitalists of losing their power and privilege and also their fear of opening up the floodgates to revelations of conspiracies and corruption that have been kept hidden until now.

The unjust and corrupt system and machinery that has been used to victimise Anwar is part and parcel of the capitalism operated by BN. But merely reform in the system, as propagated by the PR opposition alliance and its leadership, while the richest 1% controls the majority wealth and property, would not uproot the rottenness of the system that suppresses the democratic and economic rights of ordinary people.

Only through the mass participation of young people and the working class under the leadership of a mass party based on their needs and on democratic socialism as the alternative, could this dreadful and power-crazy system be defeated and a democratic and just government that prioritises the social and economic needs of the majority be built.

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February 2015