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Azeem Ibrahim Headshot

Deteriorating Democracy in Malaysia

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Most democracies achieve political legitimacy from a popular perception of effective and upright governance. Malaysia's self-described "best democracy in the world" is looking increasingly tarnished these days, following the recent election and return to power of its long-ruling Barisan National party. As President Obama plans a long awaited trip to Malaysia in April he should be aware of the toxic mix of racial politics being fomented by the Malaysian ruling party.

Despite losing the popular vote, the BN triumphed again in the country's 2013 elections, disappointing a growing opposition that had high hopes after a strong performance in 2008. The entrenched political hierarchy, instead of being humbled by its near defeat, is attempting to strengthen its hold on the country and its institutions, ignoring the need for change. Its autocratic insistence on adhering to past practices of repression, racism, corruption and cronyism have led observers to qualify its system of government as semi, quasi or limited democracy.

In the latest World Press Freedom index, Malaysia has hit an historic low, ranking 147 out of 180 countries, reflecting the government's increased repression of media freedoms by suspending publications that dare to criticize the Prime Minister, denying licenses to media outlets, censoring publications and restricting access to information.

The declining popularity of the Naijib Razak government is reflected in the increasing popularity of Anwar Ibrahim's Pakatan Rakyat coalition which is calling for ending the erosion of democracy in Malaysia. The fact that Ibrahim's party won the popular vote is an indication that the current electoral system is due for reform based on the principle of popular sovereignty, not on the basis of a selective franchise. In Malaysia all votes are not equal, with the apportionment of seats to states not based on their populations, with the result that rural votes have more weight than urban votes.

Restoring public confidence in the Electoral Commission and election process will be crucial to a healthy and mature democracy that will be responsive to the interests of all citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religion. The BN insists that Malaysia is a democracy simply because it has had regular elections with the latest being the 13th instance of electing a government by the ballot box. But democracy demands more than just elections. Protection of civil liberties and political rights, the freedom of the press and the right to assemble, checks and balances, transparency and accountability are all as important as process.

In the complex plural society of Malaysia, with its highly educated generation of young people, it is therefore inexplicable that the government should recently choose to inflame religious tensions by forbidding Malaysian Christians from using the word "Allah."

About 2.6 million Malaysians are Christians and have long complained about discriminatory policies that favor Muslim Malays. The Prime Minister glibly praises Malaysia as a multi-ethnic melting pot, yet fails to protect the rights of minorities to worship as they see fit. The ban on Christians using the word Allah -- which has been in Malay translations of the Bible for 400 years -- is seen to be pandering to extremists from a right-wing fringe of the ruling party. Several independent United Nations human rights spokesmen have called on the Malaysian government to rescind the ban and secure the right to freedom of expression of Christian publications, instead of exacerbating tensions within religious minorities in the country.

The controversy is a symptom of a deeper unease as the country is becoming increasingly polarized along ethnic and religious lines. Instead of building the idea of a Malaysian nationality, the present government seems to have retreated into divide and rule divisive sectarian politics. In contrast, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim advocates a common identity based on universal citizenship and his message of inclusive and pluralist democracy has a particular resonance at a time when Malaysia is struggling to live up to its legacy as a pluralistic and open society.

Anwar Ibrahim recently announced he would be contesting for a state assembly seat in Selangor, Malaysia's most prosperous and ethnically diverse state. Many believe once elected he may assume the position of Chief Minister, giving him a platform on which to resolve some of these contentious issues and confront the racially charged rhetoric emanating from the ruling party. If he does succeed in the upcoming election instead of headlines reading "Death of Democracy in Malaysia," we will begin to see a resurgence of optimism as the underlying shift in political attitudes in Selangor bring about a renaissance for democracy in the nation.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is an International Security Lecturer at the University of Chicago and a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding.

He is a supporter of Dr. Anwar Ibrahim who has aided Dr. Ibrahim during his travels abroad. He is not paid for these services, nor is he officially affiliated with Dr. Ibrahim's campaign or any other political activities in Malaysia.