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Malaysia tiptoeing to totalitarianism

KUALA LUMPUR (UCAN): Protests, arbitrary arrests and dire warnings of foreign interference is the new norm in Malaysia and is part of the alarming direction the country is taking under the leadership of scandal-plagued prime minister, Najib Razak.

“Worse things are going to happen,” Jeffrey Kitingan, a politician from Sabah state in Malaysian Borneo and a former political prisoner, says in describing how his country is tiptoeing into totalitarianism.

Kitingan says he empathises with the social and political advocates who are reported to have been detained over the last several months for raising questions to do with the 1Malaysia Development (1MDB) fund that is missing billions of dollars.

Kitingan, a Harvard University graduate with a doctorate from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, was detained for two years and seven months in 1991, allegedly for plotting the secession of Sabah from Malaysia.

“Those in power do things that are wrong. When ordinary people want change they enact laws to curb what can be said,” he says in reference to the scandal surrounding the 1MDB fund that hit in 2009, shortly after Najib took office.

The media is also being targeted.

The editor and publisher of an independent news organisation are currently facing prison under a rule that forbids publishing content with the intent to annoy. The authorities blocked the Malaysian Insider website in March and then closed it down after it ran stories that were critical of the current administration.

Another alleged tactic to stifle dissent is stirring up religious tensions to distract attention from government shortcomings.

While investigations into the 1MDB scandal by foreign governments continue, Najib continues to deny any wrongdoing. No one has been prosecuted in connection with the scandal.

Instead, a local court sentenced an opposition politician, Rafizi Ramli, to prison on November 14 for leaking a 1MDB audit report to the media.

Protests have also been suppressed. On the eve of a rally organised by a coalition of human rights groups on November 18, their leader, Maria Chin Abdullah, was placed in solitary confinement. She was released on November 28.

Kitingan says that the recent spate of arrests raises unpleasant memories for him and fears that history is going to be repeated.

“It struck me that things are going that way. But now it is going to be in broad daylight,” he says, referring to an anti-terrorism law that the government had promised would never be used against political opponents.

Kitingan says that when he was detained in 1991, the government acted with a measure of secrecy as though it knew that its actions were wrong.

“Before, they would kidnap you. You would go out to eat and you just disappear. Now they don’t have to do that. They can just take you publicly. This government is so desperate to stay in power that it is willing to do anything,” he says.

“The United Malay National Organisation will use all the laws. They have to use everything at the moment,” the Sabah opposition politician adds.

However, he is not concerned for his personal safety, saying, “This time I’m not going to be alone. Almost everybody will join me.”

Najib’s United Malay National Organisation party has contributed to the widening of Malaysia’s ethnic and religious splits. In its effort to bolster support among conservative Malay Muslims, it has taken up a proposal to grant further powers to Sharia courts.

Pro-government gangs have been allowed to run loose without censure in a country where politics are still defined by the racial violence of the 1960s.

“They want you to become like them and be a Muslim. If you cannot convert then they recruit from outside,” Kitingan says referring to the million or so migrants and refugees who were rounded up to vote for the ruling party in the past elections.

“There is still hope. I don’t give up hope, but it is going to be more difficult if we allow things to go the way they have planned. The numbers will keep growing and they will eventually sweep into all the machinery of government until one day they control all the institutions of government,” he fears.

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