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  • Malaysia in 2012Promises of Reform; Promises Met?
  • Graham K. Brown (bio)

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The year 2012 in Malaysia was one of expectations: expectations of reform, set in place by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s National Day speech in 2011 when he had committed his government to a swathe of legal reform; and expectations of an election, which many had expected to be called in late 2011 and which, when that failed to arrive, few doubted would be called during the course of 2012. As it turned out, no election was called in 2012, although political parties across the divide remained in virtual campaigning mode throughout the year. By mid-2012, however, the Barisan Nasional (BN) government was sufficiently confident that it had met the expectations of reform — and, no doubt, with an eye to the elections which must be called in the first half of 2013 — that it launched a campaign slogan of Janji Ditepati: Promises Met.

Throughout his tenure as prime minister, Najib has been caught in a reformist dilemma. In early 2012, the Economist carried an appraisal of Najib that concluded he was “a well-intentioned man [who] has reformed just enough to alienate his own party and too little to convince the centre ground”.1 While it is beyond the scope of this article to evaluate just how far Najib’s reformist drive is “well-intentioned” against how far it is driven by the necessity of reform in the face of an increasingly articulate and demanding electorate, it is clear that in many ways political and economic developments in 2012 embodied this dilemma. The view that the BN must reform or die has been growing even among government supporters, but this imperative is arguably particularly strong for Najib, who is unpopular among large sections of his party and who continues to be tainted by allegations of corruption, from the labyrinthine web of allegations surrounding the purchase of Scorpene submarines during his tenure as Defence [End Page 155] Minister and the murder of the Mongolian translator Shaariibuu Altantuuya in relation to the deal to the behaviour and habits of his wife, Rosmah Mansor. The latter’s purported profligacy is deeply unpopular with sections of the public who increasingly see her as a Malaysian Imelda Marcos. For the BN as a whole, 2012 was arguably one long campaign year. For Najib, the necessity of winning popular support was not just a matter of party survival but personal political survival.

Legal Reform

In a speech on the eve of the annual Independence Day celebrations in August 2011, Najib had promised a swathe of reforms that appeared to address the perennial concerns of liberal opposition parties and civil society organizations. Most noteworthy was his promise to replace the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA), which allowed for effectively limitless detention without trial on the order of the Home Minister, and to lift three declarations of Emergency that date back decades but had never been lifted. But he also expressed a broader commitment to re-examine legislation that impinged upon the desire for a “more open and dynamic democracy”. By the time of the 2012 Independence Day, the emergency declarations had indeed been lifted, the ISA repealed and replaced, and a number of other reforms enacted. Promises Met (Janji Ditepati) was the theme of the 2012 celebrations, and these reforms, on face value, gave the claim credence.

While few commentators dispute that the legal reforms of 2012 remove a number of impediments to fundamental liberties in the country, many opposition politicians, civil society activists, and commentators have cried foul over the reforms, arguing that what was conceded in terms of extra liberties has been more than made up for by new restrictions.

The replacement for the ISA, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA), has met with a mixed reception from civil society. The new act contains an explicit commitment that “no person shall be arrested and detained … solely for his political belief or political activity”,2 a clause that was welcomed by many civil society organizations. Moreover, the Home Minister’s powers to order extended detention without trial in the ISA...


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